Foreign intelligence services are contracting out killings to gangs

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.

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.

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.

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