‘Discovery of border tunnels indicates perpetrators can do their work undetected’.
New Delhi: Though the Indian security forces were able to eliminate the four heavily armed Jaish-e-Mohammed terrorists at the Ban toll plaza near Nagrota on the Jammu-Srinagar highway on the morning of 19 November before they could execute their plans, probing questions are being raised by intelligence agencies on the lapses that allowed the four terrorists enter into India undetected—through an underground tunnel that would have taken a lot of time to be constructed—and then get into a truck after walking for hours in the heavily guarded region despite carrying so much arms and explosives.
Officials responsible for the functioning of the security apparatus are baffled as to why the tunnel was not detected in time to either “close” it or keep an eye on it and take required action when it was finally put into use by the four terrorists. The security apparatus officials are also surprised at the ease with which the four terrorists managed to walk for hours, carrying loaded rifles, without being challenged.
As per officials, the four terrorists, who were armed with 11 AK 47 rifles and 7kg RDX, had crawled into India from Pakistan in the late evening of 18 November. The tunnel was later discovered by the Border Security Force personnel in the morning of 22 November morning, more than 80 hours after the terrorists had infiltrated into Indian soil.
The terrorists were killed at around 5 am, 19 November. By the time they were eliminated, they had walked for several hours and crossed an army camp and a railway track while on their way to reaching their rendezvous point where a truck was waiting for them.
As per off-the-record briefing done by the top officials of the BSF to a few select journalists, the terrorists walked for approximately 12 kilometres to reach national highway number 44 and boarded the truck around midnight of 19 November. The truck then took them towards Nagrota where the four were gunned down in an intelligence-led operation before they could reach their final destination.
The location of the tunnel, which has a diameter of 14 inches (36 cm) at the Indian end, was nearly 160 metres from the India side of the international border and estimated to be around 40 metres long on the Pakistani side. The tunnel, which began at Pakistan’s Chakbura post, opened at the Pillar 193, Regal village, Samba sector on the Indian side.
Hours after the encounter, Prime Minister Narendra Modi held an unscheduled meeting with Union Home Minister Amit Shah, National Security Adviser Ajit Doval, Foreign Secretary Harsh Shringla and top intelligence officials, following which he tweeted that the neutralizing of the four terrorists had thwarted their efforts to “wreak major havoc and destruction”.
According to intelligence officials, there were lapses on the part of the agencies responsible for guarding the border. “What can explain the fact, if not lapse, that the tunnel was dug for days, mostly inside Indian territory, following which it was used by the four well-armed terrorists to sneak into India without being detected and they were able to walk for hours without being challenged?” a senior intelligence official said, adding that if the four wanted, they could have easily attacked the army camp or blow the railway track that they passed through.
“The agency responsible for guarding the border could have patted its back had it been able to detect the tunnel before it was put into use or if it had neutralized the terrorists or caught them alive as soon as they came out of the tunnel,” the official said.
Emails and messages sent by this newspaper to the spokesman of BSF, which guards India’s Western border, seeking clarity on the steps taken by the BSF to deal with this long-standing problem of tunnelling from Pakistan, did not elicit any response.
Since 2012, at least five tunnels have been discovered by BSF in the Jammu sector along the India-Pakistan international boundary, and this has raised questions on the efficacy of border patrolling, as such frequent numbers of tunnels indicate that the perpetrators are easily able to do their work without being detected.
Since 2012, the BSF has been pushing for fortifying the mechanisms needed to guard the borders, which includes, putting in place a Comprehensive Integrated Border Management System or CIBMS along the 2,400-km vulnerable stretch along the international border (IB) adjoining Pakistan and Bangladesh. CIBMS involves deployment of a range of state-of-the-art surveillance technologies that includes thermal imagers, infra-red and laser-based intruder alarms, aerostats for aerial surveillance and unattended ground sensors that can help detect intrusion bids.
Officials recall that the proposal for the use of high-tech solutions for border security was first mulled by the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) in 2012 when it released an Expression of Interest (EoI) for CIBMS.
However, nothing moved beyond the files till the 2016 January Pathankot attack. Subsequently, the MHA—worried by the strong words of the division bench of the Punjab and Haryana High Court which warned of stern action against MHA officials if no decision was taken to protect the India-Pakistan border by 16 February 2016—finally gave its assent to the CIBMS on 29 January and sanctioned the implementation of CIBMS through two pilot projects.
In June 2017, Tata Power’s Strategic Engineering Division (Tata Power SED) received the order for implementing the pilot project by supplying CIBMS to the Border Security Force (BSF). Tata Power SED was asked to establish a multi-tier security ring at the border using a variety of sensors, to identify any infiltration attempts.
The Sunday Guardian reached out to Tata Power SED, seeking the status of the pilot project and whether their system was able to detect underground tunnels or not. No response was shared by the Tata SED spokesperson.
On 5 March 2019, the Government of India announced that two pilot projects covering about 71 km on Indo-Pakistan border (10 km) and Indo-Bangladesh Border (61 km) of Comprehensive Integrated Border Management System (CIBMS) were completed.
However, with the recent incidents coming to fore, Indian forces perhaps need to look towards Israel which has invested a lot of money and other resources to develop technology that is easily able to detect tunnels dug by the HAMAS.
The US, which is cooperating with Israel on this technology and wants to use it at the Mexico border, has spent $177.50 million between 2016-2019 to further improve the technology.