A group of five terrorists managed to dodge security personnel for more than 24 hours before mounting an attack on the Indian Air Force base in Pathankot, which experts attributed to chinks in the security set-up of the border districts of Punjab.
The audacious attack comes barely six months after a similar terror strike in Gurdaspur’s Dinanagar town that left 10 people, including a superintendent of police (SP) dead, exposing gaps in the security surveillance of the international border with Pakistan.
Commodore Uday Bhaskar (retd), director, Society for Policy Studies said the fact that the terrorists had a free run for a long time reflects gaps in information and intelligence sharing between local and higher levels.
The Pathankot terror attack started at 12.15am on Friday from Kathlore bridge, barely 15km from the border, when the group of terrorists in army fatigues flagged down a sports utility vehicle driven by Gurdaspur SP Salwinder Singh. Little did he know that the men in uniform were terrorists who had brutally stabbed and killed the driver of an Innova SUV and abandoned it when its tyres burst.
The terrorists barged into the SP’s vehicle, tied up and thrashed the three occupants before commandeering it for an hour. They threw the SP out of the moving vehicle near Tajpur and used the GPS to find their way to the Pathankot air base nearby.
SP’s input taken lightly?
The SP called up the police control room with a villager’s help and later informed his seniors about the young, heavily armed terrorists with backpacks and their plans to attack the air base. The SP’s aides told police about the four terrorists’ plans to avenge the 2013 hanging of the Afzal Guru, who was convicted for the attack on Parliament in 2001.
Initially, it seems, the police did not trust the SP who reportedly told them that the abductors were in army uniform and had sophisticated weapons. The police were even looking at the possibility of personal enmity behind the crime. The police authorities in neighbouring Jammu and Kangra districts were also caught unawares and hinted at the enmity angle.
Former chief of Bureau of Police Research and Development NR Wasan termed the response of Punjab police as “underwhelming” after one of the senior officers was abducted and his vehicle snatched.
“The state police is and will always remain first responder and have to be in the forefront in countering terrorists and supporters,” he said.
Calls to Pakistan lend credence
It was only when the Gurdaspur SP’s mobile phone, which was taken away by terrorists, was put on monitoring and calls were traced to Pakistan on Friday evening did the security agencies get to confirm the terror link.
By Friday night, it was clear that the intended target of the terrorists was the Pathankot air base. Punjab Police ADGP (crime) HS Dhillon, IG (border range) Lok Nath Angra and DIG Kunwar Vijay Pratap Singh were locked in a meeting through the day.
High alert, low follow-up
Despite the heads up on the presence of terrorists in the vicinity and the consequent state of high alert on Friday, the terrorists managed to enter the high security Pathankot air force base, spread over 20 sq km.
The encounter began around 3am on Saturday, almost 24 hours since the terrorists left the first trail by killing the Innova driver, raising a question mark over the security of defence establishments near the India-Pakistan border.
Besides the IAF base in Pathankot, Punjab has frontline IAF bases in Adampur (near Jalandhar), Halwara (near Ludhiana) and Bathinda and substantial army presence at various places, including Jalandhar (11 Corps), Pathankot, Amritsar, Bathinda (10 Corps) and Patiala (1st Armoured Division).