HOW VULNERABLE IS PRABHAKARAN TO A DECAPITATION AIR STRIKE?
INTERNATIONAL TERRORISM MONITOR---PAPER NO.328
The Sri Lankan Government claimed on December 19,2007, that the head of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), Velupillai Prabhakaran, was injured last month during an air strike by Sri Lankan Air Force (SLAF) jets.
2.The Defence Ministry has been quoted by the media as saying: "Intelligence sources confirmed that the LTTE supremo Velupillai Prabhakaran had sustained injuries in the air strikes carried out by four fighter aircraft of the Sri Lanka Air Force on a bunker complex in Jayanthinagar, Kilinochchi around 5.25 pm on November 26.Intelligence had confirmed that the bunker complex was frequented by Prabhakaran.Acting on reliable intelligence, the Air Force carried out a successful air strike targeting the leader of the LTTE, on November 26.Attack aircraft of the Air Force carried out another air strike on the same target on November 28.The Air Force confirms that the target was successfully destroyed amidst heavy LTTE ground to air fire towards the Sri Lanka Air Force aircraft. Subsequent to the attack, the Air Force monitored movements around the target.Though the Air Force believed that Prabhakaran had been hit in the attack, non-availability of ground information to confirm it at that time prevented the Government from releasing this information to the media."
3.Earlier, the "Nation" newspaper of Colombo had reported on December 16,2007,that Prabhakaran sustained injuries during an air raid in rebel held areas of Kilinochchi on November 28, 2007. However, the LTTE had strongly denied it."It is a lie. Nothing of that sort happened," an LTTE spokesman was quoted as saying.
4. The Sri Lankan Defence Ministry has been disseminating a lot of disinformation through its statements and the web sites of the Government regarding its claimed successes against the LTTE. One has, therefore, to be careful in accepting its claim without independent corroboration.
5. However, this analysis is based on the presumption that the claim may be correct. For over a year now, the Sri Lankan Air Force has been trying for a decapitation air strike against Prabhakaran. Since the LTTE has killed many Sri Lankan leaders including former President Premadasa and former Foreign Minister Laxman Kadirgamar and had tried to kill Mrs.Chandrika Kumaratunge when she was the President, they have every right to personally target Prabhakaran and try to eliminate him. In fact, Mr. Gothbaya Rajapakse, their Defence Secretary, had openly stated that they were targeting Prabhakaran himself for an air strike.
6. The Americans too have been trying to kill Osama bin Laden, his No.2 Ayman Al Zawahiri and Mulla Mohammad Omar, the Amir of the Taliban, through air strikes. One of the air strikes in the Bajaur Agency of Pakistan, which killed a large number of civilians, was based on information that Zawahiri was in the area. The information proved to be wrong.
7.Even after six years of targeting them, the Americans have not succeeded. Reasons: Firstly, the high level of communication security of Al Qaeda. Secondly, the refusal of the tribals to betray them. Thirdly, Al Qaeda and the Taliban do not have the paraphernalia of a State. They do not have any permanent infrastructure. bin Laden, Zawahiri and Omar lead a gypsy-like existence moving from village to village. Nobody knows in which village they are or they will be at particular moment. Moreover, the Air Force does not like to bomb villages unless it has pin-point information.
8.In the case of Prabhakaran, things are different. One does not know about the quality of the LTTE's communications security. He has the paraphernelia of a state because of his pretensions of running a shadow state. He considers it beneath his dignity to lead a gypsy-like existence moving from village to village and taking shelter there. Even in the Wanni area, the circle of the safe areas available to him is getting smaller and smaller.
9. The two or three small planes, which he has procured for the so-called Tamil Eelam Air Force, have added to the intimidatory capability of the LTTE, but not to its defensive capability. They are unlikely to be in a position to protect him.
10. What can protect Prabhakaran from a successful decapitation strike by the Sri Lankan Air Force are good ground-based anti-aircraft defence capability and a capability to penetrate the bases of the Sri Lankan Air Force and destroy its attack aircraft on the ground. The LTTE's ground-based anti-aircraft capability is very weak due to the difficulties faced by it in procuring new equipment from abroad. It was able to penetrate the SLAF base at Anuradhapura and destroy a number of surveillance and trainer planes. It has not been able to mount any operation to penetrate the bases in which the SLAF attack aircraft are kept.
11. A good system of bunkers on the ground can protect just as Sir Winston Churchill and other British leaders were protected against the Nazi Blitzkrieg during the Second World War.But the bunkers were not alone in protecting them. They were supplemented by an excellent anti-aircraft capability on the ground and the planes of the RAF, which countered the German air strikes in the air. Bunkers alone without a good cover of anti-aircraft guns and LTTE fighter planes in the air can protect for some time, but not for all time.
12. After an unsuccessful attempt to kill Mrs.Margaret Thatcher, the then British Prime Minister, in 1985 through an explosion in a Brighton Hotel in which she was staying, the Irish Republican Army, which had placed the bomb, was reported to have stated:" She has to be lucky every time. We have to be lucky only once."
13. The reverse is true in the case of a decapitation air strike against a terrorist leader. He has to be lucky every time. The SLAF has to be lucky only once.(20-12-07)
(The writer is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai. E-mail: email@example.com )