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Suicide terrorism in the Sri Lankan civil war (1983 – 2009)

Suspected Tamil Tiger rebels killed at least ten people and wounded more than 40, including several Sri Lankan ministers in this suicide bomb attack on a 2009 Muslim celebration.

Barely a day goes by without a headline of a suicide attack claiming civilian lives. So powerful are these strikes – ranking the most lethal of all explosive weapons in the last six years globally – that suicide bombings have developed a certain strategic appeal for many of the most notorious of today’s global terrorist groups. Suicide attacks are, to them, lethally efficient, proportionally inexpensive and generally simple to execute.[1] They are, in a way, the poor man’s drone: targeted, often effective and able to strike fear in the hearts of their enemies.

The widespread use of the suicide bomber by the likes of ISIS and Al Qaeda, however, is not unique in the recent history of conflict. Before spreading throughout the Middle Eastern region, suicide terrorism was developed to devastating effect by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Ealam (LTTE), a guerrilla movement that fought for an independent Tamil nation-state in Sri Lanka for over two decades.

Between 1983 and 2009, LTTE used the suicide bomber with targeted efficiency and developed this lethal tactic on an unprecedented scale, including, notoriously, creating the suicide belt.

The aim of the following report is to track the rising use of suicide bombers during the Sri Lankan civil war, and in doing so to unveil the strategies behind such acts.

The first part will investigate its emergence, consequent development and transformation throughout the conflict. The second part will explore the historical contexts and consequences behind this particular weapon. The third will examine how the government of Sri Lanka responded to such threat. And the concluding section will offer a statistical overview of this type of violence, seeking to explain what ended its employment.

Part 1: The development of suicide terrorism

The first suicide attack (1983)
The LTTE developed and gained political ground through the 1970s. Seeking an independent state, this armed Tamil political movement found increasing support in response to the historical context of deep social tensions that had emerged in Sri Lanka since its independence from British rule in 1948.

At the end of the British dominion over Ceylon (Sri Lanka), the Sinhalese majority represented 74% of the country’s population, making the Tamils a sizeable minority. But their minority position was a deeply unhappy one – and their being held as ‘second-class citizens’ was made very clear through a series of discriminatory legislations enacted by the Sinhalese-dominated parliament. Following independence, a process of ethnic polarisation ensued that progressively benefited the Sinhalese over Tamils in governmental positions, university admissions and in basic civil rights.[2] Such iniquities were to bubble up into extreme responses.

On the 05 July, 1987, the LTTE turned social and political dissent into bloody retribution. The Tamil fighter Vallipuram Vasanthan blew himself up inside a vehicle loaded with explosives at the Nelliady Madhya Maha Vidyalayam, a former Tamil university taken over by the Sri Lankan army. The attack killed 72 people and the assault quickly became a symbol of a defiant fightback. It also heralded an era of widespread terror that spread throughout the country. To the Tamils, Vallipuram Vasanthan became a martyr, famously celebrated with the nom de guerre “Captain Millar”. To the Sinhalese, his death heralded the beginnings of a bloody, protracted conflict that was to engulf the country for decades. In this way, the LTTE achieved an immediate goal – they created a martyr and forced their grievances into an open confrontation.

The LLTE leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran, claimed that the suicidal strategy was inspired by the Hezbollah’s attack on a US Marine base in Lebanon. On 23 October 1983, two trucks filled with 2000 pounds of explosives were driven into base in Beirut, killing 241 US and 48 French military personnel. Indeed, so impactful was this Hezbollah strike that, as the academic Robert Pape has reported, some Tamil Tigers were sent to Hezbollah terrorist camps to be trained in the suicide bomber’s art.[3]  Certainly the impact of the ‘propaganda of the deed’ was not lost on the LTTE.

Core suicide attack characteristics and impact
The number of times that the Tamils went on to deploy suicide attacks is still a matter of continued debate. Dr Rohan Gunaratna, a prominent academic on suicide terrorism in the Sri Lankan conflict, claimed in 2000 that the total 168 suicide attacks had taken place up to that point. The Tamil Tigers themselves acknowledged the LTTE completed at least 147 attacks. A study by the Sri Lankan Armed Forces claims that 239 LTTE Black Tigers (the informal name given to the LTTE suicide attacker) died in suicide strikes, of which 60 men and 18 women died in land attacks and 115 and 46, respectively, in maritime operations.

The most recognised global database on historic suicide attacks is the Suicide Attack Database run by the University of Chicago.[4] They list, in Sri Lanka, some 115 attacks, killing 1,584 people and injuring a further 3,996. This means that, on average, almost 14 people were killed by each attack and almost 35 people wounded. The first attack listed on this database happened on the 05 July 1987; the last was on the 20 April 2009.

Regardless of the exact number of suicide bombings, LTTE evolved the suicide attack into a very specific and lethal force between 1987 and 2009, utilising men, women and children in land, sea and, reportedly, airborne missions.

So great was the allure of the suicide bomber amongst Tamil Tigers that becoming a ‘Black Tiger’ was seen by many to be a privilege. A suicide bomber waiting list was created. The LTTE added to these numbers by focusing recruitment on the families of Tamil victims. In such a way, revenge and self-sacrifice converged.

Such devotion to the Tamil cause gained almost mythic proportions. Suicide fighters reportedly wore glass capsules containing potassium cyanide around their necks; in the event of a failed mission, they could bite down on the glass and release the lethal poison, ensuring a quick death and the avoidance of the interrogator’s chair.[5] Dying meant simply winning in the struggle for liberation.

The fevered atmosphere that surrounded the cult of the suicide bomber to flourish was well captured in 2002, when reporters from Tim Magazine met a female suicide Tamil Tiger in a base in Northern Sri Lanka. Eraj Samandi was just 18 years old, and yet was set on achieving her dream of dying in her fight for freedom. There were more than 50 suicide bomber applicants and a lottery was held to choose the suicide attacker: ‘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.’[6]

Such devotionalism was, arguably, exactly the sort of thing wanted by the LTTE’s supreme leader Velupillai Prabhakaran. A commander who arguably had more in common with a religious cult than a nationalist separatist group, such as the IRA or the Basque ETA, his rule was absolute and unwavering. And the most fervent of his devotees were the suicide bombers.

A continuative modus operandi
Following their first suicide attack, the Tamil Tigers diligently sought to improve on their suicide bombing capacities. They invested in the building of scale models of the target, so as to scope out in minute detail the target beforehand. They supported their bombers with accommodation, transport, food, clothing and security until the chosen target was reached, so as to maximise the probability of success. And they sought to diversify the ways in which the suicide bomber reached their target.

According to Dr Rohan Gunaratna[7], head of the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, six different types of suicide improvised explosive devices (IEDs) were used by the Tamil Tigers; the vehicle-borne suicide IED; the motorcycle-borne suicide IED; the naval craft-borne suicide IE; the scuba diver-borne IED and the aerial (microlight, glider, mini-helicopter) borne suicide IED.

LTTE, on the most part, used suicide belts. The compact size of these devices made the would-be bombers hard to detect, enabling them to access top security locations, while the almost certain death of the user largely prevented the insurgent from surviving and being interrogated.

In terms of targets, even though Tamil Tigers conducted many indiscriminate attacks on civilians, many of their strikes were a targeted form of assassination against military and political targets. As such, the LTTE is the only terrorist organisation in modern history that has been able to kill two world leaders: the former Prime Minister of India Rajiv Gandhi (1991) and the President of Sri Lanka Ranasinghe Premadasa (1994). Ghandi’s assassination was also LTTE’s only suicide operation conducted outside the territory of Sri Lanka. In addition to these two heads of state, the Tamil Tigers also claimed the death of nine ministers, 26 members of parliament, four provincial councillors, 16 local councillors, 12 military officers and many other civil servants.[8]

Part 2: Ethnic polarisation and consequences

Historical context and the use of violence
Ever since the British colonial period and the early years of independence, Sri Lanka has suffered from a deep and pervasive class struggle that has fuelled divisive ethnic separatism. Between 1971 and 1977, Sri Lankans went through massive social and economic problems. Youth unemployment ran rampant amongst both the Sri Lankan Buddhist majority and the Tamil minority. And despite the Sri Lankan government investing substantial amounts in welfare programs, including the expansion of education, many Tamils were left behind. Indeed, the educational explosion was seen by some to partly fuel the dissatisfaction, having led to an educated but unemployed population.[9]

Various measures were introduced to solve these social issues but reforms repeatedly ended up favouring Singhalese over Tamils, contributing to pre-existing ethnic tensions between the two groups. Such tensions exploded in July 1983, when anti-Tamil pogroms surged through the country, setting the capital city of Colombo aflame. When, in bitter response, 13 Sri Lankan soldiers were gunned down by Tamil militants in Jaffna on 23 July 1983, Sinhalese retaliations against Tamils flared up again.

Such attacks and counter-attacks were to cause a gravely deep cultural wound. As Asoka Bandarage, an Associate Professor at Georgetown University, was to write, the Tamil minority ‘were traumatized by the experience of utter helplessness and victimisation in the face of Sinhala mob attacks(…) Tamils’ sense of insecurity, anger and distrust of the Sinhalese generated by the terrible events of 1983 still remain.’[10]

From such bloody days, a civil war blossomed. LTTE guerrillas received Tamils’ widespread support to counter such atrocities, and with such support, massacres of innocent Sinhalese civilians ensued. Within this violence of attack and counter-attack, suicide terrorism found root, the ugly face of deep and complex issues that had long infected the Sri Lankan body politic.

Part 3: State response
The Sri Lankan government’s response to the terrorist threat was diverse.

After the July 1983 strikes, the Sri Lankan government struggled to contain the insurgency’s spread.[11] While terrorist organisations are sometimes known to learn from one another (e.g. in this case the LTTE learning from Hezbollah), national governments are often victims of their own sense of strong independence. To this end, the Sri Lanka government failed to reach out to collaborate with nation-states (such as Israel) to gain expertise in counter-IED work. Equally, Sri Lanka, initially at least, lacked substantive support from key geopolitical states like India, meaning they failed to develop any coherent international tactical countermeasures against suicide terrorism.[12]

In this way, the Sri Lankan government’s preventive measures to the suicide threat appear to have been largely limited to a propaganda war against its attackers; checkpoints at the major strategic locations of interest; and the use of armoured vehicles to protect VIPs.[13]

It was often too little and too late.

Perhaps the Government’s lack of coherent response to the threat was most visibly seen in December 1999, when the then President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga was almost killed (he was partly blinded) by a female suicide bomber. Despite high-security measures, the suicide bomber was only 12 metres away from the President when she detonated her vest; a measure of both the limitations of the government’s counter-response, and the fact that suicide bombers, so able to blend in with a crowd, had become a devastating force to be reckoned with.

Part 4: The end of suicide attacks
In light of these early setbacks, how did Sri Lanka succeed against what many considered the most innovative and dangerous insurgency force in the world? Three areas stand out.

First, it seems that the government chose to shift away from an attempt to negotiate with the LTTE to annihilating them. For the first 22 years of the civil-war the government’s strategy was to bring the LTTE to the negotiating table using military means. But in mid-2006, when the LTTE deliberately ended a ceasefire, the Sri Lankan government decided to change its strategic objective. The LTTE had a finite manpower base – only 12 per cent of Sri Lanka’s population were Tamils; of these only some 300,000 actively supported the LTTE. And, in addition, this support base had grown weak. By 2006, the LTTE relied on conscription – not volunteers – to fill its ranks, and many of these were children. The Sri Lankan government came to the cold calculation that, no matter what human rights they would contravene in so doing, they could win the war by destroying the city – decimating the LTTE leadership no matter what.

Second, the government shifted away from narrow military success to a more comprehensive grand strategy aiming at victory. The armed forces budget was boosted by 40 per cent, supported by a billion dollar loan from China, along with lines of credit for oil and weapons, from Iran, Libya, Russia and Pakistan. The government worked hard overseas to ensure the LTTE (which received some 60 per cent of its funding and most of its military equipment from offshore) was alienated globally; the group was banned in some 32 countries and help from crucial allies in India was cut off. And the government invested in alleviating poverty, including costly schemes such as the poor farmer fertilizer subsidy scheme. In short, they convinced people there was a peace worth fighting for. The measures worked. Before 2005, the Army had difficulty recruiting 3,000 soldiers annually; by late 2008, the Army was recruiting 3,000 soldiers a month.

Finally, there was a shift in military strategies that exploited the enemy’s weaknesses and countered its strengths. Defections of senior LTTE commanders were a major set back for the guerrilla fighters, and emboldened the government’s hand. Operations were also conducted to wipe out LTTE cells operating within the capital and some large towns. In these operations, small, well-trained, highly-mobile groups proved key. These groups infiltrated behind the LTTE’s front lines attacking high-value targets, providing real-time intelligence and disrupting LTTE lines of resupply. These Special Forces and well-trained Special Infantry Operations Teams (SIOT) caused considerable disruption to the inflexible hierarchical command system of the LTTE.

The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, up to – at least – the current usage of this weapon by ISIS, were for many years the world’s leading suicide terrorism organisation. Between 1987 and 2009, guerrillas carried out at least 115 attacks, killing 1,584 people and injuring a further 3,996.

The deadliest attacks included: the Central Bank bombing in Colombo with at least 91 killed, and 1,400 injured (31 January 1996); the Dehiwala train bombing with 64 killed and 400 injured (24 July 1996); the Bandaranaike International Airport attack with 7 Sri Lankan Air Force personnel killed (24 July 2001); and the Digampathana truck bombing that attacked 15 military convoys leaving as many as 112 deaths and over 150 injured (16 October 2006).

Such attacks were deeply divisive. As reported by the New York Times, Tamil guerrillas became the ‘masters of suicide bombing.’[14] They did not invent this form of weapon, but they certainly became the organisation that made it one of their primary tactical responses. And such tactics were to prove a dangerous source of inspiration for major terrorist organisations the world over. It is hard, for instance, not to see the shadow of the Black Tigers in the such as Al Qaeda’s suicide attack on the United States Navy guided-missile destroyer USS Cole (DDG-67) on 12 October 2000 – remarkably similar to a Tamil attack on a Sri Lankan naval ship.[15] On 4 May 1991, a Sri Lankan naval supply ship, the Abbeetha, was struck by one of LTT’s maritime suicide wings (Black Sea Tigers). The attack caused extensive damage to the shop and killed six and injured 18 naval personnel.[16]

Overall, the suicide attack tactics as adopted by the LTTE were to have two fundamental impacts. Their initial effectiveness were to bog the Sri Lankan government down in a war that was to stretch across the decades, taking as many as 100,000 lives in the process. And they were to show to other fighters the world over – terrorists and guerrilla insurgents – that the suicide bomber could take on a far superior military and cause deep disruption to the enemy. Even though the LTTE did themselves not win their war, such a potential promise in the suicide bomber’s tactic has been to help fuel the ever-expanding cult of the suicide bomber, a reality that is still being felt today.


  • Bandarage, A (2009). The separatist conflict in Sri Lanka. New York: iUniverse Inc
  • Gunaratna, R. (2000). Suicide terrorism: a global threat. Available: Last accessed 17th Jan 2017
  • Hoffman, B (2005). Inside terrorism. 2nd ed. New York: Columbia University Press. 131-173
  • Joshi, C. (2000). Ultimate Sacrifice: Faced with harassment and economic deprivation, young Tamils are ready to give up their lives. Available: Last accessed 17th Jan 2017
  • Lewis, J (2012). The Business of Martyrdom: A History of Suicide Bombing. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press. Part 1 – section 3
  • Pape,R (2005). Dying to win. New York: Random House Trade Paperbacks
  • Pape,R. (2009). Tamil Tigers: Suicide Bombing Innovators. Available: Last accessed 17th Jan 2017
  • Pedahzur, A (2005). Suicide Terrorism . Cambridge: Polity. 70-97
  • Perry, A. (2006). How Sri Lanka’s Rebels Build a Suicide Bomber. Available:,8599,1193862,00.html. Last accessed 17th Jan 2017
  • Waldman, A. (2003). Masters of Suicide Bombing: Tamil Guerrillas of Sri Lanka. Available: Last accessed 7th March 2017

[1] Hoffman, B (2005). Inside terrorism. 2nd ed. New York: Columbia University Press. 131-173

[2] Pedahzur, A (2005). Suicide Terrorism. Cambridge: Polity. 70-97

[3] Pape,R. (2009). Tamil Tigers: Suicide Bombing Innovators. Available: Last accessed 17th Jan 2017


[5] Joshi, C. (2000). Ultimate Sacrifice: Faced with harassment and economic deprivation, young Tamils are ready to give up their lives. Available: Last accessed 17th Jan 2017

[6] Perry, ibid., 2006

[7] Gunaratna, R. (2000). Suicide terrorism: a global threa. Available: Last accessed 17th Jan 2017

[8] Reuters. (2006). CHRONOLOGY-Assassinations of political figures in Sri Lanka. Available: Last accessed 4th March 2017

[9] Bandarage, A (2009). The separatist conflict in Sri Lanka. New York: iUniverse Inc

[10] Bandarage, ibid., 2009 p.105

[11] Bandarage, ibid.,2009

[12] Gunaratna, R. (2000). Suicide terrorism: a global threa. Available: Last accessed 17th Jan 2017

[13] Gunaratna, ibid., 2000

[14] Waldman, A. (2003). Masters of Suicide Bombing: Tamil Guerrillas of Sri Lanka. Available: Last accessed 7th March 2017

[15] Waldman, ibid., 2003

[16] Interestingly, too, the strike on the USS Cole was further emboldened, it seemed, the LTTE’s own maritime suicide strikes – with successes fuelling successes. LTTE suicide stealth boats breached the defences of Trincomalee, the most protected Sri Lankan naval port, and destroyed a fast personnel carrier on the 23 October.