Foreign intelligence services are contracting out killings to gangs

Guru Nanak Sikh Gurdwara, Surrey, B.C.,  May 3, 2024. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ethan Cairns.
Click to play video: 'Is there a connection between India and a notorious gang?'
Is there a connection between India and a notorious gang?
Jeff Semple reports on the alleged ties between the Indian government, a notorious Indian gang and the killers behind the assassination of Hardeep Singh Nijjar. – May 4, 2024

The arrests of three suspected hitmen accused of killing a B.C. Sikh leader highlight an emerging security problem: foreign intelligence services are contracting their dirty work to the criminal underworld.

Governments are increasingly accused of trying to silence and kill opponents outside their borders, and they are relying more and more on crime groups to do so, officials and experts told Global News.

“Some states leverage criminal organizations to advance their objectives,” said Eric Balsam, a Canadian Security Intelligence Service spokesperson.

“The use of criminal elements can permit plausible deniability and generate resources to advance threat activities.”

Iran’s intelligence service was recently accused of hiring Canadian Hell’s Angels to kill dissidents in the United States. Indian intelligence, meanwhile, allegedly employed a drug trafficker to kill a U.S. Sikh activist.

In the latest alleged case, announced by the RCMP on Friday, three Indian nationals arrested in Edmonton were accused of gunning down Hardeep Singh Nijjar in Surrey, B.C. on June 18, 2023.

Karanpreet Singh, 28, Kamalpreet Singh, 22, and Karan Brar, 22, have been charged with murder and conspiracy in Nijjar’s killing, according to charges filed in B.C. court.

Karanpreet Singh, left, Kamalpreet Singh, middle, and Karan Brar, right, have been charged with killing Hardeep Singh Nijjar. RCMP

A source familiar with the matter told Global News the killing was a murder-for-hire and was believed to be tied to India’s Bishnoi crime group, which has been implicated in drugs, extortion and killings.


Its leader, Lawrence Bishnoi, has been imprisoned in India since 2014 but continues to operate from behind bars, said Shinder Purewal, a political science professor at Kwantlen Polytechnic University.

“Many people probably haven’t heard this name, but in India he’s like an idol,” Purewal said.

Willing to do anything for money, Bishnoi has an estimated 700 gunmen, including in Canada, where the gang is “very active,” he said.

The World Sikh Organization said Bishnoi had recently appeared in the Indian press “declaring himself an Indian nationalist.”

He has also vowed to oppose Khalistan, the independent home in India’s Punjab state sought by some Sikh activists including Nijjar, the group said in a statement.

The Bishnoi gang had been implicated in extortion in six Canadian cities, according to the statement, which said the arrests “raise disturbing questions about the nexus between the government of India and criminal gangs.”

The alleged hitmen entered Canada over the past five years and were suspected of involvement in the world of drug trafficking and violence, according to the source, who spoke on condition of not being named.

Superintendent Mandeep Mooker, right, Assistant Commissioner David Teboul, centre, at news conference on Hardeep Singh Nijjar homicide, iMay 3, 2024. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ethan Cairns.

At a news conference, the RCMP said the arrests were the initial results of a series of investigations that are still underway and were examining the suspected involvement of the Indian government.

India had long branded Nijjar a terrorist and asked for his arrest, accusing him of leading the Khalistan Tiger Force armed group. Nijjar denied it and the source said no credible evidence was ever provided.

Canadian investigators believe the slaying may have been an escalation of the Indian government’s campaign against Sikh separatists like Nijjar, and that its Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) foreign intelligence agency was behind it.

India has denied involvement.

Contracting out jobs to hired guns allows foreign governments to insulate themselves from their lawbreaking and attribute it instead to everyday crime, according to security experts.

“There’s a layer of plausible deniability,” said Colin P. Clarke, director of policy and research at The Soufan Group, a U.S.-based intelligence and security consulting group.

But the strategy also has drawbacks. Reckless and unscrupulous by nature, members of crime groups may prove careless and inept, allowing police to link them back to a foreign regime.

“They’re not going to operate with the same finesse an intelligence service would have,” said Clarke, who co-authored a paper last October on India and the Nijjar killing.

Moninder Singh, left, Brabjot Singh, centre, and Gurmeet Singh, at a news conference on Hardeep Singh Nijjar homicide, May 3, 2024. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ethan Cairns.

Following Nijjar’s murder, the U.S. announced it had disrupted a similar plot to kill one of his associates, Gurpatwant Pannun, the New York-based lawyer for the group Sikhs for Justice.

According to a U.S. indictment in the case, an Indian intelligence official hired an alleged drug trafficker, Nikhil Gupta, for the job, offering money and the dismissal of charges he faced.

But the FBI infiltrated the plot, and Gupta was arrested in the Czech Republic on June 30. In exchanges intercepted by the FBI, Gupta and his co-conspirators also discussed Nijjar.

Payment allegedly changing hands for killing of U.S. Sikh activist Gurpatwant Pannun.
Payment allegedly changing hands for killing of U.S. Sikh activist Gurpatwant Pannun. U.S. Department of Justice

By allegedly having others do its work, India’s RAW intelligence service put itself at risk of being exposed by informants and undercover operators, said Dan Stanton.


“RAW is basically having to engage with people they wouldn’t normally engage,” the former Canadian Security Intelligence Service official said. “They needed to reach out to some unsavory characters.”

Stanton said RAW was not known as a particularly skilled intelligence agency. “From what I’ve seen … operational security isn’t something they’re very good at. You need to make sure these things are secure and discreet. And that’s where they’re not that great.”

“We’re seeing this with the Iranians as well. They’re hiring people connected to organized crime, private investigators — even the Russians, to a certain extent.”

Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence and Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps has used gangs to target regime opponents in Europe and North America, including dissidents, activists and journalists.

“The regime increasingly relies on organized criminal groups in furtherance of these plots in an attempt to obscure links to the government of Iran and maintain plausible deniability,” the U.S. Treasury alleged in January.

Working at the direction of Iran, the so-called Zindashti Network allegedly recruited a Canadian outlaw biker gang member, Damion Patrick John Ryan, to kill two dissidents in Maryland.

Click to play video: 'Is the government of India behind a global campaign against Sikh separatism?'
Is the government of India behind a global campaign against Sikh separatism?

An Iran-based associate of the network gave Ryan the location and photos of the pair, and coordinated the US$350,000 payment, according to the U.S. allegations.

Ryan allegedly recruited another Canadian Hell’s Angels affiliate, Adam Richard Pearson, to carry out the murders. Both Ryan and Pearson were arrested for unrelated crimes before the killing occurred.

The head of the network, Iranian drug trafficker Naji Ibrahim Sharifi-Zindashti, operates at the behest of Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS) and has targeted other dissidents, according to the U.S. Treasury.

In 2020, Zindashti members abducted a leader of the Arab Struggle Movement for the Liberation of Ahvaz, Habib Chaab, and smuggled him to Iran where he was tortured. The MOIS sponsored the operation, the U.S. said.

Click to play video: 'Former CSIS exec on bombshell RCMP arrest of suspected hitmen in Nijjar case'
Former CSIS exec on bombshell RCMP arrest of suspected hitmen in Nijjar case

The Zindashti network was also involved in the assassinations in Istanbul of regime critics Mas’ud Vardanjani in 2019 and British-Iranian Saeed Karimian, who owned GEM TV, in 2017.

Intelligence summaries tabled at Canada’s foreign interference commission alleged that Indian officials have increasingly relied on “proxies” in Canada to conduct activities.

The tactic “obfuscates any explicit link” between the Indian government and its foreign interference activities, according to the intelligence summaries.

“Proxies liaise and work with Indian intelligence officials in India and Canada, taking both explicit and implicit direction from them.”