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Is India behind targeted killings in Pakistan? What we know

In News, World
April 05, 2024

Islamabad, Pakistan — Since June 2021, Pakistan has tracked and accused Indian intelligence agencies of multiple attempts — some successful — at assassinating individuals New Delhi views as terrorists sheltered by Islamabad.

On Thursday, British newspaper The Guardian backed those claims, three months after Pakistan’s government formally levelled similar allegations against India.

But in the murky world of spies and contract killers, where little can be confirmed independently, New Delhi has long denied its role in extraterritorial assassinations — even as allegations against it have mounted, including from the United States and Canada, friends of India.

Here’s what’s known about the alleged killings in Pakistan, what remains limited to accusations, and the implications of the allegations.

Who is India accused of having killed in Pakistan?

Pakistani security officials speaking to Al Jazeera on condition of anonymity acknowledged at least six killings in 2023, and two in the year before, as those that they believe were carried out by a “hostile intelligence agency” — code for India’s external spy agency, the Research and Analysis Wing — and were investigating.

In January this year, Pakistan’s top diplomat in a news conference also claimed that there is “credible evidence” of Indian involvement in killings in the country.

“These are killings-for-hire cases involving a sophisticated international set-up spread over multiple jurisdictions,” Foreign Secretary Muhammad Syrus Sajjad Qazi told reporters on January 25 in Islamabad.

Qazi specifically mentioned the murders of Muhammad Riaz, killed in Pakistan-administered Kashmir in September 2023, and Shahid Latif, killed a month later in the city of Sialkot in the eastern province of Punjab. The diplomat alleged that both the murders were orchestrated by Indian agents.

After the killing of two men, Indian news outlets claimed that Riaz was a top commander of the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), a Pakistan-based armed group that New Delhi has long accused of some of the deadliest attacks on its soil — including in Mumbai in 2008, when gunmen killed 166 people over three days. Latif, Indian channels claimed, was associated with another Pakistan-based armed group, the Jaish-e-Muhammad (JeM), and was allegedly a key figure involved in the attack on an Indian airbase in Pathankot in January 2016, in which one civilian and seven Indian security personnel were killed.

Pakistan did not confirm these alleged links.

While Pakistan has not formally acknowledged any other killings besides the two, Qazi in his news conference said there were more incidents that the government is probing into.

“There are a few other cases of similar gravity at various stages of investigation,” he said.

Among the suspected assassinations was the killing of Sikh community leader Paramjit Singh Panjwar in Lahore — Panjwar was shot dead in May last year.

The Indian government had declared Singh an “individual terrorist”, issuing a notification [PDF] in 2020, which accused him of arranging arms training and supplying weapons to carry out attacks in India. Saleem Rehmani, also wanted by India as a “terrorist”, was shot dead in January 2022 in Pakistan.

Residence of Hafiz Saeed, co-founder of the banned organisation Lashkar-e-Taiba, was targeted in June 2021 in Lahore.
The residence of Hafiz Saeed, co-founder of the banned organisation Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), was targeted in June 2021 in Lahore [EPA]

What about other Indian operations in Pakistan?

Abdul Sayed, a Sweden-based researcher on armed groups says the recent killings — if indeed orchestrated by India — were foreshadowed by a significant event three years ago in June 2021 when a car bomb explosion in Lahore took place near the residence of Hafiz Saeed, the co-founder of the LeT.

“Pakistani authorities attributed this incident to Indian intelligence,” Sayed told Al Jazeera. “Subsequently, there was an escalation in attacks from early 2022 onwards, targeting key commanders of various former Kashmiri armed groups.”

National Security Advisor Moeed Yusuf had first blamed India for the attack outside Saeed’s house in July 2021 — a charge that Pakistan levelled again in December 2022. Saeed, who is currently in custody in Pakistan, is accused by India and the United States of masterminding the 2008 Mumbai attacks.

India has been demanding that Pakistan hand over Saeed — who has denied the charges — to face trial in the case. The last such demand was made by the Indian government in December last year.

The primary bone of contention between the two nuclear-armed neighbours is the picturesque Kashmir valley, which is currently divided in two, with both India and Pakistan controlling parts of it.

They have fought two of their three full-fledged wars over the territory. India accuses Pakistan of supporting armed groups such as the LeT and JeM in a bid to foment trouble in Indian-administered Kashmir. Pakistan has steadfastly denied the charges, saying it merely supports the right of Kashmiri citizens to self-determination against Indian rule. India calls armed rebels in Kashmir “terrorists”.

What has India said about Pakistan’s allegations?

India, which denied the allegations in the latest news report, has also rejected the accusations made by Pakistan previously that New Delhi’s spies were involved in killings on foreign soil.

In January, after the Pakistani foreign secretary’s media briefing, the Indian Ministry of External Affairs described the allegations as Pakistan’s attempt at “peddling false” propaganda, saying Pakistan will “reap what it sows”.

“As the world knows, Pakistan has long been the epicentre of terrorism, organised crime, and illegal transnational activities. India and many other countries have publicly warned Pakistan cautioning that it would be consumed by its own culture of terror and violence,” the Indian statement said.

But Pakistan is no longer the only country levelling such allegations against India.

Is India accused of other killings on foreign soil?

The allegations and reports of India’s involvement in the killings of Pakistani nationals come at a time when New Delhi has also been accused by the US and Canada of a potential role in plots to assassinate dissidents living in those countries.

In November, US prosecutors said an Indian intelligence official had masterminded a plan for the killing of Sikh separatist Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, a dual citizen of the US and Canada, in New York. Nikhil Gupta, a middleman tasked with finding a hitman, is under arrest in the Czech Republic. The plot unravelled after Gupta reached out to a contract killer who turned out to be on the payroll of US federal agencies, according to prosecutors.

Earlier, in August, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau stood in Parliament to openly accuse India of the killing of another Sikh separatist, Hardeep Singh Nijjar, near Vancouver. Those allegations have sent India-Canada ties into deepfreeze.

India has denied any role in Nijjar’s killing and has said it is investigating the allegations made by US prosecutors. Foreign Minister S Jaishankar has said it is not India’s policy to carry out targeted killings overseas.

What does all of this mean for Pakistan?

Sayed, the security analyst, said that the recent killings in Pakistan — if indeed linked to Indian spies — raise questions about the effectiveness of Pakistani security agencies.

“These targeted individuals once belonged to pro-Pakistan armed organisations. Despite pressure from their peers, these individuals refrained from engaging in hostilities against security forces and maintained loyalty to the Pakistani state,” he pointed out.

The potential involvement of Indian security agencies in these attacks could suggest a shift in New Delhi’s approach, he said.

“If substantiated, such actions may indicate a strategic move aimed at undermining Pakistan’s capacity to escalate insurgency in Kashmir against Indian forces,” he said.

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