Air India and the durability of extremism

I see that the only person convicted in the 1985 Air India bombing has been let go on strict conditions.  The Canadian government had little choice as he had served two-thirds of his sentence and was eligible for statutory release (see story here). On the one hand, all kinds of people are granted statutory release in Canada.  On the other, Inderjit Singh Rayat is a terrorist.

And not just any terrorist.  He is remorseless and unrepentant in the opinion of the Court.  A man who helped kill 329 innocent people, the largest single act of terrorism prior to 9/11, shows no empathy for the victims according to a psychologist’s report.  Furthermore, while his affiliation with the group that was responsible for this heinous act, Babbar Khalsa, was “inactive while incarcerated” it has not been terminated.

There are two things that worry me about his release.  But before I get to those I have to acknowledge that when the attack occurred I was two years in to a three decade career as an intelligence analyst with the Canadian government.  At the time, tensions in India between the government and Indian Sikhs were high.  Several violent incidents had only contributed to that tension.  And those acrimonious relationships spread to Canada.  The tragedy of Air India happened almost a year after the first anniversary of the decision to split Canada’s domestic intelligence gathering efforts into a law enforcement arm (the RCMP) and a civilian spy agency (CSIS).  Much has been written about the difficulties of those early years and the alleged botched investigation.  We had an inquiry into the affair and Public Safety Canada’s research programme on terrorism, Kanishka (named after the aircraft – “Emperor Kanishka”) was a concrete result of that inquiry.  Regardless of what happened during the investigation, and whether or not anyone was “at fault”, the terrorist attack remains a sombre moment in our history.

But back to Mr. Rayat.  Two things worry me.  Firstly, we are not releasing a repentant man who, having paid his dues to society, is keen to make up for lost time and become a functioning contribution to our country.  He is remorseless and his links to a named terrorist group have apparently not been severed.  In other words, while in prison he disengaged but was NOT deradicalised.  Those who disengage without a concomitant derdicalisation can re-engage with the violent cause to which they were associated.  Mr. Rayat’s continued silence over his co-conspirators, whether driven by fear or allegiance, is not a good sign.  He could become a powerful and effective radicaliser of others in the right circumstances.

Secondly, the cause for which Babbar Khalsa committed untold acts of terrorism has not been resolved 30 years later.  The Sikhs do not have their homeland and there are undoubtedly some who still see violence as their only recourse.  My sources tell me that there are people in Canada who adhere to the cause to this day.  Given that we are focussed – rightfully so in my opinion – on AQ- and IS-inspired extremists, we need to ask ourselves whether we are adequately watching the violent Sikh threat.  Yes, resources are stretched and we need to prioritise our efforts but we still need to keep an eye on this latent issue.

A convicted unreformed terrorist is now a free man.  In this light we need to do our utmost to ensure that another cowardly crime along the lines of Air India flight 182 is not repeated.

By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

Leave a Reply