US Policy on Terrorism—Part II Cases of Hizbollah and Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam

P.R. Rajeswari,Researcher, IDSA


Terrorism—defined as the indiscriminate use of force to achieve political aims—is one of the major problems facing the world at the end of the 20th century. With the collapse of the Soviet bloc in Eastern Europe in the late 1980s, the international system seemed to be on the threshold of an era of unprecedented peace and stability. But in recent years, terrorism has emerged as a most significant aspect in low intensity conflict—it has become a standard tactic in such conflict. Terrorism poses problems not only for the security of nations but also threatens the very foundations of democratic society by disrupting various political and societal institutions of nations. This has been tragically experienced in the case of the Kashmir issue.

Technology, defined as the application of scientific knowledge to human problems, has to a great extent changed the nature of life-threatening hostilities in the past century. Technology has also had a tremendous impact on the development of terrorist threats emerging since the end of World War II. Technology is credited with the replacement of primitive weapons with sophisticated, silent, and deadlier ones. Also, the emergence and proliferation of computer, biological, and chemical terrorism is a consequence of technological progress. With the passage of time, and advancement of numerous technological innovations like miniaturisation, portability and increased precision of weapons, the tools of the terrorist have become less expensive, more destructive, and widely available through less secure non-governmental outlets.

The benefits of technology have been realised best by the entry of a new type of terrorist—the cyber terrorist.

Most terrorist organisations all over the world, have employed limited and sporadic terrorist tactics as part of their overall operational mandate, primarily for four reasons:

l Terrorism is an inexpensive method of warfare which can achieve relatively effective results, giving it a low cost/high yield potential.

l By utilising the psychology of fear, terrorism can artificially inflate the perceived strength and power projection of a group among a wide number of people.

l By involving acts which are designed to attract maximum publicity, terrorism can project even the most far flung group (and its cause) to the forefront of regional, national or even global attention.

l Terrorist groups involve comparatively little personal risk to the perpetrators and far less than the more conventional forms of organised violence.1

Terrorism has been an age-old phenomenon, but the final wave of terrorism that has affected the world in the last twenty years, is the one associated with religious fundamentalism in the Islamic world. The radical Muslim revolutionaries who overthrew the Shah of Iran in 1979 gave birth to a wave of religious based terrorism that aims to establish fundamentalist regimes in the Middle East. Targets of these zealots have included Israeli nationals, citizens of Western powers backing the Jewish state, and more modern Arab nations. Fired by religious fervour, the terrorists are willing to martyr themselves for their beliefs, and suicide bombers have become a disturbing feature of the terrorist attacks launched by the fundamentalists.

Suicide bombings have emerged as a tactic, particularly by Islamic terror groups in the Middle East. A Muslim terrorist group, Hizbollah, formed a religiously motivated guerilla army and began suicide bombings against the Israelis. Iran's spiritual leader, Ayatollah Khomeini greatly influenced Hizbollah's ideology. Islam prohibits suicide, but death in a holy struggle assures the faithful a place in heaven. Thus, these suicide bombers, in their holy struggle, feel that they are bound to reach heaven.

Rise of Fundamentalist Terror

During the twentieth century, both the Shia and the Sunni branches of Islam have spawned fundamentalist movements that have sought to re-establish Muslim cultural and political autonomy in the Arab states of the Middle East and Africa. These aggressive, defiant movements have sought to throw off the yoke of Western influence, and they share the goal of establishing the Shari'a—the religious law derived from the Koran—as the principal law of the land.

One finds that it was the failure of the secular political parties to give Muslims a dominant position in the 20th century that made fundamentalist Islam appear so appealing. The existence of the state of Israel has become a symbol of this failure. Hence, for fundamentalists, "Islam is the solution."

Economic crises and social unrest have played an important role in the rise of fundamentalist terror. The Mujahideen who got recruited were mostly young people who were highly educated, but could not find employment in the stagnant economies of the Middle East and Africa.

The American Response to Terrorism

Like every other nation in the world, the United States has also had to face terrorist threats, which need to be countered. The widespread terrorist activities in the Middle East and Africa have forced the US to recognise terrorism as an international threat to all democracies.

Modern terrorism includes a variety of tactics like intelligence gathering, intensified security measures, and the use of force. Approximately, two-thirds of all victims of terrorist attacks are Americans, and most of them are attacked outside the US.

The US' modern counter-terrorism policy began with the kidnapping and massacre of Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics by Palestinian terrorists in September 1972. The incident shocked the world powers and made them take stock of their capabilities and organisational structures to counter such attacks.

The US approach towards terrorism gives the highest priority to the political aspects of terrorism. The spirit with which the US pursues its counter-terrorism policy abroad has always reflected the broader US foreign policy priorities. Major diplomatic efforts countering terrorism in the 1980s were spurred, in part, by the US' global confrontation with the Soviet Union, and in part because much of Middle Eastern terrorism was aimed not just at the United States, but at its close ally, Israel. Revived US emphasis on Iraq and on Iran as state sponsors of terrorism in the 1990s has also been motivated to a great degree by political considerations.

Apart from its political obligations, the principal cause of the US' counter-terrorism was the attacks on American citizens and property. The United States has realised that attacks on Americans abroad cannot be stopped without international cooperation. Thus, the US focus has been multinational. The US diplomatic message is that terrorism is everybody's problem.

Gaining international support for multilateral treaties combatting terrorism has been a major goal of US policy. But the situation is indeed pitiable as there is still not a single treaty or convention proscribing terrorism. For most governments, the key question is how to fight against terrorism. Over the past few decades, the governments and security forces have become more sophisticated in their approach to terrorist attacks. The trouble arises when the terrorists use suicide bombers (Hamas, Hizbollah, Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam—LTTE) and chemical attacks such as the nerve gas attack in the Tokyo subway in the 1990s. However, it was only in the 1990s, with the spurt of terrorist attacks, that the US decided to come up with definite policies on terrorism. Listing of 30 groups as terrorist organisations, as per the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996, has been a major step in this direction. President Bill Clinton and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright have said that this step would ensure that the terrorist groups do not get any kind of support from the United States, and would make the US totally a "no-support-for terrorism zone."

One important element in combatting terrorism would be to ensure that the terrorists do not get any support from outside—be it in terms of arms, money or training or even moral support. Terrorist groups who operate at the local level cannot cause as much harm to society as the ones who receive external aid.


Hizbollah (Party of God) is an extremist political-religious movement based in Lebanon. The movement was created and sponsored by Iran in July 1982, initially as a form of resistance to the Israeli presence in Southern Lebanon. Hizbollah was the brainchild of Ali Akbar Mohtashemi, the Iranian Ambassador to Syria.

Hizbollah's followers are Shia Muslims who took the lead from Ayatollah Khomeini, then Iran's leader. They are strongly anti-Western and anti-Israeli and totally dedicated to the creation of an Iranian-style Islamic Republic in Lebanon, and the removal of non-Islamic influences in the area. To this end, Hizbollah's militia has carried out a number of successful terrorist acts, including 90 incidents of hostage-taking in Lebanon and other parts of the Middle East, and in Europe and South America. Hizbollah has used American and American allies' hostages as bargaining tools in exchange for US weapons.

The scope and nature of Hizbollah's terrorist campaign reflect its close dependence on Iranian support, at both ideological and financial levels. Iran donates vast amounts of money to Hizbollah, which among other things, funds the movement's health and education services. Its funds from Iran in the 1980s totalled $60-80 million a year. Examples of its terrorist acts include the abduction of Western hostages in 1982, and suicide attacks on the US Marines and French military barracks in Beirut.

Hizbollah was established under the spiritual leadership of Sheikh Muhammad Hussein Fadlallah, a Shia cleric. The movement joined forces with smaller Shia political parties such as the Hussein Suicide Squad, Dawah, the Lebanese branch of the Iraq-based al-Dawah-al-Islamiya, and with dissatisfied members of the older, Islamic Amal. Iranian officials actively supported and assisted the movement. The formation of Hizbollah was helped by the arrival of Iranian Revolutionary Guards (Pasdaran) in Baalback in the northern Bekaa Valley of Lebanon. This 1,200-strong Pasardan contingent not only fought against the Israelis and the Southern Lebanon Army (SLA) based in Southern Lebanon, but also provided Hizbollah's fighters with a combination of ideological indoctrination, vast financial support, and military training and equipment. The Iranian presence was a key factor in Hizbollah's transformation from a loose network into a well-organised and highly disciplined movement with a sophisticated guerilla force.

Goals of Hizbollah

Hizbollah's world view, published in a 1985 manifesto, states that all Western influence is detrimental to following the true path of Islam. In its eyes, the West and particularly the US, is the foremost corrupting influence on the Islamic world today: thus, the US is known as "the Great Satan." In the same way, the state of Israel is regarded as the product of Western imperialism and Western arrogance. Hizbollah believes that the West installed Israel in the region in order to continue dominating it and exploiting its resources. Thus, Israel represents the source of all evil and violence in the region and is seen as an outpost of the US in the heart of the Islamic Middle East. In Hizbollah's eyes, Israel must, therefore, be eradicated. Hizbollah sees itself as the saviour of oppressed and dispossessed Muslims.

The movement's ideological hostility towards its enemies had been translated into a series of central goals, which explain the nature and scope of its use of terrorism.

The first goal was the establishment of an exclusively Shia Islamic state in Lebanon, with Iran as its model. This was the driving force behind Hizbollah's hostage takings and suicide bombings during the 1980s.

The second goal of Hizbollah was the complete destruction of the state of Israel and the establishment of Islamic rule over Jerusalem and Palestine—this was deemed a religious obligation. As such, the movement carried out attacks on the Israeli Army occupying part of Southern Lebanon, launching rocket attacks in Northern Israel, and also attacks on Israeli targets abroad—for instance, the bombing of the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires in 1992 that killed 29, and the 1994 destruction of a Jewish cultural centre in which nearly 100 people died.

The third goal, linked to the destruction of Israel, was Hizbollah's implacable opposition to the Middle East peace process, which it tried to sabotage through terrorism. The movement aligned itself with the Palestine Islamic movements such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad, in their struggle against Israel "from within".

The uncompromising spirit of Hizbollah's ideology is clearly reflected in the organisation's emblem: a raised arm bearing a rifle against the background of the globe, with the slogan "The Party of God is Sure to Triumph" on top and the motto "The Islamic Revolution in Lebanon" at the bottom.

Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam

The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) also known as the Tiger Movement of the island nation, Sri Lanka, is a formidable, revolutionary organisation. It is the only terrorist group to have assassinated two heads of government—Premier Rajiv Gandhi of India (1991) and President Premadasa of Sri Lanka (1993)—as well as several prominent political and military figures. Today, the entire international community has rated the Tamil Tigers as the world's most ruthless terrorist group. In October 1997, the President of the United States, Bill Clinton, declared the LTTE as one of the 30 terrorist organisations in the world.

The Tamil Tigers are a by-product of Sri Lanka's ethnic conflict between the majority Sinhalese people and the minority ethnic Tamils, who constitute about 12 per cent of the island's population. The 1960s had witnessed a series of bloody riots, and the Tamil youth sought a voice. This emerged in the form of the LTTE, which originated in 1972 under the leadership of the military genius, Velupillai Prabhakaran, along with other Tamil militant groups. To establish greater security, the Tigers and other Tamil militant groups realised the importance of creating an exclusively Tamil northern province, and began their campaign for the independence of Tamil Eelam, in the northern part of the island. Till today, nationalism remains the driving force behind the Tiger Movement.

The bloody ethnic riots of July 1983 polarised the two communities and became a watershed in the history of Sri Lanka. The riots started by the Sinhalese were a reaction to the death of 13 soldiers in a Tiger ambush. The end result was that around 5,00,000 Tamils left for India and the West, seeking asylum. They became the economic backbone of the terrorist campaign, and in the years that followed, the Tigers established offices and cells throughout the world, building a network unsurpassed by any other terrorist group.

Finally, in May 1991, a Tiger suicide bomber killed Rajiv Gandhi and this event catapulted the terrorist movement into the global political arena.

The growth process of the LTTE has been very interesting. They believed in building up their force systematically by eliminating the other Tamil groups like the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF).

The Tiger's ability to shift the theatre of war to the capital, Colombo, proved highly destructive for the government. It gave a new dimension to the conflict, which up to that point had been confined to the north-east. The politics of Colombo was no longer determined by the ballot but, to a large extent, lay in the hands of the Tiger leader, Prabhakaran.

The LTTE's policy to obstruct the resettlement of the Tamils in the Jaffna region and its victimisation of non-Sri Lankans provoked severe criticism by Amnesty International and the United Nations High Commission for Refugees. The US Senate Foreign Operations Sub-Committee on Appropriations also expressed "concern" about the alarming toll that Tamil terrorists have been taking on innocent civilians in Sri Lanka. It was also supposed to have urged the government to seriously consider making $750,000 available in anti-terrorism funds to combat this problem and support the anti-terrorism programme in Sri Lanka.

In another development, the LTTE had asked the US not to authorise the sale of aircraft and military hardware to Sri Lanka saying that they would be used to attack Tamil civilians. In a statement from its London office, the LTTE said, "The sale of Kfirs is subject to the approval of the American government and we hereby make the US government aware of the treacherous use to which Sri Lanka puts these fighter planes."2

Terrorist attacks by the LTTE have been on the rise. The globally televised bombing of the Central Bank in November 1997 helped the Tigers to cripple tourism, foreign and domestic investment, and economic growth in Sri Lanka. It also evoked international condemnation. Many governments that had earlier tolerated seminars/demonstrations organised by Tamil citizens are now turning their backs; world opinion appears to be turning against them.

On October 8, 1997, Madeleine Albright, the US Secretary of State, along with President Bill Clinton designated the LTTE among the 18 additional groups branded as terrorist groups. The designation of the LTTE as a terrorist group would greatly hamper its ability to mobilise funds internationally. The Foreign Minister, Lakshman Kadirgamar, while speaking to Madeleine Albright said that even though he was not certain about the amount raised by the LTTE from overseas, it reportedly ranged between $5 to 10 million per month.3

Being branded as a terrorist organisation, it was reported, would affect the activities of the LTTE in the long run. Political observers in Colombo said that it was the the biggest blow the LTTE had received internationally since India banned it after the Rajiv Gandhi assassination seven years ago. The US ban would hamper the LTTE's political and military activities in the long run. The rebels' fund collecting activities carried on in the open in Western countries, especially in the US, would now have to go underground. Also, there were doubts if the LTTE's front organisation in the US, the World Tamil Coordinating Committee (WTCC) would be able to function. Now that the LTTE has been named a terrorist organisation, its top-notch arms dealer, Kumaran Pathmanathan alias KP would find it difficult to travel in and out of the country at will.4

The LTTE also said that the American move would encourage the "racist Sinhala" state to pursue its policy of war and military repression against the Tamils and escalate the armed conflict. It said the ban on the LTTE would not help the prospects of peace and reconciliation but would contribute to the "genocidal destruction of the Tamil nation."5

The truck bomb (October 15, 1997) that exploded near the World Trade Centre in Colombo, a week after the US declaration of terrorist groups, killing 18 people and wounding more than 100 others, appeared to end the 15-month lull in a bombing campaign by the separatist Tamil Tiger guerillas. The site chosen was also significant. It is an area where most foreigners stay for tourism and business purposes. Among the hundreds injured, most were foreigners—seven Americans and the rest from Britain, France, Japan, Singapore, Jordan, Australia, Canada, Cuba, Egypt, India, the Netherlands, South Korea, Lebanon, Malaysia, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Sweden. Commenting on this, US Assistant Secretary of State Karl Inderfurth said, "On the question of stability in the region, the United States supports without qualification an independent and united Sri Lanka. As we have so often in the past, we call upon the LTTE to cease all acts of terror, acts which have caused so much suffering for Sinhala, Tamil Burgher and Muslim communities alike. I must also point out that Americans, too, have bled at the hands of the Tigers, with seven American citizens wounded in the attack on the World Trade Center".6

Western diplomats said that the LTTE leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran is dependent on ethnic Tamils in Western countries to finance the rebels' effort to set up a Tamil state, and the American listing would disturb the fund-raising process overseas. LTTE activists currently collect US $2-3 million per month—through both fair means and foul—from the 650,000 diaspora Tamils worldwide to keep the Tigers supplied. They also conduct extensive public relations campaigns for the cause; this image, for example, was posted to the offices of Jane's information Group by the LTTE activists in Sri Lanka.7

Another reason cited was the growing military help provided to the Sri Lankan forces by Western countries, including Britain and the United States. Prabhakaran had repeatedly warned the Western nations providing military support to Sri Lanka that they were exposing their citizens to possible attacks.

What one could make out of this is that, for terrorists, no target is beyond reach, and nothing is sacrosanct—whether the would-be victims are innocent civilians or foreign tourists—in their megalomaniac pursuit of their goal. The reasons and area of operation of a terrorist outfit may be local, but its impact is global. Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher hit the nail on the head when she said that "the victory of terrorism anywhere is the victory of terrorism everywhere."8

Shaun Donnelly, the US Ambassador to Sri Lanka, said that the US would take strong action against groups that carry out terrorist acts jeopardising US national security. He also said that the United States strongly supported the devolution package as an excellent basis for constructive dialogue and eventual resolution. The Sri Lanka government welcomed the US decision, saying it would help force the guerillas to the negotiating table and stop their 15-year-old secessionist war, in which more than 50,000 people have died.

Recently, when Assistant Secretary of State, Karl Inderfurth was in Colombo in April 1998, he expanded on the US' position on Sri Lanka. Regarding the issue of ethnic conflicts and the LTTE, and also commending the Sri Lankan President, Chandrika Kumaratunga's commitment to the protection of human rights in the present context of war within, Inderfurth indicated that the US was not keen on playing a mediator's role to resolve the crisis. It was understood that the US is not at this stage seized of any serious or credible allegations against the LTTE of either narco-terrorism or trafficking in contraband nuclear material. The US tended to look at the LTTE in terms of its ongoing internal war in Sri Lanka.9

However, there is no absolute solution to the problem of terrorism because terrorists all over the world have a well-knit and complex connection about which no government can do much to unravel. Yet, greater coordination and support amongst nations would hamper the activities of terrorist groups and help find an eventual solution to this great menace.



1. Peter Chalk, "Low Intensity Conflict in Southeast Asia: Piracy, Drug Trafficking and Political Terrorism," Conflict Studies, 305/306, January and February 1998, p. 14.

2. South Asian Centre for Strategic Studies, South Asia Watch, vol. 1, issue 8, August 1997, p. 36.

3. USIS, Wireless File, October 8, 1997.

4. Observer of Business & Politics, October 11, 1997.

5. Ibid., October 13, 1997.

6. Public Opinion Trends (POT), Sri Lanka Series, vol. IV, no. 39, May 15, 1998.

7. Jane's Intelligence Review, May 1998, p. 44.

8. ed., "Blast in Colombo," Observer of Business & Politics, October 17, 1997.

9. n. 2, vol. 2, issue 4, April 1998, p. 35.