Army authorities who conducted a secret security audit early this year at Nagrota, the XVI Corps headquarters, failed to anticipate that a tree growing in the officers’ mess alongside the three-metre high perimeter wall could be used to secure entry into the facility, government sources have told The Indian Express. The tree, National Investigation Agency (NIA) officials now believe, provided access into the base to terrorists who carried out the November 29 attack in Nagrota.
Failure to ensure the security of the perimeter, sources said, was one of a series of errors in the lead-up to the attack — key among them, inaction on Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW) intelligence about specialist Jaish-e-Muhammad teams tasked with striking a “high-value military target”.
WATCH | Encounter Between Security Forces & Terrorists In Jammu & Kashmir’s Bandipora Area
The ongoing NIA investigation is, among other things, seeking to establish how the terrorists evaded detection while crossing the border near Jammu, driving past the city, and entering the base. The Army is, separately, holding a Court of Inquiry to establish responsibility for any lapses in base security during the attack, which claimed the lives of seven Army personnel.
J&K Governor N N Vohra had ordered a secret audit of the security of all military, police and intelligence facilities in the state at an eight-hour long meeting of the Core Group of the Unified Headquarters after the January 2 attack on the IAF base in Pathankot.
The Governor, three sources present at the meeting confirmed, asked Director General of Police K Rajendra to oversee the process. “Intelligence warnings on further fidayeen strikes were flowing in,” one officer recalled, “and the Governor wanted action taken, fast”.
By February, the J&K Police, Central Reserve Police Force, Border Security Force, Intelligence Bureau and R&AW provided written certificates to the Governor saying that they had completed their security audits. The Army, however, declined to do so.
Instead, a Raj Bhavan official involved in the process said, the commanders of the Srinagar-based XV corps and the Nagrota-based XVI corps verbally assured the Governor that an audit had been carried out, and that the information had been provided to the Ministry of Defence in New Delhi.
An Army spokesperson declined specific comment on the findings of the security audit ordered by the Governor, but told The Indian Express in an e-mail that “security audit of all garrisons and bases of the Indian Army is a continuous process”. “Based on threats envisaged, various security measures, both short and long term are put into effect concurrently,” he said.
The Army’s audit, government sources said, did not involve other security forces or the intelligence services which, however, collaborated with each other during their own security audit processes, to obtain outsider views on the strengths and weaknesses of their systems.
In Pathankot, charges recently filed by the NIA show, terrorists simply climbed on to an eucalyptus tree growing alongside the IAF base perimeter wall, and bent it over on to the wall to lay down a rope on the other side.
The terrorists who attacked Nagrota, NIA investigators now believe, likely used a similar technique, clambering on to a tree’s branches and then climbing down the tree into the mess lawns. The tree, investigators believe, may have also served to obscure the terrorists’ movements from sentries deployed at pickets on its sides. The first terrorist then threw a grenade and opened fire on guards to cover the descent of the rest of his group.
“The NIA has taken statements from the guards present that night,” a senior official said, “from which it is clear no one saw any movement until the shooting began.”
R&AW personnel provided another opportunity to prevent an attack more than 72 hours before the strike, providing the Army and their sister intelligence services information that specialist Jaish-e-Muhammad teams were preparing to cross the fencing along the India-Pakistan border east of the city of Sialkot, with the intention of attacking a “high value military target”. The warning, security sources in J&K confirmed, was passed on to the BSF.
Less than 24 hours after the Nagrota attack began, the BSF engaged a Jaish unit that had used an 80-metre long tunnel to penetrate the border at Chamliyal, near Jammu. The group carried equipment similar to that used by the Nagrota terrorists, including plastic handcuffs, suggesting they also hoped to take hostages to bring about a long-dramatic siege.
The terrorists who struck at Nagrota, intelligence officials said, are also thought to have used the Chamliyal tunnel, or a similar one, to cross into India — the first wave of the Jaish strikes that R&AW had detected.
Though the BSF began enhanced patrolling along the border after the R&AW intelligence was generated, government sources said, no additional patrols were put in place to search traffic headed out of the belt from Ranbir Singh Pura and Arnia, facing Sialkot, towards Jammu — the route the terrorists would have had to take to reach Nagrota.
“Five, six men travelling from the border to Nagrota with heavy bags; at least one man carrying out reconnaissance outside the base wall: it’s hard to believe no one spotted anything,” a senior Delhi-based intelligence official said.
In response to a question on the R&AW intelligence, an Army spokesperson said that “the reports generated by intelligence agencies were not specific and covered a large spectrum of targets and locations”. “Even with reference to intelligence regarding Nagrota attack, no such specific or actionable intelligence was received.”
R&AW officials admitted that their intelligence did not include the targets of the Jaish-e-Muhammad team, but said that the information provided should, at the least, have led bases to review and enhance security along major roads and around bases. “Intelligence is very rarely going to be precise,” one official said. “That’s not a reason to take threats casually.”
Little information has so far become available on precisely what happened in the minutes after firing began inside the base, but government sources said questions have been raised both about the length of time it took to respond to the attack, and the duration of the siege. “There was, in particular, some concern inside government about why the terrorists were able to enter the officers’ mess complex, risking a hostage situation,” a senior official said.
In response to a query from The Indian Express, asking whether it took up to 20 minutes for quick reaction teams to reach the mess, an Army spokesperson said the first unit “reached the incident site within ten minutes of the initial opening of fire by the terrorists”. “There were multiple Quick Reaction Teams at the incident site within the first twenty minutes,” the spokesperson said.
The response, the Army spokesperson asserted, “ensured that the terrorists were successfully localised to two buildings within the Nagrota camp.”
Lt General (retired) Philip Campose, the Army’s former vice-chief, in a report presented in September, had pointed to chronic problems with base security, ranging from lack of access-control systems and equipment to command-and-control issues. No new equipment had, however, been installed in Nagrota by November, sources familiar with security at the base said.
The Campose report, government sources said, pointed to flaws in equipment and training of Quick Reaction Teams, noting that they lacked night-vision equipment. In a statement on base security, made after the Nagrota attack, Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar said, “I think we can definitely improve upon it. Probably, over a period, some sort of lethargy has set in.”
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