WHEN police seized weapons in Croatia in July destined for the Irish Republican paramilitary group, the Real IRA (RIRA), the cache included seven anti-tank weapons of the RPG-18 type. This indicates that the RIRA plans to continue targeting security installations in Northern Ireland (NI), especially those of the British Army.
The RIRA, a hardline group which broke away from the mainstream IRA in late 1997 in protest at the latter's ceasefire, initially had a policy of attacking "economic targets" by setting off car bombs in town centres in NI. This culminated in the Omagh bomb atrocity of August 1998 which claimed 29 lives. Faced with an enormous backlash in Ireland, the RIRA was shamed into calling a ceasefire.
However, in recent months, without formally declaring that its ceasefire is over, the RIRA has resumed hostilities, but this time it appears to have altered its tactics. It appears that the group has moved away from bombing town centres and instead begun concentrating on attacks on security installations. There have been a number of such incidents, but no casualties. In one abortive assault, the attackers were planning to use a rocket launcher of the type found in Croatia, but the authorities seized it.
The RIRA may be working on the assumption that attacks on police/military installations are far less likely to alienate potential support among the Nationalist community, than indiscriminate bomb attacks in town centres which may kill civilians from the very community in which they are trying to drum up support. In Omagh, for example, the bomb killed an almost equal number of Catholics and Protestants.
This is not to suggest that the RIRA has totally ruled out bomb attacks on "economic targets" in NI - but it is likely that in the future it would be much more careful to avoid massive civilian casualties, which are counter-productive to its cause.
It is also highly unlikely that the RIRA intended such a heavy death toll at Omagh - bungling by inexperienced operators is a more likely explanation.
Meanwhile, it has pressed ahead with its policy of targeting the UK mainland. As Terrorism and Security Monitor suggested it would ('Is London bomb a prelude to RIRA blitz?,' June 2000), the RIRA has been using bomb incidents and bomb warnings to disrupt public transport in London. In July, two bombs left at Ealing and Whitehall forced Underground stations to close. At that time we also speculated that the source of their weaponry was former Yugoslavia. This has also been borne out by events.
The arms find in Croatia has underlined how Irish Republican paramilitaries have had to find new sources of arms in recent years. Traditional sources of clandestine arms shipments have either been closed down or have become more problematical - forcing the paramilitaries to diversify and explore new opportunities for procurement.
As they embrace international respectability, neither Libya nor elements in the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) are willing nowadays to supply arms to Irish Republican paramilitaries as they did in the past.
The fall of Communism in Eastern Europe also disrupted certain potential sources. For instance, in 1971 a senior IRA figure, the late Dáithí Ó Conaill, was able to buy 4.5 tons of small arms from the Czech state arms marketing company, Omnipol, in Prague with few questions asked - the consignment was later seized in the Netherlands. Such a transaction on behalf of an illegal group would be inconceivable nowadays under the democratic government in Prague.
The United States, with its sizeable Irish-American population, was for decades a traditional source of arms for the IRA but many gun running operations have been disrupted due to the pro-active policy of federal agencies of stemming the flow of illegal weapons to Ireland.
While the RIRA has a small support group which raises funds for it there, the US always had its limitations as a source of supply - handguns and assault rifles were readily available, but it was not as easy to acquire 'heavier' material, such as rocket launchers or surface-to-air missiles.
By comparison, the former Yugoslavia was seen as a more promising market. As a result of the recent civil wars, there is a flourishing black market in military hardware and it is possible to buy almost anything a paramilitary group would need, including handguns, assault rifles, explosives, heavy machine guns and anti-tank weapons.
The trade is controlled largely by members of the Croatian and Albanian mafia, and there are many small ports on the Dalmatian coast, near the Croatian port of Split, from where illegal weapons can be shipped across the Adriatic to Italy.
The RIRA probably considered that the logistics of smuggling weapons back to Ireland are easier from Croatia than the US. Once across the border into the common travel area of the European Union with arms hidden in the back of a car, truck or camper van, there is a clear route back to Ireland by road and ferry with a reasonable chance of evading detection.
Last year gardai (police) in the Irish Republic, who constantly monitor the RIRA, gathered intelligence information indicating that the RIRA chief, a former IRA Quartermaster General, had travelled to former Yugoslavia to set up an arms pipeline. Weapons were smuggled into Ireland including an RPG-18.
The first clear evidence came in October 1999 when gardai raided a bunker in County Meath and seized a cache of RIRA arms of a type never seen in Ireland before. The cache seized in Croatia, in a truck parked in a warehouse in the town of Dobranje, about 40 miles southeast of Split, included seven RPG-18-type weapons, as well as AK-47 rifles, a sizeable quantity of ammunition, and 20 packs of Yugoslav-made military explosive.
It is believed the weapons originated in Bosnia Herzogovina, and were then smuggled across a very porous border into Croatia. There is also an unconfirmed report that the RIRA has procured a machine gun capable of anti-aircraft fire. If this is correct, then British Army helicopters, which are vital to military operations in South Armagh, might become a RIRA target.
Security sources in the Irish Republic believe that the fringe Republican group, the Continuity IRA (CIRA) worked with RIRA to set up the arms pipeline from the Balkans, and that the traffic was fuelled partly by a cigarette smuggling racket. A former Irish aid worker in the region has become a suspect.
When the RIRA was launched, it stole arms and Semtex from IRA stores. It is understood that the IRA has now secured its dumps to prevent any further pilfering. Now with the Croatian pipeline disrupted, it remains to be seen where the RIRA will turn in the future to procure its military equipment.
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