The terrorists who struck at the airbase in Pathankot in the early hours of January 2 had most likely entered the defence installation during the afternoon of January 1 itself, security officials have told The Indian Express.
Punjab police, security forces and central intelligence agencies knew this on that day and had, therefore, prepared to pre-empt the attack by deploying men and material at the base beginning that afternoon, a top official here said. The state government had alerted New Delhi about the possible terror attack on Pathankot at around noon on January 1, saying that terrorists seemed to have infiltrated into Punjab. It was after the state’s alert, sources said, that National Security Adviser Ajit Doval called an emergency meeting and the National Security Guards (NSG) were sent to Punjab.
Investigations are also on into a possible local angle focusing on why taxi driver Ikagar Singh left his home late in the night after a phone call. Officials said a phone call from Pakistan was made to his number. He left home soon after this, telling his family members that he had received a phone call from a nearby village to take someone to the hospital. The person whose name Ikagar mentioned denied making the phone call.
Sources said the infiltrators were tracked to a thickly forested area inside the air-base around 3.30 pm on January 1 through mobile towers, as they were making phone calls to Pakistan from a local number, the official said. The number belonged to the Superintendent of Police whose vehicle the terrorists had snatched earlier that day, in the pre-dawn hours of January 1.
Several calls were made from that number to Pakistan through the day. The mobile tower areas from which the calls were made indicate the terrorists were already inside the air base, the official said.
“It was at around 3.30 pm on January 1, when the tower location pointed towards the forest area. The forest is known to be thick, lined with heaps of debris. Since we knew that the terrorists must be on a jihadi mission and would be certainly carrying lethal ammunition, it was not sensible to have started the combing operation when it was getting dark. We could not have risked the lives of our troops. Hence, we alerted everyone to ensure that the casualty is minimum,” said a top police source.
“We did not want to take any chances,” a police official said. “The foremost thing was to step up security of the Chief Minister and Deputy Chief Minister, who were advised to stay put at a safe place. Later, at around 11 pm that night, we got the main doors of all the police stations in Pathankot shut. We wanted to pre-empt a repeat of Dina Nagar. A sentry each was posted at the entrance of each police station.” (On July 27, 2015, three gunmen in Army uniform fired on a bus and attacked the Dina Nagar police station in Gurdaspur killing three civilains anmd four policemen, including an SP).
The Indian Air Force was alerted and the barracks and messes were vacated besides stepping up security at their vital installations, “We knew the jihadis would want to launch an attack by targeting maximum people in sleep. That is the reason they struck at 3 am. And we were fully prepared. The killings were not as many as they might have planned. We have averted a massive tragedy.”
He said the local police officers did not believe the Superintendent of Police, Salwinder Singh, when he complained to the Pathankot police about his abduction. “Even we, at the headquarters, went along with the local police officers. But around noon, after the questioning of the SP and his associates, there were more than one reason to set the alarm bells ringing. Hence, we alerted the centre. By 4.30 pm. the NSG had reached the airbase.”
By then the terrorists had reached the IAF base in Pathankot by successfully crossing the first line of defense manned by Defense Security Corps (DSC). Sources said the police are still in the dark about how the second group, likely comprising two terrorists, entered the IAF base.
“The jihadis are highly motivated and well-trained, they would have brought ammunition along in their backpacks. They would have used Google maps to reach their destination. But the possibility of their getting help from some locals cannot be ruled out. We are probing the possible links of terrorists with the smugglers active on both sides of the border, who could be their local handlers. Also, we are probing Ikagar, the driver who was murdered by terrorists since he got a call from Pakistan and it was only after that he got out of his house at midnight. He was the only one who was murdered and he was the only one who got a call from Pakistan. He was killed,” said the source.
Sources said police are also scrutinising the conduct Superintendent of Police Salwinder Singh in the run-up to his encounter with terrorists. A senior police officer said several of his statements do not add up, “We are left wondering what was he doing at that spot at that time of the night in his official car. That, too, without his own driver. Also, we need to answer a question as to how the jihadis left the SP without even injuring him while his associate was almost killed by slitting his neck. It was sheer providence that saved him.”