Terrorists in hiding spring a surprise

Despite having a fairly accurate location of the terrorists, they were not tracked

January 04, 2016 02:08 am | Updated November 17, 2021 05:07 am IST - NEW DELHI:

Army personnel during their operation against the terrorists near the Indian Air Force base in Pathankot.

Army personnel during their operation against the terrorists near the Indian Air Force base in Pathankot.

The Centre’s eagerness to claim credit for what it said was a successful coordinated response to the terrorist attack on the Pathankot airbase lay in tatters on Sunday morning with the discovery of two more terrorists in action, death of a seasoned NSG commando and injury to many of his colleagues.

Sunday morning’s nasty surprise was in fact in line with the many missteps since the terror threat was >discovered on the early morning of January 1 . Within the military and the rest of the security establishment, and outside, several questions are being raised about the way the entire operation was handled.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi landed in the national capital on Sunday evening, and >directly went into a huddle with senior officials including National Security Adviser Ajit Doval, Foreign Secretary S. Jaishankar and others to discuss the terror strike.

The PM’s meeting was the culmination of daylong consultations by Minister of External Affairs Sushma Swaraj and others with various stakeholders. No dramatic change in the PM’s Pakistan policy was expected immediately, sources hinted.

The morning began peacefully in Pathankot airbase, and there was no inkling of the dramatic events that were to unfold over the next several hours.

Around 10 a.m., Lieutenant Colonel Niranjan Kumar and his team from the National Security Guard were examining the body of a terrorist killed the previous evening, and probably trying to defuse an explosive attached to it, when the device detonated, >killing him and injuring the others.

Security force casualties now stood at seven dead. “There seems to have been an accident, in which five NSG personnel were injured. Leader of the team Lt. Col. Niranjan succumbed to his injuries,” Union Home Secretary Rajiv Mehrishi said.

And by 12.20 p.m. the security forces realised that two more terrorists were alive, when >firing came from different locations . By evening, the two were killed in the operations, sources said, thus taking the total number of terrorists killed until Sunday evening to six.

Centre did not get its act together

The discovery of two more terrorists inside the Pathankot airbase on Sunday came more than 17 hours after Union Home Minister >Rajnath Singh claimed a successful end to the operations . Though Mr. Singh had withdrawn the claim of five terrorists being killed on Saturday — only four had been killed — he did not say that the operation was not over. The dissonant note from the Home Minister was not the only isolated instance in the government response to the terror strike on the forward airbase. From the moment Superintendent of Police Salwinder Singh and his cook Madan Gopal reached a local police station to narrate their ordeal at the hands of the terrorists, there was complete incoherence in the response.

“It looked as if someone desperately wanted the terrorists to attack Pathankot airbase,” said an Army colonel, who had known Lieutenant Colonel Niranjan Kumar, who was killed in the operation. “Otherwise, how could they fail to nab the terrorists when they knew their location, had so much of time and had so many military resources in the area to hunt them down?”

By the afternoon of January 1, the security establishment was aware of the presence of terrorists in the Pathankot area, and National Security Adviser Ajit Doval chaired a meeting attended by the Army chief. The NSG was asked to rush a commando team, and all military installations in the region were put on alert.

Director-General of Air Operations Air Marshal Anil Khosla said all the airfields in the area, especially Pathankot, were put on alert once the terrorist presence was established.

Many in the military and intelligence agencies are surprised by the fact that for the next several hours, the agencies were not deployed.

“Either we do not still understand how to distinguish between credible intelligence and fake ones, or someone wanted the terrorists to reach the base,” an official said.

Once the operations started, the way the Air Force and other security agencies treated casualties have surprised many. The only >formal statement from the IAF on Saturday had no mention of casualties.

Unanswered questions

The government is uder attack over the way it handles intelligence alert and failed to nab the terrorists for 24 hours.

January 1 (Friday)

Early morning (around 3 am): SP Salwinder Singh and his cook Madan Gopal alert local police about terrorists who abducted them

Their claims were not given credence for hours; crucial time was lost.

Afternoon: Centre issues alert about terrorists; by now more or less certain their location was Pathankot.

NSA convenes meeting with senior officials; NSG dispatched to Pathankot

Why no detailed combing of the region done , despite several military, BSF and Punjab police units available close by?

January 2 (Saturday)

Early morning (3.30 am): Terrorists spotted; Centre claims they were contained in forested area

Evening: Four terrorists killed; Home Minister claims operations over

Who briefed Home Minister , and why was haste shown in declaring operation a success?

January 3 (Sunday)

Morning (10 am): NSG's Lt Col Niranjan killed, five others injured while inspecting a terrorist's body

12.20 pm: Firing starts from two different locations, security forces realise more terrorists are alive

Why was no protocol in place to avoid such casualties?

Why was there no careful combing and clearing of the area?

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