For more than a quarter-century, the Tamil Tigers have waged a guerilla war against the Sri Lankan government in their attempt to establish an independent state which they call Eelam for minority Hindu Tamils in the north and east of the island nation. Suicide bombings and assassinations have been the group's calling cards, all orchestrated by Velupillai Prabhakaran, who founded the insurgent group in the mid-70s. Now, a months-long push by the Sri Lankan military appears to have mortally wounded the group, considered by the United States a terrorist organization, trapping the Tigers (and thousands of Tamil civilians) on a narrow strip of land. As the government closes in, Prabhakaran's whereabouts are unknown. He could be dead, he could be alive, he could have already left the country regardless, he remains the most influential person in Sri Lanka's recent history. (See pictures of life in the territories previously controlled by the Tamil Tigers.)
The 54-year-old was born on Nov. 26, 1954, in a coastal Sri Lankan village to a government official father.
As a teenager, Prabhakaran either dropped out of school or was suspended. Either way, he went on to found a small rebel group called the Tamil New Tigers in 1972. Three years later, Prabhakaran assassinated the mayor of Jaffna, a northern Sri Lankan province, by walking up to him outside of a Hindu temple and shooting him at close-range. In 1976, the Tamil New Tigers were redubbed the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), a name it holds to this day. (Watch TIME's video of civilians caught in the Sri Lankan civil war.)
In 1983, an LTTE attack left 13 Sri Lankan police officers dead. The government responded with a violent crackdown on Tamils that killed hundreds, yet caused thousands worldwide to side with Prabhakaran. The event marked the official beginning of the civil war.
A fan of Clint Eastwood films and Hollywood action flicks, Prabhakaran is considered to have practically invented suicide bombers. His "Black Tiger" bombers almost half of them women have killed thousands, including former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and Sri Lankan President Ranasunghe Premadasa. The elite Black Sea Tigers perform underwater suicide bombings to sink enemy ships. (Read "A Brief History of the Tamil Tigers")
Has conducted a successful insurgency against both Sri Lankan and Indian troops for almost 26 years. Has entered in peace talks twice, only to return to fighting within a year on both occasions.
Suffers from diabetes, and has been in hiding since emerging for a disastrous 2002 press conference where reporters were kept waiting for almost a dozen hours before he showed up.
Is regarded with an almost mystical reverence by followers, thanks to a personality cult maintained by constant LTTE propaganda and his remarkable ability to escape capture whenever backed into a corner.
While the LTTE initially funded itself by robbing banks, Prabhakaran has been able to tap into the sympathy (and wallets) of Tamils living abroad, especially in India's southeast.
Met his wife Madhivadini while she was a university student on hunger strike to protest the poor treatment of Tamils that were kidnapped and brought to Prabhakaran's headquarters. They eventually wed and had three children, one of whom (son, Charles Anthony) is believed to have been injured in recent fighting.
"We are freedom fighters, not terrorists, seriously committed to peace."
during a 2002 press conference in northern Sri Lanka, during a cease-fire that later collapsed. It was his first public appearance in 12 years (Itogi Magazine, April 16, 2007)
"I understand the dignity of life, but our right is much more dignified than life ... A liberation warrior's death is not a normal death occurrence. This death is a historical incident. It is a miracle of high ideal becoming a reality."
quoted from his website (TIME, June 5, 2000)
"I started the movement with the firm resolve that I will never be caught alive by the enemy. That has spread down the ranks."
on the wearing of cyanide capsules by his followers, a tradition he began himself (Los Angeles Times, Jan. 20, 1992)
"The quietest man I have come across. He was so soft-spoken that you could not hear him under his breath. It made you wonder, even if momentarily, if he really led the Tamil Tigers."
Sadanand Menon, Indian journalist (New York Times, March 31, 2009)
"If the Indians can capture Prabhakaran and his chief lieutenants, then at most the separatists will only be capable of residual terrorism. But if they fail, then Prabhakaran will live to regroup and fight another day."
A Sri Lankan defense official, during the late 80's Indian assault against the Tamil Tigers. That was 22 years ago. (The Washington Post, Oct. 24, 1987)
"His commitment is total. But as time went on, and he became more powerful, he became molded into a fascist one of the most extreme fascist leaders in the world."
A unnamed former Tamil Tiger, (Los Angeles Times, Jan. 20, 1992)