Correction to This Article
In some July 17 editions, a map with an article about suicide bombings misstated the year of the first suicide terrorist attack in the United States as 2003. The first such attacks were those of Sept. 11, 2001.
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Suicide Bombs Potent Tools of Terrorists

A watershed came in 1983, when a Hezbollah operative drove his truck bomb into the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut, killing 241 U.S. service members in an attack that remains the deadliest terrorist strike on Americans overseas. Hezbollah would later carry out more suicide attacks.
A watershed came in 1983, when a Hezbollah operative drove his truck bomb into the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut, killing 241 U.S. service members in an attack that remains the deadliest terrorist strike on Americans overseas. Hezbollah would later carry out more suicide attacks. (By Bill Foley -- Associated Press)

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One watershed came in 1983, when a Hezbollah operative drove his truck into the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut, killing 241 U.S. service members in an attack that remains the deadliest terrorist strike on Americans overseas. Hezbollah would later carry out several dozen more suicide attacks.

Most experts agree that the modern style of suicide bombings first gained its greatest prominence outside the Middle East, in the island nation of Sri Lanka.

The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, popularly known as the Tamil Tigers, is an avowedly secular rebel movement of the country's Tamil ethnic minority. It carried out scores of suicide bombings from the late 1980s until a cease-fire in 2002. The conflict between the Tigers and the government, which is dominated by members of the Sinhalese majority, began in 1983 and claimed an estimated 65,000 lives.

Though dominated by Hindus, the Tigers are predominantly ethnic and nationalist in outlook, with religion not playing a significant role in their actions. The Tigers' early and aggressive use of suicide attacks, analysts say, reflected a pragmatic calculation of the need to level the military playing field against a larger and better-equipped foe.

The group created an elite force to carry out such attacks, the Black Tigers, whose members underwent rigorous training and were reportedly treated to dinner with rebel leader Velupillai Prabhakaran before being sent on their missions.

The rebels carried out their first suicide bombing in 1987, when a captain blew himself up along with 40 government troops at an army camp in the northern part of the country. Tamil Tiger spokesmen emphasize the use of suicide attackers against military targets, but the group has also used them against political and economic targets in strikes that have cost hundreds of civilian lives.

In 1991, a suspected Tamil Tiger assassinated former Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi. Two years later, a suicide bomber killed Sri Lankan President Ranasinghe Premadasa and 23 others in Colombo. Tamil Tiger suicide attackers also staged devastating strikes on the country's central bank, its holiest Buddhist shrine and its international airport.

Robert A. Pape, an associate professor of political science at the University of Chicago, calls the group the world's "leading instigator" of suicide attacks. In his recent book "Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism," Pape says that the group accounted for 76 of 315 suicide attacks carried out around the world from 1980 through 2003, compared with 54 for the Islamic Resistance Movement, or Hamas, and 27 for Islamic Jihad.

Some analysts say the group's strategy, though reprehensible, was effective in pushing the government toward a negotiated settlement.

"The suicide bombings in civilian areas, especially outside the conflict zones of the northeast, brought to the people outside the horror of the war and the vulnerability of society, " Jehan Perera of the National Peace Council, an advocacy group in Colombo, said in a telephone interview.

Laqueur, the author of "A History of Terrorism" and other books, disagrees, noting that the Tigers' primary goal -- to gain power -- has not been achieved after more than two decades of bloodshed. But he said Sri Lanka does illustrate how religious extremism has not always been central to the tactic. "It's not purely a religious thing; it's fanaticism," Laqueur said in an interview from London. "It just happens that, now, we are seeing the fanaticism primarily with Islam."

Iraq Is Now the Focus

Even as the Tigers have abandoned suicide attacks, others have adopted the tactic as their own. In Russia, Chechen Muslim radicals have mounted at least 19 suicide operations, according to Pape's statistics, including those in one terribly deadly week last year when hundreds died in a fiery siege at a school, a bombing at a Moscow train station and the downing of two airliners.


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