WORLD NEWS Alleged assassination plot by Indian intelligence reveals sloppy spycraft

Alleged assassination plot by Indian intelligence reveals sloppy spycraft

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How could operatives be so careless they farm out sensitive hit jobs to a purported drug trafficker easily fooled by a routine police sting?

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Details of an alleged plot by an Indian intelligence operative to hire hit men to assassinate Sikh separatists in Canada and the United States tells a nitty-gritty tale of lousy spycraft and sloppy underworld street smarts.

A U.S. federal indictment claims American agents secretly tracked the conspiracy day-by-day as a government official in India recruited a self-professed drug trafficker to hire hit men to kill two U.S. citizens and four Canadians deemed enemies of the Indian government.

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On their alleged list of targets, the indictment says, was Hardeep Singh Nijjar, an outspoken Canadian Sikh separatist, who was shot dead in June outside a Sikh temple in Surrey, B.C., which caused a diplomatic row between Canada and India after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau accused India of involvement in Nijjar’s killing.

What wasn’t publicly known at the time of Ottawa’s diplomatic spat was that a purported plot against a New York target, who was a colleague of Nijjar’s in Sikh advocacy, had completely unraveled.

It fell apart, authorities say, after the trafficker-middleman reached out to a man he considered an underworld figure, but who had instead become a professional snitch, secretly working as a confidential source for U.S. law enforcement.

The indictment — which contains allegations untested in court — does not include charges for Nijjar’s unsolved murder, but does contains claims of people planning for it.

The shocking allegations suggest the urgency, motivation, techniques, finances, tools and methodology in the U.S. plot might be similar to the Canadian killing.

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It also leads to a blunt question: How could, if the indictment’s allegations are correct, Indian operatives be so sloppy as to farm out highly sensitive wet work to someone so easily fooled by a routine police sting?

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Here is a step-by-step examination of the assassination plot alleged in the indictment filed in court in the Southern District of New York.

The plot started in India. It was made operational by “an identified Indian government employee” who remained in India while orchestrating it, the indictment says.

The official is not publicly named, but in the course of the alleged plot he said he was employed by the Indian government as a “senior field officer” with responsibilities in “security management” and “intelligence.” He said he had previously served in the Central Reserve Police Force, a national armed security force under India’s Ministry of Home Affairs. He claimed training in “weapons” and “battle craft”.

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He is called “CC-1” in the indictment, an abbreviation for first co-conspirator. It is a label used by prosecutors for an accused person who is not named in the indictment.

The official allegedly recruited Nikhil Gupta, known as Nick, into the plot in early May. They already knew each other.

Gupta is 52 years old and an Indian citizen. He too was in India during the plot, but had underworld contacts abroad from alleged involvement in drugs and weapons trafficking.

Gupta had a pressure point used by the official: the official, according to the indictment, said he could arrange for a criminal case against Gupta to be dismissed.

On May 6, the official instructed Gupta to save his phone number, that had India’s country code as a prefix, on an encrypted phone app under a specific alias. Over the coming weeks, the official and Gupta communicated in person in New Delhi, by telephone and using an encrypted messaging app.

On May 12, the official told Gupta the criminal case against him in Gujarat, a state in western India, “has already been taken care of.” The official later said his boss confirmed Gupta was now “all clear” with police and “nobody will ever bother you again.”

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The alleged conspiracy in India was bigger than these two.

The Indian official made it clear he wasn’t working alone. He said he had a boss who he consulted several times along the way. He said there was a well-resourced group monitoring their progress. He spoke of getting approvals and instructions.

During a video planning call, Gupta was seen with “approximately three other men … who were dressed in business attire, sitting around a conference table,” the indictment says. And a mystery man in New York would later make an appearance passing along a fistful of dollars.

money exchange
Nikhil Gupta hands $15,000 in cash to the UC (undercover agent). A still image of the Advance Payment shown, as described by the U.S. Department of Justice. Photo by U.S. Attorney’s Office /nat

The official at first allegedly told Gupta he had two targets he wanted killed, one in New York and another in California. There would be more victims coming, he said.

“We will hit our all Targets,” Gupta texted the official, according to the indictment.

In May, Gupta phoned someone he considered a criminal associate, allegedly saying he was looking to hire a hitman to knock off a lawyer in New York. Gupta told the associate the target’s name.

They discussed the job. Gupta had some tips, such as exploiting the target’s job as a lawyer by making an appointment for legal advice to lure him to a meeting.

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The associate said he would reach out to underworld friends.

What Gupta didn’t know was the man he considered an underworld figure was now a professional snitch, secretly working as a confidential source with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.

The snitch hooked him up with a purported hitman, but, of course, he too was secretly working for the U.S. government. He was, in fact, an undercover DEA agent.

Gupta allegedly kept the official in India up to date on progress, sending screenshots of text messages with the associate. He said the hitman wanted $100,000. The official said he was “ready to pay $150,000,” and the full amount would be paid within 24 hours after the job, prosecutors claim.

On June 2, the official asked for an update and urged “less time.” Gupta passed the urgency on to the associate in a phone call: “Finish him brother, finish him. Don’t take too much time… Finish the job,” the indictment says.

Gupta instructed the associate to download a phone app that encodes GPS coordinates in photos taken with it. He wanted the hit team to use it to take and send surveillance photos of the target. This suggests Gupta or the official maintained some suspicion over the hired help.

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If their gut was telling them something, they apparently didn’t listen.

On June 4, the associate sent Gupta a photo of the target using the GPS app and said he needed a $25,000 advance.

Gupta asked the associate to put him in direct contact with the hitman in New York first, according to the allegations. He was introduced, through electronic messages, to the make-believe assassin. The official, in turn, put Gupta in touch with another alleged conspirator, who was also in New York but had an Indian phone number. This man would provide the hitman with the cash advance.

Biden and Modi exchange words
U.S. President Joe Biden, left, and India Prime Minister Narendra Modi talk during the G20 leaders summit in Nusa Dua, Bali, Indonesia, Nov. 15, 2022. Photo by Dita Alangkara /THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

On June 9, someone acting at the direction of the official allegedly met with the purported hitman in Manhattan. Inside the undercover officer’s car, the man paid him $15,000.

There is a photo, depicting a transaction, in the indictment.

It shows a man in the driver’s seat of a car holding a fistful of dollars while a man in the passenger seat seems to be examining a dollar bill. The top bill of the wad is a $100 and the stack appears to be about how thick a folded stack of 150 $100 bills should be.

While updated personal information on the target was being passed on to the hitman — home address, phone numbers, daily routine — a hitch arose: “political things,” Gupta said.

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The hitman was told to hold off on pulling the trigger until high-level meetings between American and Indian officials were done.

The assassination, the messages said, had to wait until after June 24.

That timing coincides with a state visit to the United States by India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Modi was hosted by U.S. President Joe Biden at a state dinner at the White House on June 21 and the leaders issued a cordial joint statement on June 22. Modi’s visit ended June 24.

If the hit team did things right, they were told, a lot of work could follow, enough to change their lives.

“We will give more bigger job,” Gupta allegedly said on a call. “More, more job every month, every month two to three job.”

Included on the hit list, Gupta allegedly said on June 14, was a “big target” in Canada; they would need more assassins: “We will be needing one good team in Canada also.”

The next day he said he was still waiting for “the details” of the Canadian target: “We are doing their job, brother. We are doing their New York (and) Canada (jobs).”

It unknown if U.S. officials warned Canadian authorities of the threatening plans to kill targets in Canada.

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Things changed quickly and violently.

On June 18, Nijjar was shot dead in British Columbia.

Nijjar was an associate of the New York target. The New York man is not named in the indictment but has been identified as Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, a lawyer who says he is a dual U.S.-Canadian citizen.

Both Nijjar and Pannun were born in India before emigrating, known as harsh critics of the Indian government, and as leaders in the Khalistan movement, advocating for a separate homeland for Sikhs in India’s Punjab region. They are considered terrorists in India.

Gurpatwant Pannun
For years, Gurpatwant Pannun — who says he’s a dual citizen of Canada and the U.S. — has been a thorn in the side of New Delhi, which regards him as a terrorist for his activities in support of an independent Sikh state known as Khalistan. Photo by Gurpatwant Singh Pannun /THE CANADIAN PRESS

Hours after Nijjar’s murder, the Indian official sent Gupta a video clip showing Nijjar’s blood-stained body slumped in his vehicle. Gupta allegedly replied that he wished he had been the one who killed him and asked if he could “go to the field”. The official replied it was better not to be so close to the “action” and “secrecy (is) important”.

Gupta forwarded the Canadian murder scene video to the associate and to the hitman.

The next day, Gupta allegedly told the hitman that Nijjar “was also the target” but “number four, number three” on the list.

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The hitman needn’t worry over lost revenue, though, because there was still plenty of work: “We have so many targets, we have so many targets,” the indictment quotes him saying.

“The good news is this: Now no need to wait.”

The public killing of Nijjar seemed to lift the moratorium over Modi’s visit.

In another call, Gupta allegedly told the associate that Nijjar had been the target in Canada he previously told him about.

“This is the guy,” he allegedly said. “Some other guy did this job… in Canada.”

The indictment claims Gupta told the associate: “We got the go-ahead to go anytime, even today, tomorrow, as early as possible,” but warned the job may now be harder.

“He will be more cautious, because in Canada his colleague is down. His colleague is down.” The associate was told that even if the New York target is found at a meeting with other people, to kill them all.

“Put everyone down, put everyone down,” he was told.

There was now a countdown. They had to kill four targets before June 28 — the New York victim first, and then “three in Canada.” (The California man seemed to disappear from the list. It is possible there was an early misunderstanding, because Pannun has law offices in New York and California.)

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On June 25, the hitman sent Gupta photos taken around the target’s home using the GPS verification app. They were forwarded to the official. The official seemed pleased, replying: “Excellent… (t)hey are proving that they are quite serious now.” He said hit men had to be prepared at the target’s home, office and favoured café.

On June 30, Gupta left India for a trip to the Czech Republic. When he landed, he was arrested by Czech police at the request of the United States. No details on his trip are in the indictment. It is likely he was lured there by U.S. officials to arrest him and terminate the plots.

Although he was arrested five months ago, the allegations were kept secret. A low-key indictment was filed in court under seal on June 13. It was unsealed a month after the arrest, but it was vague, never mentioning India, Canada, or the political nature of alleged targets.

The arrest didn’t become widespread international news — and of intense interest in Canada — until a superseding indictment, outlining the detailed allegations, was filed in court on Nov. 29.

Indian officials said the U.S. allegations are a concern, and would be contrary to government policy if true. An inquiry was called to look into them.

A request for comment on the charges and allegations from Gupta’s lawyer, Jeffrey Chabrowe, was not returned prior to deadline.

• Email: ahumphreys@postmedia.com | X: AD_Humphreys

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