Supporters of Sri Lankan Tamil Tiger leader Velupillai Prabhakaran fete him as a “Sun God,” while his opponents brand him a ruthless megalomaniac.
Few, however, can dispute he has been one of the most effective and feared guerrilla leaders in the history of modern warfare — at times displaying the tactical prowess of Afghanistan’s Ahmad Shah Masood, the ruthlessness of Osama bin Laden and the conviction of Latin American revolutionary Che Guevara.
In three decades of savage ethnic conflict aimed at carving out a separate Tamil homeland in the north and east, Prabhakaran managed to consolidate a de facto state and — up until now — outsmart successive government offensives.
He terrorized the island and even neighboring powerhouse India, perfecting the recruitment and use of suicide bomber units even before al-Qaeda existed.
His fighters usually took no prisoners and were notorious for assaults that often left every single enemy soldier dead.
The mustachioed, portly warlord has been blamed for ordering the 1991 assassination of former Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi, who in 1987 sent Indian troops to disarm the Tamil Tigers but ended up with a bloody nose when troops withdrew after 32 months of jungle combat.
His killing apparatus also claimed the lives of Sri Lankan president Ranasinghe Premadasa in 1993, foreign minister Lakshman Kadirgamar in 2005 and countless mayors, police officials and army brass.
His Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) had their own army, navy and air force — built up by an illicit international fundraising network and the use of smugglers on ships and speedboats.
“His dedication to the cause of Tamil Eelam,” the separate state he fought for, “was unquestionable,” recalled former Tamil guerrilla Dharmalingam Sithadthan, now a politician. “He was the only man in Sri Lanka who could decide if there should be war or peace.”
Sithadthan said Prabhakaran, 54, was neither mellowed by age or by his family of three children.
Born on Nov. 26, 1954, in the Tamil heartland of Jaffna, Prabhakaran was a guerrilla fighter for most of his life and has presided over a war that has left at least 70,000 dead — roughly a third of whom were his own fighters.
The youngest of four children from a middle-class family, he went underground in 1972 as the head of a rag-tag band of brigands.
He claimed that he decided to take up arms after seeing Sri Lankan security forces harass Tamil civilians in the Jaffna peninsula.
He went on to attract thousands of young men and women to his army. Like the master himself, all LTTE cadres carry a cyanide capsule to commit suicide rather than be captured alive.
He banned smoking and drinking within the ranks and enforced a strict code of discipline.
Prabhakaran conferred military ranks on his cadres only after their deaths. He built a cult of venerating the dead. Every street corner in rebel-held territory became a monument to a fallen Tiger “martyr.”
Despite earning international terrorist status in the corridors of Washington and Europe and being wanted in India, he was sought out by diplomats seeking to bring an end to Asia’s longest running civil war.
But since the island’s government lost patience with a peace plan and decided to defeat the rebels once and for all, Prabhakaran’s empire has crumbled.
Weakened by defections — and, critics say, ruthless purges — the rebels lost control over the east and then the north.