Had the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) engaged the attackers from the start, the damage to navy assets and the loss of lives could have been avoided, observed the board of inquiry established to investigate the PNS Mehran attack.
Not just that, but the entire incident raised questions about Pakistan’s ability to protect its sensitive installations, said the board on Saturday.
Members of the board suspect the ‘inside job’ may not necessarily just be on the navy’s part, but also the air force whose personnel visibly failed in keeping the attackers engaged.
Earlier reports claimed that the terrorists scaled the walls of the PAF Faisal base which is adjacent to PNS Mehran. Investigators are trying to figure out why the security personnel deployed by the PAF failed to keep the attackers sidetracked. They are also trying to determine how the C-130 aircraft was left unharmed.
Not a single shot was fired by PAF personnel which the board said was ‘shocking’. The terrorists travelled on foot between 600 and 800 metres within the territory, manned by the PAF guards, who apparently failed to spot them. It was also established that when the attackers fired six rockets at the P-3C Orion aircraft, they were in fact standing in the area that falls under the jurisdiction of the air force.
The attackers entered the PNS Mehran territory once the aircraft had gone up in flames.
In the wake of the first attack, the navy’s rapid response teams came into action within minutes. There were more than 10 aircraft, including helicopters, on the tarmac apart from the Orion. However, it was only because of the navy personnel response that further damage to assets was thwarted and 17 US and Chinese nationals were safely evacuated.
Navy spokesperson Commodore Irfanul Haq denied that Admiral Noman Bashir had claimed that there was no security lapse and that their naval chief had been misquoted. “If you hear the TV recordings of the press briefing again, you’ll see that all that he had said was that ‘one can define security lapse in whatever way one deems fit’.” He declined to comment on any part of the investigation until the board of inquiry submits its report.
The board is expected to present its final findings into the attack on June 5 to the high-ups in the military high command and senior government officials.
The inquiry board is headed by Rear Admiral Tehseenullah Khan and includes representatives of intelligence agencies, Pakistan Air Force, FIA and the police. A spokesperson for the air force, when contacted, declined to comment on the issue.
‘Arrests not in connection with PNS Mehran attack’
A Pakistan Navy spokesperson denied any knowledge of arrests made in Faisalabad or Karachi in connection with the PNS Mehran attack.
“The Pakistan Navy has not made any arrests. If any security agency has picked up these four so-called terrorists, they haven’t told us that arrests have been made in connection with the PNS Mehran attack,” he said. He added that the air force or the army could also be made target of this wave.
He said the four people picked up by security agencies, including one reportedly being a ringleader from Faisalabad, all belong to al Qaeda’s Ilyas Kashmiri group. One of the nabbed, Qari Qaiser, is said to be a hardcore militant who took direct orders from Ilyas Kashmiri.
The senior navy official said there are many active cells of the Ilyas Kashmiri group in the country and those arrested were just a tip of the iceberg.
He said the ongoing investigations have determined that the al Qaeda militants had indeed managed to infiltrate the ranks of the navy and not only gained sympathisers, but also recruits. “We are still figuring out how many of these militants were in contact with our (navy) people,” he said.
The official said that although it was unfortunate that people within their ranks had been found to have links with extremists. “The navy too is part of Pakistani society that is breeding extremism, so it was just a matter of time when something like this happened.”
The Pakistan Navy is not the only institution whose personnel were found to be involved in terrorism. A former Army male nurse-turned-jihadi played a key role in the 2009 GHQ attack, just like senior PAF officers, including one SSG commando who was found to be involved in the attack on then army chief Pervez Musharraf in 2004.
Two groups attacked
According to initial investigations, the terrorists attacked the navy installation in two groups.
One of the groups targeted the P-3C Orion aircraft, while the other entered the flight line building.
Security forces surrounded the building from three sides and an exchange of fire ensued. According to an investigation officer, one of the terrorists hiding inside the building was hit by a bullet and blew himself up, turning the building into rubble.
The base has now been cleared of the rubble. All necessary evidence has also been collected from the site.
According to details, security forces surrounded the building from three sides which is why the terrorists were unable to escape and got killed.
(WITH ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY NADEEM KHAN IN KARACHI)
Published in The Express Tribune, May 29th, 2011.