After the events of September 11, suicide bombing attacks that
had been regular occurrences in places like Sri Lanka and the
Middle East seemed suddenly much closer to home for many Americans.
Dr. Rojan Gunaratna is a specialist on terrorist organizations
in Asia who was asking long before September 11, "How great
is our vulnerability to suicide attacks?" The author of six
books, including the forthcoming Inside Al Qaeda: Global
Network of Terror, he has traced the international reach
of suicide terrorist groups. His research and analysis reveal
common organizing principles among organizations that employ
suicide bombing, but he finds a diversity of motivations, from
the secular push for independence by the LTTE in Sri Lanka to
the obtainment of religious martyrdom by Hamas bombers.
May 2002, FRONTLINE/World conducted an email interview
with Dr. Gunaratna.
When did the use of suicide attacks come into widespread use
by terrorist groups?
[In the 1980s] after the Hezbollah suicide bombing of the U.S.
marine barracks and the French paratrooper HQ [in Beirut] killing
a total of nearly 300 personnel, suicide terrorism became a
many terrorist organizations today are actively engaging in
or have the capability to use suicide as a terror tactic? Which
terrorist group, would you say, has had the greatest impact,
politically and militarily, and in terms of the sheer number
There are 12 active groups that stage suicide attacks. The deadliest
attacks have been carried out by Al Qaeda (9/11, USS Cole, US
diplomatic targets in East Africa), Tamil Tigers (Rajiv Gandhi,
former Prime Minister of India; President of Sri Lanka, etc),
Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihadd, Al Aqsar Martyrs Brigade,
and Al Ansar Mujahidin in Chechnya.
current crisis in the Middle East has focused attention on that
region as a place where suicide bombing is rampant, yet South
Asia appears to be another region of endemic, some would say
routine, terrorism. How is the use of suicide bombers by the
Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in Sri Lanka and by
groups such as Hezbollah, Hamas and Islamic Jihad in the Middle
East, similar or different?
Tamil Tigers have staged two thirds of all the suicide bombings
in the world. Tamil Tigers are driven by ethnonationalism. Islamist
groups are driven by religious ideology. When I say religious
ideology, it is not the Koran, it is a political ideology fashioned
by misinterpreting, misrepresenting and corrupting the religious
text. The Prophet was a very compassionate leader, unlike Usama
bin Laden and Ayman Zawahiri and the likes.
you say that there are any misconceptions about the "typical"
suicide bomber? Is there a "common" shared background in terms
of class, ethnicity, politics or religion?
Yes [there are misconceptions]. There is no commonality on class,
ethnicity, politics, religion, color, geography or sex. However,
the suicide bomber has a "mind of steel" and his "heart is like
the petals of a flower." He is moved by emotion and is willing
to kill and die for his or cause. ... [A common thread in what
a suicide bomber hopes to gain by dying] is to become a hero.
Someone special. Someone different.
the Middle East suicide bombers have almost always been young
males, yet now we are seeing young women embrace this tactic
as well. By comparison, how common are female suicide bombers
relative to their male counterparts in Sri Lanka? Do groups
like the Tamil Tigers employ special strategies to recruit women?
Are there other places in the world where women have turned
to this form of terrorism?
Women are best suited to conduct suicide attacks because we
do not suspect women in the terrorist context. They can evade
traditional counter measures. They are not bodysearched usually.
In addition to Tamil Tigers, women suicide bombers are found
in the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) and Al Aqsar Martyrs Brigade.
greatest casualties incurred in suicide attacks seem to come
not from military or political targets, but instead from the
"collateral damage" to civilians, including people who are of
the same ethnicity [or group?] as that of the suicide bomber.
How does this affect support for suicide bombers within a community?
In a war, the ordinary public become the silent majority. They
are the people who suffer most and they are the people who are
most vulnerable. Irrespective of community or religion or geography
we must protect them. In the case of the Middle Eastern suicide
bombers, they go directly for civilian targets. In the case
of the Tamil Tigers, they go for civilian (Central Bank, Maradana,
etc.) as well as infrastructure (airport, port, World Trade
Centre, Colombo) targets. Middle Eastern bombers are likely
to learn from the Tamil Tigers and Al Qaeda and use the suicide
tactic to destroy political and military personnel as well as
conduct infrastructure attacks in the future.
heightened international scrutiny of terrorism help to reduce
the number of suicide attacks or diminish support for this tactic?
Both. [The] only way to counter the suicide threat is to adopt
preventive and proactive measures. Detecting and disrupting
a suicide attack in the launching phase is more important [than
do you see as the chief failures in military or political strategies
to curtail suicide terrorism? Are there other economic and social
approaches that need to be considered when attempting to stem
terrorism and suicide attacks?
Yes, many; to mention a few, irresistible rewards that lead
to arrests of recruiting agents; information that help to disrupt
an attack in the planning and preparation phases; formal and
informal education that you do not go to God or become a hero
by committing suicide; prophylactic measures to improve standards
of living by providing better education, employment, community
relations, etc.; and meeting the legitimate aspirations and
grievances of people who have been deliberately or unknowingly
wronged in the past.
an interview with FRONTLINE/World, a Sri
Lankan newspaper editor
described the Tamil Tigers' process of taking young orphans
and refugees off to a hidden area in the jungle where they are
given special status and primed to become suicide bombers. Is
this tactic employed elsewhere? Overall, is the recruitment
of suicide bombers becoming more sophisticated? If so, have
there been any successful interventions to counter such recruitment?
In Sri Lanka, the rule of law is weak because politicians and
officials have been weak. Therefore, the Tamil Tigers have taken
the law to their hands. The Norwegian facilitators/mediators,
although well intentioned, have no robust enforcement capability,
and therefore the Tamil Tigers are taking the maximum advantage
-- as terrorists usually do -- of the situation.
risks do you think nations run when engaging in dialogues with
groups that have employed suicide attacks and other terror tactics?
It is very difficult for a terrorist group to give up violence.
[Northern Ireland's] IRA continues to train [Colombia's] FARC,
Palestinian Authority continues to engage or conduct suicide
attacks through its Al Aqsa Martyrs brigade. They have all used
times of peace to improve their military capabilities. Therefore,
it is a risk to talk to terrorist groups, but it is a risk every
government facing a terrorist campaign must take. For the sake
of peace, even if the chances may be small, governments must
leave the door open all the time if any group wants to seriously
give up violence and enter mainstream politics. Most people
become terrorists because of injustice, humiliation, ignorance,
etc. -- we must create a way out for them and ensure that they
do not go back. To fight is difficult, no one likes to fight,
as it increases suffering, pain, injury, death, losses. Therefore
we must develop structures and systems to ensure that the just
aspirations and grievences of people are addressed.
do you think of the prospects for real peace and an end to terrorism
in Sri Lanka now that talks are getting underway between the
government and the LTTE?
At the moment, the Tamil Tigers are continuing to recruit, raise
funds, arm, and train Tamil youth, including children. Although
verbally the LTTE has agreed to negotiate towards an end to
violence, in terms of their actions or deeds we have yet to
see sincerity. Unless the Norwegian facilitators/negotiators
link devolution of power to decommissioning, the LTTE will try
to strengthen themselves militarily and violate the cease-fire
and return to conflict as they did before both with the Government
of India and two Sri Lankan administrations previously.
Links Relevant to this Article:
Terrorism: A Global Threat
Published in October of 2000, Gunaratna's report, "Suicide Terrorism:
A Global Threat," ominously anticipated what September 11 confirmed:
that "terrorist groups are setting a dangerous trend of using
suicide bombers to destroy targets far away from their theatres
Suicide Terrorism Takes Root
"Those who have tried to explain suicide terror by religious
doctrines have been proved wrong," writes Professor Shibley
Telhami, a Middle East specialist, in this New York Times
commentary examining the roots of the resurgence of suicide
bombers in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
In this commentary, New York Times columnist Thomas L.
Friedman maintains that suicide attacks in the Middle East are
a test case for suicide bombing as a global warfare strategy.
He argues that the proliferation of such attacks in the Middle
East has implications for Americans and the rest of the world.
Questions and Answers
Created through a partnership of The Council on Foreign Relations
and the Markle Foundations, this Web site seeks to answer commonly
asked questions about the phenomenon of terrorism. The site
includes a comprehensive list of terrorist groups that employ
suicide bombing as a tactic, as well as background on the evolution
of suicide terrorism.