Kaalkut. Chapter 13

19 November 2016

National Technical Research Organisation, New Delhi

The latest high resolution satellite images  along with notes about things of interest had arrived at the desk of senior analyst Subhash Punia. The tall and burly Jaat from small town Haryana looked a bit out of place in a desk job analysing complicated intelligence briefs. But he was one of the sharpest minds in the secretive agency who had a reputation of making out patterns in intelligence reports which most other people would dismiss as useless chaos. He was going through the imagery analysis reports of Pakistani air bases when one particular point caught his eye.

The report written by a junior imagery analyst mentioned creation of new semi-permanent structures next to Belab airstrip. The airstrip was located in the middle of nowhere, 150 km west of LoraLai and Multan lay 120 km east. Former had a cantonment of Frontier Constabulary, a  Pakistani paramilitary mostly meant for law-enforcement, anti-smuggling and similar activities in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and sometimes in other parts of the country. Closest sign of any human habitation was an MG Syed Cement Plant and the small residential colony 2 km south of it. Effective control of the plant was in hands of Pakistani army for all intents and purposes, just like majority of other profitable businesses in the country.

The images and analysis further suggested that the structures which looked like air traffic control tower and civilian terminal seemed a bit too large for the small airstrip. It was 1400 m long and barely had any traffic apart from very rare small planes and helicopters. Constructing such large temporary structures for an airstrip was somewhat strange and didn’t fulfill any real purpose. 

Multiple high resolution pictures did show some armed people in and around the structure and their positions and movements suggested that it was being used as a training area instead of airport infrastructure. 

Punia stared at the screen for a few minutes and then quickly opened a report he had read a few days back. It was based on debriefing of a RAW agent extracted out of Pakistan a few weeks back and had a few updates added to it provided by the other agents put in his place. One of the updates had mentioned arrivals of a group of 15-18 “daarhiis” (beards) in the area. They were living in tents away from the plant but near the airstrip  and were noticed driving out to LoraLai in civilian cars driven by drivers with fauji bearings. The local asset had reported that the group was a mix of some Mirpuris, Pathans and Punjabis who usually went out in groups of 5-6 every 4-5 days. 

To a casual observer, it looked like that the facility was being used by FC or some other Pakistani organisation for counter-terrorism training. But the local intelligence reports went against it. He went through the agency’s database of aerial imagery looking for something to confirm his suspicions. He fed the design of new Belab facility into a custom designed software built for the agency and scored a partial hit almost immediately. The basic design matched that of Kolkata airport.

He wrote his own report about this and marked it important before sending it to RAW Joint Secretary Shankar Kaushik. 2 hours after sending the report, he was called by Kaushik and asked to attend a meeting with a few other officials the next day.

He reached the meeting room the next morning attended by Kaushik, Major Abhinav Samant from Military Intelligence (MI) and two officers from Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) Girish Joshi and Arvind Sahay. All of them had read his report and asked him a few questions about it. Joshi’s job was to analyse the financial transactions made by Pakistan based organisations of interest. He was first to offer some information of his own, “We had noticed a few suspicious transactions from bank accounts belonging to Pakistani Jamat-Ul-Dawa to bank accounts of a few Pakistani citizens. We have a tap on databases of some of those banks and managed to get pictures of four account holders. All of them are males aged between 20 to 25, three from Mirpur and one from Lahore. We’re now working with our local assets in LoraLai to confirm if these four are part of the group present there. We expect to get confirmation in 3-4 days.”

Major Samant looked through the pictures and transaction details, “All of them got exactly 5 lakh Pakistani Rupees in one to two transfers from the same four accounts. The patterns speak for themselves. This is the price for their lives as jihadis.”

Punia felt a bit out of touch and asked a question of his own, “Are we sure that people in this list are the same as those mentioned in my report? What gave this impression?”

Arvind Sahay answered, “This is a long story and I am making it short. We had helped Counter Terrorism and Intelligence Bureau (CTIB) of Bangladesh catch a large shipment of arms and a few people of interest some time back. We interrogated the prisoners and went through the data captured from them. Most of the weapons were meant for NNFC and a few other terrorist groups in India and Bangladesh. Additionally, there was a smaller package of  25 assault rifles, 70 grenades. 2 RPGs and some explosives that were supposed to be transferred to someone related to BMC politician Tahir Hussain based in Hingalganj, near India-Bangladesh border.

This Hussain had received a payment of 20 lakh from the JuD around the same time rest of the transfers were done. When you submitted that report about the replica of Kolkata airport terminal and presence of suspicious outsiders, Joshi here put it together and called this meeting. We’re not 100% sure if their intentions and possible targets yet. 

That’s why we’ll be working together on this mission with Major Samant from MI. Going by the intelligence collected so far, it seems like that Pakis are trying to do something unusually big, something like 2007 Mumbai attack. Normally Pakis train terrorists in ISI and Army operated training camps in PoK and push in the terrorists across J&K LOC. Even if these terrorists have already received regular training in PoK, bringing them to a faroff airstrip for an unusually detailed and expensive training program raises a lot of red flags. 

Additionally, the cement plant next to the airstrip is owned by some people who’ve served.

Most of the routes which these terrorists use to infiltrate into J&K will be closed very soon due to snow. Some are already snowed over. Lately Pakis have started to push in terrorists even during winters, but their success rate is quite low. All evidence says that these terrorists will use Bangladesh route to cross over to India and their most likely target is Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose Airport, Kolkata. It is a civilian target and any attack there will be nothing short of catastrophic.

Your job will be to keep an eye on them from the sky, our assets in the region will be monitoring their movements and should be able confirm the identities. At the same time, we’ll keep a close watch on Tahir Hussain and his contacts. We’ll take care of him at a later date. Any action against him and his contacts in Bangladesh right now will alert Pakis. Bangladeshi intelligence has promised their full cooperation to us. They are pretty happy with our help with foiling a few major terrorist attacks in their territory.  We are trying to gather ELINT (Electronics Intelligence) at the same time. If they’re using satellite phones or even mobiles, we may be able to get a toehold. At the same time, we’re sharing this data with Americans and see what they come up with.

Our mission objective is to arrest or kill the bastards as soon as they try entering India. “

3rd December 2016

Satellite pictures around three weeks after the meeting showed that the tents near the airstrip were removed and most of the temporary structures without signs of any movement. Girish Joshi had managed to confirm the identities of three suspects as Amanatullah from Haji Kot, Lahore,  Assad Ul’Din  from Chitterpari, Mirpur and Abdul Qadir from Muridke.

 22 years old Assad was the son of two Pakistani immigrants living in London and had come to Mirpur for a vacation previous year and to meet the rest of his family in Mirpur. For unknown reasons, he had not taken a flight back home and had gone underground. On his Facebook profile, he had posted a long rant against atrocities of kafirs on muslims and claimed to have dedicated his life for glory of islam.

23 years old Amanatullah was one of 7 children in his family and he worked as a porter for Pakistani army in Attock. He managed to send 3000-4000 PKR every month to his family for a few months after moving there. Then he had called his family one day, expressed his desire to be an Islamic mujahid and deposited PKR 5 lakh in the family’s account. 

Abdul Qadir, 21 years old son of an islamic preacher in Muridke was the third suspect. His father was a cleric in a local salafi mosque. Abdul had spent most of his life helping out his father in the mosque’s madrasa. 

During their training period in Belab, the terrorists in training were not allowed any contact with the outside world. Few of them were taken to LoraLai every 4-5 days where they relaxed and some of them called their families. A RAW operative managed to get the number of Amanatullah’s father, but a tap couldn’t be placed on his phone before the camp was disbanded. Surveillance on Tahir Hussain gave hints that he was supposed to get a group of eight to ten people out of Bangladesh in to India and host them for two to three days in one of his houses in Kolkata.

RAW had a bit of luck, when they captured image of Abdul Qadir in surveillance recordings of Dhaka airport. He had arrived in Bangladesh via a flight from Malaysia on a Pakistani passport with a different name. CTIB managed to locate him by tracing his taxi to a  double story house in Shantibagh, 7-8 km from the border. Three other people were already staying there and five more joined in a few days later. Abdul Qadir was among the last. Surveillance of the house led them to a man named Sharjeel Ajiz from Pakistani embassy who visited the house in an unmarked car three times in twelve days. During his second visit, he entered the house carrying two bags. ELINT surveillance detected the presence of two Thuraya satellite phones but no call was placed from them.

On the evening of  10th November,  all 9 men left the house in three cars one after the other and drove towards Ichamati river which formed the border between India and Bangladesh. Most of the area was under dense fog and only the thermal imaging cameras on the surveillance UAV tailing them had constant eye on them. They got into a motor boat which was waiting for them and crossed in to Indian side under cover of darkness and fog. 

On Indian side, there were two trucks waiting for them. The area on Indian side had a lot of brick kilns, so a few trucks were always moving in and out of the area. All nine of them got into two trucks laden with bricks which dropped them just outside Kolkata. Two SUVs belonging to Tahir Hussain were waiting for them there which took them to a house belonging to his brother.  Once inside the house, one of the satellite phones was switched on and a call placed to a number in Rawalpindi.  One hour later, a team of National Security Guards (NSG) raided the house and arrested 11 people from the house. Two other people were identified as Tahir’s brother and the other one his aide and member of BMC. He himself was picked up by a NIA team as he was driving to his home a few minutes later. 10 AK rifles with multiple full magazines, material to make IEDs, grenades and three RPGs were recovered from a hidden cabinet in the house and two imported pistols from Tahir’s car.

There were some news reports about the disappearance of the local politician and arrests of some illegal Bangladeshi immigrants. Subhash Punia, Girish Joshi, Arvind Sahay, Major Abhinav Samant and some other people were given promotions and commendations in private that not many people even in their own agencies were aware of. Indian public had been protected against yet another incident of Pakistan sponsored  islamic terrorism and no one outside a small circle was any wiser. 

7th December 2016

14:30,  West of Multan

Birgadier Muhammad Taj was driving his official car himself for a change. He had taken over the wheel after they had gotten out of the congested city to the main highway as a way to blow off some steam. His driver was sitting on the passenger seat praying to allah for their safety as the Brigadier pushed the not that new car to its limits. A team of bodyguards followed them in a SUV few meters behind.    

His morning meeting with Lt General Hamid Hussain, Director General ISI and a few other ranking officers of the agency had not gone very well. The failure of Kolkata airport attack under his leadership had brought his reputation down by many notches and his promotion seemed to be a far fetched dream. Lt Gen Hussain had almost laughed at his face when he tried proposing another plan to hit India. If his previous plan had succeeded, he could have expected reaching the rank of Lt General and perhaps even General before his retirement. But the setback had proven to be costly and he doubted if he’d ever get promoted to a higher rank. He had not suffered any official punishment like a transfer, written or verbal rebukes due to his seniority and family clout. In his place, one of his closest aides, a Major Salman Butt had been transferred to Taftan, an ugly border town on Pak-Iran border. Major Butt had been personally involved in training and subsequent shortlisting of the final team. His transfer orders had come directly from the DG office and he hadn’t been given even a single chance to explain himself.

One saving grace was his family owned cement plant on which he could rely to lead a comfortable life even without the ISI job. His uncle, a retired Rear Admiral wanted him to get more involved with the working of the plant and had asked him to go there to sort out some labour related problems.  The plant itself was far out of any other human habitation and he wanted to stop at one of his favourite dhabas (roadside restaurant) before dealing with yet another problem. Thankfully the dingy, yet popular place still had most of his favourite lunch items and he had his fill before resuming the drive. 

The familiar sight of old family owned plant spread over hundreds of acres came up on the windscreen and he started to consider resigning to start working at the plant full time. It was far away from the noise of big city, he’d have a huge apartment in a quiet location and there’d be no need to lose sleep over the clusterfuck which most ISI missions usually turned out to be. He’d still need to deal with a lot of high ranking military officers to ensure that bribes were paid on time to ensure smooth sales, but even that procedure had been set up a long time back and the job would be a lot less taxing than this spy stuff.

The security guards raised the barrier on seeing his official car and saluted smartly. Many of these people were ex-servicemen from his uncle’s and father’s old units and they gave him same amount of respect. He drove up to the porch of main office, switched off the engine and took a deep breath. It proved to be his last as a powerful explosion ripped the car into thousands of pieces just then. Front of the building was completely destroyed and most of the windows in nearby buildings were shattered. 

Same Day, Taftan Bazar 

Major Salman Butt was not enjoying his new posting in the godforsaken town at all. It had all the perils of a field posting with none of the perks. He had to keep track of all the rebels belonging to dozens of Balochi, Afghan and even Pakistani factions running in and out of the porous border with zero infrastructure and support. Only other thing of interest was a copper mine around 30 km from the main town which employed a lot of Chinese. He had wondered why the mine in Pakistan employed more Chinese than local Pakistanis. But he never had the time to think about it much.

His new boss visited the place maybe twice a year, but wanted a work report every other day. One thing that helped him deal with all the bullshit was a small shop which existed to cater to the Chinese. It had a stock of imported and smuggled snacks, alcohol and porn which made life somewhat bearable. The shopkeeper sold him stuff at a discounted rate after realising that he was military, so Butt had that going for him. His fifth bottle of whiskey since his transfer less than three weeks back was already finished and he wanted to get 3-4 of them at one visit.

After the purchase, he got back in to his car and took a couple of long swigs straight from the bottle. He needed some relief after the idiotic conversation he had with a local politician who thought of himself as a master spy of sorts. The strong liquor burnt his insides but the numbness felt good. He started the car and started to take a turn to get on to the main road  Lost in his thoughts, he failed to see a huge 18 wheeler truck from the mine barreling down the road. The massive truck hit his small car on the driver’s side and it rolled 4-5 times before stopping on the asphalt. Major Butt died within minutes of the impact, his body broken in numerous places. 

9th December 2016

20:45 Hours, Skardu Airbase, PoJK

Sahir Mehmood was having a well deserved nap in his house after a hard day of labour in his farm right next to Skardu airbase in Pak Occupied Jammu & Kashmir. There was hardly any traffic on the barely used airstrip on most days. A few small civilian passenger jets and sometimes some military planes and helicopters used it every now and then. Most of the time it was pretty quiet, just the way he liked it. Even his house was on the far end of the village and his nearest neighbour was 300 meters away. The electricity supply to his neighbourhood and  most of the region was patchy even in the best of times. So he preferred to go to sleep early and wake up at sunrise to work in his fields and then do a bit of socialising and other stuff before finishing the day.

His sleep was interrupted by the loud noise of a jet aircraft passing so close to the ground that the windows of his house rattled. He didn’t mind that much during the day time, but hated the ruckus they made at night. He peeked out of his window to see a orange-yellow flame of a jet engine coming close to the ground and disappear as it went out of sight, followed by another a minute later. He knew there’d be still more noise as the aircraft would roll down  the taxiway to stop at airport apron to park for the night. The spot was only 500 meters from his house and he lay waiting for the aircraft to reach there and turn off their noisy engines. 

Four of the Pakistani newest JF-17 Thunder fighter aircrafts had been temporarily deployed to the airfield around a week back and this disturbance at night was now almost a routine. He got out of his bed and picked up the torch to go to kitchen to get a glass of water. He came back carrying the glass and put it on floor next to the bed preparing to go to sleep again. He sighed with relief  as the noise of jet engines started to wind down just then. Just before the noise completely stopped, he heard two near simultaneous blasts and then saw two pillars of flames rising above the boundary wall of airport in the distance. He put on his slippers in a hurry spilling the cold water on his feet. He cursed and pulled the quilt off his wife who was still sitting rubbing his eyes and demanding to know what was going on. He sprinted out of the house to have a better look himself and had reached gate of his property when he noticed 3 men walking briskly on the street outside. He shined his torch on them just to hear one of the men growl in Balti (local language), “Go inside and stay quiet if you know what’s best for you.” 

Mehmood noticed a black barrel pointed in his direction and didn’t need further convincing.  He turned immediately and shooed his bewildered wife inside the house asking her to stay quiet and not ask any questions. It was only around 02:30 in the morning that he came to know from some investigating Pakistani soldiers that someone had destroyed four of PAF’s newest fighter jets which were brought in from China, assembled and painted in Pakistan just a few months back.

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