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Sri Lanka - Living With Terror


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34 days in Sri Lanka

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The Global Phenomenon of Suicide Terrorism
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.

In 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 favoured tactic.

How 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 of attacks?

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.

The 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.

Would 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.

In 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.

The 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.

Does 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 hardening targets].

What 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.

In 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.

What 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.

What 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:

Suicide 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 of war."

Why 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.

Suicidal Lies
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.

Terrorism: 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.