Suicide Terrorism: Rationality and the LTTE

It seems to be a basic human principle that we will do whatever it takes to ensure we have as long a life as possible and at try to achieve a fulfilled and rewarding one at the same time. Whether someone has a religious or secular background, most people, on average, will go through their lives without intruding on the rights of others and hope to be viewed as having lived a good life. However, there is a group of people that are willing to take theirs and others lives for the good of a cause they strongly believe in. This group are suicide terrorists. If the former is deemed rational, then the latter could be easily dismissed as irrational. But is this the case? I will endeavour to answer whether suicide terrorism can be considered rational. It is important to point out that rationality will be looked at the individual and not at the group level. These findings will be applied using Pape’s five principles on whether strategic logic can be applied to these acts. Finally, we can then apply these principles to The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) to see if their choice to use suicide terrorism can be viewed as rational.

Suicide Terrorism Definition

This paper could easily consume the designated word limit, and more, just trying to find a correct definition for suicide terrorism. Some authors will not include kamikaze attacks by Japanese pilots and also exclude suicide terrorism when any form of coercion has taken place. Whether the intention is for the actor to lose their life or chances of returning alive are negligible, are also considered in the definition debate. Inclusion of the term ‘political’ in the definition can be problematic also as some attacks are based solely on religious belief. Atran’s definition of suicide terrorism fits best for this article,

“The targeted use of self-destructing humans against non-combatants, typically civilian, populations to effect political change”.

He also draws back from this to state that it is a form of psychological warfare. This is important if we are to look at whether suicide terrorism is rational. On a negative note, the use of the terms “typically civilian” are broad enough to apply to the global issue but when applied to a group like the LTTE, could be less applicable. How a decision is made by an actor and what led to them to make the decision need exploring or we just dismiss suicide terrorism as irrational and attempts to understand become limited and developing a strategy to deal with it becomes even more problematic.

Suicide Terrorism and Rationality

If we are to define suicide terrorism, we need to also define rationality. For this essay, we will define it as a decision maker who makes logically and consistent decisions that aim to fulfil their interests. It is easy to assume that anybody choosing to take their own life, and that of innocent civilians are making irrational choices as it goes against what many people would believe to be an ethical or moral decision. Yet suicide terrorism, in isolation, is an effective weapon that is used by multiple groups. The average number of casualties inflicted by a suicide terrorist wearing an explosive belt is 81.4 compared to 3.3 for shooting attacks. This juxtaposes the two views that it is irrational from an outsiders view to being very rational for those looking to employ this method.

Removing all suicidal intent, at a basic evolutionary level, our goal as a member of the animal species is to pass on our genes to the next generation. This basic theory would assume that we should be attempting to continue our genetic line and not commit suicide. However, Dawkins has shown how powerful meme’s can be when it comes to overwriting the more basic need to pass on our genes. Kacou goes further in stating that cultural goals may surpass biological goals through these memes when being applied to suicide terrorists. If so, then addressing different cultural goals as they may pertain to ideology and religion, can be difficult due to the many nuances contained in different religions and political interpretations.

Rationality can also be applied at two different levels. At a group level they can highlight the rationality being applied to the decision process used, not just on their decisions. This does not apply at the level of the individual though as their decisions are based more on rational choice explanations. Rational choice theories can be problematic in their application to suicide terrorism. Is it possible to make a deal with a God and have rational choice assigned to this decision? Given that many suicide bombers have other legitimate opportunities, rational choice theory can also be limiting when looking to explain their actions. If, however, the individual has decided to use this tactic to achieve a goal based on their own anticipated reward and costs, then situational rational choice may be applied. At this level, the rationality of the individual actor is in conflict to Durkheim’s theory of altruistic suicide as the actor is making a decision based on selfish outcomes and not one considered for the groups cause. This circles us back to the meme. If the rational decision process of the group becomes integrated into the individual through memes and then replaces personal interests, then altruism, devoid of egoism, is allowing the actor to make a rational choice they believe is personal and still for the good of the cause.


The LTTE was a terrorist organisation that was active in Sri Lanka from mid-1970’s through to 2009. Its genesis come about through the newly formed Ceylonese government implementing discriminatory legislation that limited social opportunities for the Tamil population. Following calls for greater protection of the rights of Tamils, groups appeared that were willing to use violence as a means to highlight their struggles. The first use of suicide terrorism by the LTTE occurred in July 1987 on an army camp. Since then, well over 200 suicide attacks have taken place and elevated the LTTE as the leading proponent of suicide terrorism. From its inception, the LTTE had always sought to be portrayed as a professional fighting force. This was taken a step further with the creation of the Black Tigers, a group within the LTTE that are trained and prepared for suicide attacks. Since 1983, all members have also been required to wear a potassium cyanide capsule around their necks. Given that there is a general fatalistic doctrine used by the LTTE, it would seem logical, and rational, that suicide terrorism would be adopted as any mission could ultimately end up in the death of a participant.

The LTTE differ from the western perception of suicide terrorism being mainly associated with Islamic Fundamentalism. The LTTE follow a Marxist ideology and their recruits are from mainly Hindu Tamil backgrounds. Martyrdom for the LTTE suicide terrorist is not linked to the rewards in the afterlife, as defined in Islamic terrorism, but in the notion of heroism enacted in achieving statehood. This is seen in their use of the term tayakam, this connects the two concepts of one who abandons and great hero, which views suicide as a gift of oneself for the cause. This is such a powerful belief within the Tamil community that the 27th of November is the day these’ heroes’ are commemorated each year.

Application of Pape’s 5 principles

To see how Pape’s principles maybe applied to suicide terrorism and the context of the LTTE, we first need to understand what they are. In essence, the five principles are strategic, coercive, increasing, limited and effective containment. I will expand on these and their applications to the context above.

Suicide terrorism as a strategic act can be seen to fit in with the mode and methodology in which the LTTE use it. Drilling down from a group level, where they even established a specific group, the Black Tigers, to that of the individual and the associated celebrations, it is clear that suicide has a strategy associated. These are not lone attacks but part of an overall plan to achieve the groups goals. Instilling fear into a population is method that may coerce states to act.

This dovetails in to the second principle. It is used as a method to coerce states to make territorial changes. The LTTE used this strategy to have the Sri Lankan government cede territory for the creation of a Tamil state.

Suicide terrorism by the LTTE certainly increased over time as they become the leading proponent of this method. Whether this could be because it was successful can be debated when viewing over a long period. There were some short-term concessions given by the Sri Lankan government.

Pape viewed the long-term rationality of suicide terrorism to be limited if the goals for the group go beyond a moderate level. This proved prophetic for the LTTE as they ultimately ceased to exist.

Finally, effective containment by reducing their confidence in achieving their goals. This was achieved through defeating them with traditional military forces. Sri Lanka achieved this in 2009.

Pape’s principles hold true in regard to their application to the LTTE. When looking at whether it was a rational choice at the individual level, it could be said that yes, it achieved the goals it set out to in the short-term gains made and the attention it brought to the LTTE. However, the lives lost were all in vain when the overall goals the LTTE desired were not met.


It is easy to be critical of the suicide terrorist and why they would make what seem to be completely irrational decisions to end their lives. Yet as has been shown, whether done for egoistic or altruistic reasons, can depend on an indoctrination into an ideology. The choices made at the individual level are rational for them at the time the decision was being made. The LTTE and their use of suicide terrorism wrapped the concept up as individuals becoming national hero’s and martyrs, even thought they were not driven by religious goals. Pape’s principles can be applied to the LTTE, but it is more difficult to understand the mind of the individual actor and the rationality they applied to them becoming martyrs for the LTTE. Ultimately though, with the failure of the LTTE and their long-term objectives, we can only view the suicide terrorists and their victims as a tragic loss of lives

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warren coppard

Interested in history, culture, business and the pursuit of knowledge