Counter-Terrorism: Getting The Grass Going Again In Ireland


May 31, 2011:  The British government is running into some big problems in Northern Ireland. The recent rise in terrorist attacks by dissident Irish Republican groups has highlighted the dangerous false sense of security into which the province, and the security forces, have fallen since the signing of the peace agreement in 1998. Many former British Army and Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) officers are worried that the anti-terrorism intelligence capabilities have been hit, and depleted, the hardest with respect to this troubled area of the United Kingdom. 

With the end of the Provisional Irish Republican Army's (PIRA) armed campaign over a decade ago and the decommissioning of IRA weapons, as well as the end of violent Loyalist paramilitary activities, the "Troubles" that plagued Northern Ireland since 1969 appeared to have ended. Because of this, the entire area has undergone a massive demilitarization. The most publicly visible sign that the campaign might be over was the end of Operation "Banner", the British Army's 30-year operation in Northern Ireland that, at its peak, saw the deployment of over 12,000 British troops in Ireland, backed up with Special Air Service (SAS) detachments. 

But the most important achievement the British security establishment made during the "Troubles" was in the field of anti-terrorist intelligence gathering. During the 30-year conflict, the British became the undisputed masters of covert intelligence collection and deployed a plethora of covert units to combat the Irish Republican Army. Along with regular combat forces, the British Army Intelligence Corps was deployed in a big way in Ulster. The RUC's Special Branch recruited and handled informants ("grasses" or, if you are really lucky, a well placed "supergrass") along with running undercover operations. MI5, although often regarded as less effective than Army and RUC outfits, also participated in the intelligence gathering effort. Finally, a highly-secretive all-branches unit called the 14 Intelligence Company ("The Det") conducted undercover surveillance and bugging ops against suspected Republican terrorists. During the height of the conflict, Ulster could rightly have been considered the most spy-infested area on the globe. 

The need for such a massive, comprehensive intelligence collection apparatus was obvious. Why? Because the IRA were good, really good, at what they did (shooting people, blowing things up, and getting away with it.) Most professional veterans of both military and RUC intelligence arms who saw duty during the "Troubles" are often quick to remind anyone who will listen that, compared to the IRA, groups like Al-Qaeda and the Taliban are pretty amateurish. 

For one thing, the IRA were always far better-armed, for their time, than Al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters have ever been. The IRA chose its weaponry carefully according to its needs, what it was likely to face, and how it intended to fight. Secondly, the IRA were far better organized and were experts at internal security, even possessing its own counterintelligence unit. A terrorist group doesn't survive 30 years of intense military and police pressure, stay intact, successfully smuggle weapons and pull off attacks, and gain some measure of political legitimacy without some smart guys running the show. So successful was the IRA as an insurgent group that British Army analysts admitted that the conflict eventually, from a military standpoint, ended in a stalemate. The IRA could not win the conflict through violence because of the intense military, police, and intelligence pressure constantly exerted upon them, and the British Army and RUC simply couldn't completely stamp out by force an organization that, by the 1990s, had become the most lethal, well-armed, and well-organized insurgent force in Europe. Depending on who you ask, both sides claim they won. 

Unfortunately, a negative byproduct of the PIRA's "defeat" was the dismantling of the ruthlessly efficient intelligence machine that had waged the covert war in Northern Ireland. RUC's Special Branch was disbanded in the early 2000s. MI5 and MI6 have spent the last decade operating in the Middle East and conducting surveillance on Moslem (not Irish) terrorists. The 14 Intelligence Company was transformed into the Special Reconnaissance Regiment and sent to Iraq and Afghanistan (and now Libya). The SRR has been operating again in Northern Ireland over the last few years, but is still being dwarfed by the efforts against Islamic extremism. With Northern Ireland again becoming a problem, the British are scrambling to build back the enviable spy machine they operated for so many years. 



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