Pakistan-based terrorists had the Pathankot airbase on their hit list for at least six years, until the audacious attack in January in which six attackers and seven Indian soldiers died, revealed a National Investigation Agency (NIA) probe.
The strategic airbase was discussed as a possible target at a 2010 meeting in Sialkot, where jihadi and Khalistani outfits based in Pakistan had gathered for a common strategy, a senior home ministry official said.
Suspected Khalistani militant Jagtar Singh Tara, who was arrested for the assassination of Punjab chief minister Beant Singh in 1995, was reportedly present at the meeting. “Tara says Shahid Latif, one of the handlers of the Pathankot attackers, named the airbase specifically,” the official said.
Tara had confided to his lawyer, Simranjit Singh, about NIA sleuths meeting him in Chandigarh’s Burail jail as part of their post-Pathankot exercise to speak to imprisoned terrorists for details on Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) terrorist outfit and its chief, Maulana Masood Azhar.
“Two NIA officials came to meet Tara to inquire about the Pathankot attack as he had meetings with Azhar and Latif when he was in Pakistan. According to Tara, he told Latif that civilians should not be targeted. He didn’t tell me anything more than that,” Singh said.
Tara had escaped from Burail jail in January 2004, digging a 104-foot tunnel along with fellow prisoners. He went to Pakistan in 2005 and remained there until moving in 2014 to Thailand, where he was caught a second time and deported to India in 2015. He has since been kept in Burail.
Now, the anti-terrorism agency formed after the 26/11 Mumbai attacks in 2008 has planned to make Tara a witness in the airbase case.
NIA chief Sharad Kumar, however, declined comments.
Arun Chaudhary, who was with the Intelligence Bureau before retiring as the Sashastra Seema Bal chief, gave weight to Tara’s revelations.
“The Pakistani spy agency, ISI, has long tried to form a joint strategy between Khalistani elements and Pakistan-based jihadi outfits to revive militancy in Punjab,” he said.
“But the ground support for militancy had dried up in Punjab, making revival difficult. This is why Pakistan-based jihadi outfits had to carry out attacks in Punjab, first in Dinanagar in Gurdaspur last year and in Pathankot this year.”
Latif, an old Jaish hand, was arrested in Jammu and Kashmir in 1993 and sent back to Pakistan in 2010 after he completed a 16-year jail term. “He immediately went back to his old work after reaching Pakistan,” an NIA official said.