On January 17, 2019, the Colombian National Liberation Army (Ejercito de Liberacion Nacional, or ELN) conducted a car bomb attack on the General Santander National Police Academy in Bogota, effectively bringing the peace talks between the Colombian government and the ELN to a halt. The attack sparked condemnation throughout Colombia and from the international community. Thousands of Colombians marched in the streets to protest the attack on the following day. (1) Colombian President Ivan Duque reinstated the arrest warrants for the 10 members of the ELN's negotiation delegation in Havana, Cuba. (2)
Peace talks (a) between the Colombian government and the ELN in past years were tumultuous. Often regarded as the last left-wing guerrilla force in Colombia after the 2016 peace agreement with the Revolutionary Armed forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, or FARC), the ELN proved to be a more difficult negotiating partner. Unlike the FARC, whose leadership was capable of reining in the majority of its cadres into supporting the peace process, ELN leaders pushing for negotiations often could not control their more militant factions. (3)
Bombing in Bogota
On January 17, 2019, the ELN conducted a vehicle-borne improvised explosive device (VBIED) attack on the General Santander National Police Academy. The attack was the deadliest Bogota had experienced in years, killing 21 police cadets and injuring 68 more. Colombian authorities tied the attack to the Domingo Lain Front, a belligerent ELN division based in Arauca Department. (4) (b) The bomber, Jose Aldemar Rojas Rodriguez, drove a 1993 Nissan Patrol carrying 80 kilograms of pentolite (c) to the academy. (5) Rojas died while carrying out the attack, but it is not known if it was an intentional suicide VBIED (SVBIED) attack. (6) Colombian investigators found that the bomb was triggered by a car alarm, which could have been triggered by Rojas or someone else within a 500-meter range. (7)
The ELN claimed responsibility for the academy attack on January 21. According to the ELN, the attack was in retaliation of a Colombian military bombing on one of its bases during a unilateral ceasefire in late December 2018. (8) However, Colombia's Attorney General Nestor Humberto Martinez claims that planning had started at least 10 months before the academy attack. (9) Rojas bought the vehicle in Arauca under his own name in May 2018. (10) Colombian authorities determined that the vehicle was brought to the neighborhood of Usme in Bogota in order to load the pentolite and the IED onto it. (11)
On the day of the attack, Rojas drove the vehicle approximately 10 kilometers north to the academy. (12) CCTV footage released by Spanish newspaper El Pais reveals that two individuals riding on a motorcycle followed Rojas throughout most of the trip. (13) Initial reports claimed that the VBIED had alerted a bomb-sniffing dog at the entrance of the academy, but this was debunked by the Colombian Ministry of Defense. (14) Rojas sped through the northern entrance of the academy campus after two unrelated motorcycles entered, which alerted security officers on the campus. (15) According to Colombian media reports, Rojas drove around the campus for 42 seconds while passing groups of cadets and officers. (16) He then drove to the eastern gate of the campus, where he was stopped by an armed security officer. (17) Rojas reversed and drove back into the campus before the VBIED detonated. (18)
According to open source SVBIED researcher Hugo Kaaman, the graduation ceremony taking place at the academy that day was the most probable target of the attack. (19) The detonation occurred in an open area close to the location of the ceremony. (20) The fact that Rojas drove past several groups of cadets and police before the VBIED was detonated suggests that Rojas was seeking out a specific target. (21) Kaaman believes that Rojas drove to the eastern gate of the academy in an attempt to abort the mission after not locating the intended target. (22) Additionally, it seems unlikely that the VBIED was detonated remotely due to Rojas' movements throughout the campus. Therefore, Rojas most likely detonated the bomb by the nearest group of cadets out of desperation from being discovered.
The ELN's First Suicide Bombing?
While VBIED attacks are commonly conducted by Colombian guerrilla and criminal groups, the academy attack appears to be the first suicide bombing of its scale in the country. Previous IED attacks by the ELN did not involve the death of the bomber. The University of Chicago's Suicide Attack Database does not list any suicide attacks in Colombia before the end of its dataset in June 2016. (23) Indeed, the deliberate use of SVBIED tactics would be an unprecedented development for the ELN that would have significant implications for Colombian security forces.
There are reasons to doubt that the Bogota attack was intentionally planned as a suicide attack. It seems unlikely that someone of the rank of Rojas would be selected for a suicide mission. At 56 years of age, Rojas had been a member of the Domingo Lain Front since 1994. (24) He became an explosives expert who allegedly taught explosive techniques to ELN cadres in Venezuela. (25) Rojas eventually rose in the ranks of the ELN organization and served in the security detail of ELN commander Nicolas Rodriguez Bautista (aka Gabino). (26) Rojas briefly commanded the Camilo Cienfuegos Commission under the Eastern War Front in 2015 before being promoted as an intelligence chief. (27) Someone of Rojas' experience and expertise would have undoubtedly better served the guerrilla group alive.
While suicide terrorism is typically associated with jihadi movements, suicide bombing tactics have been used by secular nationalist groups, such as the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam...