Much before Delhi woke up to the possibility of a “terror attack on a military installation” in Pathankot, terrorists had already entered the premises of the IAF base. It has now emerged that when the security establishment was working to fortify the perimeter of different installations in Pathankot, four terrorists were already hiding in a patch of elephant grass near the Defence Security Corps (DSC) Mess inside the airbase.
For over 20 hours, they sat there, talking to their handlers in Pakistan. One even bid farewell to his family over the phone. At 3.30 am on January 2, they came out and stormed the DSC Mess, killing five DSC staff and an IAF Garud commando.
Investigations have now established that four terrorists entered the airbase after snipping the concertina wire over a wall behind the DSC Mess between 3.30 am and 6 am on January 1. They then hid in the elephant grass and waited for instructions.
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Investigators have come to this conclusion after piecing together information, intercepts and evidence received at different stages from different quarters. Among these are the statements of Punjab SP Salwinder Singh’s jeweller friend Rajesh Verma, the recovery of Singh’s vehicle from near the base at 11 am on January 1, interception of a call made to the mother of one of the terrorists and the pattern of past terror attacks.
Verma, along with Singh and his cook, was waylaid by the terrorists at 11.30 pm on December 31 near Kolian village and was the last person to be with the terrorists in Singh’s Mahindra XUV until they reached close to the airbase. He told interrogators that the terrorists abandoned the hijacked SUV at 3 am. His statement has been corroborated and found to be true, sources said.
The place where the car was abandoned and the spot where the perimeter wall was breached are about 1.5 km apart. “We are reasonably sure that the terrorists walked to the jungle behind the perimeter wall, spent considerable time in climbing a tree, cutting the concertina, flinging a rope over the wall and getting to the other side. By the time they entered the base it was daybreak, not the right time to launch an attack. So they hid in the elephant grass and waited,” said an official.
From this hideout, several calls were made to Pakistan using Verma’s mobile phone which the terrorists had snatched. One of the calls was made at 9.21 am on January 1, hours after terrorists had entered the base. This was the first call intercepted by intelligence agencies. In this call, one of the terrorists spoke to his mother. And before his mother broke down and asked him whether he had eaten, he told her that he was “inside the camp” and safe, waiting to launch an attack, said an intelligence source.
“We could fully interpret the call, made in Multani Punjabi, only by lunch time that day. Still we were not sure which camp in Pathankot was going to come under attack. There is an Army base too nearby. We now know that the terrorists were speaking from inside the IAF base,” the official said.
Asked why the terrorists waited an entire day before launching an attack, the official said: “There is no evidence to explain this since no intercept reveals instructions on when to launch an attack. But reasonable conclusion has been arrived at on the basis of the pattern of past attacks.”
In most past attacks in J&K and Punjab, terrorists have struck between 3 am and daybreak. “This is the best time to launch an attack. Most people are sleeping and those on security duty are tired and unable to respond as swiftly,” the official said. In at least five attacks in the past couple of years in Jammu and Punjab, this pattern has been noticed.