Terry H. Schwadron
Dec. 5, 2023
Last week, the Justice Department told us that they had charged an Indian man planning to assassinate a Sikh separatist leader on U.S. soil under the direction of a government official in India.
It followed a similar, successful assassination plot against an outspoken Sikh leader in Canada in September, when Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said that his country had intelligence showing “credible allegations” that “agents of the government of India” had killed the target.
It feels like runaway Law & Order plots, spy vs. spy attacks, and the stuff of James Bond plots, all with international ripples.
Beyond the crime itself, it’s the kind of situation that can affect diplomatic relations between the United States and India at a time when Western leaders are working to keep India and other Southern hemisphere nations including Brazil in their loose sphere of interest rather than drifting towards alliances with China or Russia.
As usual, this is not the sort of work agenda items you hear presidential candidates talking about, but it must take an enormous amount of time and spy effort to try to track nationalist plots that escape the borders of the country giving rise to the plot.
In this case, the Justice Department said it had arrested Nikhil Gupta, 52, “in connection with his participation in a foiled plot to assassinate a US citizen” of Indian origin in New York at the end of June, a week after a Washington visit by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The Financial Times identified Gupta’s target as U.S.-Canadian citizen Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, a leader of Sikhs for Justice, a U.S.-based group that is part of a movement calling for an independent Sikh state called Khalistan.
Justice spokesmen said a ‘Senior Field Officer’ for India with responsibilities in ‘Security Management’ and ‘Intelligence’” hired Gupta to arrange the killing. They said Gupta tried to hire a hitman who turned out to be an undercover American agent. Gupta, who lives in India, was arrested by authorities in the Czech Republic under an extradition order.
Among the questions here is whether these were singular events limited to this conflict, or part of a much broader trend of extrajudicial killings carried out by states, as s Foreign Policy article contends.
After all, we keep reading about blatant assassination plots against ex-patriots adjudged as traitors in places like London that are linked to Russian spy agencies. Some of the attacks have included such exotic attacks as poisoned umbrella points or acid thrown in the face.
Why not here, too, then? According to the Foreign Policy reporting, many states, including those allies of the United States, “feel increasingly emboldened to act beyond the bounds of the law. Washington’s failure to punish its partners has created an appearance of tolerance for this violence that emboldens these states to carry out further executions.”
Even this week, for example, Israeli Shin Bet (the FBI equivalent) chief Ronen Bar was reported to be saying in tapes obtained from closed meetings that the intelligence agency as setting out to kill Hamas counterparts “in every location, in Gaza, in the West Bank, in Lebanon, in Turkey, in Qatar, everyone. It will take a few years, but we will be there in order to do it.” He added, “The cabinet set a goal for us, to take out Hamas. And we are determined to do it, this is our Munich,” a reference to the Israeli operation to assassinate the terrorists responsible for the 1972 Munich Olympic attacks, which went on for years.
Not to be outdone, Hamas spokesmen have said much the same about Israelis and Jews, if not as organized an effort.
The New York Police Department has reported foiling similar plots by Chinese officials operating in New York City’s Chinatown, following threats against family members of outspoken dissidents in China.
The killing of dissident U.S.-Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Turkey by Saudi Arabia is another blatant assassination; in South Africa, Rwanda’s alleged assassination of Patrick Karegeya, a former head of Rwandan external intelligence, is another.
In June, Russia attempted to assassinate Alexander Poteyev, a former colonel in Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR), in the United States in a “brazen” failed bid that led in part to tit-for-tat diplomatic expulsions, The New York Times reported. An earlier, similar assassination plot was among a series of Russian activities that led the U.S. to announce sanctions and the expulsion of 10 Russian diplomats, including alleged spies, in April 2021.
Foreign Policy Effects
The United States is not immune with a history of assassination attempts on Fidel Castro in Cuba and involvement in plots around the world. The CIA was forced to cut back on such killings after a U.S. Senate investigation in the 1970s exposed the scale of its operations.
Foreign Policy magazine concludes that such killings put the United States in an increasingly uncomfortable position. “Countries that Washington has worked hard to court as new partners, partially to counter China’s growing influence, are committing blatant violations of international law.”
The foiled assassination plot traced to India is affecting attempts to build U.S.-India trust, an expressed goal for the Biden administration. As happened in Canada, White House National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan met with his Indian counterpart and stressed that India “needed to investigate and hold those responsible accountable” and to assure no repeat.
Ties between the U.S. and India may face “their biggest test in recent years” the AP’s Krutika Pathi writes, predicting that both governments “may struggle to control the narrative and the fallout” even if bigger, more long-term damage is “unlikely.” Michael Kugelman, director of the Wilson Center’s South Asia Institute, told The Washington Post that America’s “relationship with India is a special case” thanks to efforts to counterbalance China’s influence in the region.
Likewise, the United States will find itself caught on international repercussions from the Israel-Hamas war that escape the Middle East to Europe and the United States.
Assuming that wars remain in their geographic home is a bad bet.