The more we learn about the 1985 bombing of Air India Flight 182, the more the Canadian security establishment takes a beating. That’s expected. There was plenty of bungling, misjudgment and poor communication.
Surveying the intelligence 25 years later, it’s pretty clear that Sikh fanatics were going to attack a civilian passenger jet. Yet Canadian officials just didn’t get it. Among the signs of nonchalance: Security agents surreptitiously followed Sikh extremists into a British Columbia forest where the latter were practising the detonation of explosives. The security agents didn’t bother to bring cameras, and never properly identified one of the suspects.
Canada messed up, bigtime, and consequently more than 300 people died when Fight 182 exploded over the Atlantic. If we really want to make sense of what went wrong, however, it’s important to recognize that this security failure was a shared one. The problem wasn’t just bureaucratic incompetence.
When Sikh extremism first began to attract attention, few people, in government or out, in Canada or elsewhere, really understood the global danger it represented — not Sikh extremism per se, but the danger of radical-nationalist-religious movements.
Terrorism had been around for a long time, but it was almost always of the secular political variety. Political terrorism had its own rules of engagement. As Brian Jenkins, a pioneer of terrorist studies, once put it, terrorists didn’t want a lot of people dead but rather a lot of people watching.
Political terrorism was largely about propaganda. The early European anarchists had as their motto propagande par le fait, propaganda by deed, meaning that the primary purpose of violence was to publicize a cause. Anarchist assassins felt that they could best attract attention by targeting prominent industrialists or political leaders.
That was more or less the model throughout most of the 20th century. In the 1970s, the Quebec separatists who formed the FLQ calibrated their violence to maximize the propaganda value, killing a provincial cabinet minister and kidnapping a British diplomat.
Same with the Palestinian Arabs, known as Black September, who disrupted the 1972 summer Olympics. Black September was secular and political, unlike Hamas today which is religious and fanatical. Black September didn’t blow up a shopping mall, hotel or even a synagogue, but instead went after Israeli athletes in Munich — a heinous crime, to be sure, but the point is Black September was discriminating in its violence. The Irish Republican Army used to warn authorities in advance of attacks, consistent with a goal of creating propaganda rather than maximizing civilian casualties
There were certain conventions surrounding terrorism. Should Canadian authorities have realized those angry Sikhs in B.C. represented a new kind of terrorist, whose objective was in fact to maximize civilian casualties?
The shift from old-style political terrorists, whose aim was to attract attention, to the “new” religious terrorists, whose aim was to kill as many of the enemy as possible, caught governments off guard, not just Canada’s.
Even the U.S., in the 1960s and ’70s, had little insight. Historian Walter Laqueur has noted that during this period, CIA documents on terrorism were surprisingly unsophisticated. Terrorism wasn’t something that much concerned the agency, not just because the Cold War was more pressing but because “terrorists” were still viewed in many places as freedom fighters pursuing political liberation. No one yet conceived of terrorists as indiscriminating mass murderers.
Today, of course, mass-casualty terrorism is the norm and has changed the way security officials operate. But 25 years ago that wasn’t the case, and security officials operated differently. It’s unfortunate that Canada had to be one of places where the hard lesson was learned.
The transformation happened because terrorists began dehumanizing their enemies in a way that hadn’t been seen before. This is especially clear with Islamic terrorists who don’t seem particularly interested in persuading the enemy of anything, only destroying him. It also corresponds to the way radical Sikhs, religious fanatics in their own right, were thinking when they set out to massacre women and children on Fight 182.
Laqueur has written that “persecution mania” plays an important part in the new terrorism: the group feels “so isolated and so powerless vis-à-vis an omnipotent enemy that every weapon seem(s) permissible to have a chance in unequal combat.” The implications of this are clear to us today, thanks especially to 9/11, but they wouldn’t have been 25 years ago. It’s hard to understand a phenomenon until you actually encounter it.
Canada’s security apparatus is still not as strong as it could be, but look how far it has come. In 1985, agents couldn’t even properly do surveillance. Today, agents are not just identifying and monitoring suspected terrorist cells, but thoroughly infiltrating them, as with the Toronto 18 case.
The chief lesson of Air India is that we must be prepared to imagine the unimaginable.
Leonard Stern is the Citizen’s editorial pages editor. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org