Canada had intel on Air India Kanishka bombing. Why didn’t it stop attack? | External Affairs Defence Security News

Canadian authorities had intelligence that Air India flight 182 Kanishka was a potential terrorist target, but failed to prevent the deaths of the 329 passengers onboard when the flight was destroyed in air 39 years ago by a bomb planted by Canadian Khalistani terrorists.

The passengers killed in the Kanishka bombing, among the deadliest acts of aviation terrorism, included 268 Canadian, 27 British, and 24 Indian citizens.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s allegations in September that there had been a “potential” involvement of Indian agents in Khalistani separatist Hardeep Singh Nijjar’s killing has led to a deterioration in India-Canada ties and revived memories of the Kanishka flight bombing. India has dismissed Trudeau’s charges as “absurd” and “motivated”.  

After the Canadian Parliament observed a minute of silence on Tuesday to commemorate the one-year anniversary of Nijjar’s death, the Indian Consulate General in Vancouver announced a memorial service on June 23 to pay tribute to the victims of the 1985 Kanishka flight bombing.  

‘Cascading series of errors’

In May 2006, the Canadian government announced a public inquiry, led by retired Supreme Court of Canada Justice John C Major, into the Kanishka flight bombing.

In June 2010, Major released his final, over 3,200-page report, saying that the failure of the Canadian government and its “wholly deficient” agencies to prevent the bombing was “inexcusable”.

The report said that Canadian authorities should have known that Air India Flight 182 was a potential terrorist target and blamed a “cascading series of errors” by the Canadian government, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), and the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), which is the country’s spy agency, for failing to prevent the terrorist attack.

Referring to the 1985 Kanishka flight bombing as the “worst mass murder in Canadian history”, Major called the blunders committed by Canadian security agencies in their handling of threats against Air India “inexcusable”.

The report said that both the RCMP and CSIS possessed significant pieces of information “that, taken together, would have led a competent analyst to conclude that Flight 182 was at high risk of being bombed by known Sikh terrorists in June 1985”.

“The information gathered from the wiretap on Talwinder Singh Parmar, obtained after months of delay, was not processed effectively or in a timely manner; it was ignored by CSIS investigators and, to compound the problem, the tapes of the wiretap were prematurely and unthinkingly erased, even after the bombing,” said the report.  

Talwinder Singh Parmar, the leader of the Babbar Khalsa extremist group, was seen as the mastermind behind the Kanishka flight bombing.

In fact, days before the Kanishka flight bombing, a CSIS surveillance team actually observed a test explosion conducted by Khalistani extremists in a wooded area in June 1985, but misinterpreted the loud sound they heard as a gunshot.  

Describing the surveillance on Parmar as “intermittent and ineffective”, the report said, “Even though a surveillance team was present when Parmar and his associates detonated a device in the woods near Duncan, causing a loud explosive sound, the sound was misinterpreted and the surveillance report was ignored.” It added, “Despite the remarkable and unambiguously alarming behaviour witnessed by the surveillance team, further surveillance was called off on the very day of the bombing in order to follow a Cold War target.”

The report was also highly critical of the RCMP, saying that the agency “showed a surprising lack of understanding of the nature or purpose of intelligence gathering”.

According to the report, the RCMP’s “failure to understand the value of intelligence and the importance of reporting” meant that even when information was received by the agency, “CSIS was often not given a proper report”.

The report provided examples of such failures, stating that “this is what happened with the November Plot information about Sikh extremists who were planning to bomb one, and possibly two, Air India planes in November 1984”.

The report added that “this is also what happened when, unforgivably, the RCMP did not forward to CSIS the June 1st Telex that set out Air India’s own intelligence, forecasting a June terrorist attempt to bomb an Air India flight by means of explosives hidden in checked baggage.”

In a damning indictment of the agency, the report said that the RCMP had not previously revealed this fact and that it was uncovered by the Commission of Inquiry.

According to the report, on June 1, 1985, Air India’s chief vigilance and security manager in Mumbai (then Bombay) sent a telex to Air India offices worldwide, warning of “…the likelihood of sabotage attempts being undertaken by Sikh extremists by placing time/delay devices etc. in the aircraft or registered baggage”.

The telex also set out specific security precautions to be implemented, including “explosive sniffers and bio-sensors (dogs])” as well as physical random checks of registered baggage, at least until June 30, 1985.

Major’s report was also critical of CSIS and RCMP actions after the bombing, with Canadian authorities having been accused by other quarters of bungling the investigation after the attack.

Missing canine bomb sniffing unit 

The RCMP came in for even more severe criticism in the report.

The report said that on the day of the Kanishka bombing, “despite the heightened threat environment”, the RCMP’s canine bomb sniffing unit, which the report called “the single most effective means” to detect explosives, was “entirely unavailable at Canadian airports” because the entirety of the unit was at a training session in Vancouver.

“This occurred despite the fact that the RCMP knew of the increased threat to Air India. Included in the intelligence at its command, was the June 1st Telex, which foretold a June attack against an Air India flight. Yet the RCMP permitted its entire canine unit to engage in a training session at the point when the threat was at its highest,” said the report.

Moreover, the report said that the RCMP and Transport Canada, a government department responsible for transportation policies, “concealed and misrepresented this fact” for years.

The report added that a back-up dog was available in Montreal, but “it was not even called into the airport until after the plane had departed”.

Canadian govt had enough information to take action

The report also said that James Bartleman, who was the head of the Intelligence Bureau at External Affairs at the time of the bombing, testified that, shortly before the bombing, he had seen “a highly classified Communications Security Establishment Canada (CSE) document that indicated that Flight 182 would be targeted by Sikh extremists”.

CSE is Canada’s national cryptologic agency, which provides the Canadian government with foreign signals intelligence.

The report said that despite the Canadian government’s “strenuous efforts” to make the case, it was “simply not accurate” that other than Bartleman’s testimony, there was nothing to suggest the existence of documents that should have led the government to have anticipated the bombing of Flight 182 and to have put in place security precautions to minimise the risk.

“To the contrary, Bartleman’s testimony was neither the only, nor even the most important evidence pointing to precisely that conclusion,” said the report.

The report stated that even without Bartleman’s document, “there was enough information in the hands of various Canadian authorities to make it inexcusable that the system was unable to process that information correctly and ensure that there were adequate security measures in place to deal with the threat”.

The report added that the June 1 Telex, the November Plot information, the CSE information, the fact that the Sikh extremist community in Canada had issued threats against Indian interests and engaged in violence, and the fact that CSIS suspected that Parmar would engage in terrorist activities, all combined “to create a mosaic of information which clearly identified a particularised threat to Air India for the month of June 1985”.

The report added that these factors “should have compelled” the Canadian government “to tailor and implement security measures to meet this identified threat”.

Air India was unprepared for attack

However, the report also blamed Air India for lapses.

It said that despite the detailed advice set out in the June 1 Telex regarding security measures necessary to meet the risk of a terrorist bombing, “Air India did not deviate from its existing security plan”.

The report added that Air India “did not implement measures suggested in the Telex”, including random physical checks of registered luggage, which it said were “designed to guard against the sort of terrorist plan that caused the bombing of Flight 182”.

“Neither Transport Canada nor Air India were prepared for the possibility of an unaccompanied interlined bag containing a bomb that could be placed on an Air India flight,” said the report, adding, “On June 22, 1985, those who plotted the Air India bombing successfully used this means of placing the ‘unaccompanied, infiltrated’ bag on Air India Flight 182.”

Who was behind the Kanishka flight bombing?

On June 23, 1985, a bomb explosion killed the 329 passengers and crew of Air India Flight 182 in mid-flight. The Boeing 747, named after the Emperor Kanishka, was travelling from Canada to India via London.

About an hour earlier, two baggage handlers were killed at Tokyo’s Narita Airport in a separate explosion while unloading luggage from a Canadian Pacific Airlines flight. That bomb had been destined for another Air India flight.  

Both bombs had been planted in suitcases by the same group of Khalistani terrorists. According to Canadian investigators, the bombings were carried out as revenge for Operation Blue Star, a June 1984 Indian armed forces operation to remove Khalistani militants from the Golden Temple, located in the city of Amritsar in Punjab.

Of the four suspects arrested — Talwinder Singh Parmar, Inderjit Singh Reyat, Ripudaman Singh Malik, and Ajaib Singh Bagri — by Canadian authorities, Reyat was the only person to be convicted in connection with the Kanishka flight bombing and served 30 years in prison before his release in 2016. Parmar was killed by police in India in 1992. Malik was also gunned down in Canada in 2022.

Ongoing investigation

Ahead of its 39th anniversary, the Canadian police said that investigations into the bombing of Air India Flight 182 remain “active and ongoing” and termed it the “longest” and one of the “most complex domestic terrorism” probes.

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