Frontline World

Sri Lanka - Living With Terror


Synopsis of "Living with Terror"

34 days in Sri Lanka

Interview and Analysis

Profile of Rajan Hoole


Excerpt from the Novel

Sri Lanka News and Information




Suicide Terrorism: A Global Threat
October 2000
By Rohan Gunaratna, PhD, Senior Research Associate, Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Prevention of Political Violence, University of St. Andrews.

The Threat

Suicide terrorism is the readiness to sacrifice one's life in the process of destroying or attempting to destroy a target to advance a political goal. The aim of the psychologically and physically war-trained terrorist is to die while destroying the enemy target.

In the 1980s suicide terrorism was witnessed in Lebanon, Kuwait and Sri Lanka. In the 1990s it had spread to Israel, India, Panama, Algeria, Pakistan, Argentina, Croatia, Turkey, Tanzania and Kenya. With enhanced migration of terrorist groups from conflict-ridden countries, the formation of extensive international terrorist infrastructures and the increased reach of terrorist groups in the post Cold War period, suicide terrorism is likely to affect Western Europe and North America in the foreseeable future.

There are now 10 religious and secular terrorist groups that are capable of using suicide terrorism as a tactic against their governments and/or foreign governments. They are: the Islam Resistance Movement (Hamas) and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad of the Israeli occupied territories; Hezbollah of Lebanon; the Egyptian Islamic Jihad (EIJ) and Gamaya Islamiya (Islamic Group - IG) of Egypt; the Armed Islamic Group (GIA) of Algeria; Barbar Khalsa International (BKI) of India; the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) of Sri Lanka; the Kurdistan Worker's Party (PKK) of Turkey; and the Osama bin Laden network (Al Qaeda) of Afghanistan.

There were also four pro-Syrian, Lebanese and Syrian political parties engaged in suicide terrorism in the 1980s, but they are currently inactive in the terrorist front. These groups staged around 25 suicide attacks in Lebanon. As more than one group claimed some of the attacks, perhaps to diffuse the threat to the group, it is difficult to identify the group responsible. The groups engaged in suicide operations in Lebanon alongside Hezbollah were the Natzersit Socialist Party of Syria; the Syrian Nationalist Party; the Lebanese Communist Party; and the Baath Party of Lebanon.

There are two types of suicide operations: battlefield and off the battlefield. In battlefield operations, suicide bombers are integrated into the attacking groups. Most off-the-battlefield operations have involved single suicide bombers. In the case of the LTTE and Hamas, there have been multiple suicide bombers. The targets have been static and mobile, against infrastructure and humans. Suicide bombers have destroyed military, political, economic and cultural infrastructure. They have committed terrorist attacks by killing civilians in buses, crowded places and in buildings. Suicide bombers have also assassinated political and military VIPs.

Key Characteristics

Examination of suicide terrorism across a range of groups has revealed that terrorist groups use suicide bombers when they are both strong and weak. In terms of military and economic power, Hezbollah and the LTTE lead the list of suicide operations. In terms of numbers, the LTTE has conducted the largest volume of suicide operations, followed by Hezbollah, Hamas and the PKK. In terms of range, only some of the groups have operated beyond their territories.

As well as abortive attempts to conduct suicide operations in Israel, Hezbollah has successfully conducted suicide operations in Argentina. The LTTE has conducted one suicide operation in India. It is the only group to have killed two world leaders - the former prime minister of India, Rajiv Gandhi, and the president of Sri Lanka, Ranasinghe Premadasa - using male and female suicide bombers.

The Egyptian groups have conducted suicide operations in Croatia against a police station and in Pakistan against the Egyptian embassy. Al Qaeda used at least one Egyptian suicide bomber in the 1998 East African embassy bombings. All the other active groups have conducted suicide operations within their own territory. The PKK has threatened to conduct suicide operations in Germany where there is a large Kurdish diaspora.

All the suicide terrorist groups have support infrastructures in Europe and in North America. Leaders and members of these groups are known to travel to the West, and key activists live either in Europe or in North America distributing propaganda, raising funds, and in some instances procuring weapons and shipping them to the various theatres of conflict.

Suicide-capable groups differ in form, size, orientation, goal and support. A review of the key characteristics of the 10 suicide-capable groups reveals that any group can acquire suicide bomb technology and engage in suicide terrorism:

  • Al Qaeda is a mix of several associate groups that are internationally dispersed. From Afghanistan, Bin Laden provides the overall direction to the organization. Al Qaeda efforts are primarily directed against the U.S.A. ('Great Satan') and Israel ('Little Satan'), and their allies. More recently, Al Qaeda has directed its efforts against India on the issue of Kashmir, a territory disputed between India and Pakistan. The U.S.A. has directed its resources to disrupting Al Qaeda support operations in the U.S.A., especially after the 1998 embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania.
  • The Indian counter insurgency specialist, K P S Gill, broke the backbone of the Sikh insurgents in Punjab, northern India. BKI is fighting for an independent 'Khalistan' in the predominantly Sikh state of Punjab. It has a small presence in the target country - India - but enjoys a significant presence in the diaspora U.K. and Canada. In January 2000, when BKI was planning to conduct its second suicide operation, the Indian security forces apprehended the bomber.
  • The GIA has staged only one suicide operation as part of its fight to establish an Islamic state in Algeria.
  • Hezbollah, responsible for suicide bombing the U.S. Marine Corps barracks and the headquarters of the French paratroopers in Lebanon in 1983, is fighting to oust the Israelis from southern Lebanon. Hezbollah is supported by Iran, a steadfast state sponsor. Today, Hezbollah is also a political party.
  • Hamas and PIJ, operating in Gaza and West Bank, have vowed to destroy the 'Zionist state of Israel'. Currently, Hamas and PIJ are controlled by the Palestinian Authority under its President, Yasser Arafat. Shin Bet (the Israeli security agency) and the Mossad (the Israeli external intelligence agency) have regulated the efficacy of these two groups by removing their key operatives and military leaders.
  • In a deep-penetration operation, Shin Bet agents placed a micro explosive device in the mobile phone of the Hamas suicide bomb maker, Yahiya Aiyyash, killing him. Due to the efficiency of the countermeasures adopted by Israeli police, military, intelligence and security organizations, the number of fatalities and casualties caused by Hamas, the PIJ and Hezbollah bombing has steadfastly declined. Towards the last few bombings, the explosions only killed the bomber. Although Hamas is likely to retain a military capability, the group will probably join the political mainstream in the foreseeable future. The PIJ became weak after the Mossad assassinated Shikaki, its military and political commander in Malta.
  • The two Egyptian groups - IG and EIJ - are fighting to establish an Islamic state in Egypt. The leader of the EIJ, Dr Ayman Al-Thawaheri, lives in Afghanistan and works closely with Bin Laden.
  • Until the capture of PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan, the PKK fought for an independent Kurdistan in southeastern Turkey. Today, the PKK is demanding autonomy and equal cultural rights.
  • The LTTE is fighting for an independent Tamil state in northeastern Sri Lanka. As the quality of targets chosen by the LTTE is high, it has a sophisticated training program that lasts for about a year. As well as training the bomber, the LTTE research unit tests the effects of explosives on dogs and goats to ensure that the attack is successful. The list of Sri Lankan VIPs killed in suicide attacks includes one president, one presidential candidate, the State Minister of Defense, the Navy Chief and various area commanders. No country has lost so many leaders in such a short period of time as Sri Lanka has to the LTTE suicide bombers.


Some of suicide groups are motivated by religion, religious/ethnic nationalism, or ethnic nationalism. Al Qaeda's religious philosophy transcends territorial borders. Hamas, the PIJ and Hezbollah are primarily religious groups, but they are also driven by ethno-nationalism. BKI is the only non-Islamic religious group. While the LTTE and the PKK are driven by ethno-nationalism, the PKK is also infused with Marxist-Leninist ideology. As such, the motivation of Hamas, the PIJ and Hezbollah suicide bombers is primarily Islam. The motivation of the LTTE and the PKK suicide bombers is mainly Tamil and Kurdish nationalism respectively.

Dependent on the political environment and potential and actual donors, a new ideological orientation can be built into a group. With the end of the Cold War, most groups are abandoning Marxist, Leninist and Maoist ideologies and embracing ethno-nationalist and/or religious ideologies.

There are some constraints that affect the deployment of female suicide bombers. An examination of the groups driven by religious ideology reveals that Islam has constrained the use of women suicide bombers. Nevertheless, about five of the suicide operations in Lebanon were women. Although the PIJ once planned to use a woman to suicide bomb the Israeli prime minister's residence in Jerusalem, the operation was thwarted. About 30 percent of the suicide operations in Sri Lanka have been conducted by women.

A higher percentage of women have featured in off-the-battlefield suicide operations, which requires infiltration, invisibility and deception. A woman staged the suicide operation that killed Rajiv Gandhi in India. Most suicide operations in Turkey are by women. For many reasons, women are the preferred choice of secular groups when it comes to infiltration and strike missions. First, women are less suspicious. Second, in the conservative societies of the Middle East and South Asia, there is a hesitation to body search a woman. Third, women can wear a suicide device beneath her clothes and appear pregnant.

Modus Operandi

The organization of suicide operations is extremely secretive. The success of the mission depends on a number of elements: level of secrecy; thorough reconnaissance; and thorough rehearsals. Secrecy enables the preservation of the element of surprise, critical for the success of most operations.

Thorough reconnaissance enables the group to plan, often by building a scale model of the target. Thorough rehearsals allow the bomber to gain stealth and speed. There are other elements, such as getting the bomber to the target zone and then to the target itself. The bomber is usually supported by an operational cell, responsible for providing accommodation, transport food, clothing and security to the bomber until he/she reaches the target. Resident agents help generate intelligence for the operation, from target reconnaissance to surveillance. The cell members confirm the intelligence. Often, immediately before the attack, the bomber conducts the final reconnaissance.

As a comprehensive knowledge of the target is essential for the success of a suicide operation, terrorist groups depend on building solid agent-handling networks. Some security and intelligence agencies have succeeded in penetrating the agent-handling network of various terrorist groups. In some cases, the only form of defense is to penetrate the terrorist group itself. This is because bombers penetrate governments or societies as sleepers and gradually gain acceptance as a trusted member. Thus the bomber can reach and destroy a valuable target - human or infrastructure.

In such cases, even the presence of a few hundred bodyguards or guards assigned to protect sensitive installations cannot serve as a counter measure. As such, penetration of the terrorist group is the first line of defense. The last line of defense is hardening the vulnerable and likely targets.

There are six types of suicide improvised explosive devices (IEDs). These are: the human-borne suicide IED, also known as the suicide bodysuit; the vehicle-borne suicide IED; the motorcycle-borne suicide IED; naval craft-borne suicide IED; scuba diver-borne suicide IED; and aerial- (microlight, glider, mini-helicopter) borne suicide IED. All these categories have been used in South Asia and the Middle East.

The largest number of suicide IEDs used has been the suicide bodysuit. As terrorists are cost conscious, there have been only a few cases of bombers using aerial-borne suicide IEDs. Yet these are the most difficult to thwart. Their small size makes them hard to detect on radar, but the range of a light aircraft is limited, weather sensitive and lacks accuracy.

The traditional concept of security is based on deterrence, where the terrorist is either killed or captured. The success of a suicide terrorist operation is dependent on the death of the terrorist. The suicide terrorist is not worried about capture, interrogation (including torture), trial, imprisonment and the accompanying humiliation.

Furthermore, in suicide attacks, there is no need to provide an escape route, or for the extraction of the attacker/attacking force. The group does not have to concern itself with developing an escape plan, often the most difficult phase of an operation. Therefore, a suicide terrorist could enter a high security zone and accomplish his/her mission without worrying about escape or evasion. The certain death of the attacker enables the group to undertake high quality operations while protecting the organization and its cadres. As every prisoner has a point of breaking under psychological or physical pressure, the certain death of the attacker or attackers prevent the captor extracting information.

Likely Developments

The development of counter measures has led to a decline in the number of suicide attacks. In Israel, several rings of security prevent the suicide bomber from reaching the intended target. In response, groups try out novel methods of infiltration. In this game of 'cat and mouse', one side can learn from the other in an attempt to 'checkmate' the opponent. While most groups can improvise, only a few are innovative.

To detect persons carrying explosives, security authorities have used sniffer dogs, with a maximum attention span of 30 minutes. One terrorist group has hired the services of a dog handler from France to monitor the ability of sniffer dogs. It is likely that this group will develop a suicide body suit with a repellent to evade the attention of sniffer dogs. With these developments, it is likely that the role of the sniffer dog will diminish with time and more innovative mechanisms will be necessary to detect the bomber.

The suicide body suit has evolved to improve concealment and is becoming increasingly small. Initially, the device was a square block of explosives worn in the chest and the belly area. Gradually, the device evolved into a heart shaped block of explosives placed just above the navel. As body searchers for suicide devices are usually conducted around the abdomen, a group is also developing breast bombs.

Most suicide body suits have no/little electronics, making it difficult for security agencies to develop counter-technologies to detect these devices. A suicide body suit can be made from commercial items. With the exception of the malleable plastic explosives and detonator, all the other components can be purchased from a tailor shop (stretch denim) and an auto shop (steel ball bearings, wires, batteries and switches). Furthermore, when a device is sophisticated it becomes difficult to operate, as well as fixing it when it fails to function. Suicide devices will thus remain simple.

However, there are likely to be variations of suicide devices. Terrorists tend to select from a repertoire of tactics. This is to retain an element of surprise and to evade the attention of security authorities directed at countering a standard set of tactics.

State Responses

Terrorist groups learn from one another. Unlike in the 1970s and the 1980s, post-Cold War groups share resources intelligence, technology, expertise and personnel.

However, due to the need to preserve counter-technologies or political rivalry, there is either a lack of co-operation or no co-operation at all between affected countries. For instance, the British do not share counter remote-control bomb technologies against the Provisional IRA (PIRA) with their US counterparts. This is, primarily due to suspicion of access or infiltration of the US military and security industries by PIRA activists and supporters. Similarly, there is no co-operation between Israel and Sri Lanka, the most affected countries. During the Cold War, Indian pressure, and subsequently, the Sri Lankan Muslim lobby led to a rupture of Israeli-Sri Lankan ties that included Israeli technical co-operation in training Sri Lankan bomb technicians.

An example of how a lack of co-operation between the VIP security divisions of India and Sri Lanka affected security was the failure of the Sri Lankan Presidential Security Division to estimate the kill radius of the suicide device. In India, over 18 meters is maintained between the political VIP and the public. The distance between the LTTE female suicide bomber and President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunge, who was partially blinded by an explosion in December 1999, was less than 12 meters.

Other than co-operation at strategic and tactical levels between VIP security divisions, the lack of research into the technical capability of terrorist groups has gravely weakened the ability of security divisions to protect their VIPs.

Strategic and tactical countermeasures can be used against suicide operations. They could be preventive and reactive. Preventive measures range from propaganda directed against potential suicide bombers, to infiltrating the suicide organizations of terrorist groups. Reactive measures range from the hardening of targets, to using dummy cars to protect VIPs. Yet security agencies agree that suicide terrorism is hard to fight. The U.S. secret service argues that if an assassin is willing to die, it is impossible to protect the president. Nonetheless, affected governments have tried to protect their VIPs and critical infrastructure.

A Growing Threat

The threat of suicide terrorism is likely to spread with time. As many second-generation operations have been conducted away from the theatre of war, it is likely that suicide terrorism will affect Western Europe and North America in the future.

Terrorist groups are increasingly providing intensive training to their bombers, with the intention of increasing their endurance. For instance, the suicide bomber who destroyed the U.S. embassy in Nairobi in 1998 had been resident in Kenya for four years. He had married in Kenya and lived in the capital before carrying out the suicide operation. Similarly, the suicide bomber who assassinated President Premadasa of Sri Lanka had lived in the capital, Colombo, for three years before carrying out the attack.

Terrorist groups are setting a dangerous trend of using suicide bombers to destroy targets far away from their theatres of war. Many groups are likely to use suicide bombers to infiltrate target countries and conduct suicide attacks against Western VIPs and critical infrastructure in the foreseeable future.

Dr. Gunaratna is a specialist on terrorist organizations in Asia. He has authored six books, including a forthcoming book entitled, Inside Al Qaeda: Global Network of Terror.

"Suicide Terrorism: A Global Threat," reprinted courtesy of Rohan Gunaratna, PhD.