RENO, Nev. (AP) — A citizen of India who received asylum in the U.S. and lived in northern Nevada has pleaded guilty to conspiring to plot a terror strike in the Punjab region of his home country on the border with Pakistan, federal law enforcement officials said Tuesday.
Balwinder Singh, 42, pleaded guilty before U.S. District Judge Larry Hicks in Reno to conspiracy to provide material support and resources to terrorists, a felony that could get him up to 15 years in federal prison and deported following his release. His sentencing was set for Feb. 27.
Singh's defense attorney, Michael Kennedy, noted the plea deal depends on Hicks' approval and the dismissal of an indictment that could have gotten Singh life in U.S. federal prison.
The indictment accused Singh of conspiracy to murder and conspiracy to provide material support to terrorists, four counts of falsifying an immigration document, immigration fraud and unlawful production of an identification document.
"Mr. Singh is pleased that the indictment, if this is accepted, will be dismissed and that the lesser charge puts this behind him," Kennedy said.
The defense attorney noted that a clause in the plea agreement would allow Singh to ask to be sent to a third country, not India, under the U.S. Convention Against Torture.
U.S. Attorney Daniel G. Bogden in Nevada, FBI Special Agent in Charge Aaron Rouse in Las Vegas and top U.S. Justice Department national security prosecutor Mary McCord said in a statement that Singh pleaded guilty to planning to send a terrorist operative to India in the fall of 2013 to commit a terror attack — "likely an assassination or maiming of an Indian governmental official."
The final target was to be determined after the operative arrived in South Asia, the statement said.
Singh, who officials say also uses the names Baljit Singh, Jhajj, Happy and Possi, has been in federal custody since his arrest in December 2013 in Reno.
Authorities said at the time that his arrest disrupted a plot by the Babbar Khalsa International and Khalistan Zindabad Force, two terror groups that want an independent Sikh state in the Khalistan region.
His indictment alleged that the conspiracy began before November 1997; that Singh obtained asylum in San Francisco using a false identity; and that he acquired false identification documents in the U.S. to enable him to elude Indian authorities when traveling to his home country.
Singh also was accused of telephoning and wiring money to co-conspirators in India for the purchase of weapons and of traveling to Pakistan, India and other countries for meetings to plan terrorist acts.
In 1999, Singh applied for and later obtained a permanent resident card in the U.S., the indictment said.
Singh was accused of providing funding and materials including night-vision goggles that authorities found during the arrest of a would-be attacker boarding a Dec. 9, 2013, flight from San Francisco International Airport to Bangkok.
The indictment said U.S. State Department listed the Babbar Khalsa International as a terrorist organization, and the European Union designated the Khalistan Zindabad Force as a terror group.
It suggested that U.S. authorities were listening to telephone conversations in January 2012 when Singh allegedly talked about delivering ammunition and when Singh told an unidentified man to get him weapons or explosives.
Investigators also apparently listened to telephone conversations in May 2012, when Singh allegedly provided instructions to an unidentified man about making an explosive device.
The FBI-led Joint Terrorism Task Force in northern Nevada was credited with investigating the case.
Ritter reported from Las Vegas.