Top government officials have confirmed that the internal security establishment has been alerted to a possible terror strike in the hinterland by the proscribed Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) in retaliation to the Indian air strike on February 26 on the group’s Balakot terrorist camp in Pakistan.
“The JeM is known for its back-to-back terror attacks. It targeted the Jammu & Kashmir Assembly (in October 2001) and the Indian Parliament (in December 2001) using similar tactics, within two months,” a senior official in the Narendra Modi government said on condition of anonymity.
“The group tried to assassinate then Pakistan President using suicide bombers and IEDs (improvised explosive devices) in a span of 11 days in December 2003. After (the) Pulwama (terror attack), they may strike again using the same car bomb tactics.”
On February 14, a JeM suicide bomber attacked a bus carrying Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) troopers, killing at least 40 men, in Pulwama, Jammu and Kashmir. The bus was part of a convoy headed to a CRPF transit camp in Srinagar from one in Jammu.
The past 24 hours may have seemed smooth after the rollercoaster ride that started with Indian jets bombing a Jaish-eMohammed facility in Pakistan at 3.45 am on Tuesday and ended with Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman being released by Pakistan at 9.00 pm on Friday, but all is still not quiet on the western front.
According to officials in the armed forces and the government, the Indian military machine continues to be in the highest state of operational readiness along its western borders after foiling a full-fledged “revenge” strike by the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) on military installations in the Nowshera sector on February 27.
Things could have been worse, the officials say.
Piecing together information from senior Indian Air Force (IAF) commanders on the PAF’s foiled February 27 attempt, it emerges that the intruding fighter jets launched three laserguided bombs targeted at the Nangi Tekri brigade and a forward ammunition dump.
Despite Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan’s overt peace overtures, it is evident that Islamabad’s claims that February 27 was just a show of strength in broad daylight does not hold any water, the officials added.
According to them, as many as 24 aircraft, a mix of JF-17, Mirage F-5 and F-16 planes, were flown from the Chaklala base in Rawalpindi and the Sargodha base to attack Indian military installations in the Nowshera-Rajouri sector.The attack was launched at 9:45 am, they added.
IAF officials said the situation was saved because the enemy aircraft were picked up early by Indian radars and intercepted by Indian fighters, among them the Mig-21 Bison flown by Wing Commander Varthaman
With Varthaman taking on the intruding F-16s, the other PAF aircraft turned back, even as IAF’s multi-role SU-30 MKI and upgraded Mirage 2000s were poised for an attack from higher altitudes.
“Had the Pakistanis hit the military targets, there would have been a vertical escalation as IAF would have been forced to retaliate on military targets across the Line of Control (LoC). Even though there were instructions not to target Pakistani military installations, the attacks by intruding planes was to provoke IAF fighters. The PAF lost its nerve after veteran Wing Commander Abhinandan put down an F-16 amidst a harsh dogfight,” said an IAF official on condition of anonymity.
Meanwhile, US National Security Advisor John Bolton, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and the Saudi leadership diplomatically forced Pakistan to back off from a further escalation.
Still, the Modi government remains worried about a JeM strike in the hinterland.
According to senior Jammu and Kashmir police officers, JeM founder Masood Azhar’s nephew Mohammed Umair, Pulawama attack handler Mudassar Khan and local Sajjad Bhatt, who supplied the vehicle for the attack, are still in the Kashmir Valley with the terror group deciding to engage the security forces.
“We have killed 22 JeM terrorist this year including Kamran, who took over from Mufti Waqas after he was killed in February 2018. We killed key JeM commander Noor Mohammed Tantray in December 2017. The Pakistani terrorists of the same group are now putting up a fight at Handwara,” said a senior police officer from Kashmir who asked not to be identified.