Fergal Keane: What goes into the making of a suicide bomber?

'Blowing yourself and others to pieces is a crime against your own humanity and that of your victims'
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The Independent Online

I was a block away when the bomb went off. Flocks of birds erupted into the sky from the walls and telephone wires where they'd been dozing. I started walking towards the sound of the blast and heard another rumble followed shortly after by the sirens of ambulances and police cars. Somewhere in my immediate vicinity people had been killed. A bomb in Colombo never simply means damage. This is not a city of telephoned warnings and recognised code words. A bomb in Colombo is designed with one primary aim: to kill and maim as many of the "enemy" as possible.

By the time I got to the scene the police were frantically pushing back crowds of onlookers. There was smoke and rubble and pieces of people scattered across the roadway. Among the fragments was the head and shoulders of a young woman whom police identified as Rajana Devi, a native of Batticoloa in the east of Sri Lanka and a member of a Tamil Tigers suicide squad. Her male colleague had been the source of the first explosion I'd heard that morning.

Rajana Devi. A name to put on the bundle of charred flesh in central Colombo. She first came to the attention of the police when she was arrested and questioned near her home some years before. That was as much as we were ever able to find out. She was one of many suicide bombers and the Sri Lankan state was disinclined to open up its files on their origins and background. All we were told was that they were ruthless killers etc etc. Which is true of course, not that Sri Lanka's armed forces are themselves above ruthless killing, as anybody who has followed the conflict can confirm.

It is the bloodiest and nastiest and least-reported major conflict in the world. The international press are prevented from reaching the battle zone by strict government censorship. It is difficult enough to persuade British editors to commission stories from countries like Sri Lanka but tell them that you're not allowed to go the area of the fighting, or that you could easily get killed or badly wounded trying, and they will shake their heads emphatically. Nobody wants to spend thousands of dollars reporting from the Hilton Hotel in the capital.

So the guerrillas brought the story to the capital. The attack on Colombo's international airport this week was the Tigers' answer to the government's successful clampdown on information emerging from the battle zones in the north and east of Sri Lanka. For two days the image of burned-out jets and terrified holidaymakers filled the screens and front pages. A conflict of which most British people knew little or nothing was suddenly relevant. There was the customary outbreak of "Who are they?" and "What are they fighting for?" stories, though references to the Tigers' ruthlessness will undoubtedly prompt a torrent of angry letters from the overseas Tamil lobby. To them and to a large number of Tamil civilians in Sri Lanka the dead airport attackers and Rajana Devi are heroes.

Back in 1996 I managed to cross the front line from the government to the Tamil side in the east of Sri Lanka. It was a beautiful, bright day and the jungle was the deepest green I had ever seen. The road towards the Tigers' camp was surprisingly busy with farmers moving about in the fields. Occasionally we could hear rifle fire from the government side but it was hard to believe we were travelling in one of the most dangerous square miles of territory anywhere in the world. This land had changed hands repeatedly in the previous few years. The government would attack and push the Tigers back. The Tigers would launch a counter-strike and retake the territory. Casualties were invariably huge. Thousands of young men died in the fields and jungles of north and east Sri Lanka.

After a few miles travelling, a group of armed men (actually "boys" is closer to the truth) emerged onto the road. They flagged us down and the leader came over to the window, smiled and shook hands and said they'd been expecting us. Everyone of the group – there were about 10 – wore a small glass capsule around his neck. These contained the cyanide that they were to swallow in the event of capture. The cyanide tablet was frequently used by intelligence operatives in the past to ensure they wouldn't divulge information under torture. But to my understanding the Tigers capsule was a symbol of a much deeper code: the creation of an independent Tamil homeland was a greater cause than any single human life.

I found the notion of ritual suicide, not to mention suicide bombing, a concept so far from my own cultural experience that I gaped at the lethal capsules for more than a decent length of time. Though I've spent a fair amount of time in war zones I never cease to wonder at the courage it takes for a soldier to walk towards the sound of firing; when it comes to understanding the psychology of the suicide attacker or the person who fights knowing that he is definitely going to die I am completely at sea.

It isn't a new concept. In the ancient world the defenders of Masada and Thermopylae sacrificed their lives to inflict moral or physical injury on their attackers. The history of warfare is thick with accounts of men who threw themselves at machine-gun nests or who galloped into a hail of enemy fire and were posthumously honoured with their nation's highest awards.

But the truth is that in war men who embrace death or who embark on "suicidal" missions are an exception. Most soldiers want passionately to survive, go home and find peace once more. Even the bravest will measure the odds as best they can before hurling themselves towards the enemy fire. The Tigers are different in this regard, as are the suicide bombers of Islamic Jihad and Hamas. They recall more the terrifying Japanese armies of the Second World War and the Kamikaze pilots who descended on allied fleets in the closing stages of that conflict. Death is not a question of calculating odds, it is a certainty.

I watched a depressing news report the other night on young children being indoctrinated as potential suicide bombers in the occupied territories. Depressing because I believe the love of one's own life is a prerequisite to being able to love others. If you are not taught to regard your own flesh and blood as precious then what hope that you will have much regard for the sanctity of other humanity? That, of course, is the point of indoctrination, to lead the potential bomber to a point where the emotional and spiritual defences are destroyed and the moment of obliteration becomes a natural response.

The Tamil Tiger commander I met assured me that there was no shortage of volunteers for suicide missions. He put that down to patriotism and young people's anger against the Sinhalese-dominated Sri Lankan state. But no past or present injustice or misery, no amount of human rights abuse on the part of the enemy, excuses the commander who sends a human bomb into a crowd on a mission of obliteration.

I have noticed a curious reluctance to criticise suicide attacks. Perhaps it is a fear of taking a moral position on an issue that seems complex and shaded in grey. Get it straight: blowing yourself and others to pieces isn't remotely grey, nor is it very complex. It is a crime against your own humanity and that of your victims.


The writer is a Special Correspondent for the BBC