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Sunday, July 05, 2020

Military Digest: Operation Reverse Osmosis – The Sting

Recently the Indian Military Intelligence (MI) scored a success in the unending spy game using innovative methods and some fine work by its personnel through Operation Reverse Osmosis. It was a classic sting operation in intelligence terms with the bounty of exposing two Pakistani intelligence agents working under diplomatic cover.

Written by Mandeep Singh Bajwa | Published: June 5, 2020 10:38:26 am
Operation Reverse Osmosis, Indian Military Intelligence, ISI Operatives ISI operatives Tahir Khan (foreground) and Abid Hussain (background) photographed at their first rendezvous with their Indian contact at a Karol Bagh restaurant in February this year.

Indian military intelligence (MI) is a shadowy organisation as befits any body in the business of intelligence-gathering, counter-intelligence and security (securing one’s own personnel, documents, plans and secrets). It operates through a large number of intelligence-gathering units located on the nation’s borders and in insurgency-hit areas and what are euphemistically called liaison units spread all over the country. Though lacking resources, the MI has done a remarkably good job particularly in the Kashmir Valley.

Recently the specialised unit keeping the National Capital Region (NCR) safe from spies targeting the military’s secrets scored a success in the unending spy game using innovative methods and some fine work by its personnel. It was a classic sting operation in intelligence terms with the bounty of exposing two Pakistani intelligence agents working under diplomatic cover. Not some spur of the moment thing but a carefully crafted operation spread over a period of some months to trap the Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI) personnel and unmask their Indian contacts using infinite patience, good tradecraft and innovation.

In early January a Pakistani working as a visa assistant at their High Commission in New Delhi came on the MI’s radar through his contacts with two serving Indian Army Jawans. Contrary to popular belief, the ISI doesn’t usually try to suborn officers in the armed forces. Normally, they target clerks, office assistants, computer operators and Jawans from combat units. Such personnel are considered to be a soft touch, and usually in need of money. An added bonus is getting in touch with someone nursing a sense of grievance against the system. Their importance lies in the fact that they handle all official correspondence, secret files and information and overhear privileged conversations. Jawans from fighting units have knowledge of orders of battle (Orbat) and general information.

For once the normally dour, super-serious sleuths of the MI betrayed a sense of humour in choosing the code name for the sting – Operation Reverse Osmosis if you please. A wit in the MI unit defined reverse osmosis as a purification process that uses a partially permeable membrane to remove ions, unwanted molecules and larger particles. One supposes he was referring to the removal of Pakistani spies and their would-be Indian sources from the national system!

The usual modus operandi is to sweet-talk contacts to try and cultivate them. They are invited to dine at restaurants, and given small gifts. The operatives visit them at home on their birthdays and anniversaries bearing presents. If a sense of grievance is detected it is exploited. The subtle psychological manipulation of the contact continues alongside. His motivation is assessed according to the time-old formula of intelligence agencies summed up in the acronym– MICE i.e. money, ideology, coercion or ego. This assessment takes place back in the diplomatic mission and is undertaken by senior officers including the head of the ISI station on the basis of reports by the field staff. On this analysis depends how he is to be handled.

Anyway, an assessment was done by the MI and a sophisticated sting operation planned. The number of a supposedly vulnerable Sepoy Clerk on his first posting and serving with an Air Defence regiment in the NCR was passed on to Abid Hussain, the ISI agent. A young MI officer impersonated Sepoy Clerk Roy complete with meek voice, gullible outlook and Bengali accent. Thorough rehearsals worthy of the best Bollywood film were held to get the nuances exactly right. The conversation between the two has been uploaded on social media. It reveals Abid, speaking with a heavy Punjabi accent posing as an Indian Army Postal Service clerk being extra friendly with the aim of cultivating his target. He also tries to gain information in routine conversation.

The experienced ISI operative took the bait hook, line and sinker. By this time the Intelligence Bureau (IB) and the Delhi Police’s Special Cell were also on board. The sting was now a joint operation. A face to face meeting was arranged in February. The rendezvous chosen was a restaurant in Karol Bagh. Another officer’s family accompanied ‘Sepoy Roy’ to take the deception even further (we always knew that Army families rise to every occasion).

The source meet (as it’s called in intelligence parlance) went off well. This is usually the make or break moment in an espionage recruitment. Any untoward occurrence which arouses suspicion can result in either side eschewing future contact. However, mutual trust was established. Abid Hussain was identified and covertly photographed. A bonus was received in the form of the presence of his colleague who sat at another table looking detached, his job being to study and analyse the contact and his body language. He was later identified as Tahir Khan also operating under the cover identity of a visa assistant in the mission. Roy agreed to supply copies of operational plans and secret documents. A suitable monetary compensation was promised.

The next and crucial meeting was fixed for 14th March. There was to be a mutual exchange: Roy’s information and documents for Abid’s thirty pieces of silver. The counter-intelligence team was to film the transaction and snatch the ISI handlers. All was set. However, an error in communication put paid to the plan. Asked to come to ‘Sadar Bazaar’, Abid and Tahir roamed around the wholesale market for household items in Old Delhi instead of the shopping centre of the same name in the cantonment which was supposedly convenient for Roy. After this the pandemic-triggered lockdown put a break in each side’s operations.

After Unlock 1.0 contact between the two parties was re-established. It was agreed to meet once again and carry out the mutually agreed-upon exchange. 31st May was the date for the meeting with no doubt being left in each other’s minds about the rendezvous this time. For the watchers it was to be the culmination of their months of planning, preparation and living in hope.

The drill for such end-game operations is quite set. The spy and his contact meet in a public place and try and casually exchange the information or documents for cash. Counter-intelligence agencies on the other hand position their personnel in and around the location. A spotter (usually the controller of the operation) tries to film the transaction. Sometimes a fixed camera is used. The transaction having been done and the incriminating documents being in the hands of the hostile spy agency the agents of the counter-intelligence team rush in on a signal. Both sides are taken into custody.

In this case of course, this being a sting operation the Indian contact was part of the counter-intelligence team. Both Pakistanis were arrested. The MI has no powers of arrest other than of Army personnel. The local police carry out such apprehensions. The Pakistanis were taken into custody loudly protecting their innocence and proclaiming diplomatic immunity. However, pending confirmation from their mission interrogation commenced.

Knowing that their consular status would get them released sooner than later neither admitted to very much; only what was already known to the MI and IB. The main agent was Abid Hussain, 42 a Subedar in the Pakistani Corps of Military Intelligence belonging to Sheikhupura in Punjab. He was on deputation with the ISI. Alarmingly, a fake Aaadhar card and Indian SIM cards were recovered from him. With him was Tahir Khan, a civilian non-gazetted officer with the ISI, a technical operative he had been posted in New Delhi for the last five years. His job was to tap phones and break into cyber mailboxes. Tahir is a Mohajir (an Urdu-speaker whose family migrated to Pakistan from the Hindi heartland). His family originally came from Meerut and his dialect allowed him to mix easily in Delhi and Western UP. The duo worked together as an operational agent-handling team. Both have been declared persona non grata (PNG) and expelled from the country.

Two of our own Army personnel who were in touch with Abid have also been picked up. Damage assessment is now on. One posted in a forward mountain formation passed on a minimal amount of information but will obviously end up getting punished. The second one who was posted in the NCR may not have passed on any information at all. Detailed interrogation will tell.

The whole operation was undoubtedly a complete success. What were the gains accruing to the MI, the Army and the national interest?

Undeniably two ISI spies doing talent-spotting and agent-running in the country have been unmasked and expelled. Naturally they will be replaced but that takes time and the schedule of training, assignment and tasking of ISI personnel in Delhi has been thrown askew for the moment. Their replacements will be immediately identified. Two of our own weak personnel who fell into the ISI’s trap or succumbed to their inducements have been identified. Further confirmation and knowledge have been gained of ISI modus operandi, tradecraft and operating methods. The recovery of fake Aadhar card and Indian SIM cards from the unholy duo is indeed a matter of concern. A breach in our security which needs to be plugged right away.

The intelligence war will continue. It’s great to have a visible success achieved as it is through novel, out-of-the-box thinking, true application of tradecraft and high professional standards. Maybe such victories will persuade the powers that be to loosen the purse strings and allocate more resources in the form of equipment, funds, personnel and a more modern charter to the MI.

Changes in Artillery Regiments

The Regiment of Artillery has nearly 300 units each unique in its own way. The class composition of these regiments is varied. Some are single-class like 2 Medium Regiment (Self-Propelled), 13 Medium Regiment, 7 Field Regiment, 36 Medium Regiment and 40 Medium Regiment. Undoubtedly a class act. Some of the newer regiments are composed of what is known as All-India All-Class (AIAC) composition. They reflect the true diversity of India in all its vibrant colours. Their rallying point is integrated nationalism. They have proved themselves in war.

Others evolved with three classes with each sub-unit (known as a battery) composed of a different class. No less than any of the previous two types they foster keen competition among their constituent batteries to achieve regimental, Army and national goals. Over the last quarter of a century change has crept into these units. Most have started taking in other classes to either achieve AIAC status in the future or have already been fully integrated.

This is of course a very welcome development. National integration and the country’s goals must come first. Change is the only constant. AIAC units have proved themselves. What is causing concern is the recruitment methods adopted to achieve such changes. Recruitment is now done through what is known as the RMP or Recruitable Male Population formula based on population of various states and union territories.

What this means is states which currently send large numbers of men to the Army like Punjab, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Jammu and Kashmir, Rajasthan, Uttarakhand and the North-Eastern States will send less recruits. States with larger populations will obviously send more.

The martial race theory is not just outdated but thoroughly redundant. It never had any basis. States mentioned above sent larger numbers in the past because of a higher acceptability of military service and all the issues related therein. For instance, a call for a thousand recruits might turn up ten thousand aspirants or even more. Other states might produce less.

This is a vexed issue born out the politics of employment. While realising our goal of national integration and progressive forward movement we mustn’t lose sight of other factors which figure in military recruitment. It is time for a national debate on the matter.

Please contact the writer with your military story on msbajwa@gmail.com or 093161-35343

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