EVEN AS fighting between a Jaish-e-Muhammad assault team and security force personnel at the Indian Air Force (IAF) base in Pathankot stretched through a second day, Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar has appointed a three-member committee to investigate how six Jaish terrorists succeeded in penetrating the facility in spite of intelligence warnings that an attack was imminent.
The investigation begins amid questions raised by the operations which stretched on for more than 24 hours after Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh congratulated security forces “for successfully neutralising all the five terrorists”.
Home Secretary Rajiv Mehrishi said on Sunday that two terrorists were still thought to be hidden in the base, in addition to four shot dead on Saturday.
Imaging equipment on an IAF reconnaissance helicopter, a source familiar with the operation said, first detected possible terrorist movement at around 4 am on Saturday to the north-west of the runway. The area adjoins Air Force housing, where over 100 families live and where there is a school run for the children of personnel.
Patrols from the Defence Security Corps (DSC), a base-protection organisation drawn from retired army personnel, were sent out to investigate the report, leading to fire contact in which three members of the force lost their lives.
Two more unarmed troops of the DSC, were shot dead next to the lavatory in the security force’s mess, just a few hundred metres from an area where combat aircraft were parked, sources familiar with the operation said. An IAF commando lost his life in this second phase of fighting.
Following the early exchange of fire, troops present at the base focussed on sealing off routes towards the north-west and south-east, in an effort to ensure the terrorists would not be able to move towards the Air Force housing, or pens where the base’s MiG21 jets, attack helicopters, and surface-to-air missile batteries are housed.
Later, further casualties followed when National Security Guard (NSG) officer, Lieutenant Colonel Niranjan Kumar, was killed while attempting to move the body of a terrorist, who had improvised an explosive device under his own body in his last minutes, by lying down on a live grenade.
“In many other countries,” an NSG officer said, “this is a task that would be done by robots, or personnel using highly specialised bomb-disposal equipment. That kind of equipment was not available with us.”
IAF officials say that although intelligence warnings were available on the attack, the aging personnel of the DSC, many in their 50s, were ill-trained to respond to the assault. “The force has never trained for this sort of situation,” a senior IAF officer admitted. “It’s basically meant to guard installations, not deal with a terrorist attack”.
Even though terrorists have successfully attacked several Pakistan Air Force bases in recent years, taking advantage of poor perimeter security, Pathankot had not installed electronic perimeter surveillance systems, further complicating the task of watching out for an intrusion.
“The terrorists basically seemed to have jumped the wall and entered the base,” a senior Punjab Police official told The Indian Express. “There’s just no way they could have watched the entire perimeter in spite of the intelligence warnings,” he said.
Local military officials also said that while NSG personnel were brought into Pathankot late on Friday night, on National Security Advisor Ajit Doval’s orders, there was no clarity on the chain of command and mandate. Late on Friday, Air Force officials jostled with the Indian Army for control of the operation, requiring high-level intervention, which finally granted command to the NSG.
Intelligence officials told The Indian Express that the information available on Friday suggested only that four terrorists were involved in the attack — an assessment based on eyewitness testimony from Superintendent of Police P Salwinder Singh, his friend Rajesh Verma, and Verma’s cook Madan Gopal, whose car was hijacked on Friday by the terrorists.
The assessment, an officer familiar with phone calls made by the terrorists said, was borne out in a conversation one member of the attack team had with his mother, where he referred to slitting the throat of the driver of another car they had hijacked earlier. In the conversation, the officer said, the terrorist had said his three associates had been unwilling to carry out the execution.
However, the discovery that two more terrorists were present inside the base has raised the prospect that a second terror unit could have been involved. “It is possible that other members of this second squad are still at large, or have escaped,” an official said.