It has happened again. Authorities might not yet have been able to pinpoint the identity of the militants, but at least six of them attacked an Air Force base in Punjab’s Pathankot district early Saturday morning, killing two security personnel in the process. The government says it has managed to kill four of the terrorists and have contained the other two in a non-operation part of the base, meaning the fighter aircraft, helicopters and other important equipment are safe.
Here’s the thing about this attack: We knew it was coming.
First, there’s the broader script of how relations evolve in the subcontinent.
Every time India and Pakistan have taken a step forward in their attempts to talk to each other, that resolve has immediately been tested on the border. Just after Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif together decided to restart the dialogue process at the Ufa summit in Russia last year, three gunmen dressed in army uniforms opened fire on a bus and then attacked a police station in Gurdaspur, Punjab, last year.
The Indian government blamed that attack on Pakistan, based on Global Positioning Satellite data collected from devices that the terrorists had, but New Delhi didn’t initially allow the incident alone to scuttle talks. With Modi once again attempting to inject energy into the dialogue process, after his surprise visit to Lahore on Christmas, the chances that India’s mettle would again be tested somewhere along the border was high.
Then of course there is the date. From the point of view of the terrorists, attacks on New Year’s eve or January 1 are excellent opportunities to send a message, considering the significance of the date and the likelihood that most people are looking ahead to the rest of the year.
And finally, India knew this specific attack was coming. Intelligence had suggested that the Jaish-e-Mohammad, the group that has been held responsible for the 2001 attack on the Indian Parliament, was planning an attack in Punjab.
Then, late on Thursday night, the Superintendent of Police (Headquarters) of Gurdaspur said that five armed men in army fatigues forced him as well as a colleague and a friend to stop their car near Gurpur Simbly village. The men then beat up the SP and the others, and then grabbed the wheel of the car, driving off towards Pathankot.
Punjab authorities took the incident as a terror attack, and immediately tasked the Border Security Force with carrying out combing operations in Gurdaspur and Pathankot district to identify and apprehend the men.
Reports suggested the army had sounded the alert and placed two columns and special forces team at the air force station following Thursday night’s incident. National Security Guard forces have also been pressed into action. That said, two security personnel have also been killed by the terrorists.
This is the second major attack aimed at Punjab rather than the traditional Kashmiri route, and the continued presence of criminal gangs and drug traffickers in the state have made it easier for questionable elements to operate. There is also the basic question of capability, with the security personnel along the international border having less experience of handling attacks than those along the Kashmir Line of Control.
Despite both broad and specific intelligence that something was likely to happen, India still suffered casualties in this attack, a reminder that advance warning alone will not be enough to prevent terror attacks.