Tamil Tiger leader was seen as ruthless innovator

Reclusive Tamil Tiger chief Velupillai Prabhakaran had narrowly escaped death several times during the last three decades even as his obsession with security ensured that untold other assassins never got close.

But on Monday, in northern Sri Lanka, the chubby, mustached 54-year-old leader’s time ran out. According to government reports, he was killed along with two top aides as they tried to escape in an ambulance during the final throes of fighting between the Sri Lankan military and the ethnic militant group he led.

The government of Sri Lanka quickly declared victory in its quarter-century war against the Tigers, who sought a homeland for marginalized Tamils in the Sinhalese-majority nation.

A pro-rebel website denied that Prabhakaran was dead.

During his epic career as a rebel, Prabhakaran created one of the most ruthless and sophisticated insurgencies, with many of the tactics he pioneered becoming standard procedure for militant groups around the world.

Along the way, he refined the use of suicide bombings, offered tactical inspiration to Al Qaeda and Hamas and ordered up the assassination of political leaders, including onetime Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi.


As news of the leader’s death spread over state television and in government text messages, civilians in the capital city of Colombo danced, sang and lighted fireworks.

But some within the Tamil community, which accounts for about 12% of the island nation’s 20 million people, were wary that nationalist triumphalism could spark acts of vengeance against them -- and felt they had lost their only defender against state brutality, as flawed as he was.

Merciless, focused and innovative, Prabhakaran built the Tigers in his image. The group grew in less than a decade from little more than a street gang into one of the world’s most successful militant operations.

At its peak, the group controlled one-third of Sri Lanka, had its own sizable army and navy, a nascent air force, courts, tax collectors, hospitals, smuggling operations and liaison offices in 54 countries. Its innovations included the use of suicide vests lined with C-4 plastic explosives, recruiting female suicide bombers and perfecting political terror.

Tiger naval operations reportedly inspired Al Qaeda’s 2000 attack on the U.S. destroyer Cole. Until the American-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, the Tigers, known formally as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, reportedly carried out two-thirds of all suicide attacks in the world.

Ironically, Prabhakaran’s obsessive focus and unwavering drive for an independent Tamil state may have left his people worse off than they were when he launched the Tigers in the 1970s. “When you look at it from a historical standpoint, it was kind of pointless,” said Anita Pratap, author of “Island of Blood” and one of the few people to interview Prabhakaran. “There were so many lives lost, so many Tamils paid such a high price. It was such a tragic loss.”

Analysts said Prabhakaran was a brilliant military tactician. But even as other militant groups such as the Irish Republican Army turned in their guns for a place at the negotiating table, his refusal to compromise ultimately left Tamils with little in the way of a lasting political legacy.

Prabhakaran, the youngest of four children, was born Nov. 26, 1954, into a lower-caste family in Velvettithurai on the Jaffna peninsula. The son of a government clerk, he was remembered as a shy, quiet and unassuming high school dropout who loved Clint Eastwood films, Chinese food and books on military strategy.

He became politically aware during the 1960s and ‘70s, emerging as one of thousands of Tamil youths in northern Sri Lanka radicalized as a result of violence and discrimination at the hands of the majority Sinhalese.

He launched the Tigers in 1972, putting himself squarely on the map in 1975 by gunning down the Tamil mayor of Jaffna, Alfred Duraiappah, in broad daylight for what he saw as the politician’s cozying up to the Sri Lankan government. Prabhakaran explained later that he felt it was important to act rather than harbor illusions.

The military fight against the government kicked off in 1983 when the Tigers launched a land-mine attack that killed 13 soldiers. Over the next quarter of a century, the group staged hundreds of attacks, killing civilians, members of the military, government officials and even the country’s head of state. Along the way, he purged many rivals in a conflict that has taken more than 70,000 lives.

Prabhakaran recruited Tamils who had become alienated by the brutality of the army and government, and he engendered loyalty, fear and commitment. He ordered cadres to cut their personal ties, abstain from sex and carry cyanide around their necks to avoid being captured alive.

Beate Arnestad, a Norwegian filmmaker granted rare permission to make a 2007 documentary about young female Tiger suicide bombers, said these children of war saw Prabhakaran as a father figure protecting them against a malicious, vindictive state.

“They had no access to any other information,” Arnestad said. “It was very easy to brainwash them. They had not experienced anything but war, and only saw people as enemies or friends.”

From an early age, Prabhakaran was obsessed with secrecy -- on leaving home at 18 he reportedly burned all family photos of himself -- and maintained extensive safeguards as the organization grew.

“He was obviously paranoid about security,” said M.K. Narayan Swamy, author of the biography “Inside an Elusive Mind.” “And for justifiable reasons.”

Prabhakaran rarely slept in the same jungle hide-out two nights in a row, employed a three-tiered bodyguard system, hired doubles and removed or killed those who displayed even a hint of disloyalty.

Author Pratap said each of her pens was taken apart, every book carefully scrutinized and the venue changed three times before she met him.

In January 1984, the rebel leader met Mathivathani Erambu, a college student on a hunger strike for Tamil rights in Jaffna, and they married later that year. By most accounts he was a devoted family man, and the couple had two sons and a daughter. The oldest son and close aide, Charles Anthony, 23, was reported by the government to have been killed Sunday a few hours before his father. TV footage showed the younger Prabhakaran’s body with his right eye blown out.

Considered a hero to some, Velupillai Prabhakaran has also been dubbed a megalomaniac, a military genius and “lord of the jungle.” The Tigers have earned a place on the terrorist lists of the U.S., the European Union and India.

Those who met Prabhakaran say he was soft-spoken, even effeminate, in spite of his carefully cultivated personality cult, which included omnipresent Rambo-style posters in Tamil-held territory. Pratap said the first time she met him, she mistook him for an aide and thought he resembled a “petty businessman.”

As they started talking, she said she realized he was also one of the most focused people she had ever met, and that he was absolutely convinced that the means justified the end.

He was also vindictive, often waiting years to kill someone over a real or perceived slight. He seemed particularly threatened by Tamil groups that favored accommodation. “He killed two personal friends of mine, moderate Tamils,” said Praful Bidwai, an independent Indian terrorism analyst. “There was absolutely no threat.”

When the army overran one of his bunkers and a nearby villa in February, it claimed to have found a stuffed tiger, a bottle of cognac, a paintball gun and a shirt from English department store Marks & Spencer, all belonging to him.

Prabhakaran had his share of close calls over the years. In 1972, a bomb he and others were making exploded prematurely, injuring his leg. In 1987 he was close to being captured by Sri Lankan forces, only to have the Indian leadership rescue him for political reasons.

Three years later, the Indians nearly captured him only to see then-Sri Lankan President Ranasinghe Premadasa help him as a way to kick Indian “peacekeepers” off the island. A few years later, Prabhakaran had Premadasa assassinated.

His biggest miscalculations, analysts said, were the assassination of Gandhi in 1991, the failure to pursue peace talks after 2002 and calling on Tamils to boycott elections in 2005, leading to a narrow victory for President Mahinda Rajapaksa.

Rajapaksa proceeded to wage the successful military campaign that culminated in bringing down the Tigers.

“I would prefer to die in honor rather than being caught alive by the enemy,” Prabhakaran said in a 1984 interview.

On Monday, according to the government, he got his wish.


Pavitra Ramaswamy in The Times’ New Delhi Bureau contributed to this report.