When terror checked in: Reconstructing the Pathankot air base attack

  • Harinder Baweja and Chitleen K Sethi, Hindustan Times
  • Updated: Jan 10, 2016 13:06 IST
Security personnel stand inside the Pathankot air force base after the military operation against terrorists ended, in Punjab. (Sameer Sehgal/HT Photo)

Hours before the long gun battle began at the Indian Air Force air base in Pathankot, one of the terrorists named Nasir called his mother in Pakistan and told her he was on a fidayeen mission. “Host a lavish party,” he said. He wanted his ‘martyrdom’ to be celebrated and informed his mother that she would get a call from ‘Ustad’ once he had attained it. The terrorists had no confusion. They were crystal clear about their task and had come prepared to turn their bodies into missiles.

Unlike the six terrorists who managed to breach the high-security air base despite concrete and credible intelligence that came from Pathankot’s Superintendent of Police (SP), Salwinder Singh, the security establishment was far from prepared for the deadly assault. At first, the Border Security Force (BSF), which guards the international border between Punjab and Pakistan, had no clue that a heavily armed group had infiltrated into India. Even after they were accidentally — and providentially — discovered, the terrorists, armed with assault rifles, were mistaken to be robbers.

It is not often that intelligence comes knocking on the front door. Before the Mumbai attacks in 2008, intelligence agencies had failed to join the dots despite ‘Taj Hotel’ appearing in several intercepts, but on the night of December 31, barely an hour before the dawn of a new year, the terrorists came face to face with an SP rank officer in Pathankot. He was blindfolded and thrown out of the car before the terrorists fled in his blue-beacon XUV. The information provided by the controversial and colourful SP Salwinder Singh was, however, dismissed by his seniors, who thought he had probably partied too long. Even after he was finally taken seriously, the Indian security establishment was unclear of where the terrorists would strike or how many they numbered.

By late morning on January 1, it was clear that the first day of the new year was signing in with a terror imprint: Innova driver Ikagar Singh’s body was found with his throat slit. Salwinder Singh’s Mahindra XUV was tracked to just outside the air base and his jeweller friend Rajesh Verma too had checked into a hospital with a gash on his throat.

Phone lines started buzzing between Delhi and Pathankot, between Jammu and Udhampur, where the army’s Northern Command is based, between Chandigarh, which headquarters the Punjab Police, and Chandi Mandir in Panchkula, where the Army’s Western Command is headquartered. And between the Prime Minister’s Office and Manesar, where the elite commandos of the National Security Guard (NSG) are based. The country’s security establishment was on high alert and defense establishments in Pathankot were asked to activate their quick reaction teams (QRTs).

Soon, it also became known that the terrorists had an unmistakable Pakistan connection. They had made the cardinal error of using the phones that they’d snatched from Ikagar and Rajesh. The intelligence agencies had intercepted vital inputs: conversations between the terrorists and their handlers and Nasir’s farewell call to his mother. In one call, the handler reprimands the terrorist for sparing the SP and in another, he can be heard telling one of the terrorists that one group has moved ahead.

First contact

The terrorists had not just moved ahead, they had managed to enter Pathankot’s air base undetected, even as QRT’s made plans of stopping them at the gates of their respective establishments. The terrorists had checked in and were lying in wait. They were already inside the reinforced gates well before the NSG commandos took position. The terrorists had managed to evade the BSF, the Punjab Police and the Garud and Defense Service Corps.

The base’s security cover has weakened over the years. The perimeter wall has no patrolling road around it. At several points, the wall shares its length with residential houses with no efforts to contain encroachment around the base. Members of the Gujjar community have settled around the boundary wall and are allowed inside the base to gather fodder and to graze their animals. The road where Ikagar and Salwinder were kidnapped is barely five kilometers from the international border but there is no police picket on it. The first police picket at Kathlour Bridge let the SP’s blue beacon car go thinking it was a VIP vehicle.

Read | Did a lost walkie-talkie save the day at Pathankot?

The approximately 30km distance to Pathankot airport was covered in an hour with no stop before Salwinder and his cook Madan Gopal were thrown out. Nasir and his terror companions made their first attempt at martyrdom in the dead of night intervening January 1 and 2. The fidayeen squad first shot a Garud, the Indian Air Force’s in-house commando team and quickly made their way to the DSC mess where Jagdish Chand, an ex-army wrestler was preparing tea. Chand grappled with the terrorists, overpowered one, snatched his rifle and shot him dead before being killed himself. In the mess, the terrorists killed four more DSC men.

The terror imprint had been firmly stamped at first contact even as QRTs waited for the terrorists disguised in army fatigues to show up at their gates. After one terrorist was killed, the remaining are believed to have split into two groups. “Pakistani terrorists have great ‘stay behind’ capability. They are taught to live in caves and they open fire only when we come within range,” an official said.

Confusion reigns

Pathankot has a large air base with nearly 10,000 families living within the sprawling perimeter with a circumference of 25km. The fear of a hostage situation was real. The base also had 23 foreign military trainees from Nigeria, Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Myanmar. That the trainees were in close proximity to the DSC mess gave the IAF some anxious moments till they were rescued by the army and the NSG. The gates to the technical area where the IAF’s fighter machines — MIGs and MIs — are parked were also barely 500 metres from the mess. “God was on our side,” an air force source said, adding, “There was no fog and we were lucky to be able to fly our UAVs.”

Luck was constantly by their side as confusion reigned. The terrorists had not only hauled in 50kg of ammunition and 30kg of grenades that could damage tanks, but had also brought in inflammable gel to set machines on fire. By the evening of January 2, the remaining three terrorists were engaged and killed. The air traffic control, which was the operation control room, burst into celebration thinking there were only four terrorists. “Liquor was filled in glasses and the operation, though not officially declared ended, was considered to be over,” a source revealed. The same message was perhaps relayed to Delhi for soon the Home and defense ministers tweeted congratulatory messages. In fact, the party had started too soon.

Misplaced relief

The security grid had planned well: Mine-protected vehicles had been moved from Northern Command to Mamoon, not far from Pathankot. Highly trained men had moved in too but none knew that two more terrorists lay in wait. They had come well equipped with morphine injections and packets of cooked chicken and rotis.

Presuming the battle to be over — despite the SP’s cook having said there were at least five terrorists — the NSG went about its task of sanitizing the complex. Tragedy struck when its bomb disposal squad officer, Lt Col Niranjan was removing bombs from the dead body of one of the four terrorists. “He pulled out a grenade and his buddy told him to throw it away. He did, but it exploded,” said an officer privy to the incident, adding, “Niranjan was wearing his armour but his lungs collapsed due to the sheer impact of pressure.”

The uniform of National Security Guard commando Niranjan Kumar, who was among those killed in the attack on the Pathankot air force base is placed on his coffin draped in the Indian flag, in Bangalore. (AP Photo)

Firing started again between 10 and 11 in the morning. Six defence personnel were on the first floor of the same building from which the fifth and sixth terrorist had fired. Luck saved the day again: A latch door between the ground and first floors stayed untouched. Perhaps the terrorists didn’t know they had six defence personnel right above them as perfect hostages. Even after the six had been rescued, the battle was fierce. Cannon fire was used to try and silence the terrorists, who showed no signs of having been silenced. “I could have taken a tank and blasted the building or used rocket launchers but that would have damaged civilian areas. They continued to engage us through the day,” an officer said.

Finally, it appears, ‘the cooking phenomenon’ — to use a military term — was set in motion. The phenomenon is a process where ammunition starts exploding on its own. This coupled with cannon bursts resulted in the two terrorists literally melting. All that was found the next morning were pieces of flesh and bone. The NSG sent a dog into the building the next morning to ensure that the terrorists had been killed. If the bodies had melted, how did they know there were two terrorists and not one? “Because the pieces of bone and flesh were found at two different locations of the ground floor,” an officer said.

The gun battle had indeed ended. But amid the rubble at the Pathankot air base lie questions that need answers. The hows and the whys are being addressed by the National Investigation Agency. Maybe this time the post mortems and enquiries will plug holes to ensure that terror does not check in as easily again.

Read | Pakistan seeks ‘concrete evidence’: Pathankot going way of 26/11 probe?

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