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IRA Historian: Today's Terrorists Are 'Amateurs' - and Still Deadly


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IRA Historian: Today's Terrorists Are 'Amateurs' - and Still Deadly

Andy R. Oppenheimer is the author of IRA: The Bombs And The Bullets, which tells the story of how the Irish Republican Army became the most skilled insurgent group in the world – and masters of the improvised explosive. He is also consulting editor of NBC (Nuclear, Chemical, Biological) International magazine and an acknowledged expert on explosives and counterterrorism. Here he talks exclusively to Danger Room about the parallels between the IRA and modern terrorism, the fight against jury-rigged weapons in Afghanistan, and how to ultimately beat even the craftiest bomb-maker.

DANGER ROOM: The IRA had quite a sophisticated arsenal. In contrast, the improvised explosive devices (IEDs) we've seen in these al-Qaeda-affiliate attacks in Britain have been rather crude. Is that because they lack the sort of hands-on training that IRA volunteers had?
ANDY OPPENHEIMER: The current lot do seem to be a bunch of amateurs. It's true that, in theory, you can get all this stuff on making bombs from the Internet. But it still takes a lot of practice to get it right. It took the IRA several years and suffered a lot of "own goals" [where bomb-makers were killed by their own bombs] before they became proficient in using explosives. They were in the IRA for life and learned their skills over many years. They had a proper training program where each engineer passed on their knowledge to others in a classroom, within families, and within the republican community, as well as from previous campaigns and Irish and British military sources of expertise.
But [the current crop's] expertise could grow – it’s early days. A lot of pre-empted cases are awaiting trial in the UK, and some are never publicized.
DR: Does this mean that insurgent bomb-makers in Afghanistan are likely to get more proficient and more dangerous over time? 
AO: It's a very different situation in Afghanistan, It's an all-out war where the occupying forces can go into villages and kill people and bomb them from the air. In Ireland, the ATOs [Ammunition Technical Officers – the bomb squad] knew who the bomb-makers were and would see them on the street. [They] couldn’t just shoot them. [Although during the 1980s "Dirty War" this did happen: as in the Gibraltar incident made famous by the TV documentary "Death on the Rock."]
Afghan bomb-makers are being kept on the run; they have to improvise more. Although they have access to mortar bombs and artillery shells. They do not have the logistics that the IRA had, when they could call on supporters in the U.S. for supplies of things like high-tech electronics. Other countries, most notably Libya, [supplied] top-of-the-range Semtex high explosive, and a variety of other weapons.
But from what you hear, in Afghanistan they are getting better at using timers and remote detonation. And they are getting much better at concealment, which is straight out of the IRA's book.
DR: The IRA turned away from mass casualty attacks and instead aimed to cause maximum economic damage, like the Bishopsgate, Baltic Exchange, and Canary Wharf attacks. Why was this, and are terror groups like al-Qaeda likely to make the same shift?
AO: The IRA never really wanted to do mass casualty attacks. Their approach was more to target troops, police, and anyone who directly collaborated with them, like the builders working on police stations. There was a huge backlash after Bloody Friday [July 21, 1972] when they planted twenty-two bombs in one day causing civilian casualties. [It] nearly caused meltdown within the IRA.
After that, the aim was more to frighten the Brits as much as possible – "one bomb in London is worth 20 in Belfast" -- and show what they were capable of. [The idea was] bringing them to the negotiating table.
Al-Qaeda is a franchise, they don’t have a central command and an organization, like the IRA. Rather. [they have] a disparate 'network' of self-starters and opportunistic fanatics, with some kind of remote direction by those with bomb-making skills. Many are trained up in the camps in Afghanistan/Pakistan. It may appear from some of the botched attempts in the UK that and they don’t seem to have a coherent strategy at the moment. But this may change.
DR: The IRA made relatively little use of anti-armor weapons. In Iraq, IEDs based on explosively formed penetrators (EFPs) have been the insurgents' deadliest weapons against U.S. forces. Why the difference?
AO: The IRA did develop several anti-armor weapons, but they hardly ever used them. This was partly because they were always planning for a very long war, and had a tendency to hoard rather than use up precious weapons. But it was also because the propaganda value of these things was what mattered. Simply being able to show a video of an IRA volunteer using a new weapon was enough to boost morale of their own rank and file -- and impress the British media.
The deterrent value of having these weapons was important; the British knew that the IRA could have stepped up their campaign -- and that added to the feeling that they needed to bring the campaign to an end.
DR: What sort of advanced weapons were the IRA working on at the end?
AO: Their 'city destroyers' [giant truck-borne IEDs with up to 3,500 pounds of explosive used to target city centers] could have got even bigger. Each one took a lot of planning and organization, and a supply chain stretching back to South Armagh. But they showed they could do it. Their doctrine was very much against mass casualties, so they were not interested in NBC [nuclear, biological or chemical] weapons, even though they might have been capable of making them.
But they were very interested in showing what they could develop, as with the Fuel-Air Explosive device that they were working on. That would have been a "weapon of mass effect" if not a 'weapon of mass destruction."
DR: A congressional panel recently found that Joint IED Defeat Organization were "falling behind" on bombings in Afghanistan, in spite of billions of dollars being spent on technological countermeasures. Do you think JIEDDO are on the right track?
AO: No. In Northern Ireland, the ATOs had the most basic equipment, but what made them successful was that they used their wits and ability – and, in the days before bomb-disposal robots, and throughout the campaign, their extreme bravery. They trained on how to assemble bombs and they knew how they worked and how to take them apart.
A purely technical approach does not work; it's very important to get into the psychology of the bomb-maker. You also need to do a lot of forensics to understand how the particular bombs work to counter them. Forensics after an interdicted IED or after an explosion would often reveal the bomber’s "signature" characteristics, and also the origin of the explosives, timers, detonators and so on. This is one reason why the IRA bombed the Northern Ireland Forensics Lab several times, culminating in its final destruction in September 1992.
The problem is that the threat is constantly changing, and the IRA showed how terrorists will keep coming up with new, left-field approaches – like attacking Heathrow Airport with unmanned mortars, or switching from small bombs to city-destroyers. You never know what to expect; other terror groups might get into chemical weapons, for example. The Mumbai attacks also illustrated only too brutally how simplistic the weapons can be, albeit with sophisticated training and operational planning.
DR: What about the MRAP, the Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle program which has spent billions on "bomb-proof" trucks?
AO: MRAP is a brilliant idea, simply because it makes it that much harder for the bomb-maker to blow you up.
DR: What does the IRA experience tell us about the IED arms race – will the initiative always be with the bomber?
AO: Terrorists will always be able to run rings around regular armies because soldiers are trained in certain ways and are much more linear. Their responses are much more predictable, but terrorists training will change from week to week or day to day, and is far less rigid. Terrorist personnel are also always changing: operatives get shot, arrested, jailed, or have to on the run and so on. That may sound like a weakness, but it makes for supreme flexibility which modern conventional organizations lack. The IRA were adaptable to the nth degree in this respect.
DR: Will there ever be a 'solution' to the IED problem?
AO: The solution has to be one of intelligence and surveillance. You have to get to know the enemy in order to pre-empt him.
The IRA was undermined substantially by informers and jarking [interfering with weapons caches] and ultimately by agents such as "Stakeknife" within their ranks. When you find an agent like that in your organization, you can execute them. But you do not know how much of your operation has been compromised.
Once security forces get to know the enemy and have that sort of intelligence they can start to pre-empt them before they act. That's the way to stop IEDs.
But infiltration in the other direction by terrorists is very powerful. The IRA were very successful with planting infiltrators, and had a very effective set of rules to prevent them from being discovered – they could not go to pubs or clubs or associate with certain people. The current Islamicist terrorists make themselves very conspicuous, often they change the way they dress, grow a beard and start talking about Islam. The IRA did not give themselves away like that.
MI5 are now very concerned about how effectively terrorists could infiltrate the police, security services and other institutions - the terrorists in the Glasgow attack were respectable doctors on the payroll of the National Health Service. Michael Collins invented intelligence-led terrorism with the IRA, if other groups develop that they will be really dangerous.
So winning is a question of intelligence on both sides. And of getting to the root of the terrorist mentality, the specific aims and doctrines of the various groups, and – as eventually happened in the case of Northern Ireland – negotiation, no matter how painful and difficult.