The recent arrest of Sri Lankan national Arun Selvarajan in Chennai by the National Investigation Agency (NIA) for spying on behalf of Pakistan’s ISI is concerning. He is the third Sri Lankan arrested for spying in the past over one year. Earlier, two Sri Lankan Muslims (Mohammed Sakir Hussain and Suleman Hussain) and an Indian (Thameen Ansari) were apprehended on similar charges. The arrestees confessed that their handlers were agents posted at Pakistani High Commission based in Colombo. Previously, it was Amir Zubair Siddiqui, who was posted as visa counsellor, and later it was Haji alias Siraj Ali.
Sri Lanka and the ISI
Sri Lanka may not be conniving with Pakistan against India, but is being used as a base by the ISI. Sri Lanka never allowed its territory for any anti-India activities and the ISI operations may be happening without Colombo’s knowledge.
Why Sri Lanka has been chosen as a base by the ISI? Why are the Sri Lankans citizens involved? What is the purpose behind the Colombo module? What is the state of counter-intelligence capability of India?
The ISI has been operating from some of the neighbouring countries of India like Nepal, Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Myanmar and even Maldives. The southern front of India remained unpenetrated for quite some time. Sri Lanka could be the best base to do that for two specific reasons:
• Given the proximity and similarity of language and appearance, Sri Lankan Tamils and Sri Lankan Muslims, who also speak Tamil, would not find it difficult to reach Tamil Nadu and mix-up with the local population. Presence of large number of Sri Lankan refugees is yet another facilitating aspect.
• Pakistan’s activities in Sri Lanka have not been seen with suspicion by the security establishment of the island state. Sri Lanka-Pakistan relations have been good without any irritants. Sri Lanka is ever grateful to Pakistan for all the military support during the Eelam War. In addition, when Sri Lanka was hauled by the international community for human rights excesses during that War, Islamabad rendered unstinted diplomatic support.
ISI and the Involvement of Sri Lankan Citizens
There are various reasons for the involvement of Sri Lankan Tamils and Muslims in the spy ring. The primary motivation is financial. Unemployed youth are easy targets. There is a theory that argues that part of the reason for the involvement of Sri Lankan Muslims in ISI’s spy network is their increasing radicalisation. But, the theory may explain if they are involved in spying western targets based in India, but not acting against Indian targets.
Pakistan obviously has denied the existence of an ISI base in Sri Lanka targeted against India as “speculative” and “malicious media campaign”. The denial is not surprising. Pakistani ISI has been assiduously pursuing the objective of establishing espionage networks for collection of India’s defence related information with reference to deployment/movement of armed forces, information relating to vital installations including sensitive information pertaining to the latest knowhow with reference to technological advancement etc. For this purpose, it has been able to organise resident agents and even allure the lower staff in sensitive organizations for collection and communication of sensitive information. When there is a roadblock there, it has moved on to tap ethnic similarities in the neighbourhood.
Sri Lanka as a base: What is ISI’s Endgame?
What is concerning is the security dimension of the espionage. There are two aspects to spying. One is to just gather information about the enemy for the purpose of having information advantage. The second aspect is to collect information with the aim to inflict damage. Reconnaissance of Kalapakkam nuclear plant site, NSG Hub in Chennai, Coast Guard installations on the eastern coast, Officers’ Training Academy (OTA) in Chennai, Nagapattinam Port, the Madras Regimental Centre in Wellington, harbours in Chennai and Ennore, DGP office and the High Court complex in Chennai and Vizag and Kochi ports have been carried out. Places like the Sulur Air Base, the Naval detachment in Karaikal, naval installations located in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands were on the pipeline. But, by then the spies have been arrested. Going by the confessions of the arrestees, information gathering was meant for planning a terror attack. The first ever terror attack in Chennai in May this year is not unconnected to the larger ISI plot.
Meeting the Challenge: What is required?
Whoever has been arrested is only a tip of the iceberg. It is important to find out how many more spies are on the prowl. This requires a thorough review and revamping of counter-intelligence capabilities of India. Counter-intelligence continues to be a weak spot in the Indian intelligence infrastructure. It is important to develop a totally different set of intelligence capabilities to cater to rapidly changing threat environment. This needs to be done at several levels—from training modules to doctrines to equipment to motivation. Intelligence at the state level requires modernisation. Human intelligence (HUMINT) requires more attention than just technical intelligence (TECHINT). Not the least, the intelligence flow has to be both ways: from the Centre to States and vice versa.