History of the suicide bomber harks back to Tamils

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The Independent Online

Often there is a message, videotaped the night before they embark on their mission to kill.

In the message she left before heading off to an Israeli checkpoint where she detonated the explosive-laden vest hidden under her clothes, Reem al-Riashi, said she hoped "parts of my body can fly all over". The Hamas supporter and mother-of-two killed four other people when she took her own life in January 2004.

And then there was Mohammed Siddique Khan, leader of the 7/7 bombers in London, explaining why he and his three friends were to embark on the plot that killed themselves and 52 other people. "Until we feel secure you will be our targets," he said.

These are the images we have grown used to seeing – almost always Muslims, almost always railing against perceived injustice, almost always asking for God's help to ensure their mission succeeds.

And yet while these are the images emanating so often from the Middle East, it is the Tamil Tigers of Sri Lanka who first perfected the technique of suicide bombing as a means of terrorising a population for political ends.

Estimates vary, but since 1987 the so-called Black Tiger unit of the group has reportedly carried out more than 150 such attacks, their victims including former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi.

If it was the Tamils who were the first modern group to perfect suicide bombing, it is now in the Middle East where such attacks are most common – first in Lebanon during the 1980s, to the Palestinian territories and now to Iraq where suicide bomb attacks appear to be an almost daily occurrence.

In the west, some commentators have suggested suicide bombing results from intense poverty. And yet more recent studies suggest the level of political freedom enjoyed by the bomber is much more of a motivating factor. A 2004 report by Harvard University Professor of Public Policy, Alberto Abadie, said "as experienced recently in Iraq and previously in Spain and Russia, transitions from an authoritarian regime to a democracy may be accompanied by temporary increases in terrorism".

Mia Bloom, political science at the University of Cincinnati and author of Dying to Kill: The Allure of Suicide Terror, yesterday told The Independent: "[The common link is] the conviction. Whether it's conviction to an issue, to a cause – nationalism or a misunderstanding of Islam – the one thing that [links] them is this conviction." Ms Bloom said that examples, largely from Chechnya, showed that when suicide bombers were simply paid – the money going to their families – it was more likely they could be swayed from acting. She added: "When it's conviction, it's very hard to do anything." Yet in his book, My Life Is a Weapon: A Modern History of Suicide Bombing, German journalist Christoph Reuter, also warns that a simplistic view of suicide bombers as crazed fanatics does not hold true. He says many modern-day bombers are well-educated young people who willingly offer to carry out the attacks on more powerful "oppressors".