The Curious Case Of Pakistan’s Mianwali Air Base Terror Attack – OpEd

In its statement on last Saturday’s terrorist attack on the Mianwali Pakistan Air Force [PAF] training base, Pakistan army’s media wing Inter Services Public Relations [ISPR] mentioned that “3 terrorists were neutralised while entering the base, while remaining 3 terrorists have been cornered/isolated due to timely and effective response by the troops.” It also went on to add that “during the attack, some damage to three already grounded aircraft and a fuel bowser [tanker] also occurred.”

Skeptics may contend that since air force bases house aircrafts and extremely costly aviation equipment, comprehensive measures are instituted in such facilities to ensure safety of these valuable assets, both through all-weather surveillance devices as well as boots on the ground and hence, there’s nothing unusual about a terror attack on this air force base being foiled.

Nevertheless, foiling a terrorist attack is no mean achievement and those who thwarted it rightly deserve due appreciation for [to borrow ISPR’s words], “demonstrating exceptional courage, while delivering a timely and effective response.” What’s even more commendable is that as per ISPR, “only some damage was done to three already phased out non-operational aircraft during the attack,” and that “No damage has been done to any of the PAF’s functional operational assets.”

A dispassionate examination of ISPR’s narrative on this incident however throws up several questions. By stating that terrorists were able to inflict “some damage to three already grounded aircraft and a fuel bowser [tanker],” ISPR has acknowledged that some terrorists were not only able to successfully breach multiple surveillance and security layers gaining access to the most sensitive aircraft hangar area, but also managed to damage three of them- and this is where doubts start arising about ISPR’s narrative of this incident.

ISPR mentioning that “3 terrorists were neutralised while entering the base” indicates that terrorists had lost the element of surprise [essential for a successful raid] right at the beginning while they were attempting to enter the air force base. This would have given timely early warning of the impending attack and provided adequate time for the security grid to be fully activated and facilitate suitable deployment of ‘quick reaction teams’ [QRTs] to prevent terrorists from reaching the aircraft hangar area.

It doesn’t require rocket science to discern that aircrafts parked in hangers/on the tarmac and command and control facilities in its vicinity are the natural targets of any attack on an air base and thus, there’s no scope for those responsible for security of the air base to be confused about the terminal objective of the terrorist strike. Hence, those conversant with air base security arrangements will agree that once the warning alarms go off while an intrusion is being attempted, there’s no way a group of six heavily armed terrorists could make their way to aircraft hangers/ parking areas unmolested.

Accordingly, terrorists successfully reaching the hangar/ aircraft parking area would have been possible only in two scenarios. One, if security arrangements at the air base were inadequate and the personnel on duty slack; two, if terrorists had intimate knowledge regarding the security arrangements that enabled them to exploit the ‘blind spots’ and reach their targets easily.

‘Home grown’ terrorism is a live issue in Pakistan and terrorists have targeted airports in the past [Karachi’s PNS Mehran air base on May 22, 2011, Kamra’s Minhas air base on August 16, 2012, Peshawar’s Bacha Khan International airport on December 15, 2012, Karachi’s Jinnagh international airport on June 8, 2014]. Hence, to conclude that it was complacency on the part of PAF that allowed terrorists to intrude into its air base at Mianwali and damage aircrafts on ground doesn’t sound very convincing.

Therefore, it’s most likely that some insider[s] may have passed on security related information to terrorists that assisted them in managing to reach the most secure zone with ease. While this may sound outrageous, but fundamentalist ideology propagated by terrorist groups like Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan [TTP] and its affiliate Tehreek-i- Jihad Pakistan [TJP] which has taken responsibility for the Mianwali air base attack has taken roots within the Pakistani armed forces. An example is official acceptance of the fact that attackers involved in the 2011 Pakistan naval air base [PNS Mehran] terror attack, had support from within the Pakistan navy.

The next curious issue is the sheer coincidence concerning PAF assets destroyed by the attackers. As per ISPR, all that the sizeable group of six terrorists who reached the hangar area could achieve during this strike was to cause “some damage to three already grounded aircraft and a fuel bowser.” Though completely unfamiliar with the probability theory, I still reckon that the chances of terrorists targeting three aircrafts, and all of them turning out to be obsolete machines that had already been “grounded” and were only of scrap value, are pretty slim and nothing less than a miracle!.

That’s why doesn’t specific mention that “No damage has been done to any of the PAF’s functional operational assets, while only some damage was done to three already phased out non-operational aircraft during the attack”[Emphasis added] read as something straight out of Ripley’s ‘Believe it or not’?

Similarly, while all the nine terrorists involved in this attack [in the words of Pakistan army’s media wing Inter Services Public Relations [ISPR] “were sent to hell,” the PAF personnel involved in this operation emerged totally unscathed- no deaths, no injuries. Though theoretically possible, incurring zero casualties during such a terrorist attack is indeed a rarity. So if true, this may well be the only terrorist attack on an air force base in history during which the attackers could damage aircrafts but inflict no casualties on the security detail specifically nominated to thwart such an attempt.

Lastly and most importantly, ISPR initially claimed that six terrorists were involved in the Mianwali air base attack but then raised their number to nine. In the heat of the moment, error in assessing the strength of terrorists is not uncommon and to make matters worse, numbers seem to be ISPR’s particular weak spot. Remember how on February 27, 2019, DG ISPR pompously claimed that Pakistan had two Indian Air Force pilots in its custody, but within hours ‘revised’ this number to only one!

In the meantime, TJP has released photos and names of its fighters who took part in the Mianwali air base attack. However, contrary to ISPR’s claim of nine attackers being involved, TJP’s list contains details of only seven participants, and this glaring disparity certainly raises eyebrows. TJP holding back details of two fighters doesn’t make any sense- au contraire, by not glorifying their purported ‘martyrdom’ is tantamount to officially disregarding the so called ‘sacrifice’, which being a highly de-motivating factor is something TJP will never do. Incidentally, TJP has also released a five minutes video showing hangars ablaze, and though not very clear, it does appear that substantial damage has been caused to aircrafts and that possibly one or two security force personnel have also been killed.

So, could it be that after its initial declaration of there being only six terrorists involved and ISPR’s claim that half of them were killed while trying to enter the airbase, ISPR realised that just 3-4 terrorists managing to damage three aircrafts [as claimed] didn’t convey a positive image of PAF’s professional acumen, and so the figure of terrorists involved was ‘padded-up’ to nine? Similarly, isn’t it likely that ISPR’s claim that only “phased out non-operational aircraft” were damaged by terrorists is a puerile attempt to downplay the actual losses, which could well be substantial?

Given ISPR’s brazen proclivity for manipulating facts, wouldn’t it be fair to say that its statements on the Mianwali air base terrorist attack needs to be taken, not with a pinch but a handful of salt?