Tamil Tigers: Suicide Bombing Innovators

Robert Pape, director of the Chicago Project on Suicide Terrorism, examines the decades-long war in Sri Lanka with the Tamil Tigers. The group is reported to have invented the suicide vest, and made suicide bombing their trademark.

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LYNN NEARY, host:

Sri Lanka's Tamil Tiger rebels didn't invent the suicide bomb, but they pioneered it as a tactic in war.

For three decades, the rebels fought for an independent homeland with hundreds of suicide attacks, more than al-Qaida or any other group. All told, more than 70,000 people died in the fighting.

Then, earlier this week, the Sri Lankan government declared victory over the Tamil rebels, but the tactic they embraced has spread far beyond Sri Lanka. We'll talk with an expert on suicide attacks in a moment. And if you want to talk with him about how the Tamil Tigers used suicide attacks or the legacy of their tactics, our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255. And our email address is talk@npr.org.

Robert Pape joins us now. He's professor of political science at the University of Chicago and director of the Chicago Project on Suicide Terrorism. And he joins us from Chicago Public Radio.

Welcome to the program, professor.

Professor ROBERT PAPE (University of Chicago): Good to be here.

NEARY: So tell me how the Tamil Tigers came to use suicide attack as a strategy.

Prof. PAPE: Well, in the 1980s, the Tamil Tigers were becoming the lead resistance group or independence movement on the island of Sri Lanka. And at this point in time, there was a little bit of, actually, a crossover between the Tamil Tigers and Hezbollah, that famous suicide terrorist group from Lebanon.

And in 1983, there were actually several Tamil Tiger cadre, just a couple, who were training in some Hezbollah terrorist camps right at the moment that there was that spectacular suicide truck bombing of the U.S. Marines in Beirut that killed 241 Marines and that led Ronald Reagan, just a few months later, to pull all the U.S. troops out of Beirut.

Well, a few years later, the head of the Tamil Tigers, Prabhakaran, decided to try to model an attack just after the Beirut suicide truck assassination. And in July 1987, the very first Tamil Tiger suicide attack occurred when a person by the name of Captain Miller drove a truck into a barracks of Sinhalese army troops who were sleeping, effectively trying to copy that attack. And that then set off the entire wave that came over the - over the next 20-something years.

NEARY: Now when you say they copied the attack, was there - and you say there was contact between the Tamil Tigers and Hezbollah. Were there -did they received training from Hezbollah, or was it simply a matter of learning about it via the media and then trying to imitate it? How does it…

Prof. PAPE: Yeah. Training is probably a little too much here, because it's really more of the demonstration. And it's - when I say copy, I mean, the tactic of a single driver of a truck, a truck that's laden with explosives, that's attacking a camp, an army camp early in the morning, and is essentially attacking a barracks of sleeping soldiers.

So that that - those are the key features of the Beirut - the suicide truck assassination in Beirut in October '83 and exactly the same tactical features of the first Tamil suicide attack. And then after that attack, even though it didn't lead to sort of the same political success, it did lead to a fair bit of martyrdom for Captain Miller.

So what Prabhakaran did is he decided to make a tremendous political display in the Tamil homelands of this person who had done the attack named Captain Miller. And a statue was erected. The statue was displayed prominently in Jaffna. That's the key Tamil city in the Jaffna Peninsula in the northern part of Sri Lanka.

And that statue and these memorials became a quite important part of the entire, sort of, edifice of martyrdom, so to speak, that became, you know, central to how the Tamil Tigers were trying to wage their war of independence. NEARY: Now, you use the word martyr. Were these bombings tied to any religious beliefs?

Prof. PAPE: No. Actually, the Tamil Tigers are a purely secular suicide terrorist group. They're not a group that most of the listeners will have heard too much about because even though they're actually the world leader in suicide terrorism from 1980 to 2003, carrying out more suicide attacks than Hamas or Islamic Jihad, they're not attacking us and they're not attacking our allies.

And so, even though they've done really quite tremendously spectacular suicide attacks - for instance, in 1993, it's the Tamil Tigers who assassinated - with the suicide assassination a sitting president, Premadasa, a president of Sri Lanka. That's the only time that a suicide attack has actually assassinated a sitting president.

And then just a few years before that, Rajiv Gandhi, when he was running for prime minister in 1991, a Tamil suicide attacker, this time a woman by the name of Dhanu assassinated him. And so, despite the fact there have been these spectacular attacks, they have been occurring not against us or against our allies, and so many folks won't really have been as familiar with them.

But they are not religious. They're not Islamic. They're a Hindu group. They're a Marxist group. They're actually anti-religious. They are building the concept of martyrdom around a secular idea of individuals essentially altruistically sacrificing for the good of the local community.

NEARY: We are talking with Robert Pape. He's a professor of political science in the University of Chicago. And we're talking to him about the Tamil Tigers' use of suicide attacks and their legacy. If you have any questions for him about that, our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255. The email address is talk@npr.org.

So I'm curious, Professor Pape, how were then the suicide bombers recruited? Because, you know, in the case of militant Islam, you know, we hear, you know, promises of greatness in the afterlife, for instance. So that, you know, so you could almost begin to understand that, you know, people with a certain kind of belief would think, well, if I do this then I'm going to be rewarded in the afterlife. But - so what's the recruiting technique if you don't have that kind of even reward to promise?

Mr. PAPE: Right. Well, maybe when - we should also have an opportunity to come back and talk about the motives for some of the Hamas suicide attackers as well. But just specifically to answer your question, the critical issue here is that the Tamil Tigers have long been a resistance movement that's been a guerilla resistance movement with thousands and thousands of cadre who have been fighting for the independence of the Tamil regions of the Sri Lankan - the island of Sri Lanka.

And the Black Tigers, the suicide attackers for the Tamil Tigers, have been recruited essentially as elite members of the ordinary cadre. That is they're essentially promoted from within the ranks of the ordinary Tamil Tigers. A way to think about it is, they're sort of the same relationship our Rangers, you know, have to the Army. In order to get into the Rangers, our elite - some of our elite special forces, you have to first be in the Army. And then you have to pass some rather rigorous tests, rigorous tests of skill, rigorous tests of emotional stability. And that's what's happening for the Black Tigers. Those that are -volunteer and then are selected to become Black Tigers, for them, it's actually quite an honor.

Now, of course, our Rangers aren't doing suicide attacks. But the Black Tigers are specially an elite unit where they're being selected because they're viewed as having both the skill and strength of nerve in order to not just so much kill themselves. That's really not what the point of the attack is, as much as to kill others. And to attack especially difficult targets such as, as I just mentioned, you know, assassinations of high-level political figures that would be probably pretty difficult to achieve any other way.

NEARY: Do they ever use children or women as suicide bombers?

Prof. PAPE: Suicide women actually are quite prominent in the Black Tigers. They're called the Black Tigresses. Of the 273 that we can count - and that's what I'm in the business of doing, we kind of carefully count suicide attacks and attackers around the world - there had been 273 that we can verify who have actually killed themselves in suicide attacks for the Tamil Tigers.

And of those, 46 have been women. And quite a large fraction, about half, have been involved in political assassinations. The youngest of the Tamil Tigers who have been Black Tigers that we can identify has been about 18. Now the Tamil Tigers as group do have cadre who are younger than 18. In fact, there are lots of news reports about how they use children. But I actually don't find much evidence of them truly using, you know, hundreds and hundreds of kids who are 12, 13 years old. But they do, quite often, have folks in their ranks who are 16 and 17 years old, much the way - by the way, say, in World War I or World War II, many Western armies were composed of folks who were 17 who went to war early.

NEARY: You mentioned that there were - you've counted 273 of these kinds of attacks by the Tamil Tigers. What - how does that compare to what you know about suicide attacks among other groups?

Prof. PAPE: Oh, well, if we were to count - that was 273 attackers. Some of those have been involved in team attacks where they've actually done it as a group. So if you were to count, say, attacks the Tamil Tigers from 1987 to just actually early May of this year, just a few weeks ago - May 13th was their last suicide attack - have done at least 137 confirmed suicide attacks involving 273 suicide attackers. That compares to, say, Hamas at 117 confirmed suicide attacks during their period, the life of their suicide - campaigns by about 147 suicide attackers.

NEARY: Robert Pape is a professor of political science at the University of Chicago and the director of the Chicago Project on Suicide Terrorism.

And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And we're going to take a call now from Nollynie(ph), I believe it is.

NOLLYNIE (Caller): Yes.

NEARY: In San Jose, California. Go ahead.

NOLLYNIE: Yes. My question is, the war is over but the (unintelligible) abuse of the kids being kidnapped from camps, the stories of abuses. So how is the world going to prevent another round of - another round of outrage, I mean, another round of…

NEARY: The civil war?

NOLLYNIE: …coming up, another round of disenfranchised youth coming up and turning into suicide bombers once again?

Prof. PAPE: I think that's a great question. I think right now there's an awful lot of triumphalism on the part of the victorious side here, saying that the war is over, which seems to give the impression that with Prabhakaran dead, that there is sort of no issue here into the future. But the fact is, Prabhakaran and the Tamil Tigers had tremendous popular support, not so much for Prabhakaran as an individual or even suicide attack, but for the whole issue of Tamil independence because there has just been a tremendous amount of animosity between the Sinhalese who are Buddhists and the Tamils who are Hindus, actually going three decades now.

And this has been a sort of a boiling civil war, if you - and this is -what we're seeing is the just latest round in that civil war. And I do believe that there are good reasons to explain what happened just in the last few months. But if we look out into the future, the critical issue here is that there are now nearly 300,000 Tamils who are living in refugee camps. That makes up somewhere between a third and a half of everybody on the Jaffna Peninsula. That's a large fraction of that population. And there have been promises by the Sinhalese government to take care of them, to provide food, to provide water and then to help them into the future.

But this is a very expensive proposition. This is very far away and very difficult circumstances. And I think that unfortunately, what's really needed here is a rather massive amount of economic aid, reconstruction aid, and not just by the Sinhalese government, by the international community, and I would say in fairly short order. And it's rather difficult - this has often been the case in some of these campaigns or some of these conflicts involving suicide attack. And it's often been the case that promises have come and they haven't been fulfilled.

And so I think that in this particular case, there are good reasons to worry about a resumption of the conflict, not so much tomorrow, but in six months or a year that could be really quite intense specifically because of the rather harsh brutality that's occurred to many, many Tamil civilians in the last few months.

NEARY: All right. Thank you so much for your call. We're gonna take a call now from Greg(ph). And he is calling from Syracuse, New York. Hi, Greg.

GREG (Caller): Hello. A couple of years ago, the Bush administration tried to characterize suicide bombings as homicide bombings. And there was a very clear sort of disciplined message on their part to get that in the media. It didn't really take hold, and I was wondering what your guest thought about that characterization and if it did take hold elsewhere in the world.

Prof. PAPE: Yes. That was an effort to try to politically delegitimate the concept. And the fact of the matter is, the term suicide attack already effectively delegitimates the concept and is not the way the suicide terrorists groups typically refer to themselves. They often refer to themselves with terms that in their languages refer to not suicide by self-sacrifice or martyrdom. And I think that the other point to say is that trying to change the name once something has sort of become named something after 20 years, even the president of our country, it's just very, very difficult to do.

And so, I think that the fact is, in the West, we have, since the suicide truck assassination of those Marines in Beirut, called this a suicide attack by suicide terrorists. And I think that that's probably going to be the name that will stay with us.

NEARY: All right. Thanks for your call, Greg. And I would guess that sadly, this is not a tactic that is going to go away anytime soon in terms of modern warfare.

Prof. PAPE: Well, we track suicide terrorism, the global patterns all around the world. And in 2002, there were 50 suicide attacks around the world. In 2008, over 500 suicide attacks around the world. And I'm afraid that suicide terrorism is mainly not so much driven by religion, independent of circumstance, but it's mainly a response to foreign military occupation. And as we've seen, ground forces in Iraq, increases of ground forces in Afghanistan, and then actually threatening parts of Pakistan, we've seen suicide terrorism in those parts of the world exploding.

NEARY: Robert Pape, thank you so much for joining us today.

Prof. PAPE: Thanks for having me.

NEARY: Robert Pape directs the Chicago Project on Suicide Terrorism. He's also author of "Dying to Win." And he joined us from Chicago Public Radio.

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