US thwarted plot to kill Sikh separatist on American soil

US authorities thwarted a conspiracy to assassinate a Sikh separatist on American soil and issued a warning to India’s government over concerns it was involved in the plot, according to multiple people familiar with the case.

The target of the plot was Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, an American and Canadian citizen who is general counsel for Sikhs for Justice, a US-based group that is part of a movement pushing for an independent Sikh state called “Khalistan”.

US President Joe Biden raised the matter in a discussion with India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi during a meeting at the G20 summit in New Delhi in September, the Financial Times has learnt.

The National Security Council confirmed the Financial Times report of the plot on Wednesday and said the US had raised the issue with India, including “at the senior-most levels”.

The people familiar with the case, who requested anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the intelligence that prompted the warning, did not say whether the protest to New Delhi led the plotters to abandon their plan, or whether the FBI intervened and foiled a scheme already in motion.

The US informed some allies about the plot following the murder of Hardeep Singh Nijjar, a Canadian Sikh separatist killed in Vancouver in June. In September, Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said there were “credible allegations” linking New Delhi to Nijjar’s fatal shooting.

One person familiar with the situation said the initial US protest over the Pannun plot was issued after Modi made a high-profile state visit to Washington in June.

Hindu protesters hold a poster of Gurpatwant Singh Pannun
Hindu protesters hold a poster of Gurpatwant Singh Pannun during a September rally in New Delhi © Arun Sankar/AFP/Getty Images

Separate from the diplomatic warning, US federal prosecutors have filed a sealed indictment against at least one alleged perpetrator of the plot in a New York district court, according to people familiar with the case.

The US Department of Justice is debating whether to unseal the indictment and make the allegations public or wait until Canada finishes its investigation into Nijjar’s murder. Further complicating the case, one person charged in the indictment is believed to have left the US, according to people familiar with the proceedings.

The DoJ and FBI declined to comment. The National Security Council told the Financial Times ahead of publication of the story that the US did “not comment on ongoing law enforcement matters or private diplomatic discussions with our partners”. But it added: “Upholding the safety and security of US citizens is paramount.”

Following publication of the story, the NSC issued a statement saying the US was treating the issue with “utmost seriousness”.

“We understand the Indian government is further investigating this issue and will have more to say about it in the coming days,” added Adrienne Watson, NSC spokesperson. “We have conveyed our expectation that anyone deemed responsible should be held accountable.”

Washington shared details of the Pannun case with a wider group of allies after Trudeau went public with details of the Vancouver killing, the combination of which sparked concern among allies about a possible pattern of behaviour.

India has rejected Canada’s claims about New Delhi’s possible involvement in Nijjar’s murder as “absurd”.

India’s external affairs ministry said after the FT’s report that during recent discussions on India-US security co-operation, “the US side shared some inputs pertaining to [the] nexus between organised criminals, gun runners, terrorists and others”.

“The inputs are a cause of concern for both countries and they decided to take necessary follow-up action,” the ministry said, adding that the issues were “already being examined by relevant departments”.

Contacted by the FT, Pannun declined to say whether US authorities had warned him about the plot, saying he would “let the US government respond to the issue of threats to my life on American soil from the Indian operatives”.

“The threat to an American citizen on American soil is a challenge to America’s sovereignty, and I trust that the Biden administration is more than capable to handle any such challenge,” Pannun said.

The White House said Indian officials had expressed “surprise and concern” when it raised the issue, and said that “activity of this nature was not their policy”. India’s response resembled language used by its foreign minister S Jaishankar, who described the Canadian allegations as “not consistent with our policy”.

Pannun angered Indian officials this month when he issued a video in which he warned Sikhs not to fly on Air India because it would be “life threatening”. He told the FT he was not making a violent threat against the airline.

Washington has urged India to help the Canadian investigation but has avoided being too critical of New Delhi in public over the Vancouver case. The US government views India — a member of the Quad security group along with Japan and Australia — as a critical part of a broader strategy to counter China.

Several people familiar with the debate inside the Biden administration said officials were aware that any public disclosure of the US plot, and Washington’s protest to New Delhi, would renew questions about India’s reliability as a trusted partner.

The Biden administration has faced criticism from human rights groups for its efforts to deepen relations with India.

India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata party is a Hindu nationalist party, and Modi has been accused by his political opponents and human rights groups of fomenting violence against religious and ethnic minorities in India.

The Indian prime minister was feted this summer in Washington, where he delivered a speech to Congress. Ahead of his visit, US national security adviser Jake Sullivan said Biden would raise human rights with Modi but said the US-India relationship would be “one of the defining relationships of the 21st century”.

The FT previously reported that Biden raised the Canadian allegations with Modi at the G20 summit in India in September. The White House declined to say whether Biden also raised the Pannun case with Modi then.

US ambassador to Canada David Cohen said in September that Ottawa received information about the Vancouver case from the intelligence-sharing network Five Eyes, which comprises the US, UK, Australia, New Zealand and Canada.

India has accused Canada, the UK and other countries with large Indian diaspora communities of being too tolerant of members of the Sikh separatist movement, which it frequently accuses of terrorism.

During a visit to Washington in September, Jaishankar told a Hudson Institute event that Ottawa had a “very permissive” attitude towards Sikh separatists because of Canadian politics.