Counter-Terrorism: The Irish Troubles Endure


March 17, 2016: On March 4th yet another Irish terrorist group set off a bomb. This one was an attempt to kill a prison official in Northern Ireland (Ulster). This attack failed and the prison official was only wounded. Unfortunately this attack makes it clear that terrorism is not gone from Ireland. Northern Ireland is part of Great Britain even though it comprises 20 percent of Ireland (the large island southwest of Britain) and 28 percent of the people living on the island. Although the rest of Ireland was granted independence in 1921 there has been a seemingly endless number of Irish nationalists willing to use violence to reunite all of Ireland. After this latest attack investigators made several arrests and seized bomb building materials. Yet another Irish terror group (the “New IRA”) was identified and is now the target for British counter-terror forces.

For the last 900 years Britain has been trying to pacify Ireland. The Irish kept fighting back and the last major outbreak of violence (from 1968-98) left 3,600 dead, most of them victims of Irish terror groups. In the late 1990s over a decade of peacemaking efforts finally paid off and actually achieved a level of peace not seen for centuries. A more recent milestone was achieved on July 12th 2014 where, for the first time, the annual march of pro-British Irish Protestants in Northern Ireland did not erupt in violence when the marchers sought to pass through a Catholic neighborhood. For the first time the marchers agreed to stop short of the Catholic area and after a short speech and a few songs, turned around and left without any violence breaking out. This was part of a trend that is still interrupted by new Irish terror groups forming and continuing the fight.

The British began withdrawing their troops after the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1997. This process took a decade to complete. But the continued outbreaks of extremist violence led British special operations troops to return in 2009, not to fight but to collect intelligence on who was really doing what to whom. The original British Army operations in Northern Ireland, dubbed Operation "Banner", ran from 1969, when the insurgency in Northern Ireland revived, until 2007, when the province was deemed safe enough to withdraw all military forces. "Banner" was the longest continuous deployment of the British Army in history.

With the peace agreement in place and the primary combatants, the Provisional Irish Republican Army and the Ulster Defense Association, standing down, many people assumed that there would no longer be a need for the military to step in clamp down on terrorism. Many also assumed that the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) would be able to keep a lid on any dissident republican violence.

However, smaller Irish terror groups like the Real IRA became more active and deadly. The problem of dissident republicans, and their potential to turn Northern Ireland once again into a virtually war zone, has had the British government taking no chances. Thus, the SRR (Special Reconnaissance Regiment) returned in 2009 to keep tabs and gather intelligence on groups like the Real IRA, Continuity IRA and now the New IRA.

Specialist units have long played a major role in the counter-terror war in Northern Ireland. The Special Air Service (SAS) at one point had an entire troop dedicated to carrying out operations against IRA targets in the province. Less well-known, however, was the 14th Military Intelligence Company, informally known as "The Det" (The Detachment). The 14 Det was the forerunner of the Special Reconnaissance Regiment, carried out the exact same duties, and was, during its operation, regarded as possibly the most effective counter-terrorist intelligence organization in the world.

The purpose of The Det, unlike the SAS in Ulster, was not to arrest or neutralize IRA operatives, but to covertly gather intelligence on them. Operatives went through a secret program that included covert photography, surveillance and counter-surveillance tradecraft, disguise, accent training (to make the operators sound native Irish), unarmed combat, and, of course, close-quarter battle and weapons training. Although not tasked with confronting or capturing suspects, members of the 14 Company were notorious for being armed to the teeth, given the nature of their work, often carrying MP5 submachine guns and 9mm pistols on their persons and in their surveillance cars.

The group's work paid off, disrupting dozens of terrorist attacks and providing the RUC (Royal Ulster Constabulary) with the information of dozens of IRA members and sympathizers. Most consider the unit's experience to have been a major success. The Det would provide the information they gathered from taking photos or bugging rooms to the RUC's HMSU (Headquarters Mobile Support Unit), or the SAS, who then arrested or killed the terrorists.

With the advent of the War on Terror after 2001 the unit morphed into the new Special Reconnaissance Regiment in 2004. This was done not only because the war in Northern Ireland was seen to be essentially over, but because the British military needed the same kind of surveillance and intelligence gathering skills, but needed it applied to Islamic terrorism in place like Iraq and Afghanistan. The SRR receives the same training as the old 14 Military Intelligence Company did, and has seen service all over the world.


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