Two decades later, LTTE suicide bombers live on

By M.R. Narayan Swamy, IANS

New Delhi : Twenty years after a young man drove a truck packed with explosives into a military camp on this day, Sri Lanka's Tamil Tigers remain passionately wedded to the cult of suicide bombings.

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It all began July 5, 1987 when a guerrilla, known as 'Captain Miller', was videoed smiling at the wheels of a truck full of explosives that later smashed into a building at Nelliady in Jaffna, killing scores of soldiers. The suicide bomber also perished.

It was the first attack of its kind. For three years, even as Indian troops were deployed in the island and quit with a bloody nose, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) did not repeat the feat. But a deadly and secretive unit called 'Black Tigers' was born – with 'Captain Miller' as the idol.

From 1990, the LTTE has carried out close to 200 suicide attacks, the largest by any insurgent group in the world. Excluding those operations the LTTE did not claim, at least 273 Black Tigers have died in the attacks, 74 of them women.

Many of these took place in the sea and were credited to 'Black Sea Tigers', who would ram fast-moving explosives packed boats into Sri Lankan naval vessels to send the sailors to watery graves.

The LTTE never claimed responsibility for some of the deadliest suicide missions, including the blood-curling assassinations of former Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and Sri Lankan president Ranasinghe Premadasa in 1993.

As the Tigers carried out one suicide attack after another, they almost turned assassinations into a fine art. But eventually, it was these suicide missions that forced the world to take hard line vis-à-vis the Tigers.

The suicide cult in the LTTE was, however, born even before the Black Tigers came into being. LTTE cadres always carried cyanide vials they were expected to bite so as not to fall in enemy hands.

Now, more and more LTTE cadres infiltrating into military-held Jaffna in Sri Lanka's north are armed not with cyanide but 'suicide jackets' – that have explosives in them and are detonated by a battery-operated switch, of the kind used to blow up Premadasa and Gandhi.

The intention is not to die a lonely death by biting the cyanide pill if necessary, but to kill as many of the enemy as possible.

A long time ago, LTTE chief Velupillai Prabhakaran explained that by carrying out suicide attacks, "we can terrorise the enemy and demonstrate that through small, we have the potential to inflict heavy damage on them".

He called the Black Tigers a voluntary group from which people are picked "whenever there is a specific operation". But he declined to divulge how Black Tigers were trained, saying it was a secret.

An Indian official who follows the LTTE closely told IANS that although the world has dramatically changed – in contrast to the times when countries continued to deal with the LTTE despite the killings of Premadasa and Gandhi – the Tigers were unlikely to give up suicide missions. "This is the most important weapon they have."

He added: "Unlike other groups, the LTTE chooses targets carefully, targets whose death would bring major strategic gains for it."

Another officer agreed and felt the Tigers might increasingly concentrate on military targets. It was one such audacious attack, although a failure, on Sri Lanka's army chief in April 2006 that dramatically escalated the present conflict in the island nation.

Two of the LTTE cadres the Indian Coast Guard arrested off Tamil Nadu in February this year were Black Sea Tigers.

Although the LTTE conducts far less suicide attacks now, the corps of men and women who are trained to die by exploding themselves for the cause are still a potent weapon against a militarily superior state.

There is nothing to indicate that the LTTE has any intention of giving up this arsenal in return for diplomatic recognition, even in a post-9/11 world that has no appetite for terror technology of any kind, anywhere.

If anything, the LTTE may only be increasing the number of suicide bombers, to make up for a serious shortfall in manpower. "This is a quantum change in strategy," said a Sri Lanka watcher here.