A New Reign of Terror

Ross Laver July 8 1985

A New Reign of Terror

Ross Laver July 8 1985

This article originally appeared in 1985 under the headline "A new reign of terror" 

Nun comforts Toronto mourner: shattered lives

On opposite sides of an outraged world last week, aviation investigators painstakingly worked to reconstruct the causes of two explosions. In the Irish city of Cork, seven grim-faced pathologists unzipped green plastic body bags holding the remains of some of the 329 passengers and crew killed when an Air-India Boeing 747 jet—bound for Bombay from Toronto and Montreal—plunged into the sea off the Irish coast. Nearby, technical experts sifted through wreckage, frustrated by their inability to find the plane’s “black box”—the flight data recorders that might unlock the mystery of the disaster. But Maclean's has learned that investigators did discover a second taped radio transmission between the doomed aircraft and the control tower at Shannon Airport. And on the tape: howls and shrieks as the aircraft plummeted into the Atlantic.

At the same time, Japanese police worked their way through debris from a second fatal incident, an almost simultaneous bomb blast at New Tokyo International Airport (Narita) that claimed the lives of two workers unloading baggage from a CP Air flight from Vancouver. And as the two investigations continued last week, evidence seemed to point to a chilling scenario: from a base somewhere in Canada, unidentified terrorists had planned to blow up two jumbo jets, carrying almost 700 passengers to the same subcontinent.

Security: In the outpouring of grief and anger, world leaders grappled with the consequences of another week of terror in the skies. In Canada police launched a search for two Sikh militants suspected of planting bombs in luggage stored aboard the Air-India jet and CP Air Flight 003 from Vancouver to Tokyo. At the same time, the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation was also seeking the two Sikhs—Lai Singh and Ammand Singh—in connection with an alleged conspiracy to assassinate Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi during his visit to Washington in June. And Canadian Transport Minister Donald Mazankowski announced stringent new airport security measures aimed at countering air terrorism (page 24). Other countries—including the United States, Britain and India—launched similar crackdowns. Declared Deputy Prime Minister Erik Nielsen, chairman of the federal committee on national security and intelligence: “We will not allow this country to become a killing ground for international terrorism.”

RAF helicopter searches the Atlantic

While police and politicians wrestled with the larger questions raised by last week’s tragedies, hundreds of anguished relatives of the 329 victims of Air-India Flight 182, including 279 Canadians, converged on Cork in search of information about their loved ones. Many were in tears and near collapse as they filed past a massive police guard at Cork Airport, ignoring requests by Irish authorities to stay away from the area until all 131 bodies recovered from the crash could be identified and embalmed. “I have no idea what happened,” said Evelyn Achara, whose daughter, son-inlaw and grandson had been returning home to India after a vacation in Canada. “But I just had to come here. There is nobody left.” Added another mourner, Ashok Rao, a civil servant whose two nephews, aged 15 and 11, died while travelling to visit him in India during the school holidays: “Our world is completely shattered. If this was a bomb, the whole world has to unite against such terror.” Still, with few exceptions, those who journeyed to Cork waited in vain for information on their missing relatives. The Irish government said that many of the 198 bodies that were not recovered might wash ashore on the coasts of Ireland, Britain, France and possibly Spain over the next few weeks.

As well, the Air-India disaster opened new wounds in the decades-old struggle between Sikhs and Hindus in the Indian subcontinent. Although leaders of Sikh communities in Europe and North America denied any responsibility for the crash, a caller to The New York Times claimed that explosives had been placed aboard Flight 182 by a group called the Sikh Students Federation 10th Regiment. The anonymous caller added that the saboteurs had bombed the plane in a protest against “Hindu imperialism” in India. Another anonymous caller to the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. in Toronto claimed that the explosion was the work of the Kashmir Liberation Army, which is fighting for independence for the northern Indian state of Kashmir. Spokesmen for the World Sikh Organization in Washington said the call to The New York Times ^ had actually been placed y by an Indian official as o part of that governed ment’s “continuing campaign of defamation of the Sikhs by attempting to brand them as terrorists in the eyes of the Western world.” Canada has about 200,000 residents of Indian origin, most of them in Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal, about 34 per cent of them Sikhs. Said Raneel Dhillon, a Toronto Sikh: “We have no proof that Sikhs were responsible for the crash. There is enough tension as it is.”

Stringent: The Air-India disaster and the explosion in Tokyo raised concern about Canada’s ability to combat international terrorism. In Ottawa, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney insisted that airport security in Canada was already “the most stringent in the world”—but ordered officials to “examine all aspects of airport and airline security and report to me at the earliest possible moment.” In New Delhi, the Hindustan Times charged in a front-page editorial that the Canadian and many European governments have been “remarkably unreceptive to the Indian government’s warning about various anti-India extremist groups operating from foreign territories.”

Irish sailors in Cork with bodies: shrieking and crashing noises

Danger: In fact, the Indian High Commission in Ottawa warned the external affairs department of the possibility of danger and hijackings in a midMay note. Transport Canada deployed extra police in Toronto and Montreal air terminals and began to monitor luggage X-ray checks on Air-India flights more closely. But when Flight 182 left Canada on June 22 there were several apparent security lapses. For one thing, because of a malfunction in a machine which scans luggage at Toronto’s Lester B. Pearson International Airport, only 75 per cent of the baggage loaded onto the jumbo jet was subjected to X-ray screening. The rest was checked with hand-held metal detectors, which are much less effective.

Later, during a scheduled stopover at Mirabel International Airport, 45 km northwest of Montreal, three suitcases were held after examination by electronic sensors in the airport’s cargo marshalling area. A private security guard took the baggage to a decompression chamber, where it was checked the next day and declared harmless by a Quebec provincial police bomb disposal unit. But because there had been no specific security concerns about the flight, Air-India officials were not required to notify Transport Canada of the incident. According to Mazankowski, if his department had been informed that suspicious bags were seized, the flight would have been held until all of the luggage had been searched.

Instead, the gleaming white Boeing 747 with red markings—the slogan “A place in the sky” near its tail—was allowed to leave Mirabel on the second leg of its 15,500-km, 15 1/2-hour journey to Bombay. Inside the cabin the decor would have reminded many passengers of their Indian homeland. Gold paisley curtains separated various sections of the plane and on the walls were paintings of Indian village life. After the airliner reached its cruising altitude of 31,000 feet, flight attendants in multicolored silk saris offered economy-class passengers a choice of meals: chicken curry, lamb in cream sauce or, for vegetarians, rice pilaf with spiced vegetables. First-class travellers chose from a menu of lobster in cheese sauce, breaded lamb cutlet with mint jelly or quails in sauce with poori—fried Indian bread. Passengers were also offered a choice of three movies: Far Pavilions, Phar Lap or Rajnigandaha, a popular Indian romantic film. Then, about an hour before the plane was due to land in London for refuelling, pilot H.S. Narendra, 56, with 35 years of flying experience, radioed the air-traffic control centre at Shannon. The jet was cruising normally, he reported. Behind him, most of the passengers would probably have been dozing and the crew was scheduled to start preparing breakfast.

Lal Singh (circled, left) at training school

Then, at 8:13 a.m. local time (3:13 a.m. EDT) Flight 182 disappeared from the radar screens at Shannon. Just before that happened, said Canadian investigator Art LaFlamme, there was a second radio communication with Shannon exactly eight minutes after the previous one. On it, he said, could be heard the sounds of “rattling, banging and shrieks or howls.” Added one of the controllers later: “There was a frightening feeling. We have never had anything like this before.”

Mayday: Within minutes, mayday calls went out to all vessels in the area and Irish and British rescue helicopters raced to the scene. By midafternoon a fleet of four ships and eight Spanish fishing boats was in the area, assisted by three Royal Air Force Nimrod aircraft, 11 RAF helicopters, a U.S. Air Force C-130 transport plane and two American helicopters. But it was clear from the start that there was little chance of finding anyone alive. Even if passengers had survived the explosion, the cold waters of the Atlantic would have killed them in minutes. “Bodies were floating everywhere,” said Lt. Gordon Jones, pilot of an RAF helicopter that plucked corpses from the sea. A British Navy surgeon, Lt. Richard Cribb, examined bodies aboard the helicopter and concluded that the victims must have died quickly. Said Cribb: “The bodies were largely intact—badly shattered and broken, but all in one piece.”

In Ottawa aides to the Prime Minister called him at his Harrington Lake summer retreat at 8 a.m. with the first reports of the Tokyo explosion and the Air India plane’s disappearance from radar screens. By 10:30 a.m. external affairs had set up an emergency task force and it began the first of a continuing series of meetings.

Travellers at Mirabel airport: lapses

Mulroney asked to be kept informed, and at lunchtime he decided to call Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. But as aides were placing the call, Irish Prime Minister Garret FitzGerald telephoned to assure Mulroney that he would provide him with all information as it became available. Both leaders then coauthored a telegram to Japanese Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone expressing sympathy for the death of the two Japanese baggage handlers and to offer their full co-operation in the investigation. Then, Mulroney put through his call to Gandhi, expressing his sympathy. Said one adviser: “Mulroney was concerned with the loss, suffering and sorrow but also with the spectre of terror hitting Canada in a way that we have not seen before.” Sabotage: The most likely explanation for the loss of Flight 182 was that a bomb—probably near the cockpit—had exploded, destroying the plane’s tracking system and killing the crew before they could alert ground controllers. Investigations centred on whether a terrorist organization sabotaged the plane and whether the same group was also responsible for the explosion 55 minutes earlier at Tokyo’s Narita airport. If so, the intended target in the Tokyo blast may have been another Air-India 747 that departed Tokyo for Bombay two hours after the arrival of CP Air Flight 003 from Vancouver. As well, there was no concrete information on who the terrorists may have been or what they hoped to achieve.

At week’s end, police were concentrating their search for suspects in British Columbia. According to Air-India officials in Tokyo two men who gave their names as “A. Singh” and “L. Singh” were booked on Flight 003 from Vancouver and were scheduled to transfer in Tokyo to AirIndia Flight 301, bound for Bombay via Bangkok. Their luggage apparently went aboard the CP Air plane, but the two men did not. Meanwhile, there were reports that Japanese police had discovered Lai Singh’s fingerprints on a fragment of cloth taken from a suitcase on the CP plane.

Plots: Investigators were not certain that the two Singhs were the same men wanted by the FBI in connection with the plot to kill Gandhi. m They pointed out that all y Sikh males use the name o Singh, which means lion 8 in Hindi. Still, Royal Canadian Mounted Police officers were reportedly seeking Lai Singh and Ammand Singh last week, although not as prime suspects in the two explosions. The two men, both former residents of Flushing, N.Y., have been targets of a manhunt since May, when the FBI announced that it had discovered a plot by a group of as many as 25 Sikh terrorists to assassinate Gandhi and another Indian official who was in the United States for medical treatment. At the time, the bureau said there was “good evidence” that the two men had fled from the United States and were hiding in Canada, Britain or France.

RAF helicopter crewman with Cabbage Patch doll: a doomed plane

Beaten: At least one of the suspected terrorists may recently have been in Vancouver. Vancouver lawyer Ujjal Dosanjh, a Sikh, told Maclean’s that a friend of his, whom he refused to identify, had been present when another man notified the RCMP in early June that it was likely Lai Singh was being hidden by sympathizers in the Vancouver Sikh community. Said Dosanjh, who was badly beaten by Sikh extremists last February because he opposed militancy: “I am angry that the government did not take us seriously. As a country, we must accept responsibility for not being vigilant enough to track down these individuals.” He added that only a “tiny lunatic fringe” condoned violence to support demands for a separate Sikh state in India.

Meanwhile, an FBI official confirmed last week that Lai Singh was one of four Sikhs who attended a private training school for commandos last November in a wooded suburb of Birmingham, Ala. The school’s director, Franklin Camper, 38, said that the two-week, $350 course includes instruction in the handling of grenades and mines but not the use of sophisticated time bombs. Said Camper: “They wanted to learn to attack armored vehicles. They wanted to learn assassination techniques and they wanted to learn how to blow up trains.” At the time, he assumed that they planned to use their new knowledge in India. He added: “We have mercenaries all over the world. What they do after they leave here is a different story.” The more stringent security measures implemented last week caused delays at airports. Travellers boarding international flights in Toronto waited up to four hours as airline staff X-rayed or opened all checked luggage. There were similar delays in Vancouver and Montreal, with many passengers turning up hours ahead of the scheduled departures. Bomb threats disrupted flight schedules around the world. A British Airways jumbo jet flight from New York to London was forced to land at Gander, Nfld., where it spent 14 hours on the ground before resuming its journey. Later, an Air Canada jet en route to Montreal and Toronto returned to Zurich after an anonymous caller telephoned an Air Canada office in Paris that a bomb was aboard, though none was found.

Recovered wreckage: grim

Innocent: At week’s end, the grim tally of that disaster was still being recorded. In a narrow basement corridor of the Cork Regional Hospital, Irish army soldiers in khaki fatigues, wearing surgical face masks and gloves, wheeled a procession of stainless-steel stretchers into an autopsy room, where a team of pathologists performed post-mortem examinations on the bodies. Across the hall more than 70 Polaroid photographs of the victims’ mutilated faces were pinned to a bulletin board to aid the process of identification. That wall of tragedy symbolized the new terror of the innocent around the world.

-with Philip Winslow in Cork, Ajoy Bose in New Delhi,  Jack Burton in Tokyo,  Ian Mather in London, William Lowther in Washington, Bob Levin in Atlanta,  Diane Luckow and Jane O’Hara in Vancouver,  Ann Walmsley in Toronto, Roy MacGregor, Hilary Mackenzie and Michael Rose in Ottawa and Dan Burke and Bruce Wallace in Montreal.