Real IRA bomb plot unmasked

25 June 2006
The Sunday Times
Liam Clarke

A joint MI5 and Irish police sting operation appears to have thwarted plans by the Real IRA to launch a gun and bomb campaign in Ireland and Britain aimed at derailing the peace process.

MI5 officers posed as French arms dealers to uncover what appears to have been the dissidents' plans, obtain their shopping list of weapons and drain them of funds.

The operation took months and involved co-operation with the authorities in France, where the bogus arms deal was to take place.

Officers waited until the money had been handed over and the alleged arms' buyers had returned to Northern Ireland before pouncing. They seized the deeds to an apartment in Portugal as well as a six-figure sum in cash.

Four suspected republican dissidents have now been arrested and charged, but a senior security source described the operation as "by no means over yet". None of those charged made any plea in preliminary hearings last week and there is no evidence so far that any of them are members of an illegal group.

Whatever the outcome of the case, police sources are appalled at the extent of the terror campaign the Real IRA appears to have planned. If successful, the deal would have given the Real IRA -which bombed Omagh in 1998 -the ability to shoot down helicopters, blow up armoured vehicles and shoot their targets with long-range sniper rifles.

"They thought they had made contacts in those countries to buy heavy weaponry," said a security source. "They had made all the plans to do so and they had made plans to use it."

Weapons for which the dissidents allegedly handed over money include:

* Kalashnikov AK-47 assault rifles capable of piercing military body armour * Long-range sniper rifles similar to those used by the Provisional IRA in south Armagh in the 1990s

* Heavy machineguns capable of slicing through armour plate and bringing down helicopters or low-flying aircraft

* Pistols with silencers, probably for close-quarter attacks on police patrols in the street

* SAM-7 surface-to-air missiles usually used against helicopters and aircraft

* 100kg of Semtex and C4 plastic explosive

* Booby trap devices and mines

* Disposable rocket-propelled grenades used by the IRA for attacks on MI6 headquarters in London

* Detonators and detonator cords of the type used on mortars and anti-tank, armour-piercing weapons.

The armoury demonstrates an apparent intention by the dissidents to begin a widespread campaign on the scale of that carried out by the Provisional IRA. One likely aim was to destabilise the Sinn Fein leadership by attacking the security forces during political negotiations.

The arms shopping list and the success of the security force sting bears out the judgment made by the Independent Monitoring Commission earlier this year.

"Dissident republicans remain determinedly committed to terrorism and deeply engaged in other crime, but they are not always capable of fulfilling their paramilitary ambitions and have recently been foiled by successful police operations," it said.

The latest success is further evidence of the extent to which the dissident groups are penetrated by informants and monitored electronically by the security forces.

In the last sting, launched by MI5 in 2002, the Real IRA sent three members to Slovakia where they met MI5 agents and attempted to arrange an arms deal. All three were convicted of conspiracy to buy weapons.

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