Residents hold vigil for terror attacks victims in Colombo. File
Sadly, suicide bombings have long been part of the history and culture of life – that is, terrorisms’ horrific ending of life – in the small island nation of Sri Lanka, just off the eastern coast of India.
It was a generation ago when a youth I’ve called Kittu got caught up in the life spiral that led him in 2001 to follow his leaders’ orders, strap on his deadly explosive jacket and set out on his assignment to assassinate a high-level intelligence official. And this past Easter Sunday, when coordinated suicide bombings killed more than 300 people in Sri Lanka, I found myself thinking about Kittu and the stunning twists of his life story.
I had recounted Kittu’s tale in my 2003 book, “Avoiding Armageddon,” about the danger that terrorists might someday acquire poorly secured weapons of mass destruction. Fortunately, Sunday’s tragic explosions in Sri Lanka didn’t involve nuclear, chemical or biological weapons. But it reminds us of the lessons we must remember about the human turmoil that propel youths around the world to choose paths of suicidal terrorism. And the other lessons we still overlook about what can happen when leaders ignore urgent warnings.
Kittu was just 13 when a battle between Army troops and the then-Tamil Tiger rebels suddenly surrounded his family’s small farm in 1990. He saw his mother and father run toward the army, waving their hands, seeking protection for the family. He saw the soldiers’ gunfire, saw his parents fall dead. Kittu fled and joined the Tamil Tigers so he could someday pay back the army that killed his parents.
The Tamil Tigers had pioneered suicide bombing, led the world in those deadly missions accomplished. At first Kittu didn’t realise he was being trained to be a suicide bomber. Then he was issued his specially designed explosive training jacket. “We train on that jacket over and over again,” says Kittu. “...We would set off the detonator several times until we lose the fear of doing it.”
Finally, he got his assignment: assassinate the high-level intelligence official. “Personal details, whether he has parents, children, we have never been told,” Kittu explained. “...What we are told is that this man has done this damage to us and therefore he must be zeroed.”
Kittu headed out on the assignment he knew would be the last day of his life. But somehow the government found out and he was captured before he reached his target. So he did what he’d sworn to do – popped two cyanide capsules into his mouth. But before he bit the capsules, he realised he didn’t want to die. So when a soldier grabbed his jaw, Kittu spit out the capsules. That’s why he lived and could tell us his story, a year after his capture.
“I am leading a good life,” he said. “...now my life is much better. ... I am a civilian now.” But Kittu was not yet an entirely free man. He lived in a halfway house, where he was being rehabilitated and educated by his official government minder. “And I have basically learned so much about life now,” he said, gratefully. Kittu’s minder was the Sri Lankan intelligence officer who, on that twist-of-fate day he was captured in 2001, had been his assigned target.
The fact that Kittu’s story became a story of life – and not another tragedy of youthful suicide and mass murder – is an optimistic lesson in our world that has too often witnessed religion being used to justify bloodshed. Years ago, Sri Lanka peacefully resolved its Tamil Tiger era of Hindu versus Buddhist violence.
But last Sunday’s highly coordinated attacks, perpetrated with the proclaimed coordination of the Islamic State, have plunged Sri Lankans into new depths of mourning and anger over the new era of religiously fueled tragedy that has befallen their nation. And, apparently that anger is heightened by the Sri Lankan government’s failure to react quickly after receiving detailed advance warnings that should have led officials to prevent the attacks. Yet Kittu’s tale reminds today’s grieving Sri Lankans, and all the world, of a time when Sri Lanka’s government acted quickly – and positively – to prevent a suicidal assassination but also save and redeem the assassin.
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