by Asif Fuard
Sri Lanka’s endeavours to strengthen diplomatic ties in the region hit a snag, with the country becoming entangled in what is being viewed as the latest spy scandal to rock the South Asian diplomatic arena.
The scandal comes in the wake of Indian intelligence reports implicating Pakistan of recruiting Sri Lankan nationals to conduct covert espionage operations in the Southern Indian State of Tamil Nadu.
The disclosures have dragged Sri Lanka into the periphery of yet another diplomatic controversy with India.
The spy scandal hit the headline in the backdrop of the recent arrest of an Indian national in Tamil Nadu, accused of spying for Pakistan’s premiere espionage body – Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI).
The alleged ISI spy, identified as Thameen Ansari, 35, of Tanjavur District in Tamil Nadu, was arrested in a joint operation launched by India’s Intelligence Bureau (IB) and the ‘Q Branch’ of the Tamil Nadu Police in Trichy, on 16 September, while he was attempting to board a flight to Colombo.
The arrest and the revelation of him being associated with the Pakistani High Commission in Colombo has raised fresh concerns of further strained relations between the two nuclear-armed neighbours, who were on the road to mending their fragile diplomatic ties. As is to be expected, both the arrest and the revelations also led to a media frenzy in India.
Following reports of more ISI operatives being placed in strategic locations in South India and Sri Lankan refugees in India being recruited by the Pakistani intelligence arm, India’s external intelligence agency – Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), had, in an intelligence report, urged that it was in India’s national interest to place Tamil Nadu on a state of high alert. The report had also recommended that h intelligence operations in the Sri Lankan refugee camps be intensified.
Following the RAW report, maritime security in the South Indian coast has also been beefed up in a bid to thwart attempts by ISI recruited Sri Lankan operatives to return to Sri Lanka with high-priority intelligence.
Despite a full-scale investigation being carried out by the Indian authorities and plans being made to crackdown on the Pakistani intelligence cells operating in India, Colombo and Islamabad have remained silent over the current situation, which has raised questions as to whether a much larger operation is currently brewing in the region.
With sketchy details of the alleged operations, which have been conducted by the ISI in India, surfacing in the public domain, the current espionage saga is yet shrouded in mystery. Questions about the authenticity of Ansari’s confessions are a focal point in the probe, as it would lead to a much larger revelation.
A senior Indian Defence official, who spoke on conditions of anonymity, said it was too early to draw any conclusions related to the case. He said even though Ansari had been forthcoming, revealing himself as an ISI operative, the possibility of him attempting to delude Indian investigators remained high.
“He has confessed he is an ISI operative and we do not rule out what he has said. Likewise, we cannot rule out the possibility of him trying to mislead us. He could even be working for another agency. This is a delicate case and we have to handle it without leaving any details behind. It would be convenient to pin this on the ISI for being involved in espionage in India like in the past. But there might even be a bigger picture to this. We are yet in the preliminary stages of the investigations and only once we have gathered all evidence can we be sure of what his role was and how much harm he has caused to India’s internal security,” he said.
The official also added that there was a possibility of Ansari working for two different intelligence agencies at the same time. In such a scenario, he would have been able to sell classified Indian military information to both foreign intelligence arms. He added that the Indian investigators are probing into the possibility of him also being associated with the Chinese intelligence organization.
Probe takes new twist
The current probe into the alleged ISI operative is currently being handled in cooperation with the National Investigation Agency (NIA), ‘Q Branch’ of the Tamil Nadu police and the Intelligence Bureau.
Preliminary investigations by the Indian sleuths have revealed startling details, which Ansari had provided his handlers with, intelligence which has raised alarm bells within the Indian defence establishment.
Ansari who is an ex-student union leader, according to information gathered so far, had operated undercover as a vegetable vendor who had been a frequent visitor to Colombo. He had travelled to Colombo almost every two months and had been operating as a vendor who had been involved in business in Colombo. Ansari had told sleuths that he had been conducting his operations in espionage for nearly two years.
He had also confessed to having captured videos of vital installations, including the Nagapattinam Port and the Madras Regimental Centre in Wellington, which are two key installations in South India.
Upon Ansari’s arrest, police sleuths had uncovered two DVDs containing visuals of the Army Para-Gliding training and a parade of the Army Signal Corps, which were kept in his possession.
In the videos taken of the Indian Army formations, the focus of the footage had been on Army uniforms and regimental insignias, which has raised concerns of a possible attempt by hostile forces to infiltrate key military installations in the guise of Indian Army personnel.
Police had also seized a laptop, which belonged to Ansari, containing literature related to Jihadi activities written in Urdu. In one of the articles, pictures of a man being beheaded by Jihadi militants had also been included. The sleuths are trying to ascertain if Ansari had links to Jihadi militants in the area and are also trying to determine if he had a direct or indirect hand in the Mumbai terror attack in 2008.
Ansari had told the Indian sleuths that his handlers had first asked him to collect videos of the Indian Army and eventually they made him visit military installations for pictures and videos. As part of his assignment, he had been asked to shoot visuals of strategic naval positions along the Tamil Nadu coast. He had also been asked by his handlers to provide visuals of naval installations located in the Andaman and Nicobar islands.
It has now come to light that part of Ansari’s future operations plans was to obtain video footage of the Eastern Naval Command of the Indian Navy located in Visakhapatnam, the Sulur Air Base which is a strategic Indian Air Force base and the Naval detachment in Karikal. His handlers had instructed him to obtain visuals of Indian nuclear submarines and battle ships as well.
The Indian authorities are trying to determine if Ansari had connections with Indian military or intelligence officers who would have passed on sensitive documents and vital intelligence, which would have compromised Indian national security.
Ceylon Today has learnt the Indian Government has ordered an internal probe into the military bases, which Ansari had captured on video. A special team has been appointed to question officers and record statements to identify if they had seen or met Ansari. Another key aspect of their probe is to ascertain details related to security lapses in the military installations that have been exposed.
While being a spy, Ansari used a debit card that had large sums of money remitted to him from several bank accounts in Colombo. The money remitted to Ansari’s account is suspected to have been earned from the intelligence he had been selling. Currently Ansari’s financial history is being perused by the Indian sleuths.
Another key area, which has been focused on, is Ansari’s handlers who are believed to be currently residing in Colombo. Ansari had told his interrogators that during his initial stay in Colombo, he had been approached by two men identified as Haji and Shaji. He said he did not know their actual names and he believed they were their nom de guerre. He had told the sleuths, he first met Haji and Shaji at a restaurant in Colombo, where Haji had got close to Ansari over a period of time and had made a proposition for him to conduct espionage. The duo said Ansari would be able to earn a sizable amount of money if he was to work as an operative selling intelligence.
He said the two had introduced him to Amir Zubair Siddiqui who is currently a diplomat in the Pakistan High Commission in Colombo. He told the police Haji and Shaji had reported to an individual identified as ‘Boss’ referring to Siddiqui. He said only after certain amount of trust had been built had the duo introduced him to Siddiqui. Ansari’s statement to the police had been recorded and produced to a Court in Trichy.
Eyes and ears of ISI
Indian Inspector General of Police for Internal Security and Intelligence, Abash Kumar who is currently heading the investigations, told Ceylon Today they are currently probing into other ISI intelligence cells that have infiltrated Tamil Nadu. He said recent intelligence reports have indicated the ISI had been recruiting Sri Lankan refugees living in India to spy on their military installations.
“We have currently begun to probe into ISI cells which are active in Tamil Nadu. We have taken steps to look into all possibilities of infiltrations and information being leaked to the ISI. The arrest of Ansari is a major breakthrough. His arrest and recent revelations will allow us to prevent any imminent security threat that India may face. We will also be probing into Sri Lankan refugees currently living in India,” he said.
The probe on Sri Lankan refugees being recruited to spy for ISI comes in the backdrop of the arrest of Ansari. Previously, RAW had indicated similar intelligence reports of Sri Lankans being used for espionage against India. Despite the RAW report, no Sri Lankan refugee has been arrested by the Indian authorities for espionage. The arrest of Ansari who was accused of spying is also the first of its kind originating from Tamil Nadu.
A few weeks prior to the arrest of Ansari, RAW had warned of increased ISI activities in Jaffna in the past four months. In a report, RAW had indicated that the ISI had been maintaining spy equipment, which includes sophisticated listening devices that could intercept and listen to Indian naval submarines and vessels.
According to the RAW report, the listening post in Jaffna had been established by ISI with the intention of monitoring the Eastern Indian Naval Command located in Visakhapatnam and the movements of naval vessels off the coast of Andaman and Nicobar Islands. The main focus of ISI is believed to be the Indian nuclear submarine INS Chakra, which is of Russian origin. Also of interest in India’s indigenously built nuclear submarine-INS Arihant, which carries K-15 Sagarika nuclear capable Submarine Launched Ballistic Missile (SLBM), which has an operational range of 700 Km.
INS-Arihant, which is expected to commence sea trials shortly, will be one of the Indian Navy’s most formidable submarines. Intelligence reports have indicated that K-4 intermediate range nuclear capable SLBM, which is currently in the process of being developed, will also be included in the armament of the INS-Arihant. The K-4 SLBM will be having an operational range of 3500Km.
In the wake of RAW presenting its report on ISI operations in Jaffna, on 11 September, a meeting was held in the Indian National Security Council (NSC) Secretariat to assess the threat and to formulae counter measures to thwart any security threats that India may face. During the meeting, the Indian Director General of Military Intelligence had pointed out the importance of securing the communication lines of Indian naval assets and had proposed, the current maritime strategies adopted should be changed in order to avoid any danger.
RAW analysts believe that the said ISI listening post is similar to the one maintained by China in Coco’s Island and Seashells.
The recent developments have now indicated it is not only China that has challenged India’s might in the region. Pakistan too has been viewed as a key player in China’s ‘String of Pearls’ strategy’ which is a plan formulated to set up naval installations along China’s Sea Lines of Communication (SLOC), mainly to protect the country’s energy interests. With the recent developments, it is yet to be seen if Pakistan and Sri Lanka, which are close allies of China and part of the String of Pearls strategy, are part of a larger political objective. This would certainly be a matter of concern for India, which is fighting to maintain its maritime dominance in the Indian Ocean.
The Pakistan High Commission in Colombo told Ceylon Today neither the Pakistani Government nor the mission in Colombo had been informed of an ISI spy being apprehended in Trichy.
An official from the High Commission said they will be able to determine the validity of the claims only after the investigation. He added the current developments have not been reported to the High Commission or to the Pakistani Government and that these could be attempts to strain Indo-Pakistan relations.
“Our relationship with India has been developing and these could only be attempts made to strain our relations,” he said.
The official admitted a diplomat by the name of Amir Zubair Siddiqui is currently working in the High Commission in Colombo. He attributed the recent reports linking the ISI to hidden agendas of Indian elements based in Sri Lanka. courtesy: Ceylon Today