The Tribune - Spectrum

, April 21, 2002
Lead Article

The man in the iron mask
By Rajeev Sharma

WHEN Velupillai Prabhakaran held a press conference in Killinochchi, Sri Lanka, on April 10— his first in 12 years—he was sending a signal to the civilised world on behalf of his terrorist outfit, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

This Prabhakaran was much different from the pictures of the guerrilla leader published in newspapers and shown on television channels over the past two days. He was not in his military fatigues (remember Pakistan's military ruler Gen Pervez Musharraf employing similar tactics when he addressed a rally in Quetta on April 12 donning civilian clothes and a turban !). The thick thread around his neck, which carries two cyanide capsules (instead of only one cyanide capsule worn by all other LTTE guerrillas) was not visible.

The transformation, or rather the projected transformation, seemed more conspicuous because Prabhakaran appeared at the press conference in a safari suit sans his moustache. Moreover, he was not carrying his favourite Kalashnikov. All 'celebrity' terrorists have developed their distinctive styles. Osama bin Laden, for example, does not make a public appearance without his Kalashnikov rifle. Leila Khalid, the beautiful Palestinian terrorist with long hair, was known for her penchant for keeping her hair open. Prabhakaran's April 10 press conference, though botched, was a continuation of the LTTE's political symbolism. It first started with the commencement of the Norway-brokered peace initiative. Next in the chain was the declaration of a ceasefire between the LTTE and the Sri Lankan government which has been holding good for the past four months.


The LTTE supremo's press conference raises more questions than it answers. During the 144-minute-long press conference, Prabhakaran made a fool of himself by not answering most questions which pertained to sensitive issues like the Rajiv Gandhi assassination. Obviously, the organisers had paid more attention to a rigorous security drill in searching hundreds of journalists who had gathered than preparing for the most likely questions that could have been asked.

Such is the obsession of the LTTE with security that its cadres subjected the journalists to a search operation that lasted more than 10 hours. Not only were their bags, clothes, personal belongings and equipment searched thoroughly, but they were also required to open their mouths and remove their shoes and socks.

The LTTE was allegedly responsible for Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination
The LTTE was allegedly responsible for Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination

This reminds one of the stringent security drill followed by Mossad, the Israeli intelligence agency which has incidentally trained both the LTTE and Sri Lankan troops in guerrilla warfare. So much is their obsession with security that undercover Mossad agents deployed at Israeli airports force passengers to even squeeze their toothpaste to make sure that plastic explosives are not inside the tube. What Osama bin Laden has been doing to ensure personal security since the 1998 US Embassy bombings in Tanzania and Kenya, Prabhakaran has been doing for past more than 12 years. Apparently, Prabhakaran has modelled his security on that of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat who keeps shifting his base as well as the guards of the innermost security ring. It would not be wrong to say that Prabhakaran has, in many ways, pioneered the art of how to keep a master terrorist protected from his adversaries for long long years.

Given this mindset of the LTTE and Prabhakaran, can the outfit switch over to a political role overnight? Can a ruthless guerrilla leader like Prabhakaran don a political mantle overnight and be acceptable to the domestic as well the international community? Can the Tigers change their stripes?

Politically, the question that looms large is: Why should an outfit like the LTTE, born in 1976, and fighting a violent and blood-soaked battle for an independent state of Tamil Eelam since 1983, suddenly declare itself "committed to peace" as Prabhakaran did at the press conference?

The terror trail of Prabhakaran clearly indicates a pattern. There is a method in his madness. During the last 19 years, he has systematically eliminated his rivals in Jaffna and Sri Lanka as well as within the LTTE. Like an octopus, which lies motionless and attacks its prey and catches it unawares, Prabhakaran lulls his would-be victim into complacence by offering a hand of friendship. The hand that feeds, more often than not, becomes the hand that kills. This is how Rajiv Gandhi was killed on May 21, 1991 and this is how the then Sri Lankan President, R. Premadasa was killed two years later. Prabhakaran is a pastmaster in the art of camouflaging his real intentions. But over the years, he has become predictable. When he talks of a ceasefire, it should be interpreted as the LTTE being short of arms and ammunitions. When he talks in terms of peace talks, an assassination bid could be seen to be in the pipeline. His current motive could also be the same. The ceasefire has been holding good for past four months for two reasons: Firstly, because of the post-September 11, international situation and secondly, due to the fact that the LTTE is biding for time to let the war against terror wane. It is quite possible that the LTTE has been utilising the past four months as well as the coming months of ceasefire for regrouping, recharging, reorienting and reformulating its strategies. The real trouble will arise when the Norwegian inspectors are not allowed a free and fair inspection in the LTTE-controlled territories. But this stage is unlikely to come in the near future. But come it will, sooner or later, when the LTTE is ready for the final offensive and declaration of Tamil Eelam.


PRABHAKARAN had a humble childhood. There was nothing to manifest the larger-than-life stature he was going to acquire a couple of decades later. Like any average boy, he was scared of cockroaches and detested rats. A loner as a child, he is even now not known to mix with anyone. He does not emote. Few people have seen him laughing, particularly ever since he became the undisputed LTTE leader. His marriage with Mativadani, much younger to him, was like a typical guerrilla act.

Mativadani was a student leader of Jaffna University, where the Tigers had called a strike in 1986. Prabhakaran went to the campus. He did not use any threat; his presence was enough. But there was a girl who not only opposed the strike, but also took the "leader" to task for organising strikes at the drop of a hat.

This was the first time when the LTTE chief had been rebuked and that too publicly. A stunned Prabhakaran left the venue. He returned the next day, did not ask for a date or express love. He lifted Mativadani, brought her to his bunker and married her. No one knows of what she had thought then. Today, she's the mother of Prabhakaran's two children, a son and a daughter. She is also active in LTTE's affairs. Miserly with words, Prabhakaran is known to be ruthless, even with comrades-in-arms. Between 1980 and 1990, he got killed at least 300 men belonging to his rival cadres and several important leaders within the LTTE who posed a challenge to him.

Prabhakaran continues to control the LTTE with an iron grip. He does not delegate powers, has no second-in-command, and chiefs of all LTTE wings report to him directly. A man who distrusts others, Prabhakaran operates through intelligence and counter-intelligence. Under his command, the LTTE follows three big don'ts - no smoking, no drinking, no sex. What punishment he has in store for the violator of the LTTE ethos is not known, simply because not a single violation has been reported yet.

The LTTE supremo has no formal training in guerrilla warfare. Arrested cadres speak of a British mercenary, who once came to Jaffna to give a few tips to the Tigers, and met Prabhakaran. The conversation soon developed into a wordy duel on shooting skills, until Prabhakaran whipped out his favourite weapon, a 9-mm pistol, and started firing. The necks of bottles placed at quite a distance away were shot off cleanly. The mercenary was left gaping.

Prabhakaran is not well educated. He cannot speak good English, but can understand the language. He is always in his favourite army fatigues which, incidentally, are made in Bangalore. A loaded pistol tucked in his left belt pouch, a wireless on the right side and two threads-red and black, each carrying a cyanide capsule-around his thick neck are his personality trademarks. He has a dog-like sleep. Probably this is the only time when he can be caught alive. And he is aware of it. That is why he sleeps with a loaded pistol under his pillow and wears two cyanide capsules instead of one worn by every LTTE cadre. He has at least five or six underground bunkers made of solid concrete and iron in jungles which can withstand the impact of a fairly lethal bomb attack. He meets people very selectively. Whosoever he decides to meet is brought to him blindfolded.

Like Saddam Hussein, the dictator guerrilla also has a personal elite unit for protection. Called Base 14, it is not a a very big unit. Its strength is not even in three digits. Base 14 is not just the wireless code name of Prabhakaran but also denotes his personal special task force. It comprises of highly-motivated and brainwashed commandos who are fiercely loyal to their leader.


THE LTTE is an amazing outfit. It is the only terrorist organisation in the world which has a fleet of ships, anti-aircraft guns, surface-to-air missiles and even a submarine. In 1992, Indian security agencies seized a submarine assembled by Shankar, a key LTTE politburo member, who was once an aeronautical engineer in Canada. It's still not known whether the submarine had ever been pressed into action.

The LTTE submarine portends alarming security threats given the fact that the Tigers are master frogmen trained by Norwegian mercenaries. The training went on clandestinely for months on an island in the Andaman Sea. The IPKF had unearthed a factory to manufacture microlight aircraft and destroyed it. It was once again Shankar who was instrumental in developing the aircraft. The LTTE had a diabolic plan: to launch suicide attacks on key targets, including the Sri Lankan Parliament. Once it takes off, the engine of the aircraft can be switched off to save fuel and like a glider, it can float in the air with the wind current. Upto 15 kg of plastic explosives like RDX can be loaded on to it, and its fibreglass body can be laced with more explosives.

A very thin suicide bomber, who is made to undergo dieting to further shed his weight, is entrusted with the mission. The thinner the pilot, the more explosives the plane can take. The pilot can be asked to put on the minimum possible clothes, may be just an underwear. He has to die anyway, that is the logic. Thus the microlight aircraft can be turned into a lethal flying bomb and can carry upto 20 kg of RDX, which can wreak havoc. Considering that a microlight aircraft can easily cover a distance of 500 kilometres, its lethalness can be imagined. So far, no terrorist outfit is known to have used a microlight aircraft for a suicide attack. The news of the LTTE acquiring manufacturing knowhow of microlight aircraft leaked in the early nineties, sent panic waves in New Delhi and Colombo. Both India and Sri Lanka decided to deploy anti-aircraft guns to ward off possible aerial attacks from terrorists. The air-space over the Sri Lankan parliament was declared a no-fly zone as long as it was in session. It was around this time that an unidentified small aircraft was reportedly seen hovering over the official residence of then Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalitha.

The LTTE has offices in about 40-odd countries with a sizeable Tamil population. Funds are not much of a problem with the LTTE, thanks to its vast network. The half-a-million Tamil expatriates in Canada, Germany, Switzerland, Britain, Italy, Australia, Singapore and Malaysia "contribute" at least five per cent of their salary to the LTTE. It is not exactly a voluntary contribution, they are coerced into paying for the security of their relatives back home. The LTTE raises approximately 25 to 30 million dollars every year through extortions. Such extortions are rampant in Jaffna as well, all in the name of the cause. You should not just be happy but also be seen to be happy about your imminent self-caused death. This is the unsaid, unwritten commandment of a suicide bomber. Perhaps, this makes the suicide bomber feel himself superior to others. Perhaps, the visions of martyrdom justify his decision to end his life. Perhaps, these visions give him a kick and keep him going...., nay, galloping to his self-inflicted death.

A suicide squad member performs only one operation in his life-and it has to be performed with his death. There are no rehearsals, no retakes, no repeats. There is no scope for improvement. There cannot be any regrets or moments of joy or failure. They would not come to know the result of their own operation. They are dead as soon as they take the plunge, whether their mission is accomplished or not. Their first operation is the last operation. How these terminal terrorists end their own lives in ghastly modes is an unexplored area for psychoanalysts and students of para-psychology. But the LTTE's "Black Tigers" unit is a breed apart and seems to be beyond all frontiers of human learning and psychology.

It is the elitist and the most obscure unit of the LTTE. Several terrorist outfits, particularly the Abu Nidal group of Palestinian terrorists, are known to have had suicide squads and have successfully executed suicide missions much before the LTTE emerged on international terrorism scene. But the readiness, the ease and the aplomb with which an LTTE cadre embarks on a suicide mission is unparalleled in the history of international terrorism.

LTTE's suicide squads are also known as the "nizhal" group, which literally means the "Shadow Group".

(Extracts from "Beyond The Tigers: Tracking Rajiv Gandhi's Assassination" by Rajeev Sharma)