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

The ease with which terrorists penetrated the base, an investigation by The Indian Express has found, was just one of many factors which facilitated the strike.

Pathankot/ Chandigarh/ New Delhi | Updated: January 8, 2016 10:34 am
pathankot attack, pathankot terror attack, attack in pathankot, pathankot terror, pathankot air base, pathankot air base attack, pathankot, NIA Pathakoat, pakistani terrorist, pakistani terrorist in Pathankot, Pathankot news Soldiers keep vigil at the IAF base in Pathankot on Wednesday. (Source: PTI)

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

The only fact that truly mattered hung off the wall, swinging slightly in the morning breeze, when investigators discovered it yesterday. It was a nylon rope, looped from the ground up over the Pathankot Air Force Base’s 11-foot-high perimeter wall and then down again. Little genius had been needed to pull off the feat: one member of the assault team had climbed up one of the eucalyptus trees growing along the fence, and bent it over with his weight on to the wall. Helping them was the dark — the floodlights in that stretch of the wall were not working that night.

Read: All alert, all caught unawares — luck their strongest ally

Hundreds of Defence Security Corps guards tasked with guarding that fence, the last line of defence for one of India’s most vital forward bases, had failed to notice as the assault team lugged themselves, 50 kg of ammunition, 30 kg of grenades, and their assault weapons. Also read: Pathankot attack: BSF zeroes in on two intrusion theories — a tunnel, Kashmir route

The ease with which terrorists penetrated the base, an investigation by The Indian Express has found, was just one of many factors which facilitated the strike — leading to a three-day fire engagement that has set off a political storm as well.

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

Criticism about the time it took to end the operation misses the point. Forces elsewhere in the world have taken longer to terminate operations in smaller areas. The losses of Indian security force personnel, though tragic, are far from the highest India has suffered in similar strikes. However, an investigation by The Indian Express including interviews with eyewitnesses, several key police, military, intelligence and government officials in New Delhi, Chandigarh and Pathankot and those involved in several aspects of the operations, points, instead, to glaring gaps in planning, command, training and equipment.


8 pm, December 31: The prelude

This is known: no one paid much attention when taxidriver Ikagar Singh started up his Innova and drove out of the yard in front of his home in the village of Bhagwal (35 km from the airbase) at around 8 pm on New Year’s Eve. There wasn’t any reason to. He was barely 5 km away from the India-Pakistan border, as the crow flies. And Ikagar told his relatives he had got a call from a family that wanted to rush a patient to a hospital. That family has since denied that they called. To the west of the village, a tributary of the Ravi slices through the border, creating a kilometre-wide gap in the fencing that runs all the way from the Rann of Kutch to Kashmir.

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

For decades, smugglers, and the then Khalistan terrorists, used these ravines and elephant grass-covered marshes to infiltrate into India from Pakistan. They still do. Last year, the terrorists who attacked Dinanagar used just this route.

Army men stand guard near the Indian Air Force (IAF) base at Pathankot. (Reuters) Army men stand guard near the Indian Air Force (IAF) base at Pathankot. (Reuters)

Police sources said Ikagar made a call to Harjinder Kaur, a woman relative in Janial village 8 km away, to tell her that he was on his way. The woman says the call came at 9.31 pm. “Later when I called his number, the phone rang twice but was not answered,” Kaur told The Indian Express.

It’s shortly after this, police suspect, that Ikagar was waylaid by terrorists between Bhagwal and Janial. His body would be found at 11 am the next day, hours after the taxidriver had bled to death, his throat slit.

Also read: With SP and his cook, NIA replays ‘abduction’ sequence

Police investigators, as well as the intelligence services, believe the terror squad likely crossed the border through the marshes west of Bhagwal. The Border Security Force denies this, noting that there’s no video footage of an infiltrating group, nor a cut in the border fence. But that was true of the Dinanagar attack, too — because there is no fencing in the stretch given the terrain.

Says Gurbachan Jagat, a former Director-General of the Border Security Force who was closely involved in the border fencing project. “It’s true the rivers are hard to fence but there are other solutions, like nets across the river, technical surveillance, and, most importantly, moving troops from less vulnerable stretches to more vulnerable ones”. The BSF complains it doesn’t have enough personnel to fix the problem. Each BSF battalion in Punjab, a senior officer told The Indian Express, guards 34 km of the border. In Jammu, where the border is also fully fenced, a battalion protects just 21 km. Last year, after the Dinanagar attack, Punjab Deputy Chief Minister Sukhbir Badal wrote to Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh, asking for force levels to be increased. That still hasn’t been done.

Militant attacks in Pathankot

As much as 462 km of Punjab’s 553 km of border with Pakistan is fenced, and protected with electrified wire, sensors and floodlights, according to Home Ministry data. It’s the other 91 kilometres for which a problem should have been found by the BSF, and the MHA, to which it reports.

Police investigators have found Ikagar Singh’s mobile received one phone call from Pakistan, and made eight to numbers Indian intelligence services say are linked to top Jaish-e-Muhammad commanders in Bahawalpur. The phone calls led to speculation that he may have been linked to narcotics traffickers based across the border.

He was, it is now clear, the first victim of the Pathankot attack and his killing points to the first in the long series of security failings which facilitated the strike.

11:30 pm: The kidnappings

It was at 3:23 am on New Year’s Day that Punjab Police learned it had a problem — although it would be a while until it realised just how serious that problem was. Just an hour short of the old year’s midnight, four, perhaps five men in combat fatigues — eyewitness testimony varies — stopped a Mahindra XUV jeep at Kolian village (24 km from the airbase) carrying Superintendent of Police Salwinder Singh, his jeweller friend Rajesh Verma, and Salwinder’s cook, Gopal Das. The terrorists offload the SP and Gopal, tie their hands, and take off in the vehicle with Verma.

At 2.30 am, Salwinder Singh called SSP Gurdaspur G S Toor using the phone of a villager in Simbli close to where he was dumped. His claim was treated with skepticism. “Are you coming from a party”, Toor is said to have asked and then told him to call the control room. His calls, though, led the Pathankot police control room to use a special code to wake up the district’s Senior Superintendent of Police, R K Bakshi.

Patrols were now asked to start hunting for the hijacked vehicle. “By 3.30 AM, the red alert had been sounded”, an official said. “By 3.35 AM, nakabandi (barricading) had been ordered” an official said.

It wasn’t until 7 am, though, that the Mahindra XUV was finally tracked down, just outside the Air Force Base in Pathankot. The injured Verma was found just a short while earlier. Ikagar Singh’s Innova, and his body, were only found at 11 am.

Why did the hunt — which could have confirmed the seriousness of the threat — take so long? One answer lies, police officials claim, in a financial constraint so severe that rural police stations have been left, on an average, with a maximum of two functioning vehicles for their jurisdictions, and lacking fuel for more than a few hours of running each day. Night patrolling has had to be terminated, a top Punjab Police officer said.

It was only at around 9 am, thus, that the seriousness of the situation fully sank in: Until then, the police had treated the kidnapping as just another crime, which given the resources they have did not mean a great deal was done.

These early reports were sent to New Delhi by the Intelligence Bureau’s Amritsar station, whose Deputy Director, according to MHA officials, became increasingly agitated as the morning wore on. His concerns were fuelled by worries in the police that military facilities in the Amritsar area might just be the target of an attack.

Suresh Arora, a veteran of Punjab’s long fight against terrorism who serves as Punjab’s Director-General of Police, called top officers into meetings soon after he was informed of the news at around 7 am. He pushed the hunt for the group into ever-higher gear as the afternoon wore on, liaising with the MHA in New Delhi

12:30 pm: Found — but not quite

At just after 12.30 pm, the police got the break they were looking for: Salwinder Singh’s phone, snatched by his kidnappers, was used to make the first of a series of four phone calls to known Jaish-e-Muhammad operatives in Bahawalpur. More than 12 hours would pass before the terrorist on the line made his last call, at 1.58 am on January 2 — bidding farewell to his mother.

From the cellphone data, it was clear the terrorists were in Pathankot making clear that the target was also somewhere in the area. Later that afternoon, at 3.30 pm, National Security Advisor Ajit Doval held a meeting with the Chief of Army Staff, General Dalbir Singh Suhag; the Chief of Air Staff, Air Marshal Arup Raha, and Intelligence Bureau chief Dineshwar Sharma.


Earlier that day, a message had been sent to all military bases: “Suspicious movement of vehicle no PB02 BW0313 Mahindra XUV with terrorists in Army uniform spotted in Gurdaspur at 0500hrs”.

“Inputs of terrorists in close vicinity of Army camps”, the message was now updated to read. “Please alert all guards and pickets and keep QRTs (Quick Reaction Teams) and columns ready for deployment to strike at short notice”.

At 8.30 pm, two Special Force teams, QRTs, and six Mine Protected Vehicles from the Army were in place at Mamoon just 10 min from the airbase. Why were they not sent to the base directly? “The attack could have taken place anywhere so we needed to have flexibility on deployment,” said an Army official.

Fearing that the attack could also target hundreds of military families living in Pathankot, Doval ordered the National Security Guard into Pathankot at 9 pm, in case a hostage situation developed. The force, NSG sources said, was ordered to be prepared to deal with a hostage situation, or in case critical military assets, like the aircraft in Pathankot, were hit in an assault. At 10.10 pm, 130 NSG personnel arrived at the base, at 2.30 am, 80 more joined them.

Everything, in theory, was in place. In practice, things were very different.

The cellphone data, notably, didn’t tell the intelligence services much. It showed that the phones the terrorists were using were broadcasting to the cellphone tower that covered the Air Force base. The problem was that the cellphone tower also covered a lot else. Depending on the height of the cellphone tower, the physical topography, and even climactic conditions, cellphone towers transmit signals up to several kilometres — and in low-rise Pathankot, that meant it covered not just the airbase, but dozens of other buildings.

In practice, that meant all potential targets in Pathankot were expected to ensure their own perimeter was secure until they were assaulted by terrorists, in the kind of dramatic frontal assaults fidayeen units have often staged elsewhere in the country.

This assumption, the second part of The Indian Express investigation has found, was where things went wrong.

(Tomorrow: When the first shots were fired)

For all the latest India News, download Indian Express App now

First Published on: January 7, 2016 3:12 am
  1. O
    Om Chakraboti
    Jan 7, 2016 at 11:07 am
    Seems like a false flag operation planned by NSA to defame stan.
    1. B
      Jan 7, 2016 at 12:48 am
      @Modi: What a pathetic memorial service for Modi the butcher. Why are crying uncontrollably! Need wipes?
      1. M
        Jan 7, 2016 at 1:56 am
        Sedition charges to be filed on Parikar and his s! Sedition charges on Narendra Modi for visiting stan without the knowledge of Indian people.
        1. D
          Jan 7, 2016 at 1:11 am
          A timely wake up call to upgrade security systems.
          1. A
            Jan 7, 2016 at 6:50 am
            1. For God Sake please equip our jawans with state-of-the-art bullet proof jackets and state-of-the-art weapons 2. Please also consider equipping policemen with state-of-the-art bullet proof jackets and state-of-the-art weapons, they are often a first point of contact with the terrorist, and with their LATHI and AGE OLD GUN they can not combat ak47s and all... 3. Get some robots in to defuse bombs and to neutralize terrorists inside buildings ... 4. Why cant you use Drones, send them inside buildings to get the exact position of terrorists, load them with signal jammers to stop their communication networks... These are all low cost solutions which are very much possible .... Sir, our jawans are loosing their lifes without their fault... "Wake-up Authorities Wake-up..." Please.........
            1. A
              Ajay Kumar
              Jan 7, 2016 at 7:06 am
              It is height of ignorance of those demanding removal of Air Force map. They do not know what google earth is. Download and see everything on the planet. And those demanding blackout of I.E. report lest it help terrorist must be living in cloud cuckoo land even in year 2016. Thank you I.E. for insightful, incisive, factual, analytical reporting,
              1. A
                Anil Tandale
                Jan 7, 2016 at 8:40 am
                Please write about the TV anchors who provided leads to the terrorists during 26/11 and caused more loss of lives. Why not these "Mir Jaffers" of the media be exposed to the hilt, who always cry loudly when an abettor of terrorist is hanged?
                1. B
                  Brahm Gaur
                  Jan 7, 2016 at 9:00 am
                  Too much promotion of tertor activiy is causing the constant growth of the trrror activities. Please starve them of any coverage. Government shoulf ban any news on such activities. It should only be reported after everythong finishes.
                  1. K
                    Jan 7, 2016 at 12:33 am
                    It is absolutely amazing that the border security posts and installations do not have dog squads for guarding the places. There is a limit on humans and electronic surveillance can do.
                    1. K
                      Jan 7, 2016 at 1:25 am
                      A well written article. If terrorists had used a earlier route then there was no excuse to not have that route plugged, lax policing with profits from the drug trades with stan, as the motive for their nonchalant atude. The drug trade is very much part of Punjab police and politicians, there is a heap of money being made with impunity, the Punjab politicians own so much ets, it could not come out of honesty and hard work. The NSG lost some of the most valuable ets, their personnel. Next time make Ajit Doval as the key man to get this border properly guarded and protected, also make sure there is no vegetation close to fence.
                      1. D
                        Jan 7, 2016 at 11:49 am
                        Can India make in India the Night Vision Devise for every soldier on the boarder for night duty.
                        1. S
                          Satya Paul
                          Jan 7, 2016 at 4:02 pm
                          India should and at the earliest!
                          1. R
                            Jan 7, 2016 at 4:47 am
                            Fundamental flaw in this article - trying to question tactical decisions made every step of the way instead of focusing on the "systemic" issues. The decision as to why a commander feels he should deploy NSG close to the airbase instead of "inside" the airbase is a tactical decision that only the ground commander knows best. Further the question why it took so long for the Punjab police to figure out one of their own SPs account is due to the nature of a drunk man rambling something incoherently on New Year's eve. The idea that like the movies a cell phone trace will give you the precise location within a few meters of the person is fantastical and ignorant presumption on part of the "investigators". The idea as to why NSG - who apparently in 2016 are considered by all the "media pundits" to be useless bumbling people who don't know which side of the gun bullets come from, want to question why Army jawans who are not even 12th p were not leading the charge instead of the NSG. Anyone can sit down after the entire thing is over and do a post mortem about "how it should have been handled" after coming to know all the facts. In the moment, when nothing is known and everything is a risk - taking smart decisions is the real trick. And on that account we could have done much worse.
                            1. H
                              Jan 7, 2016 at 4:48 am
                              BJP govt is always clean, and good@ financial issues and development side and totally wrong on foreign policy, national security issues and defense; this is only because of their over action and dramas; during vajpayee govt, he went to stan and the pig Mushraff has sent rogue pak army to kargil; and flight has been hijacked and BJP govt released terror pigs; BJP was/is a total failure on foreign policy, national security and defense front; their understanding is very bleak
                              1. H
                                Jan 7, 2016 at 2:53 am
                                PM: you must understand clearly that, making dramas and overacting to project your self as the champion of global peace will not give you any thing, except terrorist attacks like this, unfortunately; you think, other world leaders are s? your first and last responsibility is to safe guard India's interests; if this is not your agenda, please leave the chair; dont play with Indian's lives; you have no right
                                1. H
                                  Jan 7, 2016 at 2:46 am
                                  why do we need, out side enemies, when we have so many inside (irrespective of religion); all these must be legally killed by a firing squad openly, after their traitor ship is established in the court of law unambiguously; Late, PV Rao; please be be born again to save India; Except barking while in opposition, BJP has been a gross failure always in handling national security issues and defense matters; Modi is no exception; hopeless; shame on BJP govt in every way; totally, inexperienced and irresponsible; this govt must realize that, dramas, over action(ignoring ground realities) will be counterproductive and result in loss of more and more innocent lives and more terrorist attacks; DM and HM; please regularize that, this is the last opportunity to remain in power for you guys; nop one is going to spare you by looking@ your faces
                                  1. H
                                    Jan 7, 2016 at 6:59 am
                                    1. H
                                      Jan 7, 2016 at 6:56 am
                                      1. J
                                        Jan 7, 2016 at 4:30 am
                                        Good coverage.
                                        1. K
                                          kamath Ramesh
                                          Jan 7, 2016 at 8:15 am
                                          Nobody can deny there were some lapses in the security checks without which militants could not have reached the airbase. The lapses may be human or technical. 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
                                          1. K
                                            Kaushal Jhaveri
                                            Jan 7, 2016 at 1:08 am
                                            Why is air base map in the article!
                                            1. Load More Comments