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'Sikh extremism spread fast in Canada'

Agencies

Posted: May 23, 2007 at 1047 hrs IST

Sikh extremism in Canada mushroomed far more quickly than Canadian security officials were prepared for, a former intelligence agent told the commission of inquiry into the 1985 Air India bombing.

"My personal feeling is no one saw the Sikh issue rising so quickly in prominence and I think that was a result of the raid on the Sikh Golden Temple," said Bob Burgoyne, who worked in the Sikh desk for the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS).

"This was all new to us," he told the inquiry, which has been assigned the task of investigating the incidents prior to and after the June 23, 1985 bombing that killed 329 people.

Burgoyne said he and another agent were scrambling to understand the level of threat from what began as a bunch of malcontents in the Vancouver area and grew into a full-blown hotbed of Sikh extremists, who among other things, were threatening to kill thousand of Hindus by a number of means, including blowing up Air India flights.

"Maybe it was our lack of understanding of Sikh and how very emotional (they were) and how this single issue is what propelled us into what was a very tumultuous year," Burgoyne said, referring to the June 1984 Indian army operation in the Golden Temple.

Many warnings and threats revealed at the hearings have pointed to plans to exact retribution on the anniversary of the operation.

"When violence increased in the Punjab, we saw a level of tension rising in Canada, so it was very important for us to keep abreast of events in the Punjab," he was quoted as saying by the Toronto Star.

Despite the steep learning curve, CSIS soon identified the suspected ringleaders in October 1984, especially Ajaib Singh Bagri, as "one of the most dangerous extremist elements."

Bagri was one of two men acquitted in March 16, 2005 by a BC Supreme Court judge on eight charges related to the bombing.

Burgoyne said, it was a "little bit of information overload," all of which caused CSIS to conclude the threat against Indian property and personnel was "high" during the year leading up to the bombing.

Burgoyne also testified today that a top CSIS official insisted in the days following the bombing that the fledgling spy agency had the information needed to help police crack the case.

He said he thought Archie Barr, then deputy director of CSIS, was likely just trying to boost morale with the statement.

"We’re going to solve Air India," Burgoyne quoted Barr as telling colleagues.

Burgoyne said he interpreted the words to mean that "we had the knowledge base . . . a pretty good idea who the perpetrators were behind this."

Former Supreme Court justice John Major, the head of the inquiry, interjected to suggest that Barr may have been delivering "a sort of rallying cry rather than a promise."

"I believe so," replied Burgoyne. "The comment that he made, I believe, was probably to encourage us."

Burgoyne acknowledged that he had only a year of experience on the Sikh desk and received little training for the job. But he insisted CSIS did a creditable job with the resources at its disposal.

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