‘Match. Denied’: Secret documents show why CSIS put 2 Canadians on no-fly list

CSIS was likely investigating Sikh activists in Canada since 2017, expert says
Canadian intelligence would have independently verified terrorism allegations by Sikh activists living in Canada, says Jessica Davis.

Bhagat Singh Brar was trying to board a flight at Vancouver International Airport on April 24, 2018, when he was told it was not going to happen because he was on Canada’s no-fly list.

His business partner, Parvkar Singh Dulai, was checking in for Flight 702 from Vancouver to Toronto on May 17, 2018, when WestJet refused to let him board for the same reason.

“Match. Denied,” a government official wrote.

Two years later, the pair are still fighting to get off the no-fly list, but documents obtained by Global News show why they were put there: the government alleges they are terrorism “facilitators.”

A 45-year-old Brampton, Ont., rental car company owner, Brar is accused in the documents of working with Pakistan’s ISI intelligence service to plan an attack in India that was disrupted in 2017.

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The allegations appear in Public Safety Canada reports that were used to place them on the no-fly list. Although marked secret, partly redacted versions were filed in the Federal Court.

Terrorism expert surprised by details in CSIS files on Sikh activists in Canada
Terrorism expert surprised by details in CSIS files on Sikh activists in Canada

“I was quite surprised by the level of detail in some of those files,” said Jessica Davis, president of Insight Threat Intelligence and a former analyst at the Canadian Security Intelligence Service.

“The seriousness of the allegation and the way the information is presented makes me think that CSIS really has pretty reasonable grounds to believe in this case that there is some serious activity going on here in Canada.”

The classified documents concerning Brar and Dulai provide the first glimpse into the secretive process the Canadian government uses to place names on its no-fly list under the Secure Air Travel Act.

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They show that CSIS nominated the men for the no-fly list in 2018. An advisory committee that included CSIS, RCMP and Transport Canada representatives later decided to keep them on the list.

“The service believes that Brar is a Canada-based Khalistani extremist who has been engaged in [redacted] terrorist-related activities, particularly in fundraising in support of terrorist attacks overseas,” according to a secret case brief report.

Read more: #AskCanadianSikhs campaign aims to tackle generalizations about Sikhs and extremism

Brar was also involved in “promoting extremism, including the radicalization of youth, with the aim of achieving Khalistan independence; and attack planning and facilitation, including weapons procurement, to conduct attacks in India,” the documents alleged.

Dulai, a 42-year-old Surrey, B.C., resident, “is suspected to be a facilitator of terrorist-related activities, and has shown an ongoing pattern of involvement within the Khalistani extremist milieu,” the documents allege.

Described as close contacts and business partners in Yellow Car Rental, Brar and Dulai have denied the allegations and appealed to the Federal Court to be taken off the no-fly list.

Theirs are the first appeals of the Secure Air Travel Act, which requires airlines to deny boarding to Canadians who appear on a list, compiled by an advisory committee, of those allegedly involved in terrorism.

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Neither has been charged in relation to the allegations.

Both declined to comment on the allegations, as the matter remains before the court. The office of Public Safety Minister Bill Blair declined to comment for the same reason. The RCMP would not directly discuss the men, and said it only confirmed investigations if charges were laid.

World Sikh Organization of Canada official skeptical of Indian allegations against Sikh activists
World Sikh Organization of Canada official skeptical of Indian allegations against Sikh activists

Balpreet Singh, legal counsel for the World Sikh Organization of Canada (WSO), said there was reason for skepticism of such allegations in the wake of a counter-terrorism co-operation agreement between Canada and India.

India has long complained that Canada is a base for extremists active in separatist violence. On Feb. 23, 2018, the national security advisers of Canada and India signed a co-operation framework.

In it, they pledged to work more closely to fight terrorist groups such as the International Sikh Youth Federation (ISYF). The agreement was announced during Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s controversial visit to India.

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When the deal was signed, the WSO raised concerns that intelligence shared by Indian authorities would be tainted by torture and motivated by attempts to silence Sikh activists.

“India has a long history of labelling Sikh advocacy, those Sikhs who talk about human rights issues or Khalistan, as extremists or terrorists,” Singh said. “It’s a common theme that has continued since the ‘80s, so where there are allegations of Sikh extremism I am generally quite skeptical.”

The specific mention of the ISYF in the government statement on the agreement was also cause for concern, Singh said, because he was not aware that it or any other Sikh groups had been active in violence in 25 years.

“To claim that this is an active threat, it lacks authenticity. It seems, once again, more ideologically based, to silence those voices that talk about Khalistan and to label them as members of ISYF or those banned groups, as opposed to a real threat.”

India using terror allegations to silence voices: World Sikh Organization of Canada official
India using terror allegations to silence voices: World Sikh Organization of Canada official

The no-fly documents refer repeatedly to the ISYF, alleging Brar had headed the ISYF’s youth wing in Canada and was an “international operational contact” for his father, the ISYF leader in Pakistan.

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In his response to the allegations, filed in court as part of his appeal, Brar denied ever being an ISYF member and said his father had not been active in the group since 2002, when he stepped down as its leader.

According to the Canadian intelligence reports, in 2015 Brar visited Pakistan, where he allegedly worked with a man named Gurjeet Singh Cheema to plan an attack across the border in India.

Brar’s role was “to make available arms and ammunitions in India,” the report said, adding he also “indoctrinated two Punjab (India) based Sikh youths and motivated them to conduct terrorist acts.”

The alleged plot went awry when the alleged recruits were arrested near the India-Pakistan border while retrieving weapons and ammunition from a cache, according to the intelligence case brief on Brar.

Under questioning, the men said Cheema had directed them “to collect the cache and to be read to conduct attacks in Punjab,” the documents allege.

The pair also “revealed that Brar visited India in a recent past and imparted theoretical training to them in the handling of arms including AK-47 rifles,” the report alleged.

The documents do not indicate whether Cheema, who is also known as Gurjivan Singh Kadiyan, faces any charges.

Read more: Sikh Indian minister slams Trudeau Liberals over ‘knee-jerk’ changes to terrorism report

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The documents allege that Brar collected money in the Canadian Sikh community to renovate gurdwaras in Pakistan and “is suspected to have been diverting a major part of the funds for anti-India activities.”

Money he collected was transferred to his father and another individual in Pakistan “for further distribution to terrorist families in Punjab,” the documents allege.

Further, Brar “was among a group of individuals linked to, and co-operating with, the Pak ISI [Pakistan’s intelligence service] to thwart to Indian government’s outreach and reconciliation efforts,” the documents allege.

Brar denied ever facilitating terrorist-related activities, either within or outside Canada, and said the allegations were inconsistent with his role in the community. He said he was an upstanding citizen with no criminal record.

He added that he was the police liaison for the Ontario Gurdwaras Committee, there was no evidence he was ever a member of a terrorist organization and that he “adamantly denies all of these suggestions.”

In late March 2018, Brar travelled to Pakistan, where he visited his father. He returned to Canada the following month. But when he tried to board a flight in Vancouver, he was denied boarding.

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The day before his flight, John Davies, director general of National Security Policy at Public Safety Canada, had reviewed the CSIS intelligence brief and signed off on placing Brar on the no-fly list.

Davies, the chair of the Passenger Protect advisory committee, wrote that he had reasonable grounds to suspect that Brar would travel by air “for the purpose of committing a terrorism-related offence.”

Although that occurred soon after the Canada-India intelligence agreement, a terrorism expert said the investigation likely began the previous year after the arrests of the men allegedly recruited to conduct the attack.

“Even if India did hand over intelligence files on these individuals and that forms part of the grounds of suspicion here, CSIS is unlikely to have taken that at face value,” Davis said.

“There would have been months of work to corroborate and independently verify the allegations here before they would have been put forward to support a nomination for the no-fly list.”

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Read more: India could seek extradition of alleged Sikh militant based in Surrey, B.C.

Dulai, operations manager for Channel Punjab and a director of the Khalsa Credit Union, was added to the no-fly list on March 29, 2018, the documents show.

The secret briefing report on him said he was a “close contact and business associate” of Brar.

“Dulai has been described by Brar as a very vocal supporter of Khalistan,” the documents allege.

In the mid-2000s, he was associated with the Sikh Vision Foundation (SVF), whose website displayed photos of Talwinder Singh Parmar, the alleged mastermind of the Air India bombings that killed 331, mostly Canadians.

The SVF gave a $175,000 mortgage to Ajaib Singh Bagri a year after he was arrested in 2000 for his alleged role in the Air India bombings. Dulai also worked on the Air India defence team, the documents allege.

A 2007 news report described Dulai as the organizer of a Vaisakhi parade in B.C. that included a float paying tribute to Parmar, who had lived in B.C. and headed the Babbar Khalsa.

Dulai was also among “militant elements” who met in August 2016 with Jagtar Singh Johal, who was arrested in India the following year for his alleged role in the killings of Indian religious and political figures, the reports allege.

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Responding to the CSIS allegations, Dulai denied being a “militant element.” He did not deny meeting Johal but said he did not know about the allegations against him at the time.

He said he was no longer involved in the SVF and was not part of any decision related to Bagri or the content placed on its website. Nor was he involved in the decision to place Parmar’s photo on the Vaisakhi parade float, he said.

Dulai said he had worked as an investigator for the Air India defence but noted Bagri was acquitted “after undergoing an extensive trial,” according to the documents.

“Mr. Dulai claims to have never facilitated terrorist-related activities or been involved with the Sikh extremist milieu. Mr. Dulai asserts that there is no evidence in the unclassified summary to support this claim,” according to the documents.

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Rather, Dulai is an “accomplished business owner with a strong track record of volunteerism in his community.” He has no criminal record and “is an upstanding individual.”

He is also critical of those who support violence. “In criticizing India’s human rights record, Mr. Dulai claims that he has never advocated for violence or terrorist-related activity,” according to the documents.

Read more: Former member of Toronto 18 terrorist group asks court to take him off no-fly list

Both men asked to be taken off the no-fly list, and internal reviews were conducted. But after weighing their cases, officials decided to keep them on the list.

“Although Mr. Brar asserts that he does not pose any risk to transportation security or any risk of committing a terrorism-related offence, the totality of the evidence against him would suggest otherwise,” the review read.

In Dulai’s case, officials noted that he had provided several letters of support. “Nevertheless, a well-regarded public image does not preclude an individual from participating in terrorist-related activities in a covert fashion.”

They are now appealing to the courts. They are alleging the Secure Air Travel Act is unconstitutional. On June 30, the court released a decision outlining how the case would proceed.

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