Southern New York’s United States Attorney’s Office on Wednesday, 29 November, confirmed that US law enforcement foiled a conspiracy to assassinate Sikhs for Justice founder and Khalistani leader Gurpatwant Singh Pannun on US soil. The attorney's office filed charges against an Indian national who, along with a purported Indian government staffer, allegedly conspired to kill Pannun in June 2023.
The Indian Ministry of External Affairs had earlier stated that Washington previously shared inputs on security concerns regarding a nexus between criminals, terrorists, gun runners, and others, during a recent bilateral meeting.
A US Drug Enforcement Agency administrator said that "a foreign government employee allegedly committed the brazen act of recruiting an international narcotics trafficker to murder" Pannun, a dual citizen of the US and Canada.
“Murder-for-hire is a crime out of a movie, but the plot in this case was all too real,” Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Assistant Director-in-Charge James Smith said.
From initial contact and surveillance to global diplomacy and murder-for-hire, The Quint unpacks the alleged conspiracy.
The US Attorney’s Office's 15-page indictment mentioned four main characters in the plot to assassinate Pannun.
Nikhil Gupta aka Nick: 52-year-old Indian national who was reportedly involved in international narcotics and weapons trafficking. He was booked under charges of murder-for-hire.
Alleged Indian Government employee aka CC-1: An Indian government staffer who resides in proximity to New Delhi and “directed the assassination plot.” He described himself as a "Senior Field Officer" with responsibilities in "Security Management" and "Intelligence,” and referenced previously serving in India's Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF), claiming to have received "officer-training" in "battle craft" and "weapons."
Importantly, the attorney’s office alleged that he was employed by the Indian government at all times relevant to the plot.
Unnamed individual aka CS (confidential source): An individual who Nikhil Gupta believed was a criminal associate, but was also a source working with the US’ Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA).
Unnamed individual aka UC (undercover): A purported hitman, who was, in fact, an undercover DEA officer, introduced to Gupta via CS.
The Contact: Recruitment by 'Indian Government Employee'
The US has claimed that in May 2023, CC-1 recruited Nikhil Gupta to arrange the assassination of Pannun on US soil and in exchange, would assist in securing the dismissal of a criminal case against Gupta.
Gupta agreed to orchestrate the assassination. In addition to their electronic communications, Gupta also met CC-1 in-person in New Delhi in furtherance of the plot.
During conversations over an encrypted messaging application, on 6 May, CC-1 reportedly told Gupta about a "target in New York" and another in "California”, to which Gupta replied:
''We will hit all our targets."
Authorities alleged that the number used by the purported Indian government employee had an India country code and was registered to an email account which accessed the Internet in proximity to New Delhi during the period of the plot.
On 12 May, CC-1 informed Gupta that his criminal case, purportedly in Gujarat, was “taken care of” and that "nobody from Gujarat police is calling."
Gupta, in hopes of contracting a hitman to murder Pannun, connected with CS, an individual whom he believed to be a criminal associate but was a confidential source working with US law enforcement.
Gupta kept CC-1 in the loop regarding his contact with CS, who asked for $100,000 to undertake the task. Meanwhile, the alleged Indian government staffer was “ready to pay $150,000” with the offer going higher depending upon the quality of the work [the murder] ... and if it's done as soon as possible.”
CC-1 allegedly sent Pannun’s street address to Gupta on 1 June.
Just two days later, Gupta spoke to CS on call and urged him to have his associates carry out the killing soon, as urged by CC-1, who claimed that they had “less time.” "Finish him brother, finish him, don't take too much time ... push these guys, push these guys ... finish the job," Gupta allegedly told CS.
Gupta also directed CS to a mobile application, for surveillance, that records GPS coordinates and enables users to take photographs, and asked him to urge his colleagues to use the application to surveil Pannun. Gupta told CC-1 that he had "spoken with the NY group" and "told them they have to discharge [Pannun] as soon as possible.''
CS was also promised a meeting with the “chief” by Gupta, if “this job is done successfully.”
The Payment: $15,000 Paid in Advance, $100,000 Total
As an advance for the murder, Nikhil Gupta and CC-1 arranged to pay $15,000 as an advance in cash to “UC”, an undercover DEA agent pretending to be a hitman and CS’ criminal associate.
Sometime in June, CC-1 provided "personal information" about Pannun to Nikhil Gupta, including the Khalistani leader's "home address in New York City, phone numbers... and details about [Pannun's] day-to-day conduct."
On 4 June, CS sent Gupta a purported surveillance photograph of Pannun taken via the previously mentioned GPS application “as proof that the CS's New York associates were monitoring” Pannun. The CS also told Gupta that his associates will move ahead “as soon as they received an advance payment of $25,000.”
Over the next few days, Gupta liaised between CC-1 and CS, arranging for payments to the latter’s “NY associates” and was put directly in touch with UC, purporting to be the CS's associate, through electronic messages.
CC-1 further messaged Gupta and said, "Let's activate the team and get it (the killing) done this weekend," with Gupta responding in the affirmative.
One of CC-1’s associates, referred to as “Individual-2” in the US Attorney’s Office indictment, met with the UC in Manhattan to make the advance payment. UC also conducted a video call with Gupta and “Individual-2”, where the pair talked about “Gupta’s location in India.” Confirmations of the advance payment were sent to CC-1, who responded:
"Ok bhai ji."
A still image of the alleged payment was included in the press release.
The Timing: Conspirators Reduce Pace as Modi Visits US
According to the indictment, Gupta “specifically and repeatedly” instructed CS to refrain from killing Pannun “during anticipated engagements between high level government officials from the United States and India.”
Prime Minister Narendra Modi was on a grand four-day state visit to the United States from 20 June, where Modi addressed the US Congress, held talks with US President Joe Biden, and interacted with some of Silicon Valley’s top CEOs.
During a phone call on 6 June, Gupta instructed CS, the individual whom he thought was a criminal associate but who was a source working with law enforcement, that due to Pannun’s public profile and fear of protests if he is killed, the plot’s stakeholders must “calm down everything for 10 days.”
It was also one of several occasions that Nikhil Gupta promised his purported associates “more jobs” similar to their “planned engagements” with Pannun.
Gupta also received similar instructions from the alleged Indian government employee.
On 11 June, “CC-1 instructed Gupta not to carry out the assassination of the Victim (Pannun) in the immediate lead-up to, or during, the planned engagements between high-level US and Indian government officials.”
After Nikhil Gupta sent CC-1 “additional purported surveillance photographs” on 11 June, the purported Indian government staffer told him:
"It looks promising .. but we have today only .. if it doesn't happen today it will be done after 24th [when PM Modi was set to depart the US].”
The Network: Promises of 'Bigger Jobs Every Month'
During Gupta's communications with the CS and the UC, he repeatedly emphasised that his co-conspirators directing the assassination plot from India had extensive resources and were closely monitoring the progress of the plotting.
According to the indictment, Gupta repeatedly emphasised that his co-conspirators, referring to CC-1, were closely tracking the plot and had extensive resources. He also told CS that "we will give more bigger job more, more job every month, every month 2-3 job."
UC also spoke to Gupta on video call on 12 June, at a time when the latter was sitting in a conference room with three other men in business attire. "We are all counting on you," Gupta had allegedly told UC.
Gupta also forwarded UC a “message from our friends CC-1,” which instructed him to follow Pannun “till the time he enters his house or any other final place."
Speaking to CS on a phone call on 12 June, Gupta mentioned a “big target" in Canada” and told CS, a few days later, that "we will be needing one good team in Canada also…”
Importantly, on 16 June, Nikhil Gupta told CS:
"We are doing their job, brother. We are doing their New York [and] Canada job.”
The Canadian Target: Visible Connection to Nijjar Murder?
On 18 June, masked gunmen shot and killed Khalistan Tiger Chief Hardeep Singh Nijjar outside a gurdwara in British Columbia’s Surrey – an assassination which Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau claimed was carried out by “agents of the Indian government.” In a conversation with CS a day later, Gupta confirmed that Nijjar was the Canadian target that he had previously mentioned.
On the day of Nijjar’s killing, the purported Indian government employee sent Nikhil Gupta a video clip of Nijjar’s body slumped in his vehicle.
“Gupta replied that he wished he had personally conducted the killing and asked CC-1 for permission to ‘go to the field.’ CC-1 responded that ‘secrecy [is] important,’ and "it's better you do not get involved in action."Indictment against Nikhil Gupta and others.
Meanwhile, the 52-year-old also told UC that while Nijjar "was also the target,” he was "#4, #3" on the list.” He further stated that “the good news is this: now no need to wait."
On 19 June, moving away from earlier instructions to delay the plot to assassinate Pannun till the high-level India-US talks were wrapped up, Gupta told CS that his associate UC should “finish this job” and said that his associates should expect Pannun to be more careful following Nijjar’s murder.
“I sent you the video. So he will be more cautious, so we should not give them the chance, any chance…If he is not alone, [if] there are two guys with him in the meeting or something . . . put everyone down, put everyone down."Nikhil Gupta as quoted in the US Attorney's Office's indictment
CC-1 also sent Nikhil Gupta a news article about Pannun and messaged, "It's [a] priority now,” the indictment said. Subsequently, Gupta called CS to "find the opportunity" to murder Pannun “quickly.”
He stressed that after 29 June, “we have to finish four jobs.” US officials said that the four jobs referred to killing Pannun and “three in Canada” shortly after.
As the plot thickened, CC-1, Gupta and UC began conversing regarding Pannun’s location, trying to verify his presence inside his residence before giving a “go ahead” to assassinate him.
On 24 June, CC-1 instructed Gupta that they must receive Pannun’s image through the previously mentioned GPS application, and said, “Now it's a clear go ahead .. we will also be able to help your team if they are sending location."
Gupta subsequently messaged UC and directed him to transmit "pictures [of area’s near Pannun’s residence with GPS coordinates] only through the application,” which were sent to the Indian national, and further to the purported Indian government staffer, on 25 June.
"Excellent ... they are proving that they are quite serious now…the coming 24 hours will be crucial,” the purported government staffer said, claiming that Pannun will “definitely come” home or to his office. Gupta also instructed UC to "keep eyes at his house, his office and the cafe he [Pannun] used to visit.
The next day, more images of Pannun’s neighbourhood were sent to Gupta, who transmitted them to CC-1, who in turn provided Gupta with four of Pannun’s “office” and “personal” telephone numbers.
On 29 June, Gupta messaged UC that Pannun is “definitely” going to leave his house at 12 pm and instructed him to carry out the assassination.
The Arrest: US Law Enforcement Makes a Move
Due to the bilateral extradition treaty between the US and the Czech Republic, the US Attorney's office said that Czech authorities arrested and detained Gupta on 30 June at the US’ request.
According to the indictment, he, along with others known and unknown, were charged with murder-for-hire conspiracy and murder-for-hire for working “together to carry out a plot directed from India to hire hitmen to assassinate the Victim in the US.”
Both the charges carry a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison each and will be determined by a judge following trial.