India’s external intelligence service has earned a formidable reputation in its immediate region, and is accused by Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Nepal of meddling in politics and supporting illegal groups involved in violence.
However, recent allegations by Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau have put India’s secretive Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) in the global spotlight.
Trudeau claimed that Indian government agents played a role in the June assassination of Sikh separatist leader Hardeep Singh Nijjar in a Vancouver suburb.
In response, India vehemently denied the allegations and demanded that Canada present evidence. Ottawa claimed it had shared evidence with its allies but refused to make it public.
Reuters conducted interviews with four retired and two serving Indian security and intelligence officials who knew RAW well.
They revealed that the agency became more assertive internationally after the 2008 Mumbai attacks, a tragic event that claimed 166 lives. All of these officials spoke anonymously due to the sensitive nature of their discussions.
Several officials revealed that RAW gradually expanded its presence in Western nations after 2008. One current official highlighted India’s failure to extradite a US citizen convicted in connection with the Mumbai attack as a driving factor behind RAW’s efforts. to gain influence in the West.
While RAW has advanced technical and signals intelligence capabilities in its vicinity, its operations in the West rely predominantly on human intelligence, as stated by one serving and one former official.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi, known for strengthening India’s defense capabilities since his election in 2014, has emboldened RAW, according to five officials. However, Modi’s office declined to comment on the matter.
RAW chief Ravi Sinha, the only serving official publicly linked to the agency, did not respond to messages seeking comment. Sinha briefs Modi’s office through National Security Advisor Ajit Doval, who was also silent on the issue.
The six officials categorically denied any RAW involvement in targeted killings, emphasizing that the agency lacks a mandate for such operations.
The fallout from the Vancouver incident has raised concerns about greater global scrutiny of RAW, as suggested by Indian officials and intelligence analysts.
Dheeraj Paramesha Chaya, an expert on Indian intelligence at the University of Hull in the United Kingdom, believes that greater Western attention to RAW activities can lead to a better understanding of Delhi’s security concerns.
The West has expanded its military and intelligence cooperation with India amid rising tensions with China, including Washington’s agreement in 2020 to share sensitive mapping and satellite data.
In the short term, Canada’s accusations may affect Western countries’ confidence in RAW, as one official noted.
Ottawa and Delhi have been locked in a diplomatic standoff since Trudeau’s public accusations, prompting India to suspend the issuance of new visas to Canadian citizens and demand a reduction in Ottawa’s diplomatic presence.
Canada unsuccessfully lobbied the United States and other allies to issue a joint statement condemning India.
Pakistani security leaders have long considered RAW a rival, and Islamabad recently accused RAW of involvement in a suicide bombing near a mosque that claimed more than 50 lives. The Indian government, on the other hand, publicly blamed Islamabad for the 2008 Mumbai attacks, an event seen by Delhi as RAW’s most significant recent failure. Islamabad denied any involvement.
RAW expanded its intelligence operations in the West, including North America, due to the role played by US citizen David Headley, who is currently serving a 35-year prison sentence in Chicago for his role in the Mumbai attacks, according to an official. US authorities had received warnings about Headley’s terrorist links before the attack, but India’s failure to extradite him sparked frustration within RAW.
The United States, which granted India access to Headley, has denied any accusation that he is a double agent. RAW has maintained a limited Western presence since its creation in the 1960s, inheriting the London station of the Intelligence Bureau, which now focuses on national security.
While the large Indian diaspora in countries such as the United States, Canada, Britain and Australia is seen as an advantage, the risk of Indian agents being surveilled in host countries has led to their primary use in political influence campaigns rather than security operations.
As RAW’s footprint expands into previously less important parts of the world, there is growing global curiosity about the agency’s activities. Despite its historical association with actions such as targeted assassinations and disappearances in its vicinity, RAW operations in the West have been characterized by extreme caution.
RAW’s operational details, including its budget and size, remain undisclosed. The agency was established in 1968, separating from the Intelligence Bureau, with an initial focus on monitoring China following India’s setback in the brief war of 1962. RAW has maintained close connections with Israel’s Mossad and the CIA since its the beginning.
Under Prime Minister Modi, India’s national security community has taken a more proactive approach to diplomacy, negotiation and both analog and digital forms of direct action. However, the legal framework governing Indian intelligence agencies has not kept pace with their expanded capabilities, and RAW operates under a government order without formal parliamentary or constitutional backing and exempt from legislative oversight.
This centralized command and control under the prime minister’s office leaves the agency with fewer legal restrictions and less oversight, according to Adrian Levy, co-author of a book on South Asian spy agencies.