Punjab: Narco-Terrorist Surge

India’s premier investigation agency, mainly tasked with investigation of terrorism cases, the National Investigation Agency (NIA), is currently investigating two cases of narco-terrorism in Punjab, one registered in 2019 (RC-18/2019/NIA/DLI), and the second in 2020 (RC-03/2020/NIA/DLI). Following are the details of the two cases:

Three persons were arrested with 500 grams of heroin and INR 120,000 in drug money, and a case was registered in Tarsikka, Amritsar District, on May 31, 2019. Another three accused were arrested in December 2019. The NIA re-registered the case on January 22, 2020 and took over the investigation. An NIA release on February 10, 2020, disclosed,

During investigation, role of Harmeet Singh @ PHD, Pakistan based chief of Khalistan Liberation Force (KLF), a proscribed terrorist organisation, has emerged in running a cross-border narco-terror network through drug smugglers, militant elements and hawala operatives based in Punjab and other States in India. Harmeet Singh @ PHD is believed to have been killed in Pakistan recently.

Harmeet Singh aka PhD was killed on January 27, 2020, outside the Dera Chahal Gurudwara on the outskirts of Lahore, in what has been variously reported as a financial dispute over drug money and, separately, as a conflict over an illicit affair.

On May 29, 2020, NIA filed a charge sheet against 10 accused, further exposing linkages:

Role of Harmeet Singh @ PhD…. and Jasmeet Singh Hakimzada, a Dubai based international drugs smuggler and money launderer, has prominently emerged in running the Narco-terror network to further the terrorist activities of KLF. The network included persons involved in smuggling/ selling of Heroin, militant elements and Hawala Operatives based in Punjab, Delhi and Dubai responsible for the entire chain from selling of Heroin to channelizing the proceeds to Dubai/Pakistan at the behest of Harmeet Singh and Jasmeet Singh Hakimzada. Both the afore-mentioned prime accused have been charge sheeted as absconders and further proceedings are on against them as per the extant laws.

The earlier case relates to the seizure of 532 kilograms of heroin and 52 kilograms of mixed narcotics on June 29, 2019, at the Integrated Check Post (ICP) at Attari, Amritsar. A case was registered at the Customs Commissionerate, Amritsar, on the same day. The NIA re-registered the case on July 24, 2019 and took over the investigation. It filed a charge sheet on December 27, 2019, against 16 accused persons and business entities, including Farookh Lone and Tariq Ahmad Lone, both residents of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K). Later, on May 28, 2020, NIA filed a supplementary charge sheet in the case against the 17th accused, narco-terrorist Amit Gambhir aka Bobby aka Bablu aka Shoe Mallet aka King India Amit Sir. As per the NIA release,

Investigation established the involvement of an international drug racket based in Pakistan as well as in Afghanistan. Investigation also revealed evidence of generation of funds through sale of narcotics smuggled from across the international border for funding terrorist activities in Jammu & Kashmir.

In between, on May 9, 2020, along with teams of Punjab Police and Haryana Police, NIA carried out intelligence-based raids in Sirsa, Haryana, and arrested narco-terrorist Ranjit Singh aka Rana aka Cheeta who, along with co-accused Iqbal Singh aka Shera, is the prime accused in case RC18/2019/NIA/DLI. According to an NIA release,

Investigation revealed that Pakistan based entities are smuggling narcotics from Pakistan into the Indian territory by hiding it in sacks of rock salt which is imported from Pakistan… Investigation also established that the seized consignment was a part of a total of 5 consignments of drugs, 4 out of which had been successfully smuggled into India… NIA investigation has revealed that Pakistan based terrorist organisations are using narcotic trade to generate funds for terror activities in India. The proceeds of narcotic trade are transferred to Kashmir valley through Couriers and Hawala channel for terrorist purposes.

Ranjit Singh is also the prime accused in the Hizb-ul-Mujahideen (HM) terror funding module which was neutralized with the arrest of Hilal Ahmad Wagay, a resident of Nowgam, Awantipora, J&K, with INR 2.9 million in cash in Amritsar by Punjab Police on April 25, 2020. This money was being transported to the Kashmir Valley, to be handed over to HM’s then Kashmir ‘chief’ Riyaz Naikoo (killed on May 6, 2020). The NIA is investigating this case as well.

Investigations in the Attari case have also revealed that the consignment was to be delivered to Tariq Ahmad Lone in Kashmir. The role of the Taliban also came to the fore during investigation. According to a July 20, 2019, report, after a 120-day long operation the Delhi Police special cell busted a heroin racket, controlled by a Taliban leader and his Pakistani counterpart (names not mentioned), estimated to be worth INR 50 billion. According to investigations, the drug syndicate based in Jalalabad in Afghanistan sends drugs through trade routes via J&K, from where it reaches to Delhi in cars and SUVs, and then to Western Uttar Pradesh and Punjab. Further, on January 12, 2010, the Narcotics Control Bureau (NCB) identified and neutralized an international drug cartel allegedly led by a Taliban leader in Kandahar, Afghanistan, and arrested nine Afghan nationals at Indira Gandhi International Airport (IGI), New Delhi. Significantly, the United Nations Drugs and Crime Office (UNODC), in a report released on June 25, 2020, estimated Afghanistan’s 2019 total farm-gate value of opium poppy at USD 404 million, cultivated over 163,000 hectares of land.

Meanwhile, the Parliament was informed on December 10, 2019, that, according to Narcotics Control Bureau (NCB) data, large quantities of drugs had been recovered from the Punjab between 2015 and 2018. These included a total of 5,414.5 kilograms of Ganja (cannabis); 1,830.72 kilograms of Heroin; 1,669.41 kilograms of Opium; 168,420.32 kilograms of Poppy Husk and Poppy Straw; and 15,888,517 tablets of all type. SFs had arrested a total of 46,909 persons in drug related cases over this period.

Indeed, according to a June 8, 2020, report, despite a strict lockdown in India and some restrictions in neighbouring Pakistan in view of the COVID-19 pandemic, cross-border smuggling continued unabated along the India-Pakistan border in Punjab. A total of 81.84 kilograms of heroin worth INR 4.09 billion was seized by law enforcement agencies between March 24, 2020, when the lockdown was imposed, and May 31. An unnamed Border Security Force (BSF) official observed, “In the last over two months, our forces have thwarted several attempts by anti-national elements to push contraband inside the Indian territory.”

Sources also indicate that at least 72 incidents of seizures of ‘composite consignments’ [weapons/drugs/Fake Indian Currency Notes (FICN)] were reported from border districts of Amritsar, Ferozepur and Gurdaspur between 2009 and 2019. The recoveries included drugs such as of heroin, opium, etc.; and weapons and ammunition including AK-47/56 rifles, pistols, and RDX. Pakistan’s external intelligence agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) uses the services of a common network of ‘drug smugglers/couriers’ to push in composite consignments into Indian Punjab from Pakistan, exploiting gaps along the land and riverine border. The ‘drug smugglers/couriers’ working under the ISI’s aegis also throw the consignment over the Border fence in areas where infiltration is not suspected. Their Indian partners later collect the goods.

However, with Indian Security Forces (SFs) plugging the gaps along the land and riverine border used to smuggle goods, the possibility of using of drones for sending composite consignments is being increasingly explored. NIA is already investigating the Punjab Drone Case (RC-21/2019/NIA/DLI) re-registered by the agency on October 1, 2019. The case was first registered by the Punjab Police on September 22, 2019, following the arrest of four persons along with a consignment of arms, ammunition, explosives and FICN on the outskirts of Chohla Sahib town, Tarn Taran District, in Punjab. It was later confirmed that the consignment had been dropped by an Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) originating from Pakistan. On March 18, 2020, the NIA filed a charge sheet in the case against nine Khalistan Zindabad Force (KZF) terrorists. Investigations in the case have revealed,

…the consignments were sent through a total of 8 sorties of drones on 5 days in the month of August and September 2019. The consignments were received by accused Akashdeep Singh, Subhdeep Singh, Sajanpreet Singh and Romandeep Singh.

Several reports of Pakistani drones spotted flying in the Indian air space have emerged in recent past. In 2020 alone, and in Punjab, these prominently include:

January 13, 2020: A drone from Pakistan was spotted at the Indo-Pak border in Indian air space at Tendiwala village in Ferozepur District. An unnamed senior official stated, “The drone was seen for 4-5 minutes. BSF personnel tried to shoot it down but could not do so. Then, it disappeared.”

January 15, 2020: A Pakistani drone entered Indian Air space near the border at Channa Pattanam near the Ajnala Sector of Amritsar District. The BSF fired around 100 rounds, though they were unable to recover the drone due to the dense of fog in the area.

February 2, 2020: BSF personnel and some villagers reportedly spotted a drone-like object along the border in Jalalabad subdivision of the Fazilka District.

According to a February 12, 2020, report, Punjab Police is concerned about the growing use of technology in the narco-terrorism racket from across the border in Pakistan, with about 40 movements of sophisticated UAVs noticed in the Amritsar, Tarn Taran, Ferozpur and Fazilka Districts of Punjab.

Most recently, on June 20, 2020, the BSF shot down a Pakistan drone strapped with arms along the International Border at Rathua village in the Hiranagar sector of J&K’s Kathua District. A US-made M4 semi-automatic rifle, two magazines with 60 rounds and seven M67 Chinese grenades were found mounted on the drone.

Several drones and their remains have also been recovered. On September 26, 2019, a five-member NIA team reportedly visited the spot in Amritsar District where a China-made drone had been destroyed by KZF terror module members. The interrogation of arrested persons revealed that they had also thrown several parts of the drone into a canal near Dhode village near Jhabalin, Amritsar District. On September 29, 2019, Police recovered missing parts of the drone from the Dode-Chhapa canal near Chabhal town in Tarn Taran District.

Again, on September 27, 2019, the SFs recovered a drone from Mahawa village near Attari on the Indo-Pak border in Amritsar District. On January 11, 2010, a soldier, Rahul Chauhan, was arrested along with two Chinese-made drones and arms. Punjab Chief Minister (CM) Amarinder Singh, showing pictures of the Chinese drones, said in the State Assembly on February 26, 2020, “These are the drones which we were able to catch and we do not know how many such drones are still there with people of Punjab.”

With SF pressures along the border in Punjab mounting, the sea route through Gujarat has also been explored. SFs had seized five kilograms of heroin from Salaya in Devbhumi Dwarka District of Gujarat and arrested Aziz Abdul Bhagad on August 12, 2018. The value of the seized drug consignment, with origins in Pakistan, and having suspected nexus with terror organisations, was estimated at INR 150 million in the international market. Aziz Abdul Bhagad revealed that a total of 300 kilograms of heroin was brought to 150 nautical miles off Mandavi coast (Kutch District) in two tranches from Pakistan and was later brough to land using fishing dhows. According to reports, the consignment was brought to Mandavi for Rafiq Adam Sumara (arrested later). Rafiq Adam Sumara, meanwhile, had delivered the consignment of 295 kilograms of heroin to two Kashmiris – Nazir Ahmad Thakar and Manzoor Ahmad Mir – in Unjha, Mehsana District, Gujarat, at the instructions of Simranjeet Singh Sandhu. From there the consignment reached Amritsar in Punjab through Rajasthan. There is a possibility of linkages between this case and the Attari case.

There is a visible unity of purpose between the smugglers, Khalistanis and Kashmiri terrorists, under the direction of ISI. The Director General of Police (DGP), Punjab, Dinkar Gupta, thus observed,

It is the jihadi outfits who have shared the drone capabilities with the Khalistani groups, and our understanding is that outfits like Lashkar-e-Taiba [LeT] and Jaish-e-Mohammed [JeM] have a whole inventory of these drones.

Significantly, a LeT militant, identified as Javed Ahmed Bhat (29), a resident of Shirmal village in Shopian District of J&K, was arrested from the Pathankot District of Punjab on June 13, 2020. According to a State Government press release, Bhat was intercepted and arrested along with his truck from Dhobra Bridge, Pathankot, on the Amritsar-Jammu Highway, by the Pathankot Police when he was trying to escape to the Valley on learning about the arrest of his accomplices. Bhat’s initial questioning revealed that he had come with his accomplices Aamir Hussain Wani (26) and Wasim Hassan Wani (27) from Kashmir Valley to Amritsar District to collect the weapons consignment in the guise of bringing fruits and vegetables. Aamir Hussain Wani (26) and Wasim Hassan Wani (27) were arrested from Pathankot District on June 11, 2020, and 10 hand grenades, one AK-47 rifle with two magazines and 60 live cartridges were recovered from them. Both the militants are residents of Shopian District, Kashmir. The duo, actively involved in transporting automatic weapons and hand grenades from Punjab to the Kashmir Valley, was arrested by the Pathankot Police, who intercepted a truck at a police barricade on the Amritsar-Jammu highway. Punjab DGP Gupta, after the arrest had disclosed that the search of the truck led to the recovery of the arms and ammunition and that the accused, during the preliminary investigation, revealed that they had been directed by one Ishfaq Ahmed Dar aka Bashir Ahmed Khan, a former J&K Constable, currently an active LeT militant in the Kashmir Valley, to collect the weapons’ consignment from Punjab.

Meanwhile, ongoing investigations in all these cases indicate that several narco-terrorism networks have been established by the ISI to further its disruptive strategy in Punjab. These networks include the KLF module, the International Sikh Youth Federation (IYSF) module, and the KZF Module. These networks have planned their operations with minute precision. For instance, the KLF module has five prominent players – Harmeet Singh @ PHD, operating out of Pakistan (now dead); Jasmeet Singh Hakimzada, based in Dubai; Kulwinder Khanpuria, based in South East Asia; Jagbir Singh, Nirrmal Singh Neeldhari and Bobby. Four of these – Jagbir Singh, Harmeet Singh, Jasmeet Singh Hakimzada, Nirrmal Singh Neeldhari – have been charge sheeted by NIA in RC-03/2020/NIA/DLI case (the Attari seizure case). Harmeet Singh, operating out of Pakistan, had been sending drugs to Jagbir Singh with the help of Kashmiri operatives. Harmeet used to get grenades delivered at prefixed location in Ferozepur, from where Jagbir Singh collected these. Jagbir Singh then used his resources in India to send drugs and grenades to other areas.

The use of narco-terrorism by Pakistan is not something new. In an interview with the Washington Post published way back, on September 12, 1994, Pakistan’s former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif had disclosed that, in November 1990, Gen. Aslam Beg, the then Pakistan Army Chief of Staff, and Lt. Gen. Asad Durrani, then head of the ISI, had told him that the armed forces needed more money for covert foreign operations and wanted to raise funds through large-scale drug deals. Sharif added, “General Durrani told me, we have a blueprint ready for your approval,” and further,

Both Beg and Durrani insisted that Pakistan’s name would not be cited at any place because the whole operation would be carried out by trustworthy third parties. Durrani then went on to list a series of covert military operations in desperate need of money… I told them categorically not to initiate any such operation, and a few days later I called Beg again to tell that I have disapproved the ISI plan to back heroin smuggling.

Sharif admitted that he had “no sources” to verify that ISI had obeyed his orders to abandon the plan, but said that he assumed the agency had complied.

Indeed, the Washington Times in the same report had noted,

According to military sources, the intelligence agency has been pinched for funds since the war in Afghanistan ended in 1989 and foreign governments – chiefly the United States – stopped funnelling money and arms through the ISI to Afghan mujaheddin guerrillas fighting the Soviet-backed Kabul government. Without the foreign funds, the sources said, it has been difficult for the agency to continue the same level of operations in other areas, including aiding militants fighting Indian troops across the border in Kashmir.

With the Indian SFs thwarting every ISI attempt to force J&K into the turbulent phases of the 1990s and early 2000s, and to relaunch the ‘Khalistan Movement’ in Punjab, the ISI has sought to increase the use of narco-terrorism in Punjab over the past few years. In doing so, the agency has revived its ‘K2 (Khalistan and Kashmir) Strategy’ launched in 1988 under the General Zia-ul-Haq regime. Initiating Operation Topac, Zia had directed ISI to wrench J&K from India and export terror into Punjab. Pakistan has been relentless in its pursuit of these goals, to the extent of supporting a significant cadre and leadership of Khalistani terrorists on its soil for well over two and a half decades since the comprehensive defeat of the movement on Indian soil. As new avenues, routes and technologies are explored by Pakistan to facilitate its enduring strategy, Indian SFs and intelligence agencies will have to continuously intensify efforts and improve capacities and capabilities to effectively counter this dangerous design.