South Asian allies essential for Indian intelligence
As Indian intelligence grew after independence, it sought to establish close cooperation with its counterparts in South Asia
India has waged a long fight against terrorism since it won independence, as noted in the first part of this series. The country’s intelligence capabilities have played a key role since 1947 in stabilizing the nation, as well as taking on its adversaries. They have also given India a chance to build international cooperation on security and strategic issues, sometimes away from the public gaze.
Naturally, South Asia emerged as the primary focus of India’s intelligence community. The relationships it established in the region led to many successes. But they also had limitations that couldn’t wished away.
Beyond the region, as Indian intelligence began to establish cooperation with other countries, Israel emerged as a special partner.
India has constructive ongoing intelligence-sharing arrangements with Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Myanmar, Nepal and Sri Lanka.
Intelligence cooperation in South Asia
In the past, the Indo-Nepal border was used for unrestricted movement of Kashmiri and Islamic militants, as well as for pumping in counterfeit currency. In April 2001 explosives (RDX) and counterfeit currency were seized by Nepal Police from the house of Arshad Cheema, First Secretary of the Pakistan Embassy in Kathmandu. Timely and regular liaison exchanges have reduced such activities.
Criminals and smugglers have also moved across India’s eastern border between the state of West Bengal and Bangladesh for many years. Close intelligence cooperation developed in recent years to counter the activities of terror outfits like Jagrato Muslim Janata Bangladesh (JMJB) and Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen of Bangladesh (JMB).
In a major boost to bilateral security cooperation, Bangladesh handed over Anup Chetia, leader of the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) to India, 18 years after his arrest in Dhaka for trespassing. Chetia was a founding member of the ULFA. He fled to Bangladesh, was later apprehended and had been in prison since his arrest in December 1997. India had been pressing for him to be deported for years. On his return, Chetia joined the ongoing peace talks between the government and the ULFA faction led by Arabinda Rajkhowa.
In December 2003 and January 2004 the Royal Bhutanese Army destroyed ULFA camps in forested hilly areas in southern Bhutan after an exchange of pin-pointed information about their location and the group’s movements. Intelligence liaison with the Bhutanese authorities has worked effectively from very early on and is sanctioned at the very highest level. In what has become a hallowed convention, every new head of India’s external intelligence agency invariably starts his tenure by making his first outgoing liaison call on the Bhutanese King.
Information is exchanged with the Bhutanese authorities about militants from the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB – Songbijit faction), which operates along parts of the border between Assam state in northeast India and Bhutan.
India’s intelligence officials have also exchanged timely inputs with their counterparts in Afghanistan to prevent major terrorist attacks in each other’s countries. In the past, they were not always successful, as was demonstrated in the tragic attack on the Indian Embassy in Kabul in July 2008, in which a senior Indian diplomat and a Defense Attache were killed. However, attacks planned later on Indian consulates in Jalalabad and Herat by Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) were foiled. And a plan by Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM), a jihadist group based in Pakistan keen to separate Kashmir from India, to launch a series of bomb attacks in New Delhi was thwarted in 2016.
Authorities in India and Myanmar also regularly exchange information on the movement of hostile militant groups such as the ULFA of Assam plus the Kachin and Karen ‘rebel’ groups in Myanmar.
Intelligence cooperation between India and Sri Lanka, meanwhile, came under the shadow of mutual suspicion during the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) insurgency. Rifts in LTTE factions were not fully monitored by either side. Retired defense service officers from Pakistan headed their diplomatic mission in Colombo. Muslims in Amparai in Sri Lanka had colluded with Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). But Sri Lankan authorities either did not find out about a plot to assassinate a former Indian prime minister or any such information was not shared in time.
But there have successes. The arrests of Zabiuddin Ansari, also known as Abu Jundal – who claimed to be present in LeT’s Karachi “control room” during the 2008 attack in Mumbai, plus Yasin Bhatkal, Tehseen Akhtar (alias Monu) and Zia ur Rehman, from the home-grown terror group Indian Mujahideen (IM), were facilitated by help from security organizations in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Nepal.
India and Israel
Indian and Israeli intelligence also share common perceptions about counter-terrorism and the two agencies have developed close cooperation over the past few decades. Israeli tourists visiting Goa and Kashmir have faced attempts to kidnap them by Islamic militant groups from Pakistan.
Israel’s experience in dealing with cross-border infiltration and terrorism has helped India improve management along the country’s border with Pakistan through the supply of advanced ground sensors and other sophisticated surveillance equipment. A joint working group on terrorism was formed after the Mumbai terror attacks in November 2008 (known as the 26/11 attacks), when terrorists targeted Chabad House and killed the Israeli rabbi stationed there. It now meets regularly. Cooperation on cybersecurity and TECHINT – technical intelligence via electronic and signals interception – is also steadily expanding.
(This is the second of a three-part series on Indian intelligence and its cooperation with foreign counterparts. The author served in India’s intelligence community for 28 years. The first part can be read here.)