Taking care of the Qatar eight

Responsible spy agencies take care of their informants. Whoever employed the Indian navy veterans languishing in Qatar reneged on that code of honour.
Image used for illustrative purposes only. (Express illustration | Soumyadip Sinha)
Image used for illustrative purposes only. (Express illustration | Soumyadip Sinha)

Espionage agencies that use human intelligence—HUMINT in their professional lexicon—to gather secret information have a fundamental responsibility to protect and look after their “assets” and not discard them like soiled toilet paper after they have been used by those agencies. By this yardstick, if the allegations—which are shrouded in mystery as of now—against eight Indian navy veterans sentenced to death in Qatar last month were credible enough to stand trial in Doha’s Court of First Instance, whichever spy agency allegedly used their services abdicated their responsibility to these men by the code of honour in undercover work.

The big boys in cloak-and-dagger activities, notably the Soviet KGB of yore and America’s CIA, seldom abandon their assets. First of all, they have robust standard operating procedures (SOPs) to keep their assets from harm’s way while their espionage through them is underway. Spying is a risky business and anything can go wrong at any time. On occasions when this has happened, there have been spy exchanges between the big powers involved. Such mutual transfers of secret agents have been immortalised by the Steven Spielberg film, Bridge of Spies. Accounts of international espionage have made John le Carré novels unputdownable until they have been read from cover to cover.

In December 2013, Sangeeta Richard, a maid working at the residence of India’s Deputy Consul General in New York sought asylum in the US after she was suspected of being a spy at the compound of India’s permanent mission to the United Nations. She is believed to have been uncovered by security at the mission and she immediately cooked up a story of having been enslaved and tortured by Devyani Khobragade, her diplomat-employer. The Americans did not abandon this maid but gave her asylum under US laws against human trafficking. There is little doubt that she had been trained in advance by her handlers to deal with such an eventuality. In defence of their action, the US government used the New York police department to arrest Khobragade in violation of her sacrosanct diplomatic immunity. Consider the extent to which Americans would go to protect an asset, as India believes Sangeeta to have been.

More was to follow. Sangeeta’s husband, Philip, and their two children were spirited out of India in a flash by the US embassy in New Delhi which issued them T-visas before Indian agencies could close in on them. Ordinary Indian travellers to the US normally have to wait for months—years since the Covid pandemic—to get an appointment for a visa interview. But special treatment was reserved by the Americans for an asset like the Richard family. India expelled a CIA officer at the US embassy whose credit card was used for buying the air tickets to New York for Sangeeta’s husband and children. There were many more layers to this episode, but this article is not about those. The episode is cited only to show that unlike the CIA, the alleged handlers of the naval officers let them down if, indeed, the case against them at the Doha court had a shred of credibility.

Logic and common sense dictate that Indians would be the preferred recruits if Israel wanted to conduct an espionage operation in Qatar. South Asians are ubiquitous in all the Gulf states and could possibly move through sensitive places without attracting attention the way a white man or a Chinese national would do. Twenty years ago, when Israel had few contacts with the Gulf unlike today, an Israeli citizen of Indian descent—a businessman who was so prominent in Tel Aviv that most visiting Indian VIPs met him—told me a story. He was picked by Mossad and sent on a spying mission to Mecca on a fake Indian passport and an assumed Muslim name. Although a private citizen, he was trained by Mossad for this mission, which he claimed to have completed successfully.

Reports in well-respected international media have suggested that Israel spied on Qatar’s navy with the help of these eight hapless Indians and the domestic media has echoed these reports. This has led to a widespread belief in India that Israel holds the key to this case’s mysteries. Yet it runs counter to the SOP of any efficient or effective spy agency to use eight persons working together in one operation. Mossad is a highly trained professional outfit which would not be foolhardy to mount such a mission that is guaranteed to fail. Serious intelligence gathering is not a partnership firm or a private limited company. It is not even a cosy club of colleagues. According to veterans in the global intelligence community, if indeed Israel tempted anyone to give them classified data from the Doha branch of an Omani defence firm that was overseeing the induction of Italian submarines into Qatar’s navy, it would have been a lone wolf operation. The idea that as many as eight men were involved in such an amateurish effort, as if it were a game of Blackjack in a casino, would be laughed out of court in the US or Europe after seeking expert testimony from veterans.

Since courts in Qatar have little experience in handling espionage cases—unlike in the West throughout the Cold War decades—it is too much to expect a fair trial by international standards for the eight Indians upon appeal. Any appeal would go to an Adlia (civil) court, which is not subordinate to the Emir or his cabinet under Qatar’s 2004 Constitution, unlike in other Gulf states. An appeal, although pro forma, should be made to a higher civil court in due course. However, only political intervention at the highest level from New Delhi can get the Emir to pardon these Indians or to commute their sentences, followed by their transfer as prisoners to India, for which bilateral provisions exist between India and Qatar.

K P Nayar

Strategic analyst

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