Probing Pathankot attack: All alert, all caught unawares — luck their strongest ally

The Indian Express investigation shows, points to worrying signs that the outcome of the operation was as much good luck as good management.

Pathankot/ Chandigarh/ New Delhi | Updated: January 8, 2016 9:53 am
Security personnel at the perimeter fence of the Indian Air Force base in Pathankot on Wednesday. (Express Photo by: Gurmeet Singh) Security personnel at the perimeter fence of the Indian Air Force base in Pathankot on Wednesday. (Express Photo by: Gurmeet Singh)

(Reported by: Kamaldeep Singh Brar and Navjeevan Gopal in Pathankot; Kanchan Vasdev and Nirupama Subramanian in Chandigarh; Deeptiman Tiwary, Sagnik Chowdhury, Pranav Kulkarni and Praveen Swami in New Delhi)

LONG after the fighting, a fire continued to rage across the Airmen’s Mess and the pile of discarded furniture in the yard outside. The last terrorists inside the Air Force base in Pathankot had held out since early on Sunday morning, January 3, firing from inside the building and a nearby patch of elephant grass. The Airmen’s Mess was where they were killed, set alight by explosives and gunfire from armoured personnel carriers. As the National Investigation Agency sifts through the detritus of the battle, there’s a strange fact facing them.

Read: Behind the Pathankot breach, 3 lights turned upward and airbase staffer detained

Four bodies of terrorists have been handed over, clad in military fatigues, and explosives strapped to their bodies. There are four recovered assault rifles and four pistols — the standard kit of the fidayeen, along with ready-to-eat chicken and rice, painkillers, and vials of perfume. Just four.

Read: Fence floodlights that didn’t work, gaps in border patrol, patchy police response

“It is possible that two more bodies were blown to pieces, as the Airmen’s Mess disintegrated,” an intelligence officer familiar with the case told The Indian Express, “and we have sent forensic samples for examination. The thing is, we would have expected to find their weapons in the debris, and nothing’s surfaced”.

Watch Video Pathankot Attack Update: Sharif Tells Modi He Will Act

The unresolved issue of just how many terrorists attacked the base is emblematic of the growing questions over just how well-organised operations to eliminate them were.

Read: Pathankot attack: BSF zeroes in on two intrusion theories — a tunnel, Kashmir route

Intelligence Bureau agents have even, government sources say, been able to identify, with a high degree of confidence, the men who sent them to their death. The Jaish-e-Muhammad chief Masood Azhar, his key aide Maulana Ashfaq Ahmad, Hafiz Abdul Shakoor and Kasim Jan: these men, they say, spoke to the terrorists in intercepted phone conversations.

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Everything that transpired once the firing began, though, is lost in the haze of battle. That, in turn, The Indian Express investigation shows, points to worrying signs that the outcome of the operation was as much good luck as good management.

Pathankot terrorist attack, Pathankot Air Force Base, India-Pakistan peace talks, pathankot security, pathankot operations, pathankot martyrs, pathankot rescue operation, terrorism, pathankot news, india defense, india news, latest news Soldiers keep vigil at the IAF base in Pathankot on Wednesday. (Source: PTI)

January 2, 3.30 am: First fire

EVER since 10.10 pm, the airbase was preparing for battle: the first team of National Security Guards landed there then, to be followed, a few hours later, by a second one, standing by if the terrorists ended up taking hostages from the more than 10,000 members of military families living there. Two teams of the Indian army’s crack special forces were stationed at the Mamoon Army base next door, along with six mine-protected vehicles. Everyone braced for an attack on the Air Base, or another military facility.

Also read: On Dec 31, 9 Pakistan calls on taxi driver’s phone; one incoming, eight outgoing

Inside the Defence Security Corps’ mess, a few hundred meters from the building where the NSG was waiting, Jagdish Chand was brewing tea for the guards who would soon be ending their shift at the base’s perimeter wall. Fifty-eight-year-old Chand, a cook, had just been transferred to Pathankot from Leh, arriving a day earlier.

Drawn from retired soldiers, typically in their late 40s or early 50s, the DSC is responsible for security duties at many defence installations across the country.

The cook, officials involved the operation have told the NIA, likely looked up when he heard gunfire outside — and then, perhaps, saw a man with a gun running into the mess kitchen. The terrorist was shot dead, perhaps after Chand fought him to the ground, before being killed by a second attacker.

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Even though the base was prepared for a classic fidayeen attack on its gates — men, armed with grenades and assault rifles, trying to shoot their way on the technical area tarmac — no one had expected they were already inside.

Located by thermal-imaging equipment on board Air Force helicopters, the terrorists had moved rapidly after jumping the 11-foot wall around the base. They first faced a patrol of Garud commandos from a contingent of 24 men who had come in the night before with the Commander-in-chief of the Western Air Command, Air Marshal S B Deo.

The Garuds, the Air Force’s in-house commando force, opened fire near the military engineering service’s mechanical transport facility, and claim to have injured one terrorist standing near the perimeter wall. In the exchange of fire, Garud Corporal Gursewak Singh was shot dead.

Following this exchange of fire, the terrorists ran into the DSC mess. It was then that they killed the cook, Chand. Subsequently, Kulwant Singh, an unarmed guard, tried to grapple with one of the terrorists, but was shot and killed in the unequal struggle. Three other DSC guards were killed, claimed by a grenade the terrorists threw as they ran into the building.

Soldiers climb up the stairs of a residential building outside the Indian air force base in Pathankot on Sunday evening as the gunbattle continued. (AP Photo) Soldiers climb up the stairs of a residential building outside the Indian air force base in Pathankot on Sunday evening as the gunbattle continued. (AP Photo)

Large swathes of the airbase, home to families and unarmed personnel, had been left unguarded, simply because no one thought the terrorists would be able to penetrate the perimeter with such ease.

The Army says, in private, that it had thousands of armed personnel available who could have been drafted in to secure the premises — men who would, moreover, have then been available to lock down the base once the firing began. No one, though, had ever planned or prepared for such an assault, a mistake that had cost five men their lives.

4.00 am: Hide and seek

THE National Security Guard joined battle, sources familiar with the operation say, inside minutes. They first engaged the terrorists near the base’s bakery, known to generations of military families in Pathankot for its cookies and cakes. The terrorists, though, melded away just as contact began. This began a lethal game of hide and seek, with forces trying to pin down the terrorists and force them to expend their ammunition — and the terrorists darting away, to avoid just that outcome.

For the NSG and the small Army Special Force contingent, the first task now was to ensure the the terrorists didn’t make their way north, towards the Air Base’s family housing, or south and south-east, where combat jets, helicopters and air-defence missile batteries were housed. The gates to the hangers were less than 500 m away.

Inside hours, both the terrorists who had stormed the DSC mess were dead. “We were pretty sure that they had not infiltrated the technical area”, an Air Force officer said, “because if they had they’d have been blowing up aircraft by then”.

pathankot1Fighting broke out again at around 10.00 a.m., after more terrorists were spotted near the Airmen’s billet-the third point of contact. The army’s special forces, reinforced by several more columns who had been called in once the fighting broke out, had located the group.

“We did the search but once contact was made, we were told to hand over to the NSG”, said a military official present at the base. The official said that though this was done as seamlessly as possible, it slowed operations down, as the terrain and location of the terrorists had to be explained to the NSG’s officers.

The fighting dragged on. At one stage, the forces contemplated bringing down the airmen’s billet, using explosives. The option, though, was rejected after it turned out there were still airmen trapped inside. In the afternoon, the Army had covered the evacuation of the Air Force personnel inside, firing from a BMP2 armoured personnel carrier, and a Casspir mine-proof vehicle. Soon afterwards, explosives tore the building apart.

Late that afternoon, the Air Force Flew Mi-35 attack helicopters low over the base, their armour-plating protecting them from fire, to make sure all was well. Two more terrorists were detected at 3.30 pm, near a patch of elephant grass. The men were engaged, once again — and killed.

Even though the army has said, in public, that there was “excellent synergy” between the multiple forces involved in the operation, and that the decision was taken after consulting the Army chief, private assessments by serving officers are less emphatic.

“The NSG has never been trained to go after terrorists inside the semi-rural setting of a large military camp”, one officer said. “We do it all the time in Kashmir. Last year, we did an operation in Arnia. Five terrorists had were detected inside the the camp around 3 am, and by 10.30 am it was all over”.

In fairness, it had taken just three and a half hours longer for the Pathankot operation to come to an end — and that over considerably greater terrain. Bar the NSG’s Lieutenant-Colonel Niranjan Kumar, who died when he moved a body under which the terrorist had left a grenade as a booby trap, there were no fatalities after the initial contact.

3.00 pm, January 4: Recrimination

Eighty four hours after it began, late on Tuesday afternoon, Defence Minister Manohar Parikkar was finally able to address the press. Behind the scenes, though, the recrimination had begun. The Air Force was less than happy that the seniormost officer at the base, Air Marshal Deo, had no role in operations. Brigadier G S Belvi, in charge of the army contingent, only had to defer to a military colleague, Major-General Dushyant Singh — but it still ruffled military feathers since his boss, the Director-General of the NSG, is a police officer.

The essence of the Army’s critique is that there was no reason why, with nearly 15,000 troops present just around the Air Base, National Security Advisor Ajit Doval had to call in the NSG. Like all hindsight, this criticism seems fair because the hunt went on for so long — but had hostages been taken, the failure to have the NSG on hand would also have been an issue.

Far more important are the larger lessons. Had the Intelligence Bureau not intercepted telephone conversations by the terrorists, and set off the alarm, it is possible the terrorists would have managed to enter deeper into the base, hit aircraft, unchallenged, or inflict heavier casualties.

There has been no explanation of just why a vital base didn’t have better perimeter security, and electronic surveillance systems, even though similar attacks on bases just across the border in Pakistan had lead to the losses of multi-million dollar combat assets.

Had a proper lockdown system been planned and rehearsed, moreover, the lethal hide and seek at the base wouldn’t have gone on for quite so long. In this sense, it’s clear military planners didn’t learn important lessons from 26/11, where forces had to respond on the fly — with far from optimal consequences. Pathankot was an embarrassment, not a 26/11-type catastrophe, as some have claimed. It could, only too easily, have proved otherwise.

(Tomorrow: Meanwhile, in Delhi)

Reported by: Kamaldeep Singh Brar and Navjeevan Gopal in Pathankot; Kanchan Vasdev and Nirupama Subramanian in Chandigarh; Deeptiman Tiwary, Sagnik Chowdhury, Pranav Kulkarni and Praveen Swami in New Delhi

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  1. N
    Njan
    Jan 8, 2016 at 12:10 am
    The moment I saw presute Praveen Swami 's name, it was Ctrl del.
    Reply
    1. G
      GujaratRox
      Jan 8, 2016 at 12:32 am
      All these anti Hindus pressutes who are commenting forget that Shri Narendra Modi is the very first Hindu emperor of Bharat after more than 1200 years of slavery. He has done all Hindus proud and inspired our soldiers to become martyrs in hordes without a second thought, with smiles on their martyred face. It is his magnetic personality that even rest of the world leaders are jealous of him and are desperately trying to copy his of stylish clothes and still cannot match his wonderful wardrobe. That is the reason they fail miserably at inspiring their armies to become martyrs and cover themselves with Sh*t shat naman like Modiji has made his army do. By his inspiring speeches, electric slogans, and highly intellectual and capable ministers, strategists, party leaders, speech writers, photographers, Digital India Photoshop twitter comment sections experts, Swachh Bharat photo opporotunities for the inspiring cabinet with jhadus to clean the few fallen leaves on lush green lawns of the palaces from where they do Bharat proud by their leadership of the world, made in india e-rickshaw, etc., he has infused Hindus all over the world with a fresh energy and pride. Our army is now eagerly seeking every opportunity to become martyrs to the last man for Modiji and Bharat, and for their noble aim to become martyrs, Pathankot was an opportunity sent by gods. When they become martyrs, they make Modiji proud of the bravery of soldiers, army officers, intelligence apparatus, police, PMO, NSA, et al. Shat sh*t naman (not the past tense of sh*t that some anti Hindu pressutes have misinterpreted as) to all martyrs and would be millions of martyrs for Modiji. It must also be noted that Pathankot incident has happened after Kejriwal's attack on Shri Jaitleyji, which he did to cover his own corruption in AAP in collaboration with Congress and Mamta (but the brave CBI exposed them by raiding them in their office), and Kirti Azad and Shatrughan Sinha's (under instigation by Advani, Sinha, etc.) attack on the proud and victorious Hindu cricket establishment of Bharat- BCCI and IPL. Proud Hindus from Modiji's cabinet- not only Jaitleyji- but also Sushma ji and Vasundhra ji have helped to build the world conquering Hindu cricket officials and players in close collaboration of history makers like the other Modiji from IPL and encouraged entrepreneurship of punters and forex dealers. This actoin by Kejriwal, Kirti, Sinhas, Advani, JDU, Nitish, et al. is clear proof that there is a coordination between these traitors of country and the Pathankot attackers. Only CBI was investigating these internal enemies till now, but now the brave javans of RAW and NSG should also raid their offices in Delhi government and other homes and offices (offices of Swiss government too), and interrogate them. These are internal anti Hindu traitors who should be dealt with first by putting all national and party resources and agencies to investigate, raid and interrogate them. After a few years of getting the internal enemies, Modiji can easily handle outside anti Hindu forces like stan any time because of the army that he has motivated to get martyred 100%, and with the help of the World leaders like Obama, Putin, Zuckerberg, Nadella, and others who look forward to his inspired leadership of the world and have millions of selfies and big personal chemistries with him. All Hindus chests are expanding exponentially because of Modiji. After inspiring the martyrdom of sodiers in Pathankot, Modiji's proud chest is already 112 inches with their bravery, and the rest of his party workers in BJP and RSS have at least 96 inches and growing. They should build on this momentum to increase the chest size even more by inspiring more martyrs and by doing Shat sh*t namans to them, and hence lead the Hindu empire under them to the pinnacle of glory. HAR HAR MODI GHAR GHAR MODI..GUJARAT WILL RULE THE WORLD. GujaratRox Gujarat AT Rox.biz
      Reply
      1. M
        Major
        Jan 9, 2016 at 9:30 am
        Mr Doval acted as though he was the self appointed "Chief of Defense Staff" all through the operations. Now he has to answer the outcome of the events and his explanation for unconventional tactics followed.
        Reply
        1. A
          Arun Sharma
          Jan 8, 2016 at 7:25 am
          Perimeter securing should be immediate priority. Terrorists should not be able to infiltrate. It seems that some racket is going on at border for crossing people illegally across border. Please investigate it and stop it.
          Reply
          1. N
            Narinder Dogra
            Jan 8, 2016 at 3:59 am
            Incompetence is glowing! Indian solders seem to guys on the street with uniform. No quick response training. What a colossal waste of funds on maintaining an untrained and motivated army. Incompetent Indian Govt.
            Reply
            1. N
              Narinder Dogra
              Jan 8, 2016 at 6:49 pm
              Who gives a hoot what you are recommending. There are professionals in the Indian Army who look at all aspects of securing the base. Thats what they are paid for. They think and breath security day in and day out. When they ask Govt for certain things for the security of the base and Govt turns down their requests. Then incidents like this happen. If that is not the case, then the local army leadership is incompetent and they must be relieved of their duties to defend the country. They are incapable. Indian political leadership including hi family are corrupt to the core. Their interests are stashing looted money in overseas banks.
              Reply
              1. H
                H.Balakrishnan
                Jan 8, 2016 at 2:22 am
                Let's face facts. What should have been a sleek/slick intel driven ops with 'the right men at the right place', the Jihadis should not have been able to enter the airbase. Period. That , despite 24 hours intel notice, the Jihadis entered the base, points to our failure. With 2 Army Infantry Divisions at stone's throw from the airbase, they should have been tasked for the anti-terror ops instead of the NSG. Another failure was the lack of a 'single command authority'. The Army should have been given this responsibility. Sad, but where India should have held its head high for a slick ops, it is now down in the dumps for its mive Goof Up. We appear to learn no lessons from history. Regards
                Reply
                1. K
                  K.Jayakrishnan
                  Jan 8, 2016 at 4:21 am
                  this is only a newspaper investigation and garnered form "sources". Let the official investigation get done and then conclusions can be arrived at. too premature.
                  Reply
                  1. K
                    kamath Ramesh
                    Jan 8, 2016 at 9:35 am
                    Nobody can deny there were some lapses in the security checks without which militants could not have reached the airbase. Subject to this lapse, rest of the operation was fully successful and commendable. It is unfair on the part of some TV media, opposition parties and some of the defence experts who may have some axe to grind, to criticize the operation
                    Reply
                    1. A
                      anandap
                      Jan 8, 2016 at 8:10 am
                      Indian system always forget 123, the basic three steps, Surveillance, preparation and combat? Here all three steps were so confused and culprits had enough time to penetrate inside? Reports On attack day, that light was not working or deliberately off some area inside Air force base, means "thieves possibility inside the ship" too?
                      Reply
                      1. M
                        madan gupta
                        Jan 9, 2016 at 1:46 am
                        बादल अपने ड्रग के व्यापार में मस्त है. इस बार इन की छुट्टी है फिर जेल तैयार.
                        Reply
                        1. M
                          manoj mago
                          Jan 8, 2016 at 1:33 am
                          corruptionefficiency is mother of all problems
                          Reply
                          1. K
                            KeepItHonest
                            Jan 8, 2016 at 12:18 am
                            The moment I saw pressute Praveen Swami 's name, it was CACHE FLUSH followed by a CORE DUMP for the computer and a LISTERINE wash for me.
                            Reply
                            1. P
                              pkpk
                              Jan 8, 2016 at 1:58 pm
                              Integrated field commands and Chairman, Joint Chief of Staff in Defense Ministry, available to PM for emergency advise is the need of the hour. Politicians don't have to worry from the Chairman as he would be chief of defense staff and not the supreme commander. Obviously the appointment has to be the senior most defense officer like Cabinet Secretary on civil side. Since he would be equal to the cabinet secretary in political structure, having direct access to PM, Babus would put all sorts of hurdles in this re-structuring but national interest should be paramount. USA, China and India are projected to maintain biggest standing armed forces in next 20 years. It is high time, Indian political leaders start a serious discussion on re-organization of military in contemporary WORLD. Here is one of the option USA is successfully maintaining over a century: RE-ORGANIZATION OF MILITARY/CIVILIAN COMMAND STRUCTURE: There should be only 5 commands (NOT as Army, Navy or Air force but all three integrated) - Northern Command, Western Command, Eastern Command, Central Command and Maritime Command (including Strategic Command). Eastern Command will include areas right up to South East Asia. Western Command will include areas up to Russia. Maritime Command will include areas up to West Asia including Arabian Sea, India Ocean, right up to Australia. Northern Command’s area will be limited but Kashmir itself is very important and areas in China (Tibet) and Mona can be included. Central Command will contain all strike formations of Army/AF and all erstwhile area/sub area headquarters. All 5 commands should be commanded by a 4 star general from army, air force or navy, who will report to Joint Chiefs of Staff (4 star general but a higher appointment) deputed by another 4 star general. Both Joint Chiefs of Staff and his deputy will report to the defense minister and their offices will be in Defense Ministry and PMO. Prime Minister will be connected to all 4 star commanders in field by a hotline. There should be a situation room in PMO where regular meeting of top br of security apparatus can take place. Current service chiefs of army, air force and navy will remain in service headquarters to maintain and inter command transfers of the forces, however the military commanders in field will exercise the command and control over the forces under their command. Instead of one defense secretary, there will be secretaries each for army, air force and navy to exercise civilian control.The above model will ensure complete civilian control over military, yet the highest level defense decision maker (PM) in touch with matters military and national defense. Imagine our PM calling the field military commander directly on hotline, eliminating all red tape. There will be no more inter-service acrimony and all forces will jointly responsible for national security! If you ask for the opinion of service headquarters, that may be biased.
                              Reply
                              1. R
                                r
                                Jan 8, 2016 at 3:53 am
                                One madarasa teacher in Bangalore arrested. He is having link with Al Queada. Indian Express is afraid of publishing this news. It does not want to antagonize Sonia
                                Reply
                                1. D
                                  David
                                  Jan 8, 2016 at 12:26 am
                                  IE....has started misinformation campaign. Please for gods sake stop this pack of lies. The enemy within, paid by someone. National values are above money.
                                  Reply
                                  1. D
                                    David
                                    Jan 8, 2016 at 1:29 am
                                    accha commedy AAPtard aur Congi ka...
                                    Reply
                                    1. R
                                      R. Singh
                                      Jan 8, 2016 at 3:04 am
                                      Nutcase
                                      Reply
                                      1. R
                                        R. Singh
                                        Jan 8, 2016 at 3:06 am
                                        Well done Bharat security forces.
                                        Reply
                                        1. R
                                          Ram
                                          Jan 8, 2016 at 12:08 am
                                          I am also following ... govt knows seriousness, information known, still they could not have prevented them entering airbase. IT's not surprise attack. The militants are well trained, but you have to sent scores of army men to prevent and attack them like in Hindi movie(albeit in opposing roles) but still had to lose lives. Are our army men also losing their precision training? Fidayen are getting better military training. Or is it that we dont have better planning and leadership? See Afghan, it is really miracle that consulate saved thanks to governer warlord, otherwise would have been mayhem. High time, military and defense ess what went wrong and correct. IT won't be last attack and they will be many more coming. Our police is so pathetic we know anyway.
                                          Reply
                                          1. S
                                            Sanjay Bhattacharya
                                            Jan 8, 2016 at 7:15 am
                                            Why long distance CCTV cameras were not installed in the boundaries? Such high security base should be protected with high fence only. Govt of the past ignored security. At least we can expect a better job from this Govt?
                                            Reply
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