Terrorists’ Edge: India’s Systemic Disorder Exposed in Pathankot

Suppose there was perfect “intelligence”, advance notice of the time, place, and date of a terrorist attack. Suppose further that all local state and central organisations, police at different levels, and paramilitary and the armed services, were all in sync, had familiarised themselves with situations that may arise, and practiced the precise actions needed to thwart the terrorists. What would happen in this situation in real life? As evidence shows, there would be inter-agency chaos and jurisdictional confusion leading, inevitably, to delays and a muddled response.

In Pathankot, there was 24 hours’ notice about the Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM)-inspired terrorist event, and yet the jihadis managed, with ease, to breach the defence system. A few of them traversed the distance to the Pathankot air force base (AFB) in the local Superintendent of Police’s car, penetrated the AFB perimeter and holed up unmolested for a whole day to rest and recuperate in an unused shed not far from where the Indian Air Force planes were parked.

They embarked on their suicidal shoot-up mission that met with little initial resistance because the nearby Army Division didn’t act, assuming that a National Security Guard (NSG) unit was flying in from Delhi. Once deployed, the NSG lost a senior officer because he failed to take the elementary precaution of treating a dead jihadi as a potential booby-trap.

Lapses in Security

This episode also reveals the rot of corruption at all levels, especially the BSF, state police, and the AFB guard, and how easy it is for an intruder simply to buy his way into sensitive areas (according to news reports, fifty rupees procured access to the Pathankot base). It also brings to light the severely lax attitude to security (with no surveillance cameras on the perimeter and no cordon sanitaire, with habitation allowed just beyond the boundary markers.

A more egregious example of system breakdown was witnessed in December 1999 with the hijacking of the Indian Airlines flight IC 814 by militants who obtained the release of Mahmood Azhar, the JeM chief, in return for the safe return of passengers. The awful thing was that just a year earlier exactly this situation was gamed, and a multi-agency ‘Exercise Sour Grapes’ carried out to practice moves to frustrate hijackers, such as parking a truck/tanker in front of the plane, disabling the plane by blowing out its tyres, and mounting commando action.

But, when IC 814 touched down at the Amritsar airport to refuel, all hell, predictably, broke loose. Every responsible head of agency in government from Chandigarh to Delhi lost his head, none of the practiced actions were implemented, the Punjab Police commando unit and Indian Army formation in the vicinity were asked to stand down, and the refueled aircraft took off, eventuating in the humiliating negotiation involving External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh and Taliban ruffians in Kandahar.

Lessons Not Learnt

Sandwiched between these incidents during the BJP governments was the still more devastating Mumbai 26/11 strike in 2008 during the Congress Party’s watch by a handful of seaborne terrorists. I had written then that, luckily, their Pakistani minders didn’t have another ‘Pearl Harbour’ in mind because the terrorists could as easily have blown up a large part of the navy’s Western Fleet, then lying at anchor 500 meters away and 40 degrees off the jihadis’ approach line to the Gateway of India on an outboard motor-rigged inflatable dinghy.

So, the problem is not the party in power, or the incompetence of politicians at the helm, but the absence of operating procedures standardised across a spectrum of terrorist actions that every relevant police and intelligence agency at the local, state, and central government levels, as well as the paramilitary, NSG, and the armed services should adhere to strictly in counter-terror contexts anywhere in the country. The need is, therefore, urgent for a slate of counter-terror SOPs to ensure predictable, decisive, prompt, integrated and effective responses.

Why We Urgently Need the NCTC

Minus this, as in all terrorist-induced crises to-date, every agency will act separately according to its own bureaucratic lights and succeed only in getting in the way of every other agency doing the same. It advantages the jihadis and encourages their state-sponsors to rely on terrorism as asymmetric means of warfare to unsettle the Indian state and society at will.

Worse, there’s no nodal organisation, such as the National Counter-Terrorism Centre (NCTC), to coordinate intelligence inputs, tailor the SOP-related actions to specific situations and to control all anti-terror operations. Mooted by the Manmohan Singh government after 26/11, NCTC is lying fallow. With neither SOPs nor an apex agency in sight, all such crises invariably end up being handled by the National Security Adviser of the day. Brajesh Mishra tackled the IC 814 hijack, MK Narayanan 26/11, and Ajit Doval Pathankot and each, in his own way, made a hash of it.


NCTC Can’t Wait Any More
•Pathankot terror attack raises the issue of severely lax attitude to security besides highlighting how easy it is for an intruder to buy his way in.

•Luckily terrorists behind Mumbai 26/11 strike didn’t have another ‘Pearl Harbour’ in mind with the navy’s Western Fleet being a few metres away.

•The need is, therefore, urgent for a slate of counter-terror SOPs to ensure predictable, decisive, prompt, integrated and effective responses.

•A large part of the problem can be addressed by institutionalising the NCTC to coordinate intelligence inputs and control all anti-terror operations.

Published in ‘The Quint’, January 15, 2016; at http://www.thequint.com/opinion/2016/01/14/terrorists-edge-indias-systemic-disorder-exposed-in-pathankot

About Bharat Karnad

Senior Fellow in National Security Studies at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi, he was Member of the (1st) National Security Advisory Board and the Nuclear Doctrine-drafting Group, and author, among other books of, 'Nuclear Weapons and Indian Security: The Realist Foundations of Strategy', 'India's Nuclear Policy' and most recently, 'Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet)'. Educated at the University of California (undergrad and grad), he was Visiting Scholar at Princeton University, University of Pennsylvania, the Shanghai Institutes of International Studies, and Henry L. Stimson Center, Washington, DC.
This entry was posted in Afghanistan, Asian geopolitics, Culture, domestic politics, Geopolitics, India's Pakistan Policy, India's strategic thinking and policy, Indian Air Force, Indian Army, Indian Navy, Indian para-military forces, Internal Security, Pakistan, Pakistan military, society, South Asia, Special Forces, Terrorism. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Terrorists’ Edge: India’s Systemic Disorder Exposed in Pathankot

  1. Shail says:

    The army has been doing single-handed anti-terror ops in J&K and NE for god knows how many years now. J&K is now pretty much sealed ( multi-agency co-operation is under the Army here), no doubt thats why we re seeing the frustrated Paki lot trying the vulnerable drug routes through punjab). – The police is not a force to tackle terrorists, especially those as well motivated and trained as these ( in-effectiveness of mumbai ATS, finally the NSG (Army SAGs) cleared the terrorists, Multi-Agency co-op- must evolve around the J&K model. after all the SAGs are army, When, your force of final resort is one, why multi-agency, will it not institutionalise muddling? After all, ground forces have all confirmed that commanders of various forces had no interference from top for tactical decisions.

  2. ~!@#$%^&*()_+ says:


    500 labourers inside the airbase for various works, 25 shops of civilians also inside the air base (now closed), Massive residential areas adjoining (My guesstimate ~5000 houses). Even a Big Cinemas with front row view of fighters taking off. No sir, NSG was not a bad idea to begin with. That NSG should have been supplemented with IA is well understood now but then again nobody in the establishment or ex-establishment ever mentioned these things except in neatly minitized sanitized meetings.

    Authorities probably went too slow on the Army help. Also the lateral sharing of intel is laughable. Then there is the perennial shortage of 8000 field officers in IB. There may even have been some heropanti among brass involved in the defence. The police has been penetrated a long long time back and apparently there are Sanjiv Bhatt type people involved in the Punjab Police also.

    If after all this the establishment still thinks that they can afford to go at Indian Standard Pace on Indian Standard Time, then not even god can save them.

  3. Shaurya says:

    @Shail Local police will ALWAYS be the first responders in an attack. Part of the answer is in enabling the local police and strengthening their force structures with both capital and man power. Although they many not be able to tackle all situations, they need to be strengthened enough to contain, until superior forces arrive. We need such a trained “commado” like force for a variety of situations with the increasing sophistication and proliferation of fire arms. Law and Order is after all a state subject. Mumbai invested in Force One – after 26/11, yet to be tested though. Every state capital should have such a force, with NSG hubs now in Chennai, Mumbai, Kolkata and Hyderabad.

    Let the Army focus on the pigs over the line, except for situations where their own assets are under attack or in areas, where police forces alone cannot overcome a situation. We should also invest in central forces such as CRPF to be far more trained and invested into.

  4. quickboy says:

    Tell me frankly, Do we remember the saying “Too many cooks spoil the broth”. As for anti-terror operation, Most Indian states have their own law and order enforcements, What is missing here is that most of the forces are corruption riddled. Police in India are mostly another bunch of Sarkari Babus executing orders from respective political masters. Intelligence may have improved, but attitude has not. What use is intelligence if your police and enforcement is used to stifle different voices and to improve your political fortune by simply charging people whom you consider a threat for your chair with imaginary cases, for which you prepare evidence which are simple super technical and not at all intelligible to ordinary people. What can those forces do anyway?. We have seen a lot of officers facing charges of fake encounter, even when evidence shows the killed ones were terrorists and anti-socials. So ……The force and it’s men will surely wait for some clearence from higher up. Taking initiative is becoming a big risk in this country..

  5. Kanisk Singh says:

    Mr. Bharat Karnad, I have refrained from commenting on your articles till now despite many of my views being contrary to yours. But this article truly exposes you for who you are, an arm-chair general with little understanding of how things work in real life. Your statement – “their Pakistani minders didn’t have another ‘Pearl Harbour’ in mind because the terrorists could as easily have blown up a large part of the navy’s Western Fleet, then lying at anchor 500 meters away and 40 degrees off the jihadis’ approach line to the Gateway of India on an outboard motor-rigged inflatable dinghy.” is laughable. Why do you think the Navy had the MARCOS raised in the first place ? Also, instead of deriding the brave NSG officer killed, you can also give some credit to the training received by the terrorists, supposedly from the Pakistan’s elite commando school. Also, FYI, the NSG officer was killed during the render- safe procedure carried out by the NSG after obtaining area-dominance in the vicinity. The blast also injured many more NSG commandos in the area. This was not caused due to any lapse in following the SOP. Sometimes deaths happen in a conflict zone despite following every rule in the book. You should have known this if you had ever been in action.

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