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How Sri Lanka’s Rebels Build a Suicide Bomber

8 minute read
Alex Perry/New Delhi

In spite of how relatively obscure their rebel cause is on the world stage, the attacks by Sri Lanka’s Liberation Tamil Tigers of Eelam (L.T.T.E) always seem to draw lots of attention. Such was the case Thursday when a squadron of speedboat suicide bombers rammed into a Sri Lankan navy troop carrier convoy off the country’s northern coast, killing 17 sailors. The Sri Lankan government claimed to kill more than 50 Tamil Tigers in return, but the deadly operation had already reminded the world that the Tigers are the fathers of modern-day suicide bombing — not only masters at keeping up a fresh supply of new recruits, but also willing exporters of their expertise.

Years before the world heard of Osama bin Laden or al-Qaeda, the Tigers were pioneering a new method of guerrilla warfare in their fight against Sri Lanka’s majority Sinhalese for a tiny separate state in the north of the small Indian Ocean island. The first Tiger killed himself attacking the Sri Lankan army in 1987. Hundreds followed, and when they signed a cease-fire with the Sri Lankan government in February 2002, the Tigers accounted for around a third of all suicide attacks in the world. A Western diplomat based in the Sri Lankan capital of Colombo describes the Tigers as “the most successful terrorist organization in the world.”

The international community has tried for years to persuade the two sides of Sri Lanka’s conflict, which has taken close to 65,000 lives, to talk peace. Those efforts have largely failed, and despite the 2002 cease-fire, this year the island has appeared poised to return to war as a new wave of violence has swept over it. Around 200 people have been killed in the last month alone. After the latest attack, the Sri Lankan government launched air strikes on Tiger territory for the second time this year.

Technically, the Tigers did not invent modern suicide bombing — the first such attack was against the American embassy in Beirut in 1983. They did however turn it into a vicious art form. Tigers adapted explosives so that they could be used on land, sea and air — thanks to the purchase of what Sri Lankan intelligence services say is a small squadron of microlight aircraft. Bombs were disguised to fit around, and even inside, the body. Among Tiger victims: a president, the head of the Sri Lankan air force, a minister of national security, an opposition leader and a former prime minister of India, Rajiv Gandhi. In July 2001, they blew up half of the national airline’s small fleet of jets.

But above all, Tiger leader Vellupillai Prabhakaran’s real genius was to build a culture of sacrifice and martyrdom around his guerrilla force, with himself as demi-god leader — an almost exact forerunner of jihadi terrorism. In July 2002 TIME spent a few days with a female Tamil Tiger suicide squad at their base in northern Sri Lanka, and got a firsthand understanding of how he has been so successful.

Apart from a burning desire to die before she got old, Eraj Samandi was about as far removed from traditional teenage preoccupations as an 18-year-old could get. She didn’t care about clothes, music or parties. She couldn’t remember the last time she had to study for a test. And as for boys, she dismissed all the men in Sri Lanka with a fierce frown and sharp shake of the head.

But asked when she hoped to achieve her dream of being a suicide bomber, she grinned, squirmed and buried her face in her arms. “She’s already written her application,” said her commander, Lt. Col. Dewarsara Banu, smiling at her charge’s shyness. “But there’s still no reply.” “Why hasn’t there been a reply?” whined Samandi, looking up with the one eye, her left, that survived a shot to the head and fiddling with the capsule of cyanide powder around her neck. “I want this. I want to be a Black Tiger. I want to blast myself for freedom.”

Samandi’s chances of a normal life were shaky from the day she was born in Tamil Tiger territory in northern Sri Lanka. But Samandi said it was the death of 125 friends and neighbors in the government’s carpet-bombing of her village that forced her to put aside thoughts of anything much but death. “I saw all that, all that blood and all those bodies and I thought, Tomorrow, I will die like this too. So I will join the L.T.T.E. and die for a reason’.”

Samandi was not alone. Banu said every time there is a call for suicide mission volunteers — called Black Tigers — more than 50 young guerrillas applied. So many, in fact, that Prabhakaran created a martyrs’ lottery. “They put everyone’s name in a tombola,” said Banu. “They swirl them around. Then the Leader pulls out two names, reads them out and the 48 who aren’t chosen are all crying. But the two who are chosen, they are very happy and the people around them raise them on their shoulders and are all clapping and celebrating.”

The reason the international community pays particular attention to Sri Lanka, beyond a simple desire for peace, is the Tigers’ world reach. To fund their war in the dirt-poor salt marshes of northern Sri Lanka, the Tigers built a multimillion-dollar fund-raising arm, cajoling and strong-arming the expatriate ethnic Tamil community which settled abroad, particularly in Britain, Australia and Canada. They assembled a fleet of boats, which Sri Lankan intelligence estimates at 22 ships, to smuggle weapons across the Indian Ocean and beyond. And they exported their know-how to the world.

“They are an integral part of the international terror network,” says the Western diplomat, acknowledging reports of the L.T.T.E. providing trainers to groups in Africa, the Middle East and Asia and exporting weapons to al Qaeda and Chechnya. “They are consultants, freight forwarders, money launderers and instructors. And they are extraordinarily well-funded.”

More than anything else, they are disciplined. Up in rebel territory, Samandi rose at 4 a.m. from her bed on the earth floor of a house she shared with 50 other women for a quick breakfast before an hour and a half studying revolutionary thought. Then there was an hour to tidy the base and wash up before 6.30 a.m., when every Tiger cadre takes their daily oath of allegiance to the L.T.T.E. After a quick wash by the well, the women of her squad set out for surrounding villages, going from door to door hearing grievances and settling disputes. At 4 p.m., they returned for two hours of sports, volleyball, cricket or taraball, Prabhakaran’s own variation on football in which the players squat like a duck and pass the ball by hand. Then it was more study, this time of Tiger rules and regulations, first aid and perhaps an English class, before lights out at 10 p.m. Her duties didn’t end there, however. At some point during the night, Samandi had to take a 45-minute guard shift.

Almost nothing in Samandi’s life was left to personal choice. The only jewelry the Tiger women can wear are three dog tags, around the wrist, neck and waist that ensure identification of even the most dismembered of bodies. The Tigers enforce a hairstyle of two plaits tied in loops across the back of the head to avoid, so they say, hair snagging on bushes during an attack. Music is limited to revolutionary songs. The photos that plastered Samandi’s bedroom walls were of dead suicide bombers, not pop stars. And movies in Tiger territory were a strict diet of action flicks, both homemade efforts using real war footage and Hollywood shoot-em-ups. For unmarried Samandi, sex or even holding hands, like cigarettes and alcohol, was banned. The Tiger leadership also reserved the right to prevent any marriage it deemed unsuitable — that is, outside L.T.T.E ranks — and sometimes arranged unions between guerrillas.

But for dedicated soldiers like Samandi, earthly freedoms did not matter. She had made up her mind to kill and to die, and her disappointment at taking part in just one battle before the cease-fire, and surviving, was palpable. “Five of my friends died in that attack,” says Samandi, “I was very sad for them. But then I thought, After we die, we all have freedom.’ And I want that freedom too.” Maybe now, as the conflict heats up again, she has got her wish.

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