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Updated January 2nd, 2024 at 18:58 IST

Eight years on, Intelligence lessons from 2016 Pathankot attack are still relevant in modern warfare

This comprehensive analysis delves into the tactical intricacies of the attack, exposing vulnerabilities in security infrastructure and revealing the attackers'

Reported by: Yuvraj Tyagi
IAF Garud Commandos
IAF Garud Commandos | Image:Indian Air Force
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On January 2, 2016, the Pathankot Airbase, a vital component of India's Western Air Command, faced a grave security breach orchestrated by four militants affiliated with the United Jihad Council. The initial confrontation resulted in a fierce 17-hour gun battle and a subsequent combing operation, leading to the death of five attackers and three security personnel. However, the aftermath revealed an intricate sequence of events, with the death toll eventually rising to six soldiers due to injuries sustained during the operation.  

The Pathankot attack prompted serious questions about India's security apparatus, highlighting deficiencies in the command structure, prolonged response time, and inadequate coordination among security units. The incident resulted in high casualties, and premature statements regarding the conclusion of the attack were made despite accurate intelligence. Vikram Sood, the former head of India's Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), pointed out a pattern of terrorist attacks following peace talks with Pakistan.

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A parliamentary panel report in May 2016 emphasized the lack of robust security at the airbase, citing poorly guarded perimeter walls and the absence of patrolling roads. The need for better surveillance and intelligence collection was evident, focusing on persistent monitoring of infiltration routes, critical infrastructure, and potential targets. However, the attack also underscored the importance of asking broader intelligence questions to understand how Pakistan-based militants might adapt their strategy amid diplomatic relations and how the Pakistan Army's domestic security approach influences its proxy conflict with India. The Pathankot incident highlighted the significance of proactive intelligence policies that address complex geopolitical dynamics and shape responses to evolving threats.  

Pakistan’s tale of ‘Snakes in the backyard’  

Amidst the chaos, the attack triggered a ripple effect on international relations, especially between India and Pakistan, both nuclear-armed neighbours. The United Jihad Council claimed responsibility initially, but suspicions arose when the attackers, donned in Indian Army uniforms, were later linked to Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Mohammed, a designated terrorist organization by India and globally. This revelation strained diplomatic ties, remaining unresolved for years, with the attack seen as an attempt to sabotage fragile peace processes.

The attack's repercussions extended beyond the immediate aftermath. The strained relations persisted until September 2023, with media reports suggesting a deliberate attempt to destabilize the fragile peace process between the two nations. Notably, Shahid Latif, the senior Jaish-e-Mohammed commander identified as the attack's mastermind, met his demise on October 10, 2023. Latif, along with his brother and bodyguards, fell victim to unknown gunmen in a mosque in Daska, Pakistan.  

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How did the Pathankot attack unfold?  

Understanding how the attack unfolded provides insights into its tactical nuances. On the morning of January 1, 2016, six heavily armed individuals breached the airbase's high-security perimeter, exploiting vulnerabilities in floodlight malfunctions and possible inside assistance. The attackers, equipped with an arsenal of ammunition and assault weapons, infiltrated the living quarters but were thwarted from reaching the crucial "high-value assets" area.  

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As the gun battle ensued on January 2, casualties mounted, including Subedar Fateh Singh, a Commonwealth shooting medalist. The attackers' aim to destroy aircraft and helicopters became apparent, sealing off National Highway 44 to contain the situation. Fresh gunshots and an improvised explosive device blast on January 3 indicated more attackers, intensifying the operation. Despite reinforcements, the final attacker's neutralization on January 5 marked the end of "Operation Dhangu" or "Dhangu Suraksha," named after the base's location.

The operation ended with the elimination of six heavily armed terrorists. However, seven personnel from the joint team of Indian security forces were killed in action during the operation. This included 5 Defence Security Corps personnel- Sub Maj Fateh Singh, Hav Jagdish Chand, Hav Kulwant Singh, Hav Sanjeevan Rana and L/Nk Mool Raj; 1 IAF Garud commando- Corporal Gursewak Singh; 1 National Security Guard- Lt Col Niranjan E Kumar. 

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Published January 2nd, 2024 at 18:58 IST

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