Black Tiger Day Remembrance – Part 3

by Sachi Sri Kantha, October 11, 2020

Part 2

Front Note by Sachi Sri Kantha

I provide below, a balanced portrayal on the activities of the Black Tigers, described by Prof. Mario Ferrero, in 2006 in an article comparing “diverse instances of public-spirited suicide.”  In approximately 1,150 words, salient points emphasized by Ferrero include,
(1) indiscriminate aerial bombing by the Sri Lankan military was one of the causes for the origin of Black Tigers;
(2) allegations of forced conscriptions into Black Tigers is implausible;
(3) claims that the LTTE is Marxist-Leninist are based on flimsy evidence.
Nevertheless, one of Ferrero’s assertions, ‘There are no religious connotations to the Sri Lankan conflict.’ is incorrect. Certainly there is, not for the LTTE –but for its rival army, viz, the Sri Lankan state army. Sri Lankan army consists of more than 98% Buddhists.

Prof. Ferrero had identified suicide warriors into three distinct categories, as follows:

  • State sponsored (the Order of Assassins, who thrived between 1090 and 1275; Japanese kamikaze pilots during 1944-1945, and the Iranian pasdaran established by Ayatollah Khomeini in 1979)
  • Group sponsored (Palestinian suicide bombers and Black Tigers)
  • Individually chosen ‘volunteer’ martyrs (the early Christians and the Anarchists).

However, this categorization seems rather vague to me. The differentiation between the first and second category is based on the flimsy notion of how ‘a state’ is defined by contemporary legal pundits. In fact, category 2 of Ferrero also represent ill-defined ‘states’ such as Palestine and Eelam.

While many anti-LTTE scribes (both local and international varieties) have castigated Black Tigers for their ‘blind devotion to a demented leader Prabhakaran’, Prof. Ferrero offers a contrasting realistic view in this analysis. For readers, who wish to learn more about his conclusions, I summarize his own words, as follows:

First, “Suicide for the sake of a public good, whether political, military, or religious, can be explained without reference to psychotic predispositions, other-worldly rewards, or blind devotion to a leader.”

Second, “Martyrdom and suicide terrorism are seen here as just extreme cases of high-risk contracts that include, with varying probability, the request of sacrifice of life on given conditions.”

Third, “These contracts may be voluntarily entered into by rational individuals provided that either there are benefits to be gained with certainty in a period prior to martyrdom or the probability of martyrdom itself is less than one (or both)”

Fourth, “Then compliance with the contract is ensured if a sufficiently strong stigma is placed on reneging and surviving when death was called for.”


Martyrdom Contracts

by Mario Ferrero
[courtesy: Journal of Conflict Resolution, Dec 2006, vol.50, no.6, pp. 855-877.]
(Note: Words in italics and details of footnotes included, are as in the original.)

Sri Lanka’s Black Tigers

“The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) have been fighting a war for the national liberation of Tamils living in the north and east of Sri Lanka from the early 1970s to the current ceasefire.12 Born as an insurgent group, the LTTE soon turned into a regular army and began to fight not only guerrilla operations but also conventional warfare against a Sri Lankan army that far outnumbered them and possessed a superior command of heavy weaponry. To compensate for these disabilities, the LTTE set up an elite unit called the Black Tigers, which devoted itself to high-risk or no-return missions and engaged in three types of operations: targeted assassinations, guerrilla attacks, and conventional land and sea combat. The chances of survival in a mission depend crucially on the type of operation and the target. Assassinations through suicide bombings are obviously fatal, while land combat in support of regular troops and especially guerrilla attacks may be very risky but not necessarily deadly for the operative. In fact, some Black Tigers (BTs) are known to have returned alive and to have been used again in subsequent missions. In any case, the organization’s emphasis is not on suicide but on securing the target, and survival is encouraged conditional on the latter. This is what one would expect from an organization that views these elite soldiers as a scarce, valuable military resource and uses them as a weapon to win the war, not to spread terror. Although there have been many civilian casualties, they should be regarded as ‘collateral damage’ to assassinations in public places, while there is no evidence of deliberate targeting of non-combatants. And the Black Tigers have been used sparingly: the LTTE claims 241 BT deaths in the whole period of their activity, 1987 to 2002, to be contrasted with a total of 18,000 combat deaths since 1982.

Black Tigers are drawn from the regular ranks of the LTTE. Candidates write applications addressed to the top leader, Vellupillai Pirabakaran, upon which they seem to be placed on a waiting list. Once selected, recruits undergo intense training and are finally assigned to a regular LTTE unit, where they serve by concealing their membership in the BTs all the while and taking routine leave when called up for a mission; if they survive, they return to regular service again. Membership is only revealed if and when they are killed in combat. Although we have no figures for candidate rejections, training failures, and, even less, defections, it seems clear that the BTs are an exclusive, selective unit whose membership confers high status. One should also note that the LTTE itself is not an open-access organization but an exclusive one, whose membership is selectively awarded to applicants. This rationing of admissions first to the LTTE and then to the BT unit is made possible by the fact that the risk gap between civilian and army life was substantially narrowed by the indiscriminate aerial bombing carried out by the Sri Lankan military, and that once in the LTTE, dangers were such that the LTTE-BT gap was also narrower than one might imagine – though real enough. As an implication, the prevalence of the excess demand for admissins, together with the fact that both organizations aim at a professional, trained, and motivated force, makes recurring allegations of forced conscription into the LTTE, and even more into the BT, implausible.13

The fact that the selection of BTs is apparently made by recruiters among a plentiful supply of candidates makes it possible to enforce desired characteristics in the membership; for example, suicidal types are screened out as unreliable, and women have dramatically gained prominence over time, here as well as in all sections and ranks of the LTTE. Moreover, once one is a BT, one’s assignment to different types of operations is decided by recruiters, presumably on the basis of aptitude and skill; as we have seen, such assignments carry different probabilities of survival. So there is a real sense in which one is called up for martyrdom with a definite probability.

As in all elite soldier corps, camaraderie and mutual solidarity are very important in the collective life of BTs awaiting missions. The organization emphasizes rules of personal discipline and propriety, including restrictions on sex, smoking, and drinking, which fosters the image of dedicated fighters of whom not only the LTTE but all the Tamil people can be proud. Furthermore, the rewards to membership are enhanced by two cult-like features: a personality cult and a cult of martyrs. The first centers on the figure of Pirabakaran, who is the unquestioned leader with complete control over the LTTE. Individual BTs swear an oath of personal allegiance to him and are famously known to have a last meal and photograph with him before their last mission – although this can hardly apply to those BTs who are deployed in regular land combat on short notice. As Hopgood (2005, 65) notes, ‘In no other case where suicide missions are used is there a leader who is both as revered and as much a part of the day-to-day struggle.’ This is an asset the anarchists could not avail themselves of and was apparently unimportant in the Japanese case.

There are no religious connotations to the Sri Lankan conflict, and the LTTE overwhelmingly relies on a nationalist ideology – claims that it is Marxist-Leninist are based on flimsy evidence. Despite this secular character, the BTs feed on a lively cult of martyrs – like the anarchists, with the important difference that here it is shared and supported by the population at large instead of being a ritual of scattered, self-segregated minorities. Martyrs, or fallen heroes, include other fighters, but the BTs are prominent in the roll call. Names and deeds are publicized and honored in the Tamil press. Particular districts construct memorials to BTs who came from their area. Pictures of martyrs are prominently displayed across the land and are printed in booklets. In addition to the Heroes’ Day for the movement as a whole, the BTs are the only LTTE unit to have their own day – Black Tigers’ Day.

Thus, the BTs neatly fit our contract model. Hopgood (2005, 76) seems to miss the point when he sums up his insightful analysis with the following comment: ‘The ‘rewards’ that Black Tigers receive appear to have little or nothing to do with their decision and are entirely posthumous,’ and he concludes with the suggestion that BT behavior approximates war heroism in general as an instance of altruism and self-sacrifice. Indeed so, elite commando units are clearly in a close continuum with the BTs. But the anticipation of such rewards, feeding on the ongoing cult that links martyrs through time and experienced as a highly regarded position in the prior period, is neither posthumous nor necessarily other-regarding and may well be an adequate incentive for some people to sign up and keep the contract.”


  1. This section relies on Hopgood (2005). See also Bloom (2005, chap. 3) for a broader picture of the conflict and Reuter (2004, chap. 10) for a concise discussion.
  2. Berman and Laitin (2005), following Bloom (2005), offer a different reconstruction of the Black Tigers (BT) case, one centered on threats to the general population, forced recruitment, and use of untrained child soldiers for suicide missions The evidence supporting this view is, however, scanty and controversial (see Hopgood 2005).

References cited in the footnotes

Berman E and Laitin DD. 2005. Hard Targets: Theory and Evidence on suicide attacks. NBER Working Paper 11740, October.

Bloom M. 2005. Dying to Kill: The Allure of Suicide Terror, New York, Columbia University Press.

Hopgood S. 2005. Tamil Tigers, 1987-2002. In: Making Sense of Suicide Missions, ed. by D.Gambetta, 43-76, Oxford, UK, Oxford University Press.

Reuter C. 2004. My life is a weapon: A modern history of suicide bombing. Princeton, New Jersey, Princeton University Press.



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