In July 2021, as rains lashed Secunderabad, Telangana, a bored Major K opened his Facebook. The infantry officer serving his peace posting at the city’s military station was greeted by a message from Prisha Agrawal. He didn’t know her but was intrigued and promptly got chatting. Prisha said she was a disaster management official in Madhya Pradesh and was looking to help retired armymen find scholarships for their children and grandchildren. Could the major assist her in this endeavour, she asked? By the next month, the major and Prisha were friends, chatting and video calling over WhatsApp. And not long after they were sexting as well.
It wasn’t until about a year later that the major found out Prisha was not who she said she was. She was a suspected Pakistani spy out to retrieve confidential information from him.
She had too, the major would learn when he was called in for questioning by military investigators who had found the spy.
Major K had fallen prey to a virtual honey trap.
It is a common, and old, practice in the world of spycraft, but sources in the army told Newslaundry that armymen, sailors and airmen are falling prey to honey traps at an alarming rate. In the last two years alone, they have identified nearly 200 such cases.
Major K was manipulated into giving up the location of military units in Secunderabad, including his own, the nature of his work, and sensitive military protocols. He had been introduced to Prisha’s “friends” as well, and they all extracted their own pounds of flesh, as it were.
“These operatives had been hired by the Pakistani military intelligence to target Indian military and paramilitary officers. They would lure our officers and extract crucial information related to defence forces,” said an army official who asked not to be identified given the “sensitive nature” of the investigation.
He added, “It’s not that cases of sexpionage have not occurred in the past, but since 2021, we have observed a very aggressive effort in this area. Besides targeting young officers and soldiers, they are also eyeing senior military officers and their staff.”
In January 2022, a Corps of Engineers soldier was arrested for sharing sensitive information about the regiment’s training with a suspected Pakistani spy, who had befriended him on Facebook. She was Reet Kaur, the spy had told the soldier, and worked as a clerk in the office of the Principal Controller of Defence Accounts in Jodhpur. She would chat with the soldier in his native Punjabi and “exchange in sexual activity on video”, the army official said.
“That soldier was trapped thrice. First by Reet Kaur, then by women who called themselves Khushdeep Kaur and Harleen Gill,” the official added. “This isn’t only about sharing military information. Chaps who are compromised using honey traps can be motivated or blackmailed to do sabotage or subversion. It’s extremely dangerous.”
Explaining the modus operandi of the operatives, another army official said, “The women involved in sexpionage gather information about the armed forces personnel from social media. The use of social media is banned in the army but the soldiers run accounts using aliases which exposes them to the risk. Once the operative has confirmed the target, she starts a conversation by posing to be an official from the Principal Controller of Defence Accounts, the Military Nursing Service, or as an NGO worker or journalist. When posing as PCDA clerks, they usually initiate contact saying that they need to sort out pending payments. Since the Covid pandemic, there have been cases where the operatives posed as MNS staff and, under the guise of providing Covid vaccination, tried to extract contact details from units in the Northern Command. In Kashmir, they had posed as BSNL officials to approach the armed forces personnel. After they have got the soldiers chatting, they lure them into online sexual activity – and that almost invariably leads to extraction of military information.” Not rarely, they also hack the cellphones of their targets.
To avoid suspicion, the official said, the operatives use Indian military terminology, post photos in Indian military uniform, or put the Indian flag or pro-India comments on their social media pages. They have been found to have infiltrated social media groups posing as military people, journalists, even Intelligence Bureau officials. And there have been cases of them using dating apps.
In April 2021, an army clerk was arrested in Bhopal after a four-month surveillance operation. He was honey-trapped by a suspected Pakistani spy who posed as Shruti Parry, a defence journalist from Amritsar based in England, and contacted him on Facebook. They traded messages, and soon moved to sex chats and video calls. The clerk once even received Rs 50,000 from the woman. A subsequent investigation found the clerk had shared classified information about troop movements, regiment locations, training procedures, and pictures with the operative. He was so deep in it that he even collected information from his comrades and passed it on.
“Sexpionage cases are lose-lose for the armed forces,” said an army official working on such cases. “If the targeted soldier isn’t found, he will harm the forces by sharing sensitive information. If he is caught, he is anyway useless to the military. Some soldiers exposed in sexpionage cases have committed suicide. I personally know of one compromised soldier who shot himself dead after he was busted.”
The sexpionage cases that end up being reported in the media, the officer said, are “just the tip of the iceberg”.
Retired Lt Gen DB General Shekatkar, who has studied 21st century psychological warfare for years, said honey traps have “spread like a pandemic” with the advent of social media. “It has become a serious problem for our defence forces, and the only way to counter it is to create as much awareness as possible,” said Shekatkar, currently serving as the chancellor of Sikkim University.
Sanjeev Kanal, a former commandant of the Officers Training Academy, agreed. “Though honey traps are an age-old practice, they have become more rampant with social media and digital technology,” said Kanal, who retired as a lieutenant general. “It is a challenge which must be taken seriously.”
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