Defence

Honey-Trap, Money: How ISI Is Installing An ‘Army Of Agents’ In India

Pakistani activists of a religious party, Pakistan Awami Tehreek (PAT), rally to support Pakistan’s army and Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency in Lahore, Pakistan. (Rana Sajid Hussain/Pacific Press/LightRocket via GettyImages)
Snapshot
  • With the BrahMos Aerospace case, what is emerging is a clear-cut modus operandi to hire new Indian Army recruits and those on the threshold of joining the force, to steal sensitive defence secrets.

    The intent is for agents to have access to people who are ready to spy from day one of joining the Indian armed forces.

The arrest of BrahMos Aerospace engineer Nishant Agrawal for leaking data from the centre’s Nagpur facility, has once again exposed the faultiness of a system, revealing how vulnerable some are to international agencies such as Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI).

A probe into this case is underway with Uttar Pradesh’s Anti Terrorism Squad (ATS), as part of the initial probe, informing the Ministry of Home Affairs that this cannot be treated as an isolated case as it involves a growing network of the ISI within India.

Further, the ATS said that this was the same module that had honey-trapped a Border Security Force jawan some months back into leaking information about the operational unit and also about the police academy. Jawan Achyutanand Misra, a resident of Mewat, was arrested from Noida.

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Similar Modus Operandi

Agrawal’s name cropped up a couple of days after the police began investigating the Misra case. It was found that both had been trapped by the same module. There were two Facebook accounts created in the names of Neha Sharma and Pooja Ranjan, which were used to trap the duo, investigations have revealed.

Misra was led into believing that he was speaking to a defence reporter, following which he passed on the information. In the case of Agrawal, the ATS says that he had a very casual approach on the internet as a result of which he became an easy target.

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The Central Intelligence Bureau, which has joined the probe, says that this particular module in Islamabad has been involved in a series of similar cases. The primary agenda has been to extract sensitive information relating to the defence sector and details of Indian Army operations.

Last year, the agencies had also arrested Rohtak resident Gaurav Kumar who had plans to join the Indian Army. He had befriended two women on Facebook and started giving out sensitive information about army recruitment, which he had picked up during his visits to army camps for recruitment tests. He was once again trapped by the same module from Islamabad, investigations have shown.

An Army Of Agents

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The intelligence agencies had recently told the Ministry of Home Affairs that there has been a clear-cut modus operandi to create an army of agents within India. This particular module from Islamabad was tasked in the early part of 2017 to find young recruits and also those who had plans to join the Indian Army.

Investigations revealed that among the recent acts by the ISI, this was probably one of the biggest. The ISI, first, put in place a set of agents across the country to spot young recruits and aspirants. The agents were told to interact with these persons, study their behavioural patterns, likes, dislikes and internet habits. The intent was to identify and then trap at least 50 to 100 such persons before they were recruited into the Indian Army. This would mean that the ISI would have access to people who are ready to spy from day one of joining the armed forces.

Investigations into the Gaurav Kumar case revealed that he along with the other spies were told to shoot pictures, each time they visit the recruitment camp. The information was then shared with their handlers through online chats. This would in turn give the ISI, a fair idea about the number of recruits, the strategy, among other crucial details.

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Investigators said that Gaurav Kumar had visited 18 army recruitment camps from where he shared a wealth of information to his handlers. He was paid a hefty sum of money and he had also shared his bank account details.

The Modules Within India

The ISI has also managed to set up several modules within India, and several of them in the past have been busted at Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Gujarat, Punjab and Uttar Pradesh.

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While the foreign agencies today rely heavily on setting traps through online forums, they also do follow the conventional method. In 2016, Alana Hammier and Shakoor Sumra were arrested from Bhuj in Gujarat. In the year 2004, Hammier had made several trips to Pakistan. He had fallen in love with a 17-year-old girl from the Tharparkar district in Pakistan’s Sindh province. It was only later did he realise that he had been honey trapped and the teenager was working for the ISI. Since Hammier was uneducated, he roped in Sumra to help him gather and pass on information. Together they collected maps and information relating to the Indian Army and passed it on to a handler, who was introduced to them by the girl.

The police had also busted a similar case in Punjab. Here too the trap was not set online. The Amritsar based recruit was trapped, following which he shared plenty of information regarding the army with the ISI. He too is alleged to have received a hefty amount of money from his handler, investigations revealed.

Hookup

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In recent months, the intelligence agencies have had their hands full in tracking down fake accounts that have been created on the social media. Fake accounts are being created by the ISI and also the ISIS to recruit people.

In the BrahMos case, it was found that both accounts of Neha Sharma and Pooja Ranjan were fake. There are thousands of such fake accounts that have been created to trap officials. It begins with a casual chat, following which the trap is set. It is either the lure of money or seduction that finally leads to the trap.

Take the case of Group Captain Arun Marwaha, who was appointed as a joint director (operations) at the Indian Air Force. He had used a chat site called Hookup to communicate and share information with the ISI on the various air exercises. The chats on this site get deleted automatically once a person logs out of the account.

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This application has in recent times become an ISI favourite as it does not leave any trail. Moreover, a single common password is shared for a login.

In the case of Marwaha, he was approached by the same Islamabad module. Two fake Facebook accounts had been created in the name of Kiran Randhawa and Mahima Patel. They then began chatting with him on WhatsApp, following which he was told to use Hookup. He is alleged to have shared 12 sensitive documents, which also included details about the 'Ek Gagan Shakti' Air Force exercise and IAF-Army joint human aid in disaster relief exercise.

The officer who was arrested in February is alleged to have been lured into explicit sex chats in exchange for secret information.

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The BrahMos Case

An Uttar Pradesh ATS official told Swarajya that this is not an isolated case. Our preliminary investigations have shown that the ISI was creating a group of spies within the missile research centre. There are two more persons under the scanner and the ATS suspects that they too had shared information with the same person who had trapped Agrawal, the officer said.

The ATS has also learnt that it was not just Pakistan that had been seeking information from him. Handlers from the US too were interested in the information considering the fact that Russia was involved in the project at Brahmos Aerospace Pvt Ltd.

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Agrawal was active on the social media and the two women spotted him there. He was first offered a job, following which he got talking. The two women had ample information on him and their interest in him grew as he was supervising new projects at the BrahMos facilities at Nagpur and Pilani.

His chat transcripts suggest that he was sought for information about the new technology being developed at the centre, jointly by India and Russia. He is alleged to have shared information on the seeker technology that determines the accuracy of a missile. The BrahMos had been successfully test-flighted with an indigenous seeker.

The investigators would continue to assess the facts in this case. It is also to be seen how much information he would have had, considering he was working as the head of the hydraulic-pneumatics and warhead integration (production department).

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It is also yet to be seen how he had accessed a PDF file with top classified information.

ATS officials say that he had classified the files with a red marking. These PDF files were found in his laptop. At the court, where the UP ATS sought his transit remand, the investigating officer said that Agrawal despite being engaged in highly sensitive work was casual on the internet, which made him an easy prey. The information that the ATS found on him was classified and if it had been shared could have posed a major threat to the country, the officer told the court.

The probe, ATS officials say, is likely to throw up the presence of a major ring that the ISI is running. While two other officials have been questioned and continue to be under the scanner, a team has also gone to Hyderabad to get details from Agrawal’s previous firm.

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