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January 16, 2008

When the Suicide Bomber Is a Woman

menake waits in her concrete cell

Failed suicide bomber Menake waits in her concrete cell in Sri Lanka's maximum-security prison. She may face death by hanging.

Photo Credit: Mahesh Bhat

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For three days last September, Menake staked out the tree-lined streets of Colombo’s richest neighborhood, home to Prime Minister Ratnasiri Wickremanayake. Watching from the shadows, observing the prime minister’s mansion from all angles, Menake devised her plan. She memorized his comings and goings, the government sedan he traveled in. The neighborhood — a sort of Embassy Row filled with colonial-style mansions and expansive gardens — was protected by heavily guarded gates and security checkpoints. Menake took note of all this, looking for the weakest link.

Though she kept a low profile, her presence didn’t go unnoticed. For one thing, miniskirts and blue jeans dominate the fashion scene in this upscale area of Sri Lanka, and Menake dressed in a traditional shalwar kameez — a long tunic over baggy pants. In those clothes, she could have been a servant, but her face wasn’t familiar to the police patrolling the area. For another, her pattern of movement, unlike that of the servants scuttling between homes or to and from the marketplace, was unpredictable. She seemed to appear and vanish, only to re-emerge on another nearby street.

For two days, Menake skillfully evaded the authorities. But on her third day, as she made her final recon mission, she was stopped by guards outside the prime minister’s mansion. When her cover story — that she was visiting a sick aunt — didn’t wash, they demanded to see her national ID card, something all Sri Lankans over 14 are required to carry. When her card revealed her to be from Jaffna, an LTTE stronghold, the police took Menake into custody.

The cyanide necklace was her ultimate downfall. The macabre piece of jewelry — deadly cyanide crystals encased in a small glass vial suspended from a cord around the neck — is worn by every member of the LTTE. Once arrested, the wearer is supposed to bite down on the glass capsule. Through the tiny cuts in the mouth, cyanide races into the bloodstream and blocks the body’s absorption of oxygen, leaving the victim fatally convulsing and gasping for air. When the police saw the capsule, they beat Menake unconscious.

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