FBI agents have broken up a plot by Sikh terrorists in the United States to assassinate Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and the chief minister of the Indian state of Haryana during their separate visits to this country, FBI Director William H. Webster announced Monday.
The plot also included preparing and launching the revolutionary overthrow of the Indian government, after first “softening up” the country by exploding bombs at such strategic facilities in India as a nuclear power plant, bridges and government buildings, according to papers filed in federal court in New York.
A federal grand jury in New Orleans and the New York court papers named seven Sikhs on charges of conspiracy in the alleged assassination plots. Authorities arrested five of the alleged plotters and were hunting for the other two Monday night.
FBI ‘Penetrated Plan’
FBI agents in New Orleans, New York, Newark, N.J., and Birmingham, Ala., “successfully penetrated a plan to develop a program to train a group of Sikhs in the use of firearms and explosives,” Webster said.
An affidavit by two FBI agents in New York disclosed that the agency learned of the plot with the help of a Medal of Honor winner, a former Navy urban guerrilla expert who was identified by the FBI only as “A.” He was approached last January by two men who sought his help in overthrowing India’s government.
Gandhi, son of former Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi--herself slain by Sikh bodyguards last October--was to have been killed during his visit to the United States, which is scheduled for June 11-14, authorities said.
The Indian Embassy said Gandhi’s visit would go ahead as planned.
According to the court papers, “A” said the plotters originally planned to kill Gandhi in India but then asked the American veteran to come up with three alternative plans to assassinate him during his U.S. visit.
Haryana Chief Minister Bhajan Lal, meanwhile, was to have been killed while in New Orleans last week for medical treatment at the Louisiana State University Eye Center, according to a grand jury indictment returned Thursday but not made public until Monday.
“This may be a first incident of Sikh terrorism in the United States,” said Edmund Pistey, special agent in charge of the FBI’s New Orleans office. “What it shows is that we in the United States are not immune to terrorist acts happening here.”
Bombings in India
The FBI announcement came in the wake of bombings Friday and Saturday by suspected Sikh terrorists in India that killed more than 75 people and resulted in the Indian government’s arrest of as many as 2,000 suspects.
Five of the seven men charged in the U.S. grand jury indictments were in the United States illegally, according to the Immigration and Naturalization Service. The other two have been living here as permanent resident aliens.
The court papers showed that the FBI investigation relied on informants, undercover operatives and physical and electronic surveillance, including videotaping crucial meetings between the Medal of Honor winner and the plotters.
“A,” the key informant, is said to be a person known to the FBI for about 5 1/2 years. A former member of the Navy Seals, a group specially trained in demolition and other special warfare tactics, he won the Medal of Honor in Vietnam.
He was reportedly introduced to two of the defendants, Gurpartap S. Birk and Lal Singh, at a meeting last Jan. 26 in a New York hotel room, where he told them of his expertise with explosives and weapons.
At the meeting, videotaped by the FBI, Birk and Singh said they planned the revolutionary overthrow of the Indian government by bombing strategic locations and assassinating certain political figures, including Gandhi, according to the FBI agents’ affidavit.
Birk and Singh asked “A” to provide them with training in explosives and automatic weapons, chemical warfare and urban guerrilla tactics, then to train an initial cadre in the United States and to travel to India to serve as the group’s adviser while others received instructions. Birk and Singh also asked if “A” could obtain plastic explosives and machine guns, as well as false U.S. passports to make entering and leaving India easier.
At a meeting Feb. 20, also attended by another defendant, Ammand Singh, “A” sought guidance on how much explosives the group needed. Birk, after conferring with both Singhs in their native tongue, replied that “they needed enough to blow up a bridge the size of the Triborough, Brooklyn or Queensboro Bridge, and also enough for a large 36-story building,” the FBI’s videotape of the session showed.
Birk said the group would need small arms, machine guns and grenade launchers, and he provided “A” with photographs of seven Indian men to be used in false passports. They included photos of Birk and both Singhs, according to the affidavit. The other photographs are understood to be of the other four Sikhs named in the charges.
May 10 Deadline
“A” was asked at the Feb. 20 meeting whether the initial phase of training could be completed by May 10.
Besides Birk, Lal Singh and Ammand Singh, the others named in the charges were Sukhvinder Singh, Virinder Singh, Jasbir Sandhu and Jatinder Singh Ahluwalia.
The court papers said the suspects had obtained a .45-caliber semiautomatic pistol and a .38-caliber revolver and had marked a map of New Orleans by circling the hotel where the Haryana state chief minister was staying.
After four of the defendants were detained May 4 by New Orleans police, one of them, Virinder Singh, is said to have asked FBI agent Volney E. Hayes Jr.: “Do you want me to tell you the truth?”
When Hayes replied affirmatively, Virinder Singh said: “We are here to hurt him.”
Hayes then asked, according to his affidavit: “The man in the hotel?”
“Singh nodded his head, indicating yes,” the affidavit said.