April 29, 1995 | Shootdown of military plane in Sri Lanka

The LTTE used an SA-7 to shoot down two Sri Lankan Air Force planes in Jaffna in April 1995, killing all 95 people on board.

Terrorists are often portrayed as plucky Davids to state Goliaths: some groups have more weaponry than ‘slingshots’.

JAFFNA, SRI LANKA — If you look at successful terrorist attacks around the world you will notice that the vast majority involve the use of small arms, or IEDs (improvised explosive devices), or knives, or cars, or… In other words, terrorists tend to use everyday tools to carry out acts of violence. And since these are small-ish attack MOs, the casualty account tends to be small-ish.

There are of course exceptions (9/11, large car bombs in places like Mogadishu, etc.) but still most death tolls are not that high. We should both recognise and celebrate this: it could be much worse. But as I have been saying for decades now, terrorism is an irritant, not an existential threat. Yes, we should be doing everything we can to identify and neutralise violent extremists but we must also not give them more credit or attention than their actions deserve.

On some occasions, however, an attack takes place that really makes you pause. The one focused on here was perpetrated by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), a Sri Lankan separatist organisation that was active for a quarter century from the early 1980s to the late 2000s. In many ways the LTTE acted as a parallel army to that of Sri Lanka itself, and even wore military fatigues much of the time.

The terrorist group also developed innovative techniques ranging from female suicide bombers to ‘Sea Tigers midget submarines’ (I am NOT making this up!). Perhaps one reason why they were able to remain active for so long was their ability to adapt to the counter terrorism initiatives of the government in Colombo.

Then again, the LTTE was able on occasion to successfully execute an attack that was amazingly devastating. On this day in 1995 the terrorist organisation brought down not one but TWO Sri Lankan Air Force craft with SA-7s (an SA-7 is a surface-to-air missile designed to target aircraft at low altitudes, with passive infrared homing guidance and destroy them with a high explosive warhead), killing 95 people, all those on board both planes.

Achievements such as these are relatively rare in terrorist history. The LTTE may have been one of the few groups capable of pulling such an attack off in light of its longevity and professionalism. We often hear analysts and pundits warn that aircraft taking off are primary targets (as their full fuel tanks would make for a spectacular explosion) but I have yet to hear of a successful attack by a group of wannabes.

Let us hope moving forward that we see very few (preferably none) terrorist groups akin to the LTTE. Dealing with the small fry seems to be challenge enough.

By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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