Next week, the Air India inquiry will probe whether some charities are fundraisers for violence
Published: Friday, September 21, 2007
For years, Canadian Khalid Awan boasted about his close relationship with one of the most powerful Sikh terrorists operating today.
He showed Sikh friends photos he had taken in Pakistan with Paramjit Singh Panjwar, the head of the Khalistan Commando Force.
Awan, a Muslim, admitted that he had wired hundreds of thousands of dollars to the Sikh separatist cause and even recruited a fellow prisoner in a U.S. jail to go and fight with Panjwar, who has waged a bombing campaign across Punjab.
Last week, Awan was sentenced to 14 years in prison by a New York judge for financing a terrorist organization that might “murder, kidnap or maim a person outside of the United States.”
Law enforcement agencies that monitor militants say Canada is not immune to the global problem of terrorist fundraising.
But a Vancouver Sun investigation has revealed that while a lot of lip service has been paid to going after those in Canada willing to fund global terror plots, results have been few.
The issue of terrorists collecting Canadian cash for their cause will be front and centre at the inquiry into the 1985 Air India bombing next week.
And Air India commissioner John Major will also explore whether some charities, with their special tax status and governmental stamp of approval, are being misused by those committed to political violence and extremism.
In a report last year, the RCMP spelled out the importance of following the money to disrupt terrorists.
“If the RCMP is unable to address terrorist financing issues in an appropriate manner, Canadians and our allies would be in an environment of elevated risk,” the report said. “Terrorists and their sympathizers would be able to exploit the enforcement weaknesses to collect funds for their operations.
“It is important to note that the majority of terrorist financing involves registered charities.”
Still, the Canada Revenue Agency admits it has not issued a single “security certificate” against a charity in this country since getting the power to do so six years ago.
According to the secretive government agency that has been monitoring money laundering and terrorist financing in Canada since 2001, there is definitely something to be concerned about.
Between April and December 2006, the Financial Transactions and Reports Analysis Centre of Canada — or Fintrac — identified about $140 million as financing for suspected terrorist activity. It provided its latest statistics to The Sun.
That is consistent with the fiscal year 2005-2006 when Fintrac, which came into being after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, found $256 million in suspected terrorist-activity financing in Canadian institutions.
But Fintrac doesn't have the power to follow up investigatively. Instead, it passes on intelligence to law enforcement agencies.
In 33 separate cases in 2005-2006, Fintrac made disclosures about its findings related to terrorist financing to the RCMP or the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, spokesman Blaine Harvey said.
“CSIS very much appreciates our product and they have told us that lots of times. We are getting more and more information from the police, not just RCMP, but provincial police and large municipal forces,” Harvey said.
“We don't just run a data bank and the police can come and look at it. We have to analyze and sift the information and build a case. We have been able to expand the range of information we can give to police to follow up on an investigation.”
Harvey said Fintrac has more power than American agencies in that it is legislated to collect data on electronic funds transfers into and out of the country.
“The United States is trying to build a case to do the same thing. They are not empowered yet,” Harvey said. “We are only one of a handful in the world that do, because you can't get proper financial intelligence about terrorist activity unless you collect that stuff.”
Even though a lot of intelligence is being gathered, Harvey said he can't think of a single case before the Canadian courts involving terrorist financing.
That is something that angers Sush Gupta, a former federal prosecutor who lost his mother in the Air India bombing.
“I find it frustrating as a Canadian that there hasn't been a prosecution or a successful investigation into individuals or organizations funding terrorism,” Gupta said this week.
Yet there have been at least three different prosecutions in the U.S. this year of Canadians in terrorism financing cases.
“I don't think it is startling to find that out, or surprising,” Gupta said. “Certainly they've invested a lot of resources in pursuing terrorists in the U.S.”
The RCMP report, quietly tabled in the House of Commons last fall, provides some insight into efforts to tackle terrorist financing.
“As of March 31, 2006, there were 90 active intelligence investigations and four major project investigations with respect to terrorist financing,” the RCMP report says.
“Eleven new national security projects were started from approved operational plans, which helps to ensure that targets being investigated are the ones that are the most likely to lead to a successful conclusion and that there is central coordination and planning of which investigations are undertaken.”
The report says the RCMP is watching charities as well.
“Other types of disruptions that we are tracking are RCMP investigations of Canadian charities, which resulted in three charities being denied charitable status because of their links to terrorist activities or groups,” the report says.
“This limits the ability of these organizations to raise funds that may be in support of terrorist activity. The work of the RCMP also resulted in the Canada Revenue Agency conducting forensic audits on two charities to examine links to terrorist activity.”
Still, the U.S. has been much more successful at putting Canadians behind bars for providing money and logistical support to terrorist groups.
The recent Arwan case was handled by the U.S. Attorney's office for the Eastern District of New York.
That same office, in Brooklyn, is prosecuting four Canadians in an alleged plot to provide banned Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam with black-market missiles, assault rifles and other high tech military hardware for their independence struggle in northern Sri Lanka.
The four, arrested in New York and Ontario in the summer of 2006, are expected to go to trial next spring.
U.S. court documents obtained by The Sun lay out a massive cross-border investigation that led to the arrests of the men, who allegedly wanted to buy 50 to 100 surface-to-air anti-aircraft missiles.
Sathajhan Sarachandran, Sahilal Sabaratnam and Thiruthanikan Thanigasalam were arrested after crossing the border at Niagara Falls allegedly to broker an arms deal.
Suresh Sriskandarajah, a former University of Waterloo activist, was arrested in Ontario and is now fighting extradition.
Not only were the men allegedly looking to the U.S. for hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of arms, they also allegedly ordered night-vision goggles from a Lower Mainland company, the court documents state.
Robert Nadoza, spokesman for the U.S. Attorney in Eastern New York, said it's true that his office in Brooklyn has been busy in the last year with terrorism financing cases involving Canadians.
“We have a joint terrorist task force made up of different agencies — the FBI and the NYPD. They have done some very good work in protecting us,” Nadoza said.
New York is not the only border state finding Canadians involved in alleged terrorist support.
There is also a massive international smuggling and money laundering case out of Michigan involving five Canadian residents — three from Windsor, Ont., and two from Montreal — that is weaving its way through the U.S. courts.
Many of the Canadians facing U.S. charges are linked to groups that also have open support on this side of the border. Some have documented links to charitable and non-profit organizations in Canada.
But Mark Mayer, of the Canada Revenue Agency, could provide no data to The Sun on how effective the tax department has been at dealing with the problem.
“We have never issued security certificates and we never comment on investigations,” he said.
Asked how many public complaints come in each year related to a charity's potential link to terrorism, he said: “We don't keep any stats or report on the number of complaints we get against charities for any reason.
“Although we do keep numbers on the number of registrations that are denied, we don't have a specific statistic about those denied where security concerns exist.”
That's not very reassuring to people like Gupta or Vancouver South Liberal MP Ujjal Dosanjh, who has spent two decades exposing extremism in Canada to which many of his fellow politicians seem blind.
“I think there is a general disbelief amongst the Canadian political establishment where some believe that what's going on around the world with terrorism doesn't apply, that we are a different country and these things can't happen here. They are oblivious to what's going on,” Dosanjh said.
“Canada is home to many of these organizations that raise funds for terrorism and send it abroad, and I don't think that is acceptable.”
In recent months, Dosanjh was threatened after he called for a police investigation into a controversial Vaisakhi — harvest festival — parade in Surrey where there was open support for banned terrorist groups Babbar Khalsa and the International Sikh Youth Federation.
At least two floats in the parade carried several photos of Air India bombing mastermind Talwinder Singh Parmar, as well as other “martyrs” to the Sikh separatist cause, including the two men who assassinated Indira Gandhi, then prime minister of India.
Marching behind one float was Ajaib Singh Bagri, a former Babbar Khalsa leader who was charged and acquitted in the Air India bombing. Slogans for Khalistan were chanted from the stage by temple executive members who wore vests emblazoned with a Khalistan crest.
The images are not unique to Vancouver. Similar photos of so-called shaheeds — martyrs — some carrying guns, are on display at the Malton temple in Mississauga and the nearby Rexdale temple, both of which have federal charitable status.
It was the Rexdale Temple, run by the Sikh Spiritual Centre, that a year ago invited the mother of an admitted assassin to come to Canada to be honoured for the sacrifice of her “martyr” son.
The woman's visa was cancelled after The Sun wrote about the event.
Abbotsford's Kalgidhar Darbar temple, another registered charity, invited former Sikh high priest Ranjit Singh to Canada in August 2006. He also managed to get a visa even though he admits he killed a religious rival. Upon arrival he was stopped at Vancouver International Airport and sent back.
The terrorist group thought to be responsible for the Air-India bombing, the Babbar Khalsa, enjoyed federal charitable status for several years in Canada after it allegedly plotted and hatched the country's worst act of terrorism.
While Canada finally revoked the Babbar Khalsa's tax number in 1995, many other organizations associated with the Babbars continue to have the special tax status.
The Akhand Kirtani Jatha, a fervently religious group from which the Babbar Khalsa was formed, has charitable status.
Some former directors of the Babbar Khalsa, including some followed around by CSIS in the weeks before the bombing, have moved into leading positions with other registered charities.
Even the members of the group Awan financed — the Khalistan Commando Force — has had surprising support in Canada.
In 2003, The Sun revealed that a powerful political lobby that included several Liberal MPs and a cabinet minister wrote letters to the Indian government on behalf of Davinder Pal Singh Bhullar, a convicted leader of the Khalistan Commando Force, who had been sentenced to hang for a terrorist bombing.
The campaign was spearheaded by the South Asian Human Rights Group, headed by Harpal Singh Nagra, one of the founders of the ISYF.
Gupta agrees that closer scrutiny of suspect charities may be a good beginning.
“I think certainly it is a starting point,” he said. “We have agencies responsible [for] looking into charities and charitable financing and if we have agencies that are saying there are organizations raising funds for terrorist purposes, then why aren't they working with law enforcement to bring those cases to prosecution?”
Dosanjh thinks it is a case of political correctness gone too far. He has been asking for the country to wake up since before Air India Flight 182 was blown out of the sky on June 23, 1985.
“It is shocking that some of us still believe it can't happen here,” Dosanjh said. “Anyone that is using funds for al-Qaida or Babbar Khalsa or other groups of that sort should be investigated.”
Dosanjh, who for years has warned about the continuing threat of militant Sikh extremist groups operating in Canada, said the U.S. case against Awan should prompt an immediate investigation.
“I think terrorism is flourishing in many part of the world and Canada is no exception,” Dosanjh said this week.
“This man prosecuted in the U.S. happens to be a Canadian. Obviously he must have carried on some of the same activities while he was in Canada, and we've done nothing about it.”
Kim Bolan will answer questions about the Air India inquiry during a 60-minute online forum starting at 2 p.m. today at www.vancouversun.com