Speed, America in the Asian Century

Written by Francesca Speed

On the morning of June 23, 1985, Air India flight 182, headed for New Delhi from Montreal, crashed into the ocean off the southwest coast of Ireland. A bomb had detonated in the cargo hold, tearing the plane in two. Barely an hour earlier, a bomb hidden in a suitcase aboard CP Air Flight 003 from Vancouver had detonated at Tokyo’s Narita Airport. The Tokyo bomb had reportedly detonated early; the suitcase in question was due to be transferred into Air India flight 301 to Bangkok. There were fatalities as a result of both explosions.

Following her party’s defeat at the 1977 national elections, former Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi extended support to Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, a radical Sikh preacher who advocated the creation of a separate Sikh state. Although this unlikely marriage of political convenience brought Gandhi and her party back to power in 1980, Bhindranwale and his supporters ended up taking over the Golden Temple in Amritsar, an occupation that only ended when Prime Minister Gandhi ordered the Indian Army into the complex. Bhindranwale and his supporters were mostly killed, but so too were numerous innocent Sikhs.

In retaliation, Indira Gandhi was assassinated in October 1984, and the anti-Sikh riots that took place in the days that followed continued the tragic cycle of violence. Then, on 23 June 1985, Air India flight 182 exploded off the coast of Ireland, killing 329 people – mostly Canadians of Indian origin.

Traditionally, Canada’s relations with India have been strong. Successive Canadian prime ministers championed India’s right to take a non-aligned stance during the Cold War, despite America’s irritation. However, India’s Smiling Buddha nuclear tests in 1974 strained this bilateral relationship. In 1976, Canada terminated nuclear cooperation with India. Tensions were heightened once again after the Air India bombing. Today, Canadian imports and exports to India total approximately C$2.5-3billion.Yet, even though the relationship between the two countries has improved, lessons about the Air India bombing continue to be relevant in the current political climate.

Issues that the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police faced in investigating those deemed responsible both before and after the bombing were rooted in a pervasive ignorance about other cultures, a version of which continues to problematise counter-terror investigations today. There are inherent problems in having an intelligence workforce that doesn’t adequately represent the populations they serve, or indeed in having personnel that cannot fully comprehend threats from abroad. Almost immediately after the end of the Cold War, terrorism from Islamic extremists took over as the dominant global threat: in 1993, a first attempt was made to bomb the World Trade Center in New York. With this threat, however, came a startling realisation that western intelligence services were almost entirely tied into an Anglo-American Cold War mindset that trained tunnel vision on the threat of Communism, rather than being sufficiently flexible and attuned to rising threats emanating from the developing world that might impact diasporic populations across the globe.

In the twenty-first century, the threat matrix altered once again. In the aftermath of the 2004 Madrid bombings and the 7/7 attacks in London in 2005, the attention of intelligence and security services shifted and expanded to considering threats from homegrown terrorists more seriously (though the Air India bombing nearly twenty years prior to these attacks should have at least made intelligence and security agencies aware of this potential, if not prepared them more robustly to face it). Like the Air India perpetrators, however, those responsible for these attacks come from the same cultural and ethnic background as the organisation they claimed allegiance to – Al Qaeda.

As we begin our approach to the third decade of the twenty-first century, these cultural and ethnic similarities are no longer assured. With the major terrorist threat of the contemporary period – Islamic State – able to radicalise those of different cultural, ethnic, and religious backgrounds to their cause, intelligence and security services once again find themselves scrambling to find a way to neutralise this appeal. Increasing numbers of those travelling to Middle Eastern countries to fight with IS are converts, and there is the risk that those who survive combat overseas might return home to commit acts of terrorism in their own countries. Efforts to counter radicalisation and domestic counterterror operations must take such developments into consideration. It is no longer as ‘simple’ as pointing to Muslim communities in North America and saying that those are the communities susceptible to radicalisation, because examples in North America have proven that this is not the case. The Calgary Network, for instance, represents one such example. Trying to thwart domestic terror plots by tapping into community assistance and developing community-based sources requires active engagement with a broad cross section of society, and not simply of cultural or ethnic minorities. This is especially important at a time when right-wing terrorism and hate crimes against minorities are re-emerging as a major concern for security services.

In the case of the Air India bombing, the threat came from ‘within’ in the sense that the plot was formulated and carried out on Canadian soil. Yet, the threat also came from ‘outside’ because those responsible were cultural and ethnic minorities in the context of Canadian society. Today, threats from ‘within’ no longer only originate solely from ‘outside’. This is a change that intelligence and security services across the globe, but particularly in the West, have to adapt to.

Francesca Speed is an MRes student at the University of Nottingham. Her work focuses on the relationship between multiculturalism and domestic counterterrorism in Canada and the United States. She graduated from the University of Nottingham with a Bachelor’s degree in American and Canadian Studies in 2016. Her undergraduate dissertation charted the evolution of Canadian counterterrorism within the intelligence and security community from 1984 to 2015. This article forms part of the IAPS Dialogue series on America in the ‘Asian Century’, a symposium joint-funded by the Department of American & Canadian Studies, and the Institute of Asia & Pacific Studies at the University of Nottingham. Image Credit:  CC/ Wikimedia Commons

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