Update: Nikhil Gupta was arrested in the Czech Republic in June 2023. A year later, he was extradited to the United States and has been charged. Gupta, was a key player in the murder-for-hire assassination plot. Attorney General Merrick B. Garland said, “This extradition makes clear that the Justice Department will not tolerate attempts to silence or harm American citizens. Nikhil Gupta will now face justice in an American courtroom for his involvement in an alleged plot, directed by an employee of the Indian government, to target and assassinate a U.S. citizen for his support of the Sikh separatist movement in India. I am grateful to the Department’s agents who foiled this assassination plot and to our Czech partners for their assistance in this arrest and extradition.”

In June 2023, we read of the assassination of Hardeep Singh Nijjar, outside a Sikh Temple in British Columbia, Canada. Canadian government sources claimed that the government of India was behind the assassination. We recently learned via a Department of Justice release of a sealed indictment that at least one government of India employee claimed to a confidential U.S. government source as part of a separate assassination plot targeting a Sikh on U.S. soil, that indeed the government of India may be culpable.

The Targeted Sikh in the United States

The Washington Post identifies the targeted Sikh as Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, general counsel for the New York-based Sikhs for Justice and like Nijjar a staunch and vocal supporter of the establishment of an independent Sikh-state, Khalistan. The plot, the Post continues, was thwarted by the work of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA).

The fact that India is allegedly engaged in assassinations, or wet affairs is not a news flash. Assassination has been a tool of India for years and have been conducted in South Asia for some time within the rubric of the tumultuous Indian-Pakistan relationship where both sides take a no-rules apply approach to intelligence operations. That the office of Sikh Affairs, apparently within the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW – India’s external intelligence agency) has decided that in 2023, the time is right, to assassinate of Sikh’s is puzzling.

Why India’s RAW?

Based on personal experience, the title of Senior Field Officer (SFO) in the RAW is a one at the supervisory level answering to a Deputy Commissioner of Police (DCP). Both were mentioned in the indictment as the former being the direct handler and the latter being the more senior officer within the government of India, supervising this and other operations targeting Sikhs for assassination. The job description of an SFO within RAW includes the planning and executing of cover operations to include intelligence collection, counterintelligence, and sabotage and assassination targeted against those considered enemies of the state.

Within the Intelligence Bureau, the title senior field officer is seldom used and is viewed as a misnomer for Assistant Central Intelligence Officer, a rather low-ranking position.

Furthermore, as reported by India media outlet The Print, RAW officers in Canada, United States, and United Kingdom have been declared persona non grata and the vacant chief of the RAW station position in Washington D.C. will remain vacant for the time being.

Modus Operandi

The means by which the plot to hire assassins came about had the Indian SFO using the services of an individual who was entangled with Indian law enforcement for drug related offenses in India. The individual, Nikhil Gupta, is the subject of the previously sealed indictment and has now been arrested in the Czech Republic awaiting extradition to the United States on multiple felony charges.

The SFO created a daisy-chain beginning with his own confidential contact, Gupta, to whom he asked to arrange an assassination for pay of a given target. Gupta reached out to his contacts (who in turn involved U.S. law enforcement – believed to be DEA.) The undercover agent within the U.S. government law enforcement handling the case, did so masterfully from the inception of the operation beginning in May 2023 through to the arrest of Gupta on June 30.

The agreed upon price for the murder was U.S. $100,000. The SFO advanced $15,000 for the operation after getting no traction from the initial offer of pay upon completion of the operation. Money was moved from India to New York via non-banking means, i.e., a contact of Gupta’s was paid in India and Gupta’s contact in New York paid the UC. The money network known as Hawala system uses a network of trusted intermediaries and avoids bank regulatory surveillance, especially on funds at the level of $10,000 or greater and may have been used in this instance.

More Targets and Next Steps

Perhaps most disturbing, there appears to be a plethora of targets in the United States. The SFO noted that there was an immediate additional target in California, and that Nijjar, although in Canada, was number three or four on the list. He continued how there were a sufficient number of targets to keep the hitman occupied at the rate of 2-3 per month for an unknown duration. .

The question to put to Ravi Sinha, the India’s RAW Cabinet Secretary is, “Why?” A close read duly notes that the RAW was aware of the political sensitivities of the assassination, given the SFO ordered a pause during state-level visit of India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi to the United States and then following the assassination of Nijjar removed it and ordered the immediate death of their targeted Sikh.

The question unanswered, though widely speculated, at what level was the plot sanctioned and why?  It is possible Modi desires to be viewed as a hardliner and perhaps this activity will help solidify the position of his political party, the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP), in the next election, even though they currently hold a majority within the Lok Sabha (the lower house of Parliament).

From a personal safety optic, those involved with Sikh nationalism, Khalistan, should heighten their personal security and inquire of local federal law enforcement what, if any, increase in risk they may now have assumed.

No doubt the liaison discussions between U.S. law enforcement and intelligence organizations and their India counterparts have a healthy dosage of “What the hell are you doing.”

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Christopher Burgess (@burgessct) is an author and speaker on the topic of security strategy. Christopher, served 30+ years within the Central Intelligence Agency. He lived and worked in South Asia, Southeast Asia, the Middle East, Central Europe, and Latin America. Upon his retirement, the CIA awarded him the Career Distinguished Intelligence Medal, the highest level of career recognition. Christopher co-authored the book, “Secrets Stolen, Fortunes Lost, Preventing Intellectual Property Theft and Economic Espionage in the 21st Century” (Syngress, March 2008). He is the founder of securelytravel.com