Features

15 October 1997 Bombing of the Galadari Hotel, Colombo, Sri Lanka

At 7:00 am on 15 October 1997, terrorists from the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) attacked the Galadari Hotel in Colombo, Sri Lanka, with a massive truck bomb. The main target was, however, the 39-story Sri Lanka World Trade Center that sat directly next to the hotel. The Hilton Colombo was a mere 400 feet from the Galadari. The blast and the light infantry attacks that followed killed 15 and wounded 105.

The Galadari Hotel was then, and remains, a five star luxury hotel in the heart of Colombo’s business and government district. It is located at Lotus Rd, Colombo 00100, Sri Lanka. The attack point was a mere 200 yards from a suicide bombing that targeted the Central Bank in 1996, killing 88 and wounding 1,400.

The hotel/Trade Center attack was one of hundreds that had happened in Sri Lanka’s bloody and intense civil war (1983-2009) between the government and Tamil rebels. (The LTTE formed in 1976, however.)

The bombing team consisted of up to six fighters from the LTTE’s Black Tiger suicide squad. Technically, their tactic was a raid with explosives because they attacked the target with a bomb and then carried out light infantry assaults on several other locations.

The sequence unfolded as follows. First, the attackers drove their explosives laden truck into the Galadari Hotel parking lot where they shot and killed four unarmed security guards.

The Irish Times quoted a hotel security guard as saying, “I came out to see and there was this lorry in the car-park surrounded by about four or five armed people with bullet belts strapped around their bodies. I quickly ran in and asked the people in the hotel to get out. Within five minutes there was an explosion.”

Second, to detonate the truck bomb, the terrorists fired a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) at it. The truck, described by The Guardian as “a 20-ton lorry,” was packed with up to 771 pounds of explosives, type unknown.

Third, from then on, the LTTE fighters, armed with assault rifles, disbursed and made their way into nearby government buildings and other places in the central business district where they fought for several hours until they were either killed by security forces, or blew themselves up, or ingested cyanide pills.

Damage to the hotel and nearby buildings, including the Hilton and the Sri Lanka World Trade Centre, was heavy, but not structurally catastrophic. The bomb crater was 20 feet wide and 12 feet deep. The blast destroyed 30 cars in the Galadari parking lot and shattered all the hotel’s windows, and some windows came off their frames. Windows on all nearby buildings were destroyed as well, and flying glass injured two Cathay Pacific pilots at the Hilton.

The government set aside a $25 million assistance package for all buildings damaged in the attack, and the Galadari Hotel aimed to reopen in January 1998.

Ryan McKinstry writes in the Encyclopedia of Terrorism, ed by Peter Chalk, that the hotel/Trade Center attack was the first major LTTE attack of 1997. Security in the capital had been significantly increased, and there had recently been a large battle between the LTTE and government forces on roads leading to the Jaffna Peninsula, the rebels’ main base area. Combined casualties on both sides reached 2,000. McKinstry says that this was the largest government offensive against the rebels up to that point in the war, and that it put incredible pressure on the LTTE. This, he says, was one of the reasons for the hotel/Trade Center attack. The LTTE was injured, and it had to strike back.

McKinstry also says that the Trade Center complex was well protected on three sides, but not the fourth side, which was flanked by the hotel’s parking lot. This area was practically wide open.

McKinstry additionally says that the hotel/Trade Center attack was part of a larger LTTE strategy to damage the Sri Lankan economy, a concept concocted in 1995. The theory was that if the LTTE could drive the Sri Lankan economy into the ground, the government would be unable to afford the war.

The main takeaway here is obvious: hotels in intense insurgency zones such as Sri Lanka must take proper security measures to protect their patrons, staff, and properties.

In the case of the Galadari Hotel attack, there are four main points that support this dictum, and they all result from real world intelligence analyses of the threat environment.

First, highly motivated terrorists in high intensity conflict zones will undertake creative and intelligent measures to attack hotels and/or other high value civilian targets, especially if the targets meet their political ends. Increased city security in this case did not stop the terrorists from conducting a thorough reconnaissance and discovering the poorly protected hotel parking lot. Exploiting this weakness resulted in several deaths, scores of wounded, and more than $25 million in damages. In contrast, it might have cost around $1 million to erect security barricades at the parking lot and man it with a professional guard force.

Second, the hotel should have increased security simply for the fact that the World Trade Center, a brand-new and high profile building, was erected right next to it, and it had just been inaugurated. Given the LTTE’s propensity to attack government venues, it was an obvious target.

Third, the recent, high casualty battle between the government and the LTTE should have caused the hotel (and other establishments) to take their security more seriously. Insurgent and terror groups frequently lash out in the wake of battlefield losses (and the arrests of key leadership) in order to maintain their fierce reputations and to keep up morale.

Fourth, key points from a pattern analysis of the LTTE’s attacks would have revealed the actual threat, which should have caused increased security:

  • a) Previous hotel attack: The LTTE had previously attacked at least one hotel, the Bandula Hotel in Trincomalee town, with a time bomb that killed five and wounded 15 (21 July 1988.) Sri Lankan hoteliers should have considered themselves within the LTTE’s target set.
  • b) Brutal attacks on civilians: The LTTE had massacred several villages with knives, machetes, and other edged weapons, demonstrating its propensity to slaughter helpless civilians.
  • c) The LTTE’s 1995 commercial sector attack strategy: Since enacting this strategy in 1995, the group had staged 11 major attacks on civilian targets since then, four of them commercial, including the aforementioned Central Bank bombing (31 January 1996,) and a raid with suicide bombers on oil storage facilities at Kolonnawa and Orugodawatta that killed 22 and did more than $10 million in damages.
  • d) Attack geography: The LTTE had attacked Colombo district or the city of Colombo more than 17 times up to that point in the war. Eleven of those attacks had happened in the 1990s, and seven had happened since the LTTE declared war on Sri Lanka’s economy. The rolling increase of attacks in the capital was obvious.

Under these circumstances, no hotel in Sri Lanka, and no building in Colombo’s business/government district, should have been so lightly protected.

Sources and further reading:

Ryan McKinstry, “Colombo World Trade Center Bombing,” in Encyclopedia of Terrorism (2 Volumes,) ed by Peter Chalk, Editor, (Santa Barbara, Ca: ABC-CLIO), 21 November 2012.

“15 die as truck bomb, shootouts rock Colombo,” South China Morning Post, 16 October 1997.

15 dead as bomb devastates business district,” Irish Times, 16 October 1997.

“Truck bomb targets Sri Lanka’s tourists,” The Guardian, 16 October 1997.

“Rebel attack kills 18 in Sri Lanka capital,” Associated Press, 16 October 1997.

British tourists wounded in Tamil Tiger bomb blast,” The Independent, 15 October 1997.

“75 hurt in truck-bomb blast in Colombo,” The Globe and Mail, 15 October 1997.

PHOTO; Caption: PHOTO: Rubble of rebel attacks: A worker breaks up concrete slabs at the Galadardi Hotel,” Chicago Tribune, 14 November 1997.

Annex E, “List of LTTE Attacks on Civilian Targets,” http://www.internationallawbureau.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/07/Annex-E-List-of-LTTE-attacks-on-civilian-targets.pdf, found on the website, http://www.internationallawbureau.com

Copyright © Muir Analytics 2016