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South Asia

Drones Give New Dimensions to Narcoterrorism at the India-Pakistan Border

The influx of narcotics and the cash from their sale, along with weapon deliveries, has resulted in a virulent hybridisation of the illicit drug trade, weapons trafficking, terrorism and assassinations. 

This piece was first published on The India Cable – a premium newsletter from The Wire & Galileo Ideas – and has been republished here. To subscribe to The India Cable, click here.

On October 11, Punjab Police arrested Jaswinder Singh, Lovepreet Singh, and Gurpartap Singh from Ajnala, Amritsar, for planning targeted killings in the state. The accused, from whom the police seized two pistols, three magazines and 11 bullets, had connections with Harvinder Singh alias Rinda, a designated terrorist and a member of the Babbar Khalsa International (BKI), based in Pakistan. The group had received a weapons consignment from Pakistan and aimed to target political and socio-religious leaders in India.

This is not an isolated case. Last month, Punjab Police detected the financial trail of three modules which were sending over Rs 2 crore in drug money on a daily basis to smugglers based in Pakistan and Afghanistan via an extensive hawala network.

Interstate conflict has many dimensions. In the Indian context, the scope of gangsters has evolved by way of extensive criminal networks, across traditional geographic boundaries and their technological utilisation, thus posing a substantial challenge that coalesces organised crime, gang activity, narco-trafficking, and terror orchestration. Apart from narcotics, cross-border consignments have been found to include hand grenades, RDX IEDs, pistols, magazines, cartridges, and cash ― explicit evidence that these criminal cartels are receiving state backing.

Exactly a year ago, the Punjab Police had recovered “an RDX-loaded tiffin box fabricated into an Improvised Explosive Device (IED) or tiffin bomb, two sophisticated AK-56 assault rifles along with two magazines and 30 live cartridges, one .30 bore pistol and 2 kgs heroin.” Upon interrogation, the module it was recovered from admitted to receiving backing from Pakistan-based entities. In May 2022, an IED packed with RDX in a metallic box weighing over 2.5 kg, prepared in Pakistan, was recovered from two men who admitted that they were carrying out terror activities for money and drugs.

Representative image of Punjab police. Photo: Twitter/@TarnTaranPolice

Running international smuggling operations interested in acquiring advanced weapon technologies and readily excited about violence over Khalistan, gangsters in Punjab have been easily galvanised by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). From targeting government infrastructure to killing influential civilians whom they perceive to be working with law enforcement, these gangsters have engaged in terrorist activities with the purpose of weakening the administrative system and engaging in blatantly anti-national activities.

 Escalated drone sightings along the India-Pakistan border

Along the US-Mexican border, cases of drug trafficking cartels moving narcotics via unmanned aerial systems (UASs or drones) are plenteous. The method had also caught on along the India-Pakistan international border.

Also read: In Combating Drug Trafficking, Knowing the Enemy Is the First Step

But lately, there has been a distinct escalation of drone-assisted cross-border delivery of drugs and weapons along the northern border areas. Since 2020, such drone deliveries have increased fourfold. On October 12, the Border Security Force (BSF), in a joint search operation with the police, captured a drone carrying 3.213 kg payload on the outskirts of Daliri Village in Tarn Taran District. Drone intrusions occur almost every day in border areas of Punjab ― Fazilka, Ferozepur, Tarn Taran, Amritsar, and Gurdaspur. This month, until October 14, there were four separate drone sightings.

The drone operations are orchestrated by Pakistan-based associates, and the drones are of Chinese origin, most commonly the DJI Matrice 300 RTK, DJI Matrix 350 RTK or DJI Mavic 3 classic variants. The Matrix is a ‘next-generation drone’ with a live video transmission system visible from as far as 20 km, an ‘efficient battery’ for 55 minutes of flying time and ‘robust’ compatibility to carry four payloads at once, with 10 kg of additional payload capacity. The batteries are rechargeable up to 400 cycles. The flight data of captured drones reveals that they had not only been operational within Pakistan but had also flown in China. The embedded chip in the drones contained coordinates that pointed to their airborne presence in Chinese territory and subsequently in Khanewal, in Punjab province of Pakistan.

Representational image. A fence marking a part of the India-Pakistan border, which is going from porous to impermeable rapidly. Credit: Abhishek Baxi/Flickr, CC BY-NC 2.0

The utilisation of high-calibre drones in the cross-border delivery of weapons and narcotics for anti-India activities is beyond the capacity of criminal gangs, and is happening with active state sponsorship. The influx of narcotics and the cash from their sale, along with weapon deliveries, has resulted in a virulent hybridisation of the illicit drug trade, weapons trafficking, terrorism and assassinations.

Last month, local Congress leader Baljinder Singh Balli was shot at his house in Dala Village in Moga District, for which Canada-based gangster-turned-terrorist Arshdeep Singh Gill (alias Arsh Dala) claimed responsibility via Facebook. In 2020, Shaurya Chakra awardee Balwinder Singh Sandhu was gunned down at the behest of Pakistan-based Khalistani terrorist Lakhbir Singh Rode.

Gangster and terrorist Lakhbir Singh ‘Landa’ faces charges of smuggling drugs, arms and explosives from across the border, using drones. Wanted for several targeted killings in Punjab, Landa and his Czech Republic-based associate Gurdev Singh Jaisel, organised RPG attacks at the Sarhali Kalan police station and the Punjab Police’s intelligence headquarters in Mohali on May 9. Landa received consignments of firearms, IEDs and AK47 rifles from across the border. In the past year, Sarhali Police Station in Punjab’s Tarn Taran has been attacked more than half a dozen times, and other police and Army establishments have been struck.

Aside from strengthening Village Defence Committees (VDCs) and rewarding those who have helped curb narcotics smuggling, the Punjab Police plan to use Artificial Intelligence to counter drone and narcotics threats in border areas. Drone Emergency Response System (DERS) has been launched in sections of the border, but it is not foolproof and more comprehensive, proactive and collaborative countermeasures are required.

It is conventionally understood that drug trafficking organisations and terrorist groups are linked, but contemporarily, this linkage has found new ground in India through backing from Pakistan. With increasing cases of ‘gangsters’ targeting police stations and undertaking political assassinations, the lines distinguishing gangsters and terrorists have blurred. The massive narcotics push into India, in addition to being a challenge to the solvency of the state, has begun to affect the moral fabric of society by creating a drug addiction epidemic in border states.

Vaishali Basu Sharma is a strategic and economic affairs analyst.