Why wasn’t the Air India terrorist attack prevented?

This article was posted in The Hill Times on July 9, 2018.

A week ago a relatively small crowd in Vancouver’s Stanley Park commemorated the single greatest terrorist attack in history (as determined by deaths) prior to 9/11. And Canada featured prominently in it.  I refer of course to the downing of Air India flight 182 which exploded off the coast of Ireland on June 23, 1985 on its way to England from Vancouver (via Montreal and Toronto) taking with it 329 lives, including 82 children.  The perpetrators of this heinous deed were Sikhs from BC: in the end one terrorist was killed in India and of the three that went to trial here only one, Inderjit Singh Reyat, pleaded guilty (the others were acquitted).  They all belonged to the Babbar Khalsa terrorist group which was trying to establish, through violence, an independent Sikh homeland in India.

According to the subsequent Air India inquiry (full disclosure: I have copies of the multi-volume findings but have not read them), the attack was the result of “outrageous inattention to Sikh separatist extremism in Canada — a gross negligence that implicated timid federal politicians, understaffed RCMP offices and the fledgling Canadian Security Intelligence Service”.   In other words, this tragedy can be laid squarely at the feet of those agencies we pay lots of money for to prevent exactly these types of things from happening.  Someone, or several someones, egregiously dropped the ball it seems and hundreds of people died (and hundreds of families were rent asunder).  What went wrong?

Leaving aside the thousands of pages of testimony  in the Air India report (which, as I noted, I have not read) allow me to weigh in a little. I cannot speak for the RCMP as I have never worked for the Mounties.  Neither can I speak for CSIS since my time with the Service unfolded from 2001-2015.  And I sure have no intention of defending ‘timid politicians’.  What I can comment on, however, is what I knew at the time from the vantage point of Communications Security Establishment (CSE), Canada’s signals intelligence agency, as I was employed there at the time, albeit still a relatively new analyst.  What I can say unequivocally is that we were not guilty of ‘outrageous inattention to Sikh extremism’.

As I am sure you can appreciate I cannot go into much detail regarding what we were focused on at CSE in 1985 nor where we got our information from.  I can say in a general way nevertheless that as Canada’s foreign intelligence organisation we were keeping an eye on many things including Sikh extremism in India and providing intelligence to the government on that very issue.  Recall that the Indian army had raided the Golden Temple in Amritsar which had been occupied by Sikh terrorists in 1984, an act that not only led to the deaths of anywhere from several dozen to several thousand people (estimates vary wildly on this fact), but to the assassination of Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi four months later by two of her Sikh bodyguards.  So yes, we were paying attention to it since it was our job to do so.

What does any of this have to do with Air India?  Lots to be honest.  CSE does not have a role to play in domestic intelligence (or at least it did not then) but was on top  of the developments surrounding Sikh terrorism in India.  Its advice helped inform decision makers who could use it to contextualise what they were getting from the new CSIS on sympathy or support in Canada for these extremists.  I do not know how they used the intelligence or how much attention they paid to it but I do know that we were providing regular reports (how do I know this?  Because I wrote a lot of them).  So much for ‘outrageous inattention’.

In the end the terrorists were successful and the blame for this lies with CSIS, the RCMP and others.  Simply stated, we did not perform our duties well enough and many people died.  There is no excuse for this and I cannot offer anything more than context: CSIS was new, sharing with the RCMP was still developing, Canada’s ‘intelligence culture’ wasn’t the greatest back then, etc.  Context, however, does not bring back the dead.  In the world I inhabited for three decades you are defined by your failures, not by your successes.  I can complain about it but I cannot change it.

Much has happened since that awful day 33 years ago.  We are much more capable than we once were (for instance CSIS has grown in competence and size over the years) and I think we in Canada can be proud of the agencies we have to protect us, even if they are not perfect.  Still, 329 Canadians died at the hands of ruthless extremists in 1985.  We owe it to their families to keep their memories alive.


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.

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