How terrorists acquire technology and training: lessons from the IRA

by Andy Oppenheimer

Propaganda picture released to media organisations by the Continuity IRA.Who has benefited from the IRA’s ingenuity? The nature of terrorist acquisition of knowledge and skills is relevant here. There is a kind of deal-making tradition, you do this for me and I’ll help you guys out, between criminals and terrorists when it suits them. Sometimes it’s an ideological similarity as ‘brothers in struggle’. Otherwise, materials, technology and expertise get moved on by accident or by the very nature of information sharing and gathering, particularly these days with the Internet and instant mass communications.

There is also accidental overlap – a group discovers a means of IED making which is a repeat of what went before because they found it equally effective. The IRA pioneered mobile phone initiation – but decided not to use it. The Madrid transit terrorists did, however – killing over 200 people in 2004. Or a batch of explosives gets out to more than one group – in areas of insurgency and war, this is constant. I will begin with the IRA period and direct transfer to named groups. In the 1970s it had associations with some of the many terrorist groups operating then. British bases and other interests abroad were targets for the IRA.


Direct transfer: Eta

Eta supplied the IRA with fresh stocks of plastic explosives – C-4 - in return for bomb-making technology.
Links were established early on – the 1930s - with the Basque Eta separatist group in Spain. They had a similar nationalist-based aim and there was mutual gain from the link. A pact signed in April 1972 created ties with several groups. The Bretons are said to have told the IRA that they should approach Libya as Gaddaffi intended to assist groups conducting insurgencies against old imperial powers. The IRA received shiploads of arms and explosives – most notably, the terrorist’s favorite – 3-5 tonnes of Semtex.

Eta targeted thousands of British vacationers in Spain, and used car bombs and specifically similar IEDs and tactics; bombings, kidnappings and targeting of security personnel. They had similar on-off strategy – witness the recent spate of attacks on the vacation island of Majorca to ‘commemorate’ their 50th anniversary - and selectivity in their attacks, especially assassinations. There was a two-way traffic: in 2002 Eta supplied the IRA with fresh stocks of plastic explosives – C-4 - in return for bomb-making technology. This was clever – as it enabled the IRA to hand over some of its out-of-date Semtex as part of the decommissioning phases, without losing its bombing capabilities. A good deal – out of date Semtex for up-to-date C-4, and keeping their promise to disarm!

ETA may have provided the link between the IRA and FARC.
The IRA’s satellite navigation and GPS technology for the remote-controlled driving of vehicles was also used by Eta. A tractor would be remotely driven to a target – usually soldiers - using command wire technology. A vehicle-borne IED could be guided like a Cruise missile to its target by remote control. This technique had been used in the first Gulf War. The IRA copied it.

Direct transfer: PLO
The IRA has supported the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) for many years. Some IRA actions committed abroad involved the PLO: in August 1979 a bomb attack in Brussels which injured four members of a British military band and 12 others was carried out in conjunction with the PLO. Again, it was a two-way traffic: Israeli Intelligence knew about IRA arms smuggling from Al-Fatah in exchange for bomb-making techniques with Black September (Al Fatah’s armed wing – responsible for the deaths of Israeli athlete hostages at the 1972 Munich Olympics). These techniques were honed at a training camp near Beirut and at a Syrian-controlled camp in the Bekaa Valley. The IRA also taught them how to pack milk churns with home-made napalm to produce a hail of shrapnel on exploding. The British Army dismantled several IRA napalm milk churn bombs in the 1970s.

Direct transfer: the FARC

Colombia has had years of revolutionary conflict and is one of the world’s prime suppliers of drugs. Of the three terrorist groupings, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia - FARC - has been a prime beneficiary of IRA technology and training. ETA may have provided the link between the IRA and FARC. Eta was in touch with the Colombian underground from 1966 conference in Havana. PIRA were paid for their services to FARC in Colombia and the IRA training programme ran between 1997 and the summer of 2001.  At any one time no more than 3-5 Provisional IRA members were in Colombia.

Semtex H plastic explosive.

Most FARC methods are IRA: car bombs and IED triggers.
The IRA saw a ‘Mitbestimmung’ with the FARC – a classic pattern in PIRA-Sinn Féin thinking. In total about 30 IRA members worked inside FARC-controlled areas of Colombia as part of the training programme. About $2m per each training period was paid and there were between 10 and 14 such periods a total payment of more than US$20m. James Monaghan, Niall Connolly and Martin McCauley were the three arrested in Colombia in a demil zone. Traces of explosives were found on the clothes of these 3 arrested members. ‘Mortar’ Monaghan was the chief mortar designer in the PIRA engineering department and later became their Director of Engineering.

The Colombians claim the influence went further – on to Iran and Cuba. The Chief of the Colombian Army, General Jorge Mora, found that the FARC gave the IRA drugs, money and weapons in exchange for training. It was in here that the training was organised and included mortar design and manufacture, armor-piercing methods and explosives manufacture. The IRA-designed mortars were used more often through 2001. In 2002 they were used with devastating effect in several attacks. Some 115 people were killed in a FARC attack on Bellavista, a rural town using mortars identical to the IRA's Mark 18 device. This consists of two gas cylinders welded together and carries a payload of HME. In May 2001, multiple-launch mortars, also originally devised by the IRA, were used to attack the presidential palace in Bogotá during the inauguration of President Uribe - 21 people were killed.

Despite reports of their demise, the FARC have launched several attacks in 2009. Most FARC methods are IRA: car bombs and IED triggers; as in
There have been unsubstantiated reports and as recent as March 2008 that the Real IRA have links with Al Qaeda.
Northern Ireland, a house is booby-trapped with trip wires and pressure mats. Booby trapped mines; disguised bombs and mines and, very significantly, anti-jamming devices. Several technologies are in service with national armed forces today, such as fuel air explosives. The CIA acquired designs for a fuel-air device from the three IRA operatives arrested in Colombia and claimed the IRA was developing a device for FARC. Fuel-air bombs use a small charge to generate a cloud of explosive mixed with air. The main explosion is then detonated by a second charge (a fuel-air explosion), or by the explosive reacting spontaneously with air (a thermobaric explosion). The resulting shock wave is not as strong as a conventional blast, but it can do more damage as it is a more sustained explosive wave that diminishes far more gradually with distance. It also makes a big bang when tested – which would show up on sat surveillance.

IEDs today

Many practices in bomb deployment by the Taleban and other terrorists and insurgents are similar to IRA methods but much of this will be indirect, not direct, transfer. Command wire, disguised devices and triggering devices are among them. In Iraq, the hallmarks of IRA bombs have emerged. These hallmarks are being repeated in all theaters where IEDs are deployed – some straight out of the IRA textbook.

Belfast mural, ©Zubro But is there evidence of any direct transfer to modern Islamic groups? This will warrant further investigation. Whatever links there are between the new groups and the IRA’s methods somehow lead eventually to the death of troops and civilians. There have been unsubstantiated reports and as recent as March 2008 that the Real IRA have links with Al Qaeda [as a franchise not a group with a discernible chain of command]. The RIRA are still a security risk. Interpol stated last year that it is hunting two Al Qaeda terrorists believed to be on the run in Ireland. There were claims in 2002 by Paul Collinson, a British explosives expert working with the Red Cross, who identified hundreds of Palestinian IEDs in Jenin as pipe bombs – “exact replicas of ones I found in Northern Ireland."

Weapons of mass effect

In mid-1999 the Colombian army and police reported that cooking gas cylinders were being used by the FARC as mortars to destroy police stations. Some soldiers’ bodies revealed burns that could have been caused by sulfuric acid, which would have been used more as an oxidizer rather than as a CW to improve the mortars' incendiary power. Incendiary cylinders emerge in the Colombian conflict by the end of the 90s. Cooking gas cylinders are modified by the rebels to be used as rudimentary mortars, the Colombians claim, having been trained by the IRA.

My EOD friend and colleague who headed up army and police operations in the Irish Republic claims vehemently that the IRA never had any chemical weapons (CW) activities and no expertise to share with any other group. I have heard otherwise from another scientific colleague, a leading Czech academic and former weapons inspector who dismantled CW in Iraq. He claims that the IRA helped the FARC weaponise chemical warheads onto mortars. The FARC have thrown bombs, in the form of hand-grenades at police facilities - composed of explosives and a compound of cyanide inside plastic containers.

I know from my meetings with IRA commanders that there was an aversion to nonconventional weapons and that this was stated in official training manuals. They had the expertise, but not the intent – the opposite of many of today’s jihadi groups. FARC would probably like to acquire CW and would use them, PIRA would not. But other sources such as the National Defense School in Buenos Aires claim otherwise – that the IRA played a key role in the implementation of adapted propane gas cylinders, evolving from explosive to incendiary modes and ending up in its use as CW.

This illustrates how complex it is to track these many multifaceted and covert links and exchanges. The network is expanding, the expertise is there: and it is our challenge now to ascertain fully how far and wide this expertise and these technologies have spread.


Andy Oppenheimer is Editor of G2 Defence and Chemical & Biological Warfare Review, the former Editor of Jane's Nuclear, Biological & Chemical Defence, and Author of IRA: The Bombs and the Bullets - A History of Deadly Ingenuity (Irish Academic Press).

This article is an edited version of one which originally appeared in the September/October 2009 issue of The Detonator and is reprinted with permission of the IABTI.



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