TERRORIST incidents in the United States have been declining for the past two years, but the airline explosions of flights from Canada on Sunday show the problems even a few terrorists can pose. Two Sikhs, wanted by the Federal Bureau of Investigation for allegedly plotting to kill Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi during his visit to the US earlier this month, may have fled to Canada, according to an FBI spokesman and a Canadian government official. The Sikh fugitives are the subject of a Canadian investigation into the two airline explosions, one of which resulted in the deaths of all 329 people on a flight bound for India.
Even so, while terrorist incidents against Americans abroad are on the rise, the number of incidents in the US has declined sharply. According to the FBI, the number hit a high of 51 in 1982, but dropped to 13 last year.
Most of the terrorist incidents in the US have been bombings or bombing attempts, according to the FBI. A few have been assassination attempts, like the foiled plot by seven Sikh radicals to assassinate Prime Minister Gandhi and another high Indian official.
If the Sikh radicals turn out to be connected with the bombings, they may be trying to draw attention to their cause. Sikhs have long been locked in bitter opposition to India's Hindu majority government, but their relations with the Indian government have grown more tense in recent years. The late Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated by Sikhs in October 1984. Some Sikhs are calling for a break with India and creation of an independent Sikh nation.
The flight bound for India, an Air India plane, exploded and crashed into the sea off Ireland en route from Toronto to Bombay. The second flight was a CP Air flight from Vancouver to Narita, Japan. Shortly after the CP flight landed in Japan, a bomb exploded in luggage being unloaded from the plane, killing two baggage handlers and wounding four other people. Canadian officials are investigating the possibility that the bomb was intended to explode later, after being loaded onto a connecting Air India flight from Japan to India.
Natalie Kirschberg, a press officer for the Canadian Department of External Affairs, said Tuesday the names of the two Sikh fugitives were on the passenger list for the CP Air flight from Vancouver to Japan.
She says the Canadian government is investigating the ``theory'' that the two Sikhs did not board the plane but sent their baggage on -- and may have tried to time the explosion of the Japan-to-India flight to occur the same day as the explosion on the Toronto-to-Bombay Air India flight. The explosion of the luggage coming off the CP Air flight ``looks very much like terrorism,'' she says.
Regarding the crash of the Air India flight from Toronto to Bombay, she says, ``We are investigating the possibility of terrorism.''
According to a report Monday in the Toronto Globe and Mail, quoting an Indian government official in Canada and a CP Air source, one of the two fugitives from the FBI, Lal Singh, was on the Toronto-Vancouver portion of the Japan-bound flight. The other fugitive, Ammand Singh, was believed to be in Toronto a day or two before the Air India flight departed toward London, according to the article by Zuhair Kashmeri.
Public claims of responsibility for the explosions have been made in the name of two radical Sikh organizations. Spokesmen for mainline Sikh organizations have denied any responsibility for the explosions.
One Sikh in Toronto, whose brother heads a mainline Sikh organization there, says the guilty people -- whether Sikhs or not -- should be severely punished. But it's possible the claims of Sikh responsibility for the explosions are ``fabricated by Hindus,'' he says, though he has no proof.
FBI spokesman Lane Bonner says the bureau knew of ``no basis'' for the Toronto Globe and Mail story.
But he appeared to confirm what another FBI source told the Monitor -- that the fugitive Sikhs may have fled to Canada. ``We're in contact with the Canadian authorities,'' Mr. Bonner says. ``We were in touch before [the two airline explosions].''
The Birmingham office of the FBI, headed by special agent Cecil Moses, opened the undercover investigation on the Sikhs. Agents there had already been alerted to terrorist activities in the South, recently having arrested several white supremacists connected with a small, radical organization known as The Order. By having all its feelers out for terrorists, the FBI in Birmingham soon learned about the Sikhs after they arrived in Alabama to seek weapons and weapons training.
Some of the Sikhs involved in the assassination plot, including fugitive Lal Singh, attended a so-called mercenary school in Alabama, the FBI says.
``They started shopping around for guns,'' Mr. Moses says. ``They had an interest in some mercenary training.''
The mercenary school they enrolled in is run by Frank Camper, a Vietnam veteran. He charges $350 for a two-week course held in a wooded area in the same county as Birmingham. Information on ``time bombs'' was one of the things Sikhs sought at the school, according to Mr. Camper.
``We are legal because, No. 1, we're a field combat and survival school,'' Camper said in an interview. ``We do not conspire, plan, or train for any specific missions anywhere in the world,'' he says. ``We don't teach people assassination techniques,'' he says. ``The AFT [federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms] has a standing list of every weapon I own.''
Camper says weapons the school uses included the AK-47, both the semi and fully automatic versions; the Uzi submachine gun with silencers; the Ingram submachine gun and the US M-16 automatic rifle.
But Jimmie Bivins of the Birmingham ATF office, said: ``We have not had any evidence of automatic weapons down there [at Camper's school].''
He says of Camper's claims about the training: ``I think it's a bit of hype. Anyone can say they are a mercenary. I kind of equate it [the school] to an Eagle Scout campout,'' he says.
But the Sikhs apparently were attracted to the mercenary school for very serious purposes. According to Camper, after the Sikhs enrolled in the school they began asking for information on ``time bombs and armored cars.'' But they never mentioned ``a specific plan or action in the US,'' he says.
But the Birmingham FBI office was on their track. Moses requested an undercover agent. FBI agent Thomas Norris, a former US Navy seal, was brought into the case and posed as a possible supplier of weapons. Later, some of the Sikhs were arrested outside the New Orleans hotel where Bhajan Lal, a high-ranking Indian official, was staying. Seven Sikhs, including the two fugitives, are accused in the plots to kill Mr. Lal and Prime Minister Gandhi.
When the Sikhs were charged in the two assassination plots last month, FBI Director William Webster said, ``We won't allow our successes to blind us to the potential for terrorist activity in this country. That will always exist. However, we are confident we have taken appropriate steps to make sure that terrorists do not succeed in getting even a beachhead such as they have enjoyed for years in other parts of the world.''