Lone Cell Assaults: From Boston to Westmead-in-Sydney to the Unabomber. Inspirations and Enabling Conditions in Comparative Perspective **

Michael Roberts, courtesy of Colombo Telegraph where the title is slightly different: http://www.colombotelegraph.com/index.php/lone-wolf-assaults-from-boston-to-westmead-home-invasion-to-the-unabomber/

11--bOSTON mARATHON 33 The recent bomb outrage in Boston has sent tidal ripples along the media networks around the world.  It appears that the bombs were hidden in pressure cookers packed with nails/ball bearings and put in backpacks which were placed on the pavement among onlookers. “Similar easy-to-make roadside bombs are used in Iraq and Afghanistan” (Stewart 2013). But such bomb-making techniques are also clarified on internet sites. Among the first readings one headline in The Australian said: “Stamp of lone wolf more than al-Qa’ida” (Maley 2013). The contention here was that “in recent years, so-called “lone wolf” attackers — people who acquire radical ideology and weapons skills online — have become the greatest concern for counter-terrorism officials, who have virtually no way of detecting the activities of these people” (Stewart 2013).The absence of “chatter” on internet among jihadi circles after the event is one reason for this suspicion. 22--boston Marathon supeced bomb pack suspected bomb pack

boston attack

Well, now! Just one week back I raised the possibility – explicitly a slim possibility – that “lone ranger”[1] Tamil extremists may strike at one of the Sri Lankan cricketers playing in the ongoing high-profile IPL league. Rather than an organized political entity such as the TGTE, I indicated that, within this minute scale of potential, “the greater likelihood is the emergence of a few independent extremists who have decided to strike a retributive blow for the cause of Sri Lankan Tamils by targeting a Sri Lankan symbol.”[2] The Sri Lankan cricketers are prime symbols and several cricket matches have seen virulent demonstrations or on-field pitch intrusions from those espousing Tamil nationalism.[3] In the recent 2012-13 season, too, Australians (mostly White and with Trevor Grant as spokesperson) advocating Tamil rights mounted protests outside cricket grounds.[4] These, I stress, were peaceful.

tamil protest 26 dec 2012- - sebastian costanzo Protest outside MCG, 26 Dec 2012 -Pic Seb Costanzo

21a-Tamil demo at Toronto Demo outside cricket grounds Toronto, 12 Oct 2008

However, the waves of student protest against Sri Lanka mounted in Tamilnadu in March-April 2013 were quite virulent in language (Ani 2013; Sanyal 2013). They were inspired by the widespread belief that there had been a programme of “genocide” in Sri Lanka in 2008/09.[5] Pan-Tamil nationalism was the deep foundation for this activism, while the human rights agitation and the US sponsored resolution directed against Sri Lanka at the UNHCR sessions in Geneva seem to have been the immediate inspirations for this outbreak. The resentments were deep enough for some activists in southern India to harass Sri Lankan tourists and Buddhist monks.[6] So, what we saw in Tamilnadu was a volatile situation and lots of heat — heat that even extended to a few acts of self-immolation.[7]

student ativists in t'nadu-hindu  Tamilnadu student protests burning MR Previous protests in Tamilnadu

A similar situation, but several degrees more intense, prevailed in many Western cities among Sri Lankan Tamil migrants in the first half of 2009 as the LTTE slid towards a wholesale military defeat. Sri Lankan Tamil nationalist sentiment coursed and peaked through the migrant networks in a mix of anxiety, sorrow and anger. A number of second generation and third generation youth from both sexes joined others who were already active in LTTE and/or Tamil community circles.

78--Toronto demo-late april Virulent demo in Toronto

Demonstrations were mobilized in several Western cities, including Sydney and Melbourne, on several occasions in the first few months of the year. Speaking on behalf of the Tamil lobby groups on 27th April 2009 Dr. Sam Pari observed that the “protests have been an almost daily occurrence across Sydney in the past fortnight” – speaking at a protest outside the Prime Minister’s residence at Kirribilli House (AAP 2013). These demonstrations were mostly peaceful, but on a priori grounds I surmise that the emotions would have been at fever-pitch and the vocabulary would have been virulent and even vicious at times.[8] Moreover, we know now that Pari is in fact Dr. Parimala Nathan Sampavi, who participated in a LTTE propaganda training camp in Sri Lanka associated with the intelligence wing and thereafter served as the chief fund collector of the Australian based LTTE rump group Tamil Youth Organization (TYO).[9]

As the LTTE defeat loomed and its talaivar (leader) Pirapāharan was imperilled, another SL Tamil protest demonstration took place in Sydney on the weekend of 16/17th May 2009. It would seem that it was after this that there had been an altercation between groups of Sinhalese and Tamils near Westmead railway station.[10] This in turn seems to have primed a handful of Tamils to essay a home invasion: at midnight they targeted a Westmead house where Jayasri Watawala, 22, and Chathurika Weerasinghe, 27, resided. News reports during the subsequent court case describe the occupants as “students” and indicate that both were “splashed with acid, suffering severe burns;” while “one of the victims [Weerasinghe] was also stabbed in the stomach and broke his ankle” (Drummond 2009; Ramachandran 2009).WESTMEAD HOUSE Westmead residence where assault occurred

Since sodium hydroxide was used in this attack, it was not the immediate outcome of some street scuffle – some planning was called for. Amalathepan Srikantharajah of Girraween, aged 25, was identified as one of the “principal offenders” and was charged and found guilty. He did not disclose the names of his zealots-in-arms. He is said to be the son of a restaurant owner in that locality who was an activist in the Tamil Tiger lobby group.[11] The details surrounding the incident are scanty and it is uncertain if Watawala and Weerasinghe had been involved in the altercation referred to above; and whether Srikantharajah and accomplices were directed by one of the LTTE organisations in Sydney. My surmise is that neither of these thoughts can be entertained. In brief, it was probably a lone cell operation conceived during the course of that day.

In sum, therefore one has the following sequence;

  • Sri Lankan Tamil nationalist sentiment with a LTTE colouring, 1983-2009
  • Drastic decline of LTTE military might & its death throes, January-May 2009
  • Protest demonstrations in Sydney in April/May, with Sam Pari as one spokesperson
  • Protest march in Sydney, 17 May 2009
  • Altercation at Westmead railway station, 17 May 2009
  • Acid, knife & stick attack on Watawala/Weerasinghe at their Westmead lodgings that midnight……

……………… Here, then, was what appears to have been a lone-cell extremist attack involving a few hotheads in the Sri Lankan Tamil community in Sydney.

This case study is not a classic case in that it is not wholly “lone wolf” in the manner attributed to the “Unabomber” or to the Timothy McVeigh/Terry Nicholls combination (see below); or as implied in the reports about the Boston atrocity that I have referred to above. There was a small clutch of Tamils participating in the assault. More vitally, they were activists in a larger network which had been distressed and angered by events in Sri Lanka. However, one cannot attribute much symbolic significance to their target except perhaps in the minds of Srikantharajah-et-al.

Such considerations provide the incentive for a comparative survey of a preliminary kind focusing on a restricted pool of instances. Because the atrocity occurred at a marathon I include here the LTTE suicide bombing at Weliweriya in Sri Lanka on 6th April 2008 where the intent was not so much the disruption of a public event, but rather the elimination of Jeyaraj Fernandopulle, from the Colombo Chetty community, a Tamil-speaking Minister in the SLFP government, who was cut down when declaring open that event. Thus, the target Weliweriaya_B4 Weliweriaya_B5 Weliweriya suicide bombing

was quite specific: a “Tamil-speaking traitor” who was an asset to the ruling party. The end-result — as with other Tiger assassinations of important figures – was more widespread: 14 people were killed and over 90 injured (Ferdinando et al 2008; Ferdinando 2013). Thus the atrocious outcome was greater than that at Boston, though Sri Lanka’s status was such that the international media waves did not place the outrage on their “Richter scale’ to the same degree.

Comparisons in Aid of Soundings

The atrocities brought into this framework of comparison are:

A. Boston bombings, 16 April 2013.

B. Weliweriya suicide bombing, 6 April 2008.

C. Westmead home invasion, 17 May 2009.

D. Unabomber Ted Kaczynski’s letter bombs, 1978-95.

E. McVeigh-Nicholls bombing of a federal building in Oklahoma City, 19 April 1995.

F. LTTE bomb attack on Central Bank, Colombo, 31 January 1996.

G. Al-Qaida attack on World Trade Centre, 11 September 2001.

One field of differentiation is between lone-wolf/cell operations, such as C, D, E and maybe A, on the one hand and those mounted by powerful agencies on the other. In the Western media, typically, this difference is presented as a contrast between “a ‘lone wolf’ attacker and an organised group deemed “terrorist.”[12] The latter typically refers to a powerful agency with many arms, such as Al-Qaida, PLO, Hamas or the LTTE. The skewed self-serving definition of “terrorism” in this viewpoint excludes state agencies of terrorism, whether Israel, France, USA, UK, India, Sri Lanka, etc. This perspective slides over the fact that the LTTE was a de facto state, that of Thāmilīlam, from 1990 to 2009 (Roberts 2013a).

The distinction adopted in this essay discards that slant and concentrates on the line between a tiny lone-ranger cell and a powerful, ramified agency. B, C and G fall within the former grouping. Hwoever, the significant aspect of C, the Westmead assault, its limited damage notwithstanding, is that it is not wholly divourced from the activities of a powerful agency and its offshoots.

The death toll provides another order of comparison. This dimension can dictate the degree of media attention. There were no deaths in the Westmead attack, while Kaczynski’s letter bombs killed only 3 people and wounded 23. However, Kaczynski’s ‘maniac’ activism is said to have led to one of the FBI’s most expensive investigations.[13] Because 168 people were killed and over 800 injured and because the target was a federal building, the “Oklahoma City Bombing” engineered by McVeigh and Nicholls gained significant coverage and still “remains the deadliest act of domestic terrorism in United States history” (emphasis added).[14]

CENTRAL BANK 1 31-1 1996  Central Bank bombing, 31 Jan 1996 

Oklahomacitybombing-DF-ST-96-00587-21 aPRIL 1995  Oklahoma City Bombing of federal bldg, 19 April 1995

In terms of principal weapon, target and death toll the impact of the attack on the Central Bank in the heart of Colombo CBD on 31 January by an LTTE hit team of three was similar to that of the Oklahoma City bombing. The truck bomb detonated by a suicide bomber devastated the building in a drastic manner. The casualty toll read as 90 killed and 1400 injured with at least 100 of the injured losing their eyesight. Unlike the McVeigh combine, however, these were specialist fighting men who were part of the de facto insurgent state of Thāmilīlam, a force with an international network that matched that of Al Qaida (Chalk 1999; Peiris 2002). In this aspect, therefore, our item F ranks alongside item G, the Al Qaida devastation of the World Trade Centre TC in New York on 9/11. The main difference between these two was (a) in the death toll because the outcome in New York was 2606 dead (including those on the two planes) and (b) the range of international ramifications. Even though 9/11 dwarfs the Central Bank atrocity in world consciousness, for Sri Lankans the shock was quite as monumental as 9/11 for Americans. Thus 31/96 and 9/11 are seen in their respective countries as outsize acts of terror by a highly organised political force.

From my perspective, however, the most significant dimension is the current of thinking that drives the perpetrators of such acts and their wider implications. Kaczynski was autistic and clearly provides one with a prime example of a lone-wolf terrorist. However mark the wider implications: he was not only a super-intelligent product of American society and a university lecturer, he can be characterized as a Greenie-fanatic. He went bush from 1971 and lived in a log cabin without electricity or running water. He also deployed his bomb threats to promote his cause. This was set out in what became known as the “Unabomber Manifesto;” but which he called Industrial Society and Its Future. In other words, he was (and is) a product of the modern industrial age: a psychotic rebel against modernity who was (and remains) quite modern in his readings and techniques. Significantly, he has been described as a “neo-Luddite” as well as a voice of “anarcho-primitivism.”[15] It is a zany footnote of less significance that Anders Brevik, the Norwegian mass murderer, borrowed large chunks from Kaczynski’s treatises in his own manifesto. The internet is deadly source of inspiration; and Kaczynski remains a prolific exponent of his ‘trade’ from the confines of a prison cell.

KACZYNSKI  Kaczynski at his trial –where he got life imprisonment McVeigh_mugshot Timothy McVeigh received a death sentence and faced his gods repentent

In their turn Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nicholls provide an even more instructive glimpse of American society to an outsider like myself. They represent White supremacist militaristic currents of thought. McVeigh loved guns from an early age and earned a medal as a gunner in the Gulf War. But after leaving the army in 1992 he became a rolling stone moving around the country in various jobs. He sympathized with David Koresh and the Branch Dravidians (BD) who resisted the payment of taxes to the state. When the federal state’s besieging of the BD stronghold in February-April 1993, the Waco Siege as it is called, resulted in many Branch Dravidian deaths by fire and gunfire, McVeigh turned against his own government and teamed up with Nicholls in an act of revenge on behalf of those who died at Waco.[16]  The Oklahoma City bombing was their vengeful justice wreaked upon the US state and its kind. The currents of thought driving Nicholls and McVeigh, therefore, provide insights into the mind-set of the “militia movement” in USA, a strand that has been reproduced over several generations and lives on even today.[17]

It is precisely for this reason that such a seemingly insignificant[18] event as the Westmead home invasion has been given such weight in this essay. It marks the currents of Sri Lankan Tamil nationalism that had developed and taken root among Tamil migrants throughout the world, promoted in part by their personal experiences of discrimination and/or violence in Sri Lanka; but also stoked by the intricate and ramified operations of “Tiger International” as one could call the networks carefully established by the LTTE in many countries (Chalk 1999; Peiris 2002; Roberts 2006). That body of thinking in all its internal variety can be treated as one of the enabling conditions, the foundational seed-bed for the assault mounted by Srikantharajah and aides.

However, as my arrow chart above sets out, there were three sets of events in chain concatenation that served as the more immediate inspiration for the act of personalized terror inflicted on two Sinhalese students. These events heightened the emotions and the anger of Srikantharajah-et-al: they set forth on vindictive “revenge.” In their minds it was probably not “revenge,” but just punishment of a symbolic kind. They were, yes, probably lone rangers and not directed by any of the Tamil or LTTE associations in Sydney. But, as with McVeigh and Nicholls, their lines of thought indicate significant threads of sentiment. The contention here is simple: “enabling conditions” that promote any act of violence can be both underlying long-term and immediate. The immediate inspirations can, at times, be deciphered as a long-track, reaching back through a chain of events in the recent past to a specific moment or organization in the near past. One does not have enough information on Srikantharajah-et-al to trace the ideological lineage in specific ways, though one can identify “Sri Lankan Tamil sentiments,” that is national consciousness, as a mainspring. As critical, however, was the impending demise of Pirapāharan and the LTTE. For Srikantharajah-et-al, in my speculation, that prospect was intolerable – so intolerable that a cathartic strike of some sort was called for.


AAP 2013 “Tamils protest outside Kirribilli House,” http://news.smh.com.au/breaking-news-national/tamils-protest-outside-kirribilli-house-20090427-aknf.html.

Drummond, Andrew 2009 “Man charged over acid attack,” http://news.smh.com.au/breaking-news-national/man-charged-over-acid-attack-in-sydney-20090701

ABC 2009 “Sri Lankans ‘petrified’ after Sydney acid attack,” http://www.abc.net.au/news/2009-05-18/sri-lankans-petrified-after-sydney-acid-attack/1686912.

Adelaide Now News Limited Network  2013 “Boston Marathon bombings bear marks of ‘lone wolf’, says expert,” 17 April 2013, http://www.adelaidenow.com.au/news/world/boston-marathon-bombs-made-from-pressure-cookers-packed-with-ball-bearings-stashed-in-black-nylon-backpacks/story-fnd11ay0-1226622132249

Ani 2013 “Students in Chennai protest against war crimes against Tamils in Sri Lanka,” 27 March 2013, http://in.news.yahoo.com/students-chennai-protest-against-war-crimes-against-tamils-143808693.html

Chalk, Peter 1999 “The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam’s (LTTE) International Organization and Operations: A Preliminary Analysis,” Commentary 77 (Winter).

Colombo Telegraph 2013 “Video: Buddhist Monk is Roughed by a Group Of Tamil Nationalist In Tamil Nadu,” http://www.colombotelegraph.com/index.php/video-budhist-monk-is-roughed-up-by-a-group-of-tamil-nationalist-in-tamil-nadu/

AAP 2013 “Tamils protest outside Kirribilli House,” http://news.smh.com.au/breaking-news-national/tamils-protest-outside-kirribilli-house-20090427-aknf.html.

Drummond, Andrew 2009 “Man charged over acid attack,” http://news.smh.com.au/breaking-news-national/man-charged-over-acid-attack-in-sydney-20090701-d4jl.html

Ferdinando, Shamindra & Others 2008 “Tigers break promise, attack sports event,” http://www.island.lk/2008/04/07/news.html

Ferdinando, Shamindra 2013 “Jeyaraj’s widow compares Weliweriya blast with Boston attack,” The Island, 16 April 2013.

Grant, Trevor 2013 “Sri Lankan protesters find the cricket world gets spooky,” The Age, 8 January 2013.

Maley, Paul 2013 “Stamp of lone wolf more than al-Qa’ida” The Australian, 17 May 2013.

Peiris, Gerald H. 2002 “Secessionist War and Terrorism in Sri Lanka: Transnational Impulses,” in KPS Gill & A. Sahni (eds.) The Global Threat of Terror: Ideological, Material and Political Linkages, Delhi: Roli Books, pp. 85-126.

Ramachandran, Arjun 2009 “Acid Attack: Attempted Murder Charge,” http://www.smh.com.au/national/acid-attack-attempted-murder-charge-20090701-d4mz.html

Roberts, Michael 2006a “Pragmatic Action & Enchanted Worlds: A Black Tiger Rite Of Commemoration,” Social Analysis 50: 73-102.

Roberts, Michael 2011 “Cricket under Siege: the Lahore Attack, 3 March 2009,” in Roberts, Incursions & Excursions in and around Sri Lankan Cricket, Colombo: Vijitha Yapa Publications, pp. 139-63.

Roberts, Michael 2013a “Towards Citizenship in Thamililam: Sri Lanka’s Tamil People of the North, 1983-2010,” South Asia Research, 33:57-75.

Roberts, Michael 2013b Searing Danger: Death Clouds over the Sri Lankan Cricketers at the IPL,” Colombo Telegraph, 5 April 2013, http://www.colombotelegraph.com/index.php/searing-danger-death-clouds-over-the-sri-lankan-cricketers-at-the-ipl-2/

Sanyal, Prasad 2013 “Sri Lankan pilgrims attacked in Tamil Nadu: 10 developments,” http://www.ndtv.com/article/cheat-sheet/sri-lankan-pilgrims-attacked-in-tamil-nadu-10-developments-262909

 Special Correspondent, the Hindu 2013 “Self-immolation for twin cause of Sri Lankan Tamils, corruption,” 5 March 2013, http://www.thehindu.com/news/national/tamil-nadu/selfimmolation-for-twin-cause-of-sri-lankan-tamils-corruption/article4476179.ece.

Sri Lanka News 2013 “Sri Lankan Buddhist monk harassed in Tamil Nadu returns safely to New Delhi,” http://www.srilankanews.lk/index.php/news/general-news/1937-sri-lankan-buddhist-monk-harassed-in-tamil-nadu-returns-safely-to-new-delhi

Seeman 2013 “Seeman Live from Geneva – About Prabhakaran, Sri Lanka and Congress,” 20 March 2013http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AAMvg9ON-VA.

Sri-Skandarajah, Usha S. 2013Bikkhu Brigade, Dr Roberts And The Tamil Spring,” 6 April 2013, http://www.colombotelegraph.com/index.php/bikkhu-brigade-dr-roberts-and-the-tamil-spring/

Stewart, Cameron 2013 “Terror returns to America’s heart after deadly Boston bombings,” The Australian, 17 April 2013, http://www.theaustralian.com.au/in-depth/boston-bombings/terror-returns-to-americas-heart-after-deadly-boston-bombings/story-fni3117f-1226622063564.

bOSTON M 22 BOSTON mARATHON 66 BOSTON MARATHON explosion Scenes of panic and distress at Boston

WELIWERIYA Carnage 11 Before and after the bomb carnage at Weliweriya

** This article was drafted on Thursday 18 April and finalized on the 19th before any breakthroughs in the investigation of the Boston bombing.

[1] As deployed here, the term “lone ranger” does not necessarily mean one person. It could even be a small cell of two or more.

[2] Roberts 2013b. Despite my question marks around both possibilities, a Tamil Canadian MP chose to misunderstand my article (viz., Roberts 2013) and embark on a grandstanding operation on behalf of the Transnational Government of Thamil Eelam (Sri Skandarajah 2013). Forsooth! Me thinks the lady protests too much!.

[3] Protest demonstrations were mounted within the grounds at Manuka Oval in Canberra on 12 Feb. 2008 and outside the grounds at Toronto on 12 Oct. 2008. For fuller coverage see Roberts 2011.

[4] Grant 2013 and personal observation at a match in Adelaide.

[5] The assertion that there was a massacre” during the last months of Eelam War IV and that this was a case of “genocide” is an indelible belief in Tamil circuits as well as among some among a few human rights advocates –despite a study of the report by the UN Panel of Experts presented by a Marga team which shoots down their methodology. Hopefully the comprehensive study by IDAG (2013) will reveal that the figures for civilian dead bandied about in these circuits are exaggerated to a degree which amounts to fabrication.

[8] This is commonplace among Sri Lankans of all ethnic groups in heated moments, but could well be a worldwide phenomenon.

[9] See http://www.defence.lk/new.asp?fname=20111103_03. Dr Pari has since become a spokesperson for the Australian Tamil Congress and packs a lot of weight in HR and other circuits.

[11] Drummond 2009 and information from Tamil friends in Sydney. The grapevine information suggests that Sriskantharajah was identified by DNA, while the acid was acquired via cleaning businesses.

[12] For e.g., see Maley in The Australian, 18 April 2013.

[18] It was not insignificant for Watawala and Weerasinghe.


Filed under accountability, historical interpretation, immolation, life stories, LTTE, nationalism, political demonstrations, politIcal discourse, power politics, prabhakaran, propaganda, Rajapaksa regime, religious nationalism, Sinhala-Tamil Relations, sri lankan society, suicide bombing, terrorism, truth as casualty of war, unusual people, world events & processes

17 responses to “Lone Cell Assaults: From Boston to Westmead-in-Sydney to the Unabomber. Inspirations and Enabling Conditions in Comparative Perspective **

  1. Ken Moncrieff

    To compare the Tamil situation, though serious and urgent, or even the Tim Mc Veigh type of terrorism, with that of Islamic terrorism is misplaced, as the Islamic drive for world supremacy is a vastly different matter.
    Idelogical factors masquerading as religious ones are used and then those, coupled with any nationalist sentiments [as with Chechnya] make for greater radicalization [ref. sheik feiz mohammed] of those indoctrinated with Islamic discriminatory doctrines, the nature, intensity and content of which are very effectively instilled in all its youth ahead of all other things. It’s almost as if it’s indoctrination before education. These two in Boston were well-educated, but maybe spoilt and privileged students of the US education system. Some payback for the hospitality the U.S. gave to them and their family.

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