The latest ride in the Wanni Disneyland
Woke up last night to hear that the LTTE had attacked the airport. Thinking it was the commercial airport I slept terribly. It was, however, an attack by a few light aircraft on the military airport, situated nearby. That nuance, however, is probably lost in the immediate media and the tourism sector is likely to take a hit. Cathay Pacific has already suspended flights. The attack, however, is almost meaningless in a military sense. Like most of the LTTE’s recent attacks, it’s simply to prove a point, not for any tangible gain. They staged a futile sea attack on Galle (in the South), were repulsed in a few boats at Colombo Port, and now they’ve attacked the airport. None of the attacks caused much damage or killed many people, but they seem to be simply communicative. Terrorism is fundamentally about communication, and the LTTE is – out of impotence or design – resorting to the most minimalist terrorism I’ve ever seen.
When I say terrorism as communication, I mean that terrorists don’t usually occupy land as much as media. Al Qaeda didn’t start any occupation of New York with 9/11, but they have occupied the media from Fox News to clerical mix-tapes ever since. Not that terrorist goals aren’t intrinsically related to land. Robert Pape of the University of Chicago did an interesting meta-analysis on global terrorism, described in the Times Op-Ed.
Over the past two years, I have compiled a database of every suicide bombing and attack around the globe from 1980 through 2003 – 315 in all. This includes every episode in which at least one terrorist killed himself or herself while trying to kill others, but excludes attacks authorized by a national government (like those by North Korean agents against South Korea). The data show that there is far less of a connection between suicide terrorism and religious fundamentalism than most people think.
The leading instigator of suicide attacks is the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka, a Marxist-Leninist group whose members are from Hindu families but who are adamantly opposed to religion. This group committed 76 of the 315 incidents, more than Hamas (54) or Islamic Jihad (27). Even among Muslims, secular groups like the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and the Al Aksa Martyr Brigades account for more than a third of suicide attacks.
What nearly all suicide terrorist attacks actually have in common is a specific secular and strategic goal: to compel modern democracies to withdraw military forces from territory that the terrorists consider to be their homeland. Religion is often used as a tool by terrorist organizations in recruiting and in seeking aid from abroad, but is rarely the root cause.
Now, assuming that the LTTE wants land – which they pretty much say they want – you have to wonder how they get it. There’s the political route, but that was judged a failure after 25 years. Judged basically by Prabhakaran in the end, but there is a lot of disappointment. Then, in a somewhat immature media environment there was the stark brutality that carried via worth of mouth and sheer insistent horror – the Central Bank bombing, the Temple of the Tooth bombing, the murder of monks and worshipers in Anuradhapura. Not to mention the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi, Premadasa, etc. Big targets, and also big destruction.
Lately the LTTE still has big targets, but they don’t really destroy anything. They killed Kadirgamar, but assassination attempts on the Pakistani envoy and Defence Minister failed. They reached Galle via sea, but didn’t really blow up anything. They failed to reach the port, and now they’ve hit the military airport – but not very hard. The Temple of the Tooth and Central Bank bombings were literally trucks full of explosives. The temple bombing caused extensive damage and shattered the stained glass in a nearby church. In the Central Bank blast there were bloodied office workers running away from the scene. By contrast, the recent air attack is just dropping a couple bombs and leaving. There were at least two airmen killed and 17 wounded. Reports are that two helicopters were damaged. This in stark contrast to the last airport attack, in which
Tamil Tiger rebels entered the airbase on July 24, 2001 and destroyed more than a dozen military aircraft and then attacked six civilian aircraft parked at the civilian airport before detonating explosives strapped to their bodies. About 20 people were killed in that attack but passengers at the international airport were not affected. (LBO)
It still gets media coverage, it still hurts tourism, and it’s still a black eye for GoSL. It is not, however, a very successful military mission. It gets the LTTE some press, some morale, but it doesn’t really slow down the Sri Lankan Air Force. It’s almost a proof of concept more than a real attack. It’s as if the Japanese flew to Pearl Harbor, destroyed the canteen and left. It proves that the LTTE can operate planes into Colombo, but it doesn’t have any military content besides. Perhaps they’re getting more mature at producing military theatre for the media, or perhaps they’re impotent. Regardless, it flies in the media. The question is whether this bird can actually land.