July 7, 2007 1:24:28 am
Thursday marked the 20th anniversary of the first-ever suicide attack by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). It was on this day in 1987 that LTTE’s first ‘Black Tiger’, Miller, rammed a truck laden with explosives into a Sri Lankan Army camp, opening a new chapter in the Island’s ethnic conflict.
In the past 20 years, the LTTE has conducted some 170 suicide operations involving over 273 ‘Black Tigers’. The LTTE, thus, has the distinction of having carried out the highest number of suicide attacks in the world. Significantly, 194 of the Black Tigers who died on suicide missions were ‘Black Sea Tigers’; and 74 were women. The statistics, however, do not include those who perished on civilian missions. Surprisingly, the LTTE did not conduct suicide attacks against the IPKF.
‘Black Tigers’ are not organised as a separate unit, but are part of Military, Sea, Air or Intelligence wings. While the suicide cadres of the first three wings are used against military targets, the ‘Black Tigers’ of the Intelligence wing are utilised to take on high profile off-battlefield targets. Examples of such victims include Rajiv Gandhi, former prime minister of India and Ranasinghe Premadasa, the then president of Sri Lanka. All suicide missions come directly under the supervision of the LTTE chief Prabaharan as evident from his hosting a last meal to a prospective suicide cadre. This is similar to the Palestinian Shahid’s ceremony of ‘the living dead’. ‘Black Tigers’ are considered to be the elite force and the most effective of its kind in the world. This is why there is competition among LTTE cadres to become ‘Black Tigers’. Though many militant groups use suicide terrorism, the LTTE is one of the few to have adopted it as an article of faith. In this regard, the LTTE chief Prabaharan observed: “With perseverance and sacrifice, Tamil Eelam can be achieved in 100 years. But if we conduct Black Tiger operations, we can shorten the suffering of the people and achieve Tamil Eelam in a shorter period of time.” Criminologists call this “criminal displacement” strategy adopted by some militant groups which is “qualitatively different, appearing almost supernatural, extremely lethal, and impossible to stop.” While the Sri Lankan state learned counter-terrorism strategies from Israel, the LTTE copied Palestinian tactics of “criminal displacement” by suicide attacks, targeting highly protected Sri Lankan Army camps and checkpoints. Tigers gradually used this method to ruthlessly attack civilian targets as well.
The extensive and intensive training of their suicide units separates the ‘Black Tigers’ from other suicide bombers around the world. The mindset of the LTTE suicide bomber itself is distinct. Unlike other terrorist groups using the tactic of suicide terrorism, the ‘Black Tigers’ are driven by ethnic nationalism ably supplemented by their politico-social environment and indoctrination carried out by the organisation. The ‘cult of suicide’ is embedded in the LTTE, whose cadres carry cyanide capsules strung around their necks and are expected to use them when captured so as to avoid any risk of revealing information under torture. The transformation from ordinary cadre to a ‘Black Tiger’ therefore is not difficult. Some scholars think that “the cult of filial piety and devotion to God among Tamils” forms the cultural bedrock for suicide terrorism of the LTTE. This view, however, fails to explain why there were no suicide attacks from Tamil militant groups in India. The LTTE, moreover, is a secular group which regards religion as a private matter. The ‘cult of personality,’ however, prevails. The devotion of the Tigers is to the LTTE chief who is considered supreme.
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Using suicide attacks, the LTTE eliminated any one whom it perceived as an obstacle to its single avowed goal of separate Tamil Eelam. Through infiltration or following thorough reconnaissance the suicide bombers succeeded in reaching their targets in most cases. Sound, timely intelligence and the security officers’ presence of mind in the scene were instrumental in preventing several suicide attacks by the LTTE. Experience also shows that security designed to deceive the prospective suicide bomber rather than hyper increase the protection of the target has helped save the lives of several VIPs. Having displayed its air capability this year, suicide air attacks may not be far off. Hard thinking is required to prevent any such attack from taking place.
The writer is senior fellow, Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies
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