Missed Clues Before Pathankot Air Base Was Attacked

Missed Clues Before Pathankot Air Base Was Attacked

The attackers dumped the policeman's car about 1.5 km from the base. How they got into the compound is still unclear (AFP Photo)

New Delhi:

The hijacking of a police officer's car by terrorists disguised in uniform should have set off alarm bells and helped prevent the deadly weekend attack on the Pathankot air base, officials and security experts have said.

His colleagues' slowness to react was one of several security lapses in the build-up to the pre-dawn attack by terrorists suspected to belong to a Pakistan-based terror group.

Three days since the attack in which seven military personnel were martyred and 20 were wounded, five terrorists have also been eliminated, but an operation is still under way to secure the sprawling air base in Punjab that lies 25 km from the border with Pakistan.

Police Superintendent Salwinder Singh's call to a colleague in the early hours of Friday morning, after his car was hijacked, was at first treated as a case of armed robbery, the officer who answered the phone said.

"The truth is that we did not take Singh's complaint seriously, because his record has not been clean," a second senior officer in the Punjab Police told Reuters, on condition of anonymity.

The police sources said Mr Singh had just been transferred after a woman constable filed a sexual harassment case against him. Salwinder Singh was interrogated yesterday for six hours by the National Investigation Agency.

Home Secretary Rajiv Mehrishi has said the location of the attackers was only pinpointed as Pathankot on Friday afternoon.

That was at least 12 hours after the seizure of Salwinder Singh's unmarked vehicle, in which he was travelling with two other men following a visit to a shrine near the border with Pakistan.

"Too much time was wasted," said A.S. Dulat, a former head of the Research & Analysis Wing, India's main foreign intelligence agency. "How did they infiltrate to where they did? How were they allowed to roam around for 24 hours?"

Civilian and military officials say a security alert was circulated quickly enough to prevent the assailants from damaging fighter jets and helicopters at the base.

Nevertheless, a lack of inter-agency cooperation may have hobbled the security response, with another local police chief calling the air base a "fortress" that senior colleagues cannot enter without a written request.

"It always operated like a self-sufficient township but had no interaction with the city police or local administration," Manoj Kumar, Pathankot's deputy superintendent of police, told Reuters.

Salwinder Singh's cook, Madan Gopal, said he was dumped by the roadside with his employer by their abductors after a long drive during which their eyes were taped shut. The terrorists took fellow passenger Rajesh Verma, a jeweller, with them.

"We both walked for an hour to reach a nearby police outpost," Gopal, 61, told Reuters. "Singh got in touch with his superiors but they told him to go home and come to the office the next day."

Rajesh Verma survived and testified to the police that the attackers had used his phone, possibly to call their handlers, according to the Indian Express.

The attackers dumped the policeman's car about 1.5 km from the base. How they got into the compound is still unclear. Once inside, they burst into a guards' mess and fired indiscriminately.

One guard tackled and killed an attacker, only to die from another gunman's bullet, said Air Commodore J.S. Dhamoon, commander of the base.

Three more terrorists were killed later on Saturday after running through the compound, firing into windows.

The guard who died was a member of the Defence Security Corps (DSC), a unit made up of veterans who guard military facilities. Five of the seven security personnel who have died served in the DSC, some of them were in their fifties.

Some observers said the DSC should not guard high-value military assets. "They were not up to speed," said Nitin Gokhale, a security analyst who edits a defence portal.

Yet the greater weakness at the base, with a 24-km perimeter and a 3-metre (10-foot) wall topped by barbed wire, may have been a lack of adequate surveillance.

"You can have a wall, but a wall can be scaled and, probably, a surveillance system such as CCTV was lacking," said Govind Sisodia, a former senior commander of the National Security Guard counter-terrorism unit.

There have been conflicting reports of how many attackers were involved in the raid, since claimed by the United Jihad Council, an alliance of more than a dozen terror groups based in Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir.

Tight security along the border with Pakistan in Kashmir has pushed terrorist attacks south to Punjab.

© Thomson Reuters 2016