Five Days After Airstrike, Questions Still Remain About the Indian, Pakistani Versions

India has not provided satellite imagery to illustrate the damage caused, and says it is "premature" to estimate the number of terrorists killed. But by blocking access to the Jaish-run madrasa, Pakistan undercuts its claim that no damage was caused.

New Delhi: In the early hours of February 26, the Indian Air Force struck a target near Balakot in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa with precision-guided munitions. In a brief statement, the government of India identified the target as a terrorist training camp being run by the Jaish-e-Mohammad. It was stated that a “a very large number” of terrorists and their handlers had been killed but there has been no official quantification of the actual toll.

Five days on, information from the Pakistani side and satellite imagery have cast doubts on the Indian account – both the relatively sober official one and the highly fanciful versions which have made their way to the media. At the same time, eyewitness accounts, and the refusal of the Pakistani military to allow journalists access to the madrasa the Jaish ran in the area means the official Pakistani account of India having caused no damage or casualties is also suspect.

The Wire brings you the latest state of play.

1. Did Indian planes cross the Line of Control?

In India’s first official statement on February 26, foreign secretary Vijay Gokhale said, “In an intelligence led operation in the early hours of today, India struck the biggest training camp of JeM in Balakot”.

By then, the Indian media had already said that IAF planes had crossed the Line of Control and caused a lot of casualties. There were animated visuals on Indian television of the Indian Mirage fighters had gone deep inside their territory.

Pakistan’s army spokesperson said in his statement on Tuesday that Indian planes had been over Pakistani airspace for four minutes.

On February 27, the front page story in Times of India, accompanied with graphic, touted that this was the first time since 1971 that planes had crossed the Line of Control. Quoting a ‘top defence force’, the article said that the initial plan was not to cross the LoC.

“But five to six Mirage-2000s did cross the LoC by over 10km to let loose weapons from 3.27am onwards for a few minutes before turning back. All aircraft touched down at home bases soon after 4 am,” he added.

According to a February 27 report in Hindustan Times, the operation by 12 Indian fighter jets lasted for two and half hours. It also said that four Mirage 2000 fighters had launched bombs for 13 minutes against a training camp in Balakot. However, it did not specifically mention whether the planes crossed the line of control.

All the articles mentioned that the ammunition carried by the planes were Israeli laser-guided precision bombs, Spice 2000 and Crystal Maze-Mk2. They also say that it could be dropped from a stand-off distance – whose radius ranges from 60 kilometres to 100 kilometres in various articles.

On March 2, the Indian Express reported  that “no IAF aircraft crossed the LoC and as per radar data reviewed by the IAF, the closest Pakistani aircraft was at a distance of about 120 km”. It further quoted an anonymous official as stating that the IAF wanted to cross the LoC to bomb the target, “but it was decided that it should only fire the PGM “from [the] Indian side of LoC”.

However, the Times of India‘s defence correspondent – who appears to have received a similar briefing from Indian officials as the Express had as far as the targeting issue is concerned – reported that Indian jets were around 2 km to 10 km across the Line of Control into Pakistan-occupied Kashmir”.

In none of the official statements on February 26 and after have the MEA or the Indian defence forces mentioned that Indian aircraft crossed the LoC. At the same time, India has not sought to deny the Pakistan army spokesperson’s statement that Indian planes were inside Pakistani airspace for four minutes – even though other aspects of his remarks over the last few days have been officially disputed.

2. Does it matter whether they crossed the LoC?

Both India and Pakistan agree that IAF bombs hit a mountainside in Khyber Pakhtunwa, which is clearly in Pakistani territory.

India’s ambiguity over operational details, including on the precise location of the strike and whether planes crossed the border, may have to do with the legality of the airstrikes under international law.

India has already labelled the bombing as a “non-military pre-emptive strike”, which means that it believes the operation is covered under the usual self-defence caveats routinely used by the United States and Israel.

3. What did the IAF bombs hit and how many terrorists were killed?

The first announcement of the Indian airstrikes came from the Pakistani army spokesperson, through his Twitter account. He posted photographs of four craters on a hillside near Jaba outside Balakot, claiming that only trees had been hit.

At 11.30 India time, foreign secretary Gokhale provided this official assessment: “In this operation, a very large number of JeM terrorists, trainers, senior commanders and groups of jihadis who were being trained for fidayeen action were eliminated”.  No questions were taken at this media appearance.

Before and after the Indian official statements, there were reports in the Indian media, citing unnamed sources, that over 300 terrorists had been killed. “IAF hits main Jaish camp deep across LoC in Balakot, 200-300 killed: Sources,” said the Hindustan Times report.

There was, however, no mention of the number of dead in any official statement. On the evening of February 28, Air Vice Marshal R.G.K. Kapoor said that there was “fairly credible evidence” to prove that there was damage to the camps. However, he said that it would be “premature” to give the number of casualties. “We got the desired effect,” he said, without elaborating, at the press conference in front of South Block.

Pakistan had claimed on the first day that four bombs had been jettisoned by Indian planes in a hurry as they returned back to their airspace after being challenged by Pakistani aircraft. The spokesperson had also said that Google earth satellite imagery – which was updated a week ago – would show that there was no building at the site.

Signboard of the Madrasa Taleem al-Quran, run by Maulana Masood Azhar. Credit: Twitter

On February 26 itself, The Wire reported that a Pakistani scholar at Harvard had tweeted a photograph of the signboard of  a JeM madrassa founded by Masood Azhar near Balakot. He said that his ‘friend’ from that area had told him that there were “10 ambulances around” to evacuate casualties, but that “not many” had died.

The next day, foreign and Pakistani media were taken to the area and shown the alleged bomb craters.

Reuters reported quoting villagers that there had been only splintered pine trees from the impact from the series of explosions that blasted them awake at around 3.00 a.m. Al Jazeera interviewed a farmer Nooran Shah who was allegedly hit by a shrapnel and was the only casualty from the bomb. There was emphatic denials that any further damage had been sustained, whether by people or buildings.

However, as the Harvard student had posted, there was a signboard for Madrassa Taleem-ul-Quran, which was as per the Al-Jazeera report, less than a kilometre to the east of one of the bomb craters and atop a ridge. The Reuters report had also given a similar location for the madrasa. While Reuters mentioned that reporters were prevented access to the seminary by soldiers, the Al Jazeera reporter simply wrote that he was unable to visit the seminary. Reuters also reported that by Thursday (February 28) the signboard, which listed Masood Azhar as the founder, had also been removed.

On Saturday (March 2), a Pakistani journalist, currently in exile abroad, posted an audio clip on Twitter. He claimed it was the recording of a JeM leader admitting that their seminary at Balakot had been hit by Indian planes:

The English transcript reads:

“Indian planes did not bombard the headquarters of any agency. Look at the the target of India’s bombs. What kind of place (makam) was it? Was it a place where agencies hold their meetings? Or was it a place where students in the light of the Quran and Sunnah, learned about jihad and helping Kashmiri Muslims as their duty? That is the place where it was attacked.

“The decision is in your hands. Will you still call it the jihad of the agencies, even when India has crossed from its territory, entered our country and attacked our centre (markaz) and has made jihad a reason to defend ourselves. It is said that when ants are near the end of their lives, they sprout wings and when hyenas know their end, they turn towards the city. Indian ants sprouted wings and flew to Balakot. Indian hyenas’ end is near and they turned towards the city of Balakot. Now it is up to lions like you whether you crush this ant under your feet or hunt the hyena or act like the Niazi rulers (hukmaran).

“Earlier, a Niazi gave away half of the country and 90,000 soldiers. Today, another Niazi after returning the Indian pilot has turned victory into loss, bowed his head down in front of the enemies and embarrassed the Muslim ummah.”

(Editor’s Note: Niazi is a reference to Lt Gen A.A.K. Niazi, the Pakistani general who presided over the unconditional surrender to India of the Pakistan army in East Pakistan)

All of these bits of information, taken together with the official refusal to allow reporters to visit the madrasa on the hill top, suggest some structures at the madrasa were indeed hit and that some casualties probably resulted. A Rome-based Italian journalist, Francesca Marino, who spoke to local sources by “encrypted communication”, has written that she was told 35 people were killed in the strike.

Which is why it is perplexing that the satellite imagery, as analysed by independent experts, indicates that the structures at the madrasa were unaffected.

4. What does the open source satellite imagery analysis say?

There have been two analyses published by international researchers so far on the effectiveness of the Indian strike using satellite imagery.

Nathan Ruser, a researcher at Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s International Cyber Policy Centre, claims that imagery acquired on the morning of February 27 shows “no evidence of damage to the facility or nearby areas is visible on the images”. He used the vegetation disturbance to claim to have identified “three clear impact areas between 150 and 200 metres from the edge of the facility.” He also said that it was unlikely that the highly accurate bombs would miss their targets and felt that the India was deliberately missing the facility to give a signal to Pakistan.

On the other side of the globe, Michael Jakob Sheldon, a Digital Forensic Research Associate at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab, also analysed photographs and satellite imagery.

He wrote that he had been able to confirm that strike “did, in fact, take place near Jaba top”, with the help of positive match between tree clusters and buildings, but that he “was unable to confirm that any bombs reached buildings associated with [the madrasa]”.

He also agreed that a photo published by ANI of a blue-roofed gate house to a compound did seem to match satellite imagery. As per the ANI tweet posted on February 26, the JeM facility posted in the picture had been destroyed.

But based on the lack of damage evident in the post-strike satellite imagery, he too concluded that the Indian attack had been unsuccessful.

5. How have the Indian authorities responded to the satellite imagery controversy?

India has so far made no official public statements in response to either international media reports or satellite imagery analyses which have questioned whether the Indian planes actually caused the sort of damage the Indian media was reporting.

However, reports on March 2 in both the Indian Express and the Times of India, quoted high-level defence “sources” saying that they had synthetic aperture radar (SAR) imagery to show that there had been a hit on four JeM buildings in the Jaba compound, but that it was up to the political establishment to take a decision on whether to release this.

The Times of India quoted “Indian defence officials” as rejecting the reports of the independent satellite imagery experts, stating that the “SAR films clearly show before and after pictures of the intended target being hit”.

Raising questions about the Pakistani authorities not allowing journalists to visit the compound, the Indian Express said that Indian officials have identified the damaged buildings as a guesthouse, a house for trainers, a double-storey hostel for new students and another hostel for advanced combat students.

According to  the Indian Express, the SAR imagery fell in the category of “classified’ capability.

It stated that the Spice 2000 was a “highly accurate” jammer proof bomb, which worked even under heavy cloud cover.

As per the unnamed government official in Indian Express, SAR imagery on first day showed that roofs had gone missing. “The SAR images are not as clear as satellite pictures and we couldn’t get a good satellite picture on Tuesday because of heavy clouds. That would have settled the debate,” Indian Express quoted the official. The official said that if subsequent satellite imagery suggests there has been no damage, this is because the Pakistani military put up new roofs on the damaged structures two days later.

The official also denied that the craters shown to the media were made by the S-2000 bombs.  “The PGM would go inside the earth and then explode, which would create a mound of earth instead,” he said

Speaking at the India Today conclave on Saturday, finance minister Arun Jaitley said the government would not make public any evidence to back up its claims of having killed a “very large number” of Jaish terrorists in the airforce strikes near Balakot in Pakistan earlier this week.

6. How have the satellite imagery experts responded to the latest Indian claim?

When asked about the Indian officials claiming that roofs were repaired by Pakistan to avoid detection by satellites, Sheldon said that the imagery that he looked at “to aid my conclusion that no damage was done was taken at 05:24:13 UTC [10.24 a.m. Pakistan] on the 27th of February”.  “I don’t know if that is sufficient time to cover up the damage done, but it seems highly unlikely to me, and not generally something that people do,” he added.

On the bomb craters not being made by S-2000s, he said, “I’m far from being an expert on PGMs or Rafael’s SPICE series of munitions, it would seem to me that it depends entirely on the fuze and its settings in that specific incident, this is not information that I have access to”.

In a 10 tweet thread, Nathan Ruser responded to the Indian Express article by noting that his analysis was done on the basis of satellite imagery with spatial resolution of 3 metres. He felt that the satellite resolution mentioned in the news report was probably about one metre.

“This means that IAF has access to 9x more detail than me. So it is very plausible that those images would be able to pick up finer damage than what I can,” he wrote.

But, he added that the image resolution available to him was enough to pick up airstrike damage rather clearly, depending on the type of munitions used.

Since “sources” in the Indian news report had said that it was a 1000 kg bomb, Ruser noted that it should be detectable. He showed how airstrikes in Syria, made with smaller bombs, were detected through satellite images.

“Even with a delay fuse, I would expect a 1000kg warhead to cause considerable structural damage to an unfortified building, though I defer that judgements to far better experts,” he tweeted.