In a somewhat rare event, Indian counterintelligence (spy detecting and catching) efforts recently arrested an Indian man who was not a government or military employee recruited via social media using honey traps (sex). In this latest case the spy was Harpal Singh, a 35-year-old civilian from northwestern India (Punjab). He was arrested in April when he came to the Indian capital to receive more information from sources and was arrested. Singh had been under surveillance for several months after police in his neighborhood received tips about him suddenly receiving large sums of money via an illegal hawala broker and making a recent trip to Oman. That trip was unusual because of the covid19 restrictions and the fact that Singh was not a wealthy man, but a farm machinery operator who often worked maintaining the fences along the nearby Pakistani border and had a history of being highly critical of the Indian government.
India has established a nationwide database system for such tips from local police about criminal activity that did not appear to be just local crime. The National police analyzed these tips for patterns indicating criminal, Islamic terrorists or espionage activity and the tips concerning Singh triggered an investigation that collected enough evidence to enable the surveillance and arrest in mid-April.
The tips indicated unusual behavior because Singh was not known for any association with smugglers or any other illegal activity. Police check for that before anyone is allowed to do work on the border fence and at nearby border guard and army bases. Being critical of the Indian government was considered normal but Singh had posted some of his opinions on the Internet and in mid-2020 that was noticed by an ISI (Pakistani intelligence) recruiter looking for well-placed Indians who might be recruited as spies and initially approached Singh via the Internet. After several months of discussions, ISI decided that Singh was recruitable and the deal was sealed when ISI arranged for Singh to meet his ISI handler in Oman, a Persian Gulf state that is a popular meeting place for discussing all manner of legal and illegal activities. Oman doesn’t care as long as you don’t break any local laws.
Singh turned out to be a valuable asset as he had regular access to the India-Pakistan border in Punjab, an ancient South Asian region that was divided between India and Pakistan when the British colonial rule ended in 1947 and the new states of India, Pakistan, Burma and Sri Lanka were created. A lot of those left living near a newly created border were not happy with the situation and while many got used to it, resentments survived, especially since the new governments were more corrupt than the colonial administration. Pakistan has done more to create and exploit these border-related resentments and Harpal Singh, being a Sikh, had more resentments towards the Hindu majority in India than the Moslem majority in Pakistan. Pakistan intelligence has developed a large number of veteran recruiters who can identify and recruit Indians with such vulnerabilities.
Another noteworthy aspect of this case was that the tips indicated Singh was suddenly receiving large sums (for India) via hawala, a traditional and informal banking network that is illegal in India but survives because there is still large demand for it from legitimate and illegal users. The main disadvantage with hawala is that it is more expensive for highly illegal users, like foreign intelligence operatives. The higher the risk of losses (to law enforcement, gangsters or corrupt government officials), the higher the commissions charged to move or park cash. The hawala system has been around for a long time. It is the Arab version of the South Asian hundi system that was developed thousands of years ago to facilitate long-range trade between China, Central Asia, South Asia and the Middle East. Hawala works because there are trusted (by each other) Hawala brokers at each end of the transaction. Commissions vary from under one percent (today, using modern communications) to ten percent or more for large amounts of dangerous (as in Islamic terrorist or espionage related) cash. Hawalas currently move several hundred billion dollars’ worth of cash each year for legitimate reasons such as business transactions and expatriate workers sending money back home. Someone sending money to another country must find a hawala broker with partners in the other country. The sender gives the local hawala broker an amount of cash, minus a commission, which usually covers delivering the money in another currency at the other end. The sender receives a secret code that is then sent to the person to receive the money, who then goes to the local hawala broker and, in return for the secret code, receives the money. Hawala dealers settle (balance) their accounts by either transporting cash or, more frequently, by using the surplus at one end to buy local goods for export to the hawala broker the money is owed to. Hawala brokers are often partners with import/export businesses.
Because hawala networks keep minimal records, their services are often used by gangsters, espionage agencies and Islamic terrorists. This type of business is riskier and, to account for potential losses, higher fees are charged. For remittances of expatriate workers to family back home, hawala is often cheaper and faster than legitimate bank transfer systems. That is because these remittances are generally small amounts sent on a regular basis. But criminal organizations like drug gangs and ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) want to move large quantities of cash, often in a hurry. Many hawala networks can’t handle it but the more enterprising and fearless hawala brokers will gear up to do it and get rich or get killed or imprisoned in the process.
Because of the suitability of hawala being used for illegal transactions, hawala has been outlawed in many parts of the world, including India and Pakistan. Hawala still operates in those areas, but the fees are higher. In the West, hawala has had a hard time dealing with modern police methods which now includes a lot of pattern analysis of legitimate financial transactions and overall economic activity that has proved successful at detecting the large-scale hawala networks catering to criminal organizations.
Both Indian and Pakistani intel agencies use hawala and tolerate the presence of hawala networks that avoid deliberate dealings with Islamic terrorists or organized crime. Intel agencies find hawala brokers can be important sources of information, which the hawala brokers are willing to provide as long as it does not harm legitimate customers. Users like Harpal Singh, who had no record of criminal of Islamic terror connections, are quickly suspected of espionage. That’s because Harpal Singh had easy access to a lot of information Pakistani intelligence was seeking and willing to pay for. When arrested, Singh’s cellphone was found to contain hundreds of pictures and videos taken while he was working on the border fence or near border guard or army facilities. The interrogation of Singh continues and while he only received about $3,000 from Pakistan, it turned out to be money well spent for them. The interrogation will seek to discover that Singh was told by his handler about remaining undetected. Singh had long term potential as a source, as long as he remained undetected. He did things some people in the neighborhood considered suspicious and that is something more experienced operatives avoid.
Pakistan has made greater use of the Internet to recruit and run (supervise) informants inside India. Most of the information obtained this way is not of high value so Indian intelligence apparently seeks to observe such operatives in action long enough to gather more information on what kinds of tradecraft (techniques) the Pakistanis were currently using.
The use of Internet-detected and recruited agents is just another battle in the decades-long espionage war between Pakistan and India. Just like the more conventional wars, Pakistan has fought with India since both states were created, Pakistan has never won any clear victories. Intelligence operations tend to be sustained, not episodic like wars. Pakistan has performed better at it than their larger neighbor, by about six times in terms of population and GDP, somewhat less in military terms. Pakistan can take credit for accomplishing more than the size discrepancy indicates but this, like many Pakistani military actions, seems directed more at impressing Pakistanis in general than in doing any significant damage to their chosen archenemy.
Since the 1990s Pakistan has quietly and extensively changed how it recruited and managed spies inside India. For decades Pakistan mainly relied on agents recruited and trained in Pakistan to pass as Indian. After their training, which often took years, was completed these agents were sent to India where they often spent many more years working their way into jobs where they could obtain useful information. The Pakistani agents also sought Indians willing to gather information, usually for a price. India is a poor country and many low level and poorly paid government employees were willing to sell information if the price was right. All this was very expensive and the Pakistanis were always on the lookout for more efficient (and cheaper) techniques.
The use of virtual honey traps (promises of sex from attractive Internet based women) first became known when it was used against Indians by Pakistan. But these techniques were also used against other nations (Taiwan, South Korea and Japan) by China. The most details are available about the use of these techniques by Pakistan against India. These details began to emerge after 2012. It all began when India became more effective at catching traditional Pakistani spies. Over the years India learned how to quickly detect, identify and arrest these spies as well as their Pakistani handlers. As a result, Pakistan began switching from using agents inside India to recruiting and managing spies via the Internet. The highly trained Pakistani agents could remain safe in Pakistan and develop techniques to find and manage Indian spies via the Internet. India still catches these traditional spies but has come to discover that there are a lot more of them. Since 2015 dozens have been arrested. This included four post office employees who were intercepting mail sent from one Indian base to another and looking for salable information. That was passed on to Pakistan, which paid well for this stuff. Often the information was literally phoned in using a hard-to-trace SIM card supplied by the Pakistanis.
Pakistan accepted the risk of these spies getting caught because the payoff was often considerable. In one case Indian police arrested an employee (a cameraman) for the government defense research organization (DRDO) and accused him of spying for Pakistan. The suspect was accused of passing on information about missile research and tests and doing so for up to ten months. The suspect admitted that he had met with ISI (Pakistani intelligence) agents in India several times. Apparently, this man was caught because Indian intelligence was monitoring ISI agents.
In addition to cash, Pakistan has found that sex also works and is being used more frequently via the Internet. In mid-2014 an Indian army warrant officer (Subedar) was arrested and charged with spying for Pakistan. The arrested man had been recruited in 2013 via Facebook by a woman who sent him software that he posted to his work server. This software enabled the Pakistanis to hack into the headquarters where the warrant officer worked. The Pakistani woman (or someone posing as a woman) convinced the warrant officer she was interested in him and asked him to help her with some work she was doing for the NGO she was employed by. The warrant officer fell for all this and enabled the Pakistanis to get a lot of information about the readiness and deployment of several Indian missile units.
Such honey traps have been encountered in India for quite some time and were known to exist in antiquity. Honey traps are less frequently encountered in South Asia and the most common method is still simply offering cash. Pakistan is constantly seeking Indian military personnel willing to spy for cash or sex. Even most Indian Moslems have no love for Pakistan and thus ISI concentrates on the greed, need or blackmail approach to recruiting Indian agents. India does the same in Pakistan, but India is a far larger target and has more secrets Pakistan wants. The virtual honey pot, however, has turned out to be very effective and apparently cheaper than the traditional methods of offering cash and using physical contact (between foreign handler and local recruited agent). More effective forms of encrypted Internet communication also help as does the fact that so many of the people targeted have smartphones and regularly access the Internet via those devices.