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January 16, 2008

When the Suicide Bomber Is a Woman

menake in the prison interrogation room.

On the day before she set out to blow up the Sri Lankan prime minister, Menake went shopping for a sequined top to hide the vest full of explosives that would turn her into a human bomb. It was the cyanide necklace that gave her away.

Photo Credit: Mahesh Bhat

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She was then shipped off to the notorious Boosa Detention Center, where prisoners can languish for years without access to lawyers or family members.

Last March, Menake was brought back to Colombo after Chandra Wakishta, director of Sri Lanka’s Terrorist Investigation Division, realized Menake’s potential value as an informer against her handler. Catch a suicide bomber, and you stop one explosion. Catch a handler, and you stop dozens.

The suicide-bomber vest was the brainchild of Sri Lanka’s Tamil Tigers — the design has since been used by Hezbollah, Hamas, and reportedly al Qaeda, and its murderous effects are felt daily in Iraq. The vest was first worn in May 1991, when Thenmuli Rajaratnam, best known by her nom de guerre, Dhanu, blew up herself and 18 bystanders seconds after draping a welcome garland of flowers over the shoulders of India’s prime minister, Rajiv Gandhi, at a political rally. Gandhi’s violent assassination, caught on film, was televised around the world. In the years since, the LTTE has killed one Sri Lankan president and blinded another. Weekly LTTE suicide bombs cause heavy casualties. They are cheap and efficient: On average, suicide bombings kill four times as many people as other acts of terrorism. Up to 40 percent of these attacks are carried out by women.

If not for its bloody recent history, Sri Lanka might well be a honeymooner’s paradise. It is a breathtakingly beautiful country, a teardrop-shaped island off the southern tip of India. But for the past 24 years, the LTTE (comprised mostly of Hindu Tamils but with some Christian members) has been fighting for its own independent state in northern Sri Lanka, which the Sinhala-Buddhist government has been resisting just as fiercely. In that time, 70,000 Sri Lankans have been killed, tens of thousands have fled abroad, and some 600,000 have been displaced within the country. Children on the way to school are regularly abducted and forced to become soldiers. Sri Lanka is also infamous for its vast number of disappeared people — 60,000 abducted and never seen again.

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