The detection of two pipe-bombs in Dublin last week shocked the public, but that was only the tip of the iceberg. . .
ALTHOUGH ESB fisheries protection officers had prepared them for the "significant" amount of weaponry they had stumbled upon at an ammunitions dump in Co Clare, garda detectives were still astonished at the huge numbers of bomb detonators and mercury that had been recovered.
The massive haul, discovered in March 2004 near the Ardnacrusha power station, may have been found accidentally, but the gardai were in no doubt about its significance: this was clear evidence that dissident republicans possessed significant bombmaking capacity.
Last week, with the discovery of two pipe-bombs in Dublin, their worst fears were realised. Gangs have now developed access to and expertise in bomb-making and have no qualms about using them. A new phase in gang warfare has begun.
Although there was little media focus on the find in Clare two years ago, alarm bells went off at garda headquarters.
Senior officers believed that it represented a new level of collaboration between disaffected republicans and criminal gangs in the state.
Intelligence indicated that the haul . . . comprising almost 1,000 rounds of ammunition, detonators and mercury . . .
was destined for one of three Limerick crime gangs engaged in a bloody feud.
The city's gangs had used bombs against each other before but they had been crude in construction at best.
Firearms, in particular sawnoff shotguns and, occasionally, high-performance handguns, were still the predominant weapon of choice in attempted killings.
But the presence of mercury in the find was unusual.
It is a sophisticated element used to construct timingswitches . . . a method favoured in the construction of semtex-based explosives by the provisional IRA and dissident IRA groups. It makes the devices more reliable and means that the gangs who use them could be much more confident that they would explode when and where they were supposed to.
In the aftermath of the 1998 Omagh bombing, dissident republican organisations . . .
both the Real IRA and Continuity IRA groupings . . . had been decimated by highlyeffective investigations by the garda special detective unit (SDU), in conjunction with the FBI and British security services.
But the success of the SDU detectives was to leave a small core of highly experienced bomb-makers without a paramilitary hierarchy under which they would operate. Many had previously plied their trade for the Provisional IRA.
Now, having been discouraged by theProvo leadership from working as freelance bomb-makers, under penalty of punishment, they had followed the IRA's former Provo quarter master general, Dundalk-man Michael McKevitt, into the new Real IRA.
By 2003, however, the SDU had succeeded in locking McKevitt away for 20 years for his role in directing terrorism.
Once again the former Provos were leaderless and ready to work for the highest bidder. Garda sources told the Sunday Tribune that a small core of these bombmakers . . . less than three or four people, one of whom is based in Dundalk and another based in the Munster region . . . may now be constructing bombs for criminal gangs for as little as several hundred euro per bomb.
Some of the bomb-makers are believed to cross over between freelance bombmaking and membership of a splinter group of ex-Real IRA dissidents, who are loyal to another senior dissident, Liam Campbell (42), a farmer from Upper Faughart in Co Louth, who is also serving a five-year jail term in Portlaoise prison for membership of the dissident IRA group.
Campbell, who was McKevitt's second in command, has split from his former leader over what direction the antiBelfast Agreement IRA-men should take.
Some experts have argued that a disproportionate focus of garda resources on tackling, and ultimately crushing, dissident republican groups in the aftermath of the Omagh bomb, allowed the young and emerging members of Dublin's and Limerick's criminal underworld to increase in strength by developing strong links with expatriate criminals who are believed to be sourcing drugs for transit into Ireland via Continental Europe.
That focus of resources has since been reversed, with the deployment of a special organised crime taskforce under Chief Superintindent Noel White. Simultaneously, Operation Anvil, the large-scale monitoring of criminal gangs in Dublin, continues under the close supervision of Garda Commissioner Noel Conroy.
The detection of a pipe bomb at a businessman's premises in Coolock last Wednesday may have come as a shock to the general public, but gardai expected it and expect worse to come. In fact, the Coolock device was the third explosive device used by criminal elements in the city in the last three months.
Since Wednesday, another device has been detonated at the home of a family living in Kilbarrack on Dublin's northside.
The increased deployment of pipe-bombs by organised crime gangs has been particularly notable since last year, and there is nothing to suggest that it will be a shortlived trend.
On 25 November last, gardai seized a pipe bomb in a vehicle near Dublin airport.
The device was connected to magnets which allowed it to be fitted to a targeted car.
Again, it contained a mercury tilt switch, indicating to gardai that it was manufactured for criminals by a dissident republican specialist.
A fortnight later, gardai seized another primed bomb at the M50 toll plaza.
Luckily, neither device was detonated and in the case of the M50 bomb, gardai arrested a man who was carrying the device in his car.
The device found last Wednesday was a standard pipe-bomb in its construction. Using a Thermos flask as casing, the bomb consisted of a six-inch long metal pipe and contained a large quantity of gunpowder, such as is used to propel a shot from a shotgun cartridge.
Based around this were nails and cartridge-shot . . . tiny balls of steel. The effect of this explosion would be to cause indiscriminate carnage within a short radius. Luckily for those within the proximity of several hundred yards, the bomb was dislodged from where it was placed on the back of a car in a car lot, which caused its content to spill away from the casing. When it did explode, the shrapnel from the exploded pipe penetrated the shell of several nearby cars . . . indicating the potential for damage that could have been caused if the device had remained intact when it detonated.
When armed gardai, working on intelligence, intercepted the car at the M50 toll plaza in December, they discovered the explosive device contained in a lunchbox in a baby seat.
Using a remote-control bomb-disposal robot, members of the army's bomb-disposal unit injected water into the device to dampen the gunpowder and diminish the impact of detonation.
The explosion of a similar bomb, at a family home in Kilbarrack at around midnight on Thursday last, is not believed to be connected to Wednesday's incident. It is not yet clear whether Thursday's device was manufactured for use by a criminal gang and investigating detectives have not ruled out the possibility that it may have been motivated by a personal grudge against an innocent family.
The trend in the use of explosives as part of a turf war among organised crime gangs presents a major challenge to the Minister for Justice, Michael McDowell and to the perception that the government is making serious efforts to tackle organised crime.
"We shouldn't just say it's a worry. It is despicable, " Michael McDowell said of the emerging trend of supplying bombs to criminals after the M50 seizure.
"A lot of people take the view that as long as these people do it to each other, there's no risk to anybody else. But bombs are bombs. Inevitably bystanders are going to get injured if this kind of violence does in fact get employed."
February 12, 2006