Intelligence officials attribute the Pathankot airbase attack to the Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Muhammad on the basis of intercepted phone calls made late Friday by a member of the assault team.
Home Ministry officials said a full-scale alert was ordered late Friday evening after information emerged that five armed men had hijacked a vehicle used by a Punjab Police officer. National Security Advisor Ajit Doval ordered an élite unit of the National Security Guard to be moved to Pathankot, in anticipation of a possible attack on the IAF base.
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Following the alert, the Intelligence Bureau intercepted multiple phone calls made by a member of the Jaish unit in Pakistan. The phone calls, government sources said, were made between 12.30 am Saturday morning and 3.30 am, likely just minutes before the attack.
In one of the phone calls, a Home Ministry official familiar with tape-recordings made by the Intelligence Bureau, said a man with a southern Punjab accent repeatedly tells his mother that he is heading towards martyrdom. The mother can be heard crying in the background, at one point gathering herself to ask her son if he has eaten.
The other calls, sources said, were made to several phone numbers in Pakistan, some of which, intelligence officials, said are known to be linked to senior Jaish figures.
“I’m speculating here,” said an intelligence official who listened to the intercepted calls Friday night, “but the men seemed to be hysterical, and not very well-trained”.
The conversations, he said, reminded him of Naved Yakub, a Lashkar-e-Taiba jihadist held in Udhampur last year, who dropped out of school to escape a life of poverty by joining the jihadist group.
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Based on the phone calls, investigators believe the men crossed one of the streams running across the India-Pakistan border in Gurdaspur — the same route used by a group of Lashkar terrorists who attacked a police station in Gurdaspur last year, killing nine.
Punjab Police investigators believe the four terrorists first hijacked an Innova van, after crossing the border early Friday morning. The car stalled on the Pathankot-Jammu highway with a flat tyre, after which the terrorists are thought to have executed its driver, Ikagar Singh.
The terrorists then hijacked a vehicle used by Superintendent of Police Salwinder Singh, who was travelling home from a religious leader’s Dera, along with his friend Rajesh Verma, a jeweller, and Verma’s cook Madan Gopal.
From testimony given by Verma to the Punjab Police, the men were carrying a large bag, possibly filled with food, assault rifles, a global positioning set and a cellphone.
The group, intelligence officials said, made multiple calls using a cellphone taken from their captives, as well as from a second cellphone that Verma said they were carrying.
The precise role of the NSG in the defence of the airbase, though, remained unclear, and there was no official account of how the terrorists succeeded in penetrating its 10-foot outer perimeter walls, topped with razor-sharp cobra wire, and this in spite of specialist warnings.
Early investigations suggest that the men walked along the National Highway to the Air Force base undetected, from the location where they abandoned their car.