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Political Violence Revisited: The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam

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Terrorism Revisited

Part of the book series: Contemporary South Asian Studies ((CSAS))

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This chapter examines, dissects and revisits the three-decade-long political violence campaign of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in Sri Lanka. It argues that in the absence of a uniting, coherent ideology beyond primordialist ethno-nationalism, it was the LTTE’s leader Velupillai Prabhakaran who managed to obtain public support and create devoted and fanatic cadres by propelling his status as an omnipotent leader, who embodied the Tamil struggle. Prabhakaran himself became the manifesto. Prabhakaran and his cadres not only exploited grievances of the Tamil community to justify acts of terror but also silenced Tamil forces that were advocates of democratic, peaceful and constitutional solutions in times of escalating social and ethnic tensions. This chapter also highlights the international outreach and scope of LTTE operations and its connections to and alliances with other terror groups throughout the world. One section is also dedicated to the group’s coercive, extortive and violent actions against the global Tamil diaspora. A key pillar of Prabhakaran’s success was the creation, training and indoctrination of elite suicide cadres, known as the “Black Tigers”, thus creating a “cult of martyrs”, which was strategically aggrandised by incorporating inter-religious and pseudo-socialist rituals and symbolism. This part of the book underscores the vanguard role of the LTTE regarding the innovation of terror practices and placing these core tactical methods within a broader strategic structure of political violence. Finally, this chapter makes the case for assessing the LTTE as one of the most, if not the most, successful terror outlets of the twentieth century.

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  1. 1.

    The Kurdistan Freedom Hawks (TAK) are one of these exceptions. In 2016, this Kurdish separatist insurgency claimed responsibility for suicide attacks that killed over 140 in Turkey.

  2. 2.

    “The structure of the LTTE is twofold and consists of a highly organised, quasi-professional military branch and a secondary political branch. A Central Governing Committee administers both wings and is in charge of organising and commanding the LTTE’s subdivisions” (Van de Voorde, 2007, p. 185).

  3. 3.

    “Tamil Propaganda has been far more astute than government propaganda, and the Tigers have established a foreign service of their own with representations in 38 countries, issuing daily news bulletins and running their own illegal radio station in Sri Lanka. Use is widely made of the Internet and video clips, which are distributed to leading media in foreign countries” (Laqueur 1999, p. 194).

  4. 4.

    “From the outset, the LTTE made optimum use of its access to the sea. First of all, it served as a means of transporting narcotics from the GoldenCrescent and the Golden Triangle to Europe. Narcotics provided the main source of income until it was superseded by external donor support and now by infrastructured taxes, highway tolls and other levies. Access to both sides of the Indian Ocean made smuggling weapons easier. The weapons came from India (before the 1987 accord) and then South East Asia-Myanmar, Thailand, and Cambodia” (Bloom, 2005, pp. 57–58).

  5. 5.

    In 1996 four thousand Tamil Tigers overran a military base northeast of Colombo, killing 1200 men of the Sri Lankan Army (Laqueur, 1999, p. 193).

  6. 6.

    For a complete list of LTTE suicide attacks please visit: South Asia Terrorism Portal-Suicide attacks by LTTE

  7. 7.

    For a complete list please visit: South Asia Terrorism Portal-Prominent Political Leaders Assasinated by the LTTE

  8. 8.

    An example for the ability of the LTTE to wipe out entire political parties is embodied by its campaign against the United National Part (UNP) between 1991 and 1994. In these 3 years, Black Tigers managed to kill Gamini Dissanayake, the UNP’s presidential candidate and over 50 of its members including cabinet members and appointees as well as the general secretary of the party (Bloom, 2005, p. 64).

  9. 9.

    It is interesting to note however that Swamy (2010) states that of 273 Black Tigers killed, only 74 were women.

  10. 10.

    Bloom (2005, p. 64) makes highlights a distinction made for male and female suicide bombers. While the men were commonly referred to as the “Black Tigers”, women were often named “Bird of Freedom”. Furthermore, the LTTE in preparation of suicide attacks used children between 14 and 17 to act as spies, couriers and suppliers and in some case as front-line soldiers. As Bloom (ibid. p. 65) correctly points out this was and is a direct violation of International Law.

  11. 11.

    The LTTE never claimed responsibility for the deaths of Former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 or the President of Sri Lanka Ranasinghe Premadasa in 1993.

  12. 12.

    All LTTE members wore a necklace with a Cyanide capsule around their neck. In case of capture, they were expected to commit suicide.

  13. 13.

    For a full list of translated speeches from 1992 to 2008, please see: Leader V Prabakaran’s Heros day speech 1992–2008 English Translation.

  14. 14.

    For a list of international LTTE front organisations, please see: Fair (2004, p. 33).

  15. 15.

    In 2007, a smuggling vessel containing North Korean weapons (mostly automatic rifles) was intercepted by the Sri Lankan Navy while entering its waters illegally.


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Correspondence to Djan Sauerborn .

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Sauerborn, D. (2017). Political Violence Revisited: The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. In: Casaca, P., Wolf, S. (eds) Terrorism Revisited. Contemporary South Asian Studies. Springer, Cham.

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