'The Birthplace of the Suicide Belt.' Sri Lanka's Deadly History of Suicide Bombings

Amy Gunia
The deadly terrorist tactic was perfected during the country's long civil war

For many years, Sri Lanka’s bloody civil war kept tourists at bay. When the 26-year conflict between the Tamil ethnic minority and the government ended in 2009, tourists flocked to the island nation’s tropical beaches, highland tea country and wildlife safaris. Hotels proliferated, among them the Shangri-La in the capital Colombo.

On Easter Sunday, the Shangri-La was one of several hotels targeted by suicide bombers in attacks that killed 359 people, and wounded 500 more. Suddenly, the nation’s hard-won peace evaporated, and civilians were once again plunged into the grip of terror.

The violence, believed to be carried out by a domestic Islamist militant group, was the deadliest to hit Sri Lanka since the civil war ended a decade ago. With the world’s gaze once again attuned to Sri Lanka for the wrong reasons, Sunday’s blasts served as a grim reminder of nation’s past as the birthplace of modern-day suicide bombing.

Here’s what to know about the scourge of bombings that has afflicted the country of 22.5 million where the suicide vest was invented.

What is the history of suicide bombings in Sri Lanka?

The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Ealam (LTTE), more commonly known as the Tamil Tigers, didn’t create the phenomenon of suicide bombing, but they did institutionalize the tactic during their guerrilla warfare against the Sri Lankan government forces from 1983 to 2009.

The Tigers, seeking an autonomous state for an ethnic group that makes up about 15% of the population, first used suicide tactics in an attack on the Sri Lankan army in 1987. That explosion echoed the 1983 bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Lebanon. But according to experts, the Tiger’s frequent attacks thereafter may have marked a turning point, after which suicide attacks became a widespread weapon used by extremists around the globe.

“Tamil Tigers were mainly responsible for developing suicide bombings as a terrorist weapon and it was emulated by terrorist groups in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq and other countries,” Riaz Hassan, emeritus professor of sociology at Flinders University in Australia, and an expert on suicide missions, told TIME.

Foreshadowing the strategy of jihadis to come, Velupillai Prabhakaran, the Tigers’ founder and leader, created a culture that glorified martyrdom and encouraged suicide bombings. Perversely, the group characterized the act as one of “giving yourself” rather than killing.

By the time the civil war officially ended in 2009, experts estimated that the Black Tigers, the group’s suicide squad, had carried out most of the suicide attacks recorded around the world up until that point.

They were “actually the world leader in suicide terrorism from 1980 to 2003,” Robert Pape, director of the Chicago Project on Suicide Terrorism, told NPR. “There had been 273 that we can verify who have actually killed themselves in suicide attacks for the Tamil Tigers.”

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How did terrorists refine suicide bombings as a weapon?

The Tamil Tigers “perfected” the use of suicide bombers, invented the suicide belt, and pioneered the use of women in suicide attacks, according to the FBI, which listed the group as a Foreign Terrorist Organization.

“The LTTE are widely credited with mainstreaming the use of the suicide vest as a force multiplier. Not only did it allow for precise targeting, but also instilled an increased sense of horror and terror among the wider population that anyone—man or woman—might be the next bomber,” Joshua Roose, senior research fellow at the Institute for Religion, Politics and Society at the Australian Catholic University, told TIME.

Throughout the 1990s, use of the suicide vest spread to militants around the world, and was frequently deployed in the Israel-Palestine conflict. In 1994, a Palestinian male strapped explosives around his body and blew himself up at an Israeli checkpoint, and in 1996 a Hamas suicide bomber boarded a bus in Jerusalem wearing an explosive belt. The same year, a female member of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party detonated a belt concealed as a pregnancy in Turkey.

By the early 2000s, the suicide belt had made its way to Afghanistan, where al-Qaeda used the device to assassinate a prominent political figure.

According to Pape, suicide bombings escalated in the aftermath of Sept. 11, when the U.S. began the War on Terror.

“When we invaded and conquered Iraq, we touched off the largest suicide terrorist campaign in modern times,” Pape told the Associated Press.

How do the Easter attacks compare to previous bombings in Sri Lanka?

The Sri Lankan government has pinned the Easter Sunday attacks on a local Islamic extremist group called National Thowheeth Jama’ath, but believe that the militants received assistance from abroad. ISIS took credit for the bombings Tuesday in a claim that has yet to be verified by intelligence authorities. While much about the incident remains unclear, experts note the attacks recall Tamil Tiger tactics in many ways, including the high number of civilian casualties.

“Tactically, there appear to be a number of similarities, including the coordinated nature of the attacks, the use of suicide bombers, quality of bomb-making and targeting of civilians,” Roose said. “The LTTE often targeted transport hubs and buses, which often resulted in significant civilian casualties.”

Roose added that while the secular Tigers sometimes bombed Buddhist sites, they did not usually target Christian churches, unlike Sunday’s attackers. The Tamil Tigers detonated bombs as part of a secessionist insurgency, not an extreme religious agenda.

“The full extent of these links is yet to be established however it is clear from the information available that the bombers drew inspiration from ISIS,” said Roose.

Since ISIS lost its final toehold in Iraq and Syria earlier this year, some have feared the terrorist group will mount a resurgence along new fronts by exploiting sectarian conflicts around the world.

Whether the ISIS connection proves valid or not, the terror group’s claim of involvement in Sri Lanka Easter raises the specter of its resurrection as a sort of new, disparate threat.

“ISIS itself is growing in other parts of the world. The ISIS threat will remain,” National Security Advisor John Bolton said in a March, according to the Washington Post. “The terrorist threat is an ideological threat worldwide, and it’s something that I think we have to be vigilant against for the foreseeable future.”