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The American government’s assessment of Prabhakaran

Courtesy The Island 23/24-04-2007

In 2002, after the Cease Fire Agreement had come into force, the United States Pacific Command carried out a comprehensive assessment of the LTTE and the Sri Lankan Armed Forces at the request of the US Department of Defense. The result of this study was a top secret report, which was signed by Peter W.Rodman on behalf of the International Security Affairs desk of the US Department of Defense. Copies of this report were given only to the then Prime Minister, Ranil Wickremasinghe, the Defense Minister Tilak Marapone, and the Secretary Defense Austin Fernando. The then President Chandrika Kumaratunga, and the cabinet were kept in the dark about this study. What follows are verbatim extracts from this report.


The leader and founder of the LTTE, Velupillai Prabhakaran, is often described as a megalomaniac. He is practically worshipped by Tiger cadres, who have been inculcated with Tamil nationalist propaganda. Prabhakaran has insisted that all LTTE soldiers wear a cyanide capsule around their necks, maintaining that it is better to commit suicide than be captured alive by the enemy. Though Prabhakaran is aware that the United States publicly condemns the LTTE's terrorist campaigns, he continues his efforts to win sympathy from the United States. For this reason, the United States has some leverage with him. However, if the perception of the United States as a direct supporter of Sri Lanka's armed forces against the LTTE persists, Prabhakaran's susceptibility to US influence will decrease or vanish completely.

Velupillai Prabhakaran is the unchallenged dictatorial leader of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) terrorist organization. Prabhakaran exerts tight control and discipline over the LTTE, which fights for the establishment of an independent homeland, referred to as "Eelam," carved out of the northern and eastern portions Lanka. He is worshipped as a cult-like figure because of successful indoctrination processes and effective political propaganda campaigns. Prabhakaran's mind-set, personality, ideology, objectives, and outlook dominate and resound through the structure and organization of the LTTE. Prabhakaran's call sign is Hotel Alpha, his location is referred to as "one-four," and his nom de guerre is Karikalan.

Prabhakaran, born on 26 November 190-4, comes from a typical middle-class Tamil family with four children, including a brother and two sisters. He and his family reside in the northern town of Valvettithurai (referred to as VVT). VVT's inhabitants were servants (Prabhakaran's father was one), traders, fishermen, or simply smugglers because of the winding seacoast and close proximity to India, Prabhakaran's parents currently live in Tamil Nadu, India, and his siblings live overseas. In 1984, Prabhakaran met and subsequently married a fellow activist, Madhivathini, who was on a hunger strike protesting Sinhalese treatment of Tamils. They have two children: a son, Charles Anthony, who is named after a former LTTE leader and a daughter, Dwaraka, who is named after one of his bodyguards.

When Prabhakaran was a child, his father demanded absolute discipline from him and his siblings. Prabhakaran was a quiet boy who was devoted to his family and friends, assisting family during religious functions and dutifully running errands for neighbours and relatives. He earned average grades in school. As a teenager, Prabhakaran was shy with girls and was known to be always restless.

Prabhakaran's introduction to politics and to the Tamil-Sinhalese conflict came from listening to his father's oft-repeated discourses on the worsening ethnic relations in the country and laments on the fate of Tamils.. Prabhakaran subsequently became fascinated with Subash Chandra Bose, the Indian nationalist who preferred to resist British rule through 'Militancy rather than subscribe to Gandhi's doctrine of nonviolence. His favourite of Bose's slogans was "I shall fight for the freedom of my land until I shed the last drop of blood." Prabhakaran was also intrigued with the military exploits of Napoleon, the teachings of Swami Vivekananda, the Hindu epic of the Mahabharata, Tamil history books, and Phantom comics, often imagining himself to be a legendary warrior.

Though Prabhakaran was quiet and was regarded as a good listener, he was easily excitable and found it difficult to contain himself when discussions arose over Tamil politics, the ancient Tamil kingdoms in India and Sri Lanka, and the possibility of an armed struggle like that of Bose. He soon became involved in student activist groups. His political activism eventually forced him to go underground in 1973 and to cut off family ties.

Prabhakaran cites Sinhalese discrimination against Tamils and the 1972 constitution (which declared Sinhala the only official language of the country and Buddhism the state religion) as factors that inspired him to become a rebel at age 18. As Tamil militancy emerged in the 1970s, Prabhakaran began to prepare himself for the battles that he perceived lay ahead. It is said that he had a natural ability with firearms and as a marksman; in any case his skills in these spheres were self-taught. As a measure of physical endurance, he would tie himself up, get into a sack, and lie under the sun the whole day. Prabhakaran also was known to insert pins into his fingernails. He and his fellow activists relied on temple offerings for food and at times would go hungry, sometimes taking sleep-inducing tablets to ward off their hunger.

Prabhakaran and his gang began robbing banks to help finance their militant quest for a Tamil homeland. Though other rebels robbed banks to amass personal wealth, Prabhakaran's intentions were purely political. He was a meticulous planner, placing banks under surveillance for weeks and sometimes months before robbing them He gradually began to take the leading role in discussing operations, but shared information only on a need-to-know basis. Prabhakaran was very suspicious of new Tamil militant recruits. As a security measure, he kept his meetings with outsiders to a minimum and sometimes did not reveal his identity. Prabhakaran reportedly was very tense and nervous about operations and could not accept defeat. He developed a reputation for losing control if things did not go his way. Even when engaged in friendly physical contests, if Prabhakaran felt he was losing, he would resort to viciously biting his opponents.

Prabhakaran enjoyed skyrocketing popularity in July 1975 after he allegedly assassinated Alfred Durraiappah, the mayor of Jaffna, as the latter paid his respects to a local Hindu temple. Durraiappah was the chief organizer of the northern region, for the SLFP, the current Sri Lankan ruling party, but was regarded by many Tamils as a government stooge. Following the assassination, Prabhakaran became obsessed with his personal security. By 1976, Prabbakaran and a handful of hard-core militants formed the LTTE, a name derived from its, precursor, the Tamil New Tigers, founded a couple of years earlier.

Prabhakaran networked with other Tamil militant groups and leaders, but later eradicated them in order to promote the LTTE as the only true representative of Tamil nationalism that seeks to establish an independent homeland, referred to Eelam. This constitutes Prabhakaran's sole ideological justification for existence. In the early years Prabhakaran dabbled with Marxist ideas, but he later became intent on basing the movement purely on Tamil nationalism rather than on Marxist ideology which he views as contributing to the downfall of other Tamil militant groups. Other than Tamil nationalism, no other ideology or military theory has a compelling appeal to Prabhakaran.

Although most LTTE cadres (including Prabhakaran himself) are nominally Hindu the issue of religion plays a negligible part in Prabhakaran's ideology. Prabhakaran believes that Eelam should be a casteless society, a concept that runs counter to the Hindu perspective. In addition, a number of LTTE cadres, hail from Christian backgrounds. Prabhakaran quietly worships Lord Subramania (or Lord Murugan) a prominent god in the Hindu pantheon. Nevertheless, Prabhakaran is a pragrnatist and generally relies on his own will and ability.

Prabhakaran's local propaganda and recruitment efforts are directed at children and adolescents. Prabhakaran has shown a fondness for children and often engages them in conversation. This sincerity may encourage the younger generation to be future recruits in the LTTE. Prabhakaran believes that the second generation, of youth exposed to the war will fight better than the first. Of the second generation, he has greater faith in the northern population because it has been subjected to more LTTE indoctrination than its eastern counterparts, who are constantly exposed to Sinhalese and Muslim influences.

Tamil youths, in particular, are attracted to Prabhakaran's image as a folk hero. A supernatural image has been created of Prabhakaran, and tales abound of the numerous instances where he narrowly escaped death. These escapades and the fact that he has never seen the inside of a jail cell continue to impress youths who stand in awe of Prabhakaran's achievements in the Tamil struggle for independence. The mysticism surrounding Prabhakaran, reinforced with massive propaganda campaigns, has endowed him with a god-like status and a cult-like following.

Prabhakaran's emphasis on iron discipline has contributed to the successes of the LTTE. His tight control over the organization, the severe punishments (including execution) he metes out to violators, and his indoctrination of cadres (including the use of a cyanide capsule rather than submit to capture) have made the LTTE's organization and strategy difficult to decipher.

In terms of self-discipline, Prabhakaran sets an example that other cadres must abide by. He does not consume liquor or smoke tobacco. Tea, coffee, and carbonated drinks are also considered taboo. Sex outside marriage is forbidden and those cadres who violate this code are executed irrespective of seniority or personal loyalty. Gambling and financial dishonesty are also punishable by death. Homosexuality, interestingly, is not; however, it is dealt with by public humiliation.

Prabhakaran emphasizes rigorous training and rehearsals of operations. By the end of the training regimen, a cadre is physically and psychologically, ready for the most demanding combat. Relentless indoctrination is a powerful tool utilized by Prabhakaran to ensure that a cadre is not forced into battle, but willingly chooses to enter the fray and very likely lay down his or her life for the sake of Tamil Eelam. Prabhakaran rarely visits training bases, but studies videos to improve the curricula. Prabhakaran thoroughly examines military successes and defeats so that he may repeat the successes and develop new mechanisms for overcoming failures.

Prabhakaran does not favour democratic processes. Though there is a central committee of the LTTE on paper, Prabhakaran's word is decisive. Prabhakaran continues to neutralize all competing Tamil groups and individuals, both moderates and militants, who pose any challenge to his leadership and to the LTTE as the sole representatives of the Tamils. When the importance of politicizing the population before taking to the gun was proposed to him, Prabhakaran commented with undisguised contempt, "You intellectuals are afraid of blood. No struggle will take place without killings."

The Liberation Tigers of Eelam (LTTE), or the Tamil Tigers as they are commonly known, is considered one of the most ruthless terrorist organizations in the world. Established in 1972, the group went underground 3 years later, after assassinating the mayor of Jaffna city. The LTTE is known for its network of contacts with various terrorist groups around the world.

The militants' choice of the tiger as their symbol represents not only the ferocity of the animal but also a deliberate contrast with the lion, which has traditionally been a symbol of the Sinhalese people and is depicted on the Sri Lankan flag. The organization has an elite squad known as the Black Tigers, who conduct suicide missions against military and civilian targets. The Black Tigers have assassinated not only prominent political leaders in Sri Lanka but also the former prime minister of India, Rajiv Gandhi.

Previously, the LTTE was viewed by most Tamil civilians as the legitimate defender of the Tamil cause. Much of its funding came from Tamil expatriates as well as the Indian government. However, in recent years, the LTTE has lost much support from Tamil civilians and has resorted to tactics that instil fear in order to control the Tamil community. External support from Tamil expatriates and the Indian government has also waned and as a result, the LTTE has engaged in drug trafficking to finance its operations.

Ideologically, the LTTE has at times employed Marxist rhetoric to characterize its struggle. However, irrespective of ideology, the creation of an independent Tamil state has remained the movement's only goal. In pursuit of this objective, the LTTE has been prone to use direct and violent action rather than to formulate principles on which-the desired independent state would operate. The LTTE as a whole tends not to be susceptible to US influence, especially given the perception that the United States is actively supporting the Sri Lankan armed forces against the LTTE.

Prabhakaran has not groomed a successor. There are rumours that he is preparing his son to replace him, but there is no meaningful intelligence on his family. He deals harshly with any challenge to his leadership. He has eliminated many LTTE members who have either questioned his authority or have been perceived as a threat. He has always felt that the biggest threat to his survival comes from within the organization.

Since Prabhakaran feels that the main threat to his survival comes from within the LTTE, he is obsessed with his personal security. He is known to sleep with a revolver under his pillow. In addition, the only member of the LTTE allowed to carry a firearm in Prabhakaran's presence is Soranam, the trusted commander of his bodyguard contingent. When Prabhakaran plans to visit a place, he ensures that extensive preparations are taken for his protection. Over a hundred bodyguard cadres (who do not interact with other cadres) are assigned to protect him. It is reported that there are three rings of 40 bodyguards each surrounding Prabhakaran upon his arrival at a particular destination.

Prabhakaran has gradually created a culture where dissent is absent. His close associates are Thamil Chelvam, head of the political branch; Pottu Amman, head of intelligence; Karuna, head of Batticaloa-Amparai commands; (At the time this report was compiled, Karuna was still with the LTTE. Ed) Balraj, military commander, Soranam, bodyguard commander, Shankar, head of Air Tigers; (The inclusion of Shanakar’s name is curious, because Shankar the LTTE’s air chief, was killed by a long range hit team from the army two weeks after the first LTTE attack on the Colombo airport in 2001. He was definitely not among the living in 2002. Ed) Soosai, head of Sea Tigers; Jeyam, special group commander; -and Kumaran Padmanathan, head of procurement. They all merely hold executive posts and carry out Prabhakaran's dictates. Although Anton Balasingham is considered the ideologue and spokesman of the LTTE, Prabhakaran often sidelines him as well. No one is close enough to Prabhakaran to significantly influence his final decisions. Blind loyalty is the criterion for a close association with him. Prabhakaran's authority is based on fear and respect.

Prabhakaran is an innovator, improviser, and a technophile. His macabre creativity is reflected in the human bombs, suicide boats, projectiles, and mines the LTTE has been producing over the years. Irrespective of the cost, he orders the best equipment for himself and his men. LTTE cadres have used night vision goggles and rocket- propelled grenades (RPGs) to engage Sri Lankan troops. If the desired equipment cannot be procured, Prabhakaran will order improvisation using existing equipment for the designated purpose. He also uses satellite communications with LTTE ships and LTTE cells around the world.

Prabhakaran uses deception as an integral part of his modus operandi. In many cases, he has arranged to visit subordinates or has extended olive branches to political targets to lull them into a false sense of security just prior to their assassination. In tactical operations, Prabhakaran would conduct deception manoeuvres to draw attention away from an intended target. LTTE duplicity often factors into the organization's public posture. Deceptive guidelines are given to LTTE cadres on how best to answer questions posed by the public and media. Carefully worded guidelines are even provided to the Tamil diaspora over the Internet on how best to respond to questions on the conflict posed by non- Sri Lankans. These guidelines are designed to portray LTTE cadres as freedom fighters pitted against a hostile and ruthless government.

Prabhakaran's mind-set has always been proactive and rarely reactive. Prabhakaran realizes the advantage of seizing the initiative in battle, always exploiting the element of surprise. Retaining the initiative in battle has often favoured the LTTE, both militarily and psychologically.

Prabhakaran is masterful at executing pre-emptive strikes against his enemies. When he perceives a future threat-whether emanating from an individual or a group-Prabhakaran takes the initiative to eliminate it through assassinations, terrorist bombings, or battlefield attacks. Some analysts believe that his actions are also driven by a desire for revenge. The ordered assassination of former Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi is a case in point. Most analysts feel that Prabhakaran perceived a future threat emanating from Gandhi (the redeployment of Indian troops to Sri Lanka to disarm the Tigers) and therefore had him assassinated as a pre-emptive measure. However, Prabhakaran also felt a deep sense of betrayal from Gandhi for reversing India's policy toward the LTTE, which points to revenge as a motive.

Another example of revenge as a possible motive is the January 1998 bombing of a revered Buddhist shrine in Kandy. This LTTE action was rumoured to be Prabhakaran's retribution for the Sri Lankan Army's mass destruction of LTTE gravesites. Prabhakaran's long-term goal is to break the will of the Sinhalese-led government and thus lead it to accede to his demand for a Tamil homeland. To achieve this end, any and all means are justified in his mind. Prabhakaran is likely to continue assassinating political and military leaders as well as bombing key targets in the economic infrastructure. He views the high political and economic costs his actions impose on the government as doors that lead to negotiations. Prabhakaran uses negotiations as a ploy for the LTTE to rearm and regroup, especially after a series of battlefield defeats.


Prabhakaran's key strengths:

a) Ability to provide highly effective military training and impart discipline-both physical and psychological-to his cadres;

b) Highly successful propaganda campaigns-both local and international;

c) Image as a folk hero;

d) Meticulous (and effective) preparation for battles and campaigns;

e) Ability to innovate and make use of limited resources;

f) Compartmentalization of information within the organization; and

g) Emphasis on security.

Prabhakaran's vulnerabilities:

a) Increasing alienation of moderate Tamils;

b) Negative public image as a megalomaniac extremist rather than a freedom fighter;

c) Use of tactics that increasingly instil fear among his Tamil subjects rather than earn him support and sympathy;

d) Insecurity and lack of trust in his comrades in struggle;

e) Willingness to place innocent civilians (Tamil, Sinhalese, and foreign) in harm's way; and

f) Intransigence toward accepting anything less than an independent homeland.

So far, Prabhakaran has been careful not to target Americans. At times, he seems favourably disposed toward Americans and has even invited the United States to act as a third party mediator in the conflict. Though there is no evidence suggesting that Prabhakaran will change this posture, the United States should tread carefully and sceptically in any dealings with Prabhakaran. In the past, Prabhakaran has been known to extend olive branches before striking at unsuspecting targets. If Prabhakaran views US aid to the Sri Lankan government as making a difference on the battlefield to the detriment of the LTTE, his policy toward the United States could change to one of hostility. In the event of such a policy shift, US military trainers, American diplomats, and American businessmen in Sri Lanka would be likely LTTE targets for assassination. US businesses and property would be likely LTTE targets for destruction. However, any harm to US personnel or property would further tarnish Prabhakaran's image among western countries and moderate Tamils.

Ultimately, Prabhakaran's raison d’ etre and legitimacy are predicated on Tamil dissatisfaction with and alienation from the government. As government-Tamil relations improve, Prabhakaran's popularity among Tamils will fade. As long as Prabhakaran is alive, any peace offers proposed by the LTTE will not be genuine; negotiations will be used as a short-term tactic for the LTTE to rearm and regroup as battlefield defeats increase.

If LTTE manpower and resources become severely depleted, Prabhakaran may, as a measure of last resort, publicly accept a seemingly long-term political arrangement short of secession, so long as he is able to retain some semblance of power. Again, this would be viewed by Prabhakaran as a temporary situation until he could position himself to confront the- government and revert to violence for, the sake of creating an independent Tamil homeland.

Tomorrow: The American Government’s assessment of the Sri Lankan Armed Forces





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