Omagh - The bomb to end all bombs?
Omagh - The bomb to end all bombs?

By John Hanley (for Forum Magazine)

In 1996 MI5 assigned agent David Rupert the task of infiltrating dissident republican circles in Ireland. Rupert’s priceless intelligence gave MI5 an indispensable insight in to the membership and modus operandi of both dissident republican groups on either side of the border. Throughout his stay in Ireland Rupert forwarded all of the relevant intelligence he had acquired to MI5 via encrypted e-mails. Between 1997 and 2001 Rupert posted 2166 e-mails to his paymasters in British intelligence.

On 11 April 1998 Rupert dispatched his most controversial e-mail to MI5 headquarters. It was almost five months before the now infamous maroon Vauxhall Cavalier would decimate the centre of Omagh town and kill 29 people. For this reason the e-mail is all the more startling because in it Rupert informed MI5 that a dissident republican group was planning a car bomb attack in Omagh [E-mail 104, 11-04-98]. The April car bomb attack in Omagh was eventually frustrated by gardai south of the border. However, MI5 management knew the threat was only postponed and not extinguished. Within days MI5 e-mailed Rupert: “We disrupted the intention to use the car bomb, but maybe not for long” [MI5 to Rupert, E-mail 126A, 17-04-98]. MI5 obviously foresaw the strong likelihood of a renewed attempt to bomb Omagh. However, MI5 now held the advantage over the would-be car bombers in that from as early as April 1998 it knew Omagh was a likely target for a dissident republican car bomb attack.

Rupert’s e-mails were not the only pre-August 15th information in MI5’s possession which pointed to a dissident republican attack in Omagh. A second key piece of intelligence came to light on August 4 when an anonymous phone-caller warned British intelligence of a planned dissident republican gun and bomb attack in Omagh on August 15. MI5 subsequently claimed that it dismissed this anonymous phone-warning as a rogue RUC Special Branch call. However, this was a poor attempt at distraction. The importance in all of this is that whereas Rupert provided specific details with regard to the proposed location of the planned bombing, this phone-warning supplemented his e-mail intelligence by not only confirming the location, but also providing the all important precise date of the planned attack.

However, the windfall of dissident republican intelligence did not end there. MI5 possessed a third piece of high-grade information which indicated that a car bomb attack was scheduled for mid-August. Two days before the Omagh bombing, FRU agent Kevin Fulton met with a Real IRA informant whose clothing, according to Fulton, was covered in dust particles of homemade explosives. Fulton correctly suspected that a car bomb attack was in an advanced stage of planning. Fulton provided British intelligence with the agent’s name and car registration number. Yet once again this vital piece of intelligence was ignored.

But perhaps the most startling disclosure concerning MI5’s foreknowledge of Omagh came during the inquest into the bombing. According to the Sunday Business Post (26/8/2001) leading British barrister Michael Mansfield QC, acting for Lawrence Rush, cross-examined several RUC witnesses. It emerged that a warning specifying the precise location of the bomb had not been passed on to local officers in time to clear the area.

“After that, we started getting threatening calls. We were told by the RUC that our name was on a death-list,” Solicitor Des Doherty said.

The RUC also confirmed to Doherty that a newspaper report of a spy satellite picking out the car used to transport the bomb was correct.

Doherty said. “It is understood that when the RUC contacted the Federal Bureau of Investigation in America, they produced information from the satellite.”

This suggests that the maroon Vauxhall Cavalier contained a tracking device which enabled a US GPS satellite not only to follow the car’s movements but also pinpoint its exact location on the day of the bombing. At the request of MI5, US intelligence would have monitored the car as a priority and would have conveyed this surveillance data to MI5 without delay. Yet MI5 chose not to relay this information to RUC officers on the ground on August 15. Furthermore, the presence of a tracking device on the maroon Vauxhall Cavalier indicates the involvement of an MI5 agent in the planning or the execution of the Omagh bombing, at some point between the unlawful procurement of the maroon Vauxhall Cavalier and the detonation of the explosives on August 15.

After the Omagh bombing MI5 ordered Rupert out of Ireland as a matter of urgency. An August 16 MI5 e-mail instructed Rupert to “insulate yourself from the gardai” [MI5 to David Rupert, E-mail 305, 16-08-98]. Later that night Rupert was ordered to: “Collect tickets at Belfast City Airport...You’ll be here [London] for two nights. We need to talk. It’s extremely important” [MI5 to David Rupert, E-mail 329, 17-08-98]. Rupert’s MI5 handlers obviously feared that their agent might be gripped as part of a massive cross-border investigation and that - if placed under sufficient pressure - Rupert might disclose the prior bomb warning he had conveyed to MI5 in early April in relation to Omagh. Indeed all of Rupert’s MI5 e-mails on Omagh were subsequently withheld from Nuala O’Loan when she conducted her large-scale investigation into the intelligence background to the tragic bombing. By late August 1998 there were a number of skeletons inside MI5’s cupboard.

We now know MI5 possessed four pieces of high-grade intelligence which forewarned of a dissident republican car bomb attack in Omagh on August 15. The earliest intelligence data was dated 11 April. Then came the anonymous August 4 phone-call, Kevin Fulton’s August 13 intelligence report and finally the satellite monitoring of the Vauxhall Cavalier arising from a tracking device planted by a British agent involved in the Omagh bombing. Yet notwithstanding this avalanche of intelligence MI5 made no attempt to intercept the bomb? How can this operational decision be rationally explained? What was the motivation of MI5 management? Did British intelligence want to protect the identity of its agent at all costs? Or was this yet another “securocrat” plot to subvert the peace?

MI5 management did not want to scupper the peace process, but it did want to protect the identity of its agent and, at the same time, drive - what it hoped would be - the final nail into physical force republicanism at an exceptionally sensitive time in the Irish peace process.

By August 1998 the provisionals were well on their way to exchanging the armalite for British ministerial portfolios. Articles 2&3 were deleted. The constitutional status quo had been preserved. Provo engagement with the IICD and future acts of decommissioning lay only months away. But from British intelligence’s perspective a black cloud hung over the firmament. By the summer of 1998 MI5 was seriously concerned about the growing threat from, and the possibility of large-scale provo defections to, dissident republican paramilitaries. In the nine months between its formation in late November 1997 and August 1998 the Real IRA planted large car bombs in Banbridge, Portadown and Markethill. Armagh and Moira RUC barracks were the target of audacious mortar attacks. In early April 1998 gardai intercepted a BMW 318 series at the Dublin port of Dun Laoghaire. The BMW was destined for central London and was packed with 1,200 lbs of explosives. Once again the prospect of massive bombs in the heart of London seemed a distinct possibility. In May two cars containing 500lb bombs were intercepted on the border. Two dissidents were arrested. In July a three man unit was captured in London with a semtex based device and a number of incendiaries. By August 1998 the Real IRA campaign was gathering momentum at a time when the Belfast Agreement had yet to be firmly rooted and the Adams-McGuinness leadership was confronted with the specter of large scale defections.

British intelligence was confronted with an extremely volatile political situation. For two decades it had infiltrated both the military and political wings of the provisional movement. By 1994 a large number of senior PIRA members had been compromised and the organisation was rendered incapable of sustaining an effective armed campaign. The reformists Sinn Féin leadership had been nurtured and protected and surrounded by MI5 agents who influenced the constitutional trajectory of the movement over a period of two decades. Was MI5’s twenty-year project about to be jeopardised at its moment of triumph by the emergence of another IRA and widespread provo defections? No. MI5 would allow nothing to destabilise the provisional’s transition from armalite to ballot box. Drastic solutions were required.

Was it at this point - in April 1998 - that the British agent at the heart of a dissident republican group first flouted Omagh as a potential target for a car bomb attack? Was the carnage of August 15 the product of his labour? From MI5’s perspective Omagh was an ideal target for a number of reasons. It was the only town in Ireland that retained an elected dissident republican. Therefore, a catastrophic car bomb attack would not only permanently discredit the emergent political opposition to Sinn Féin in Omagh but also throughout the whole island. Furthermore, the resulting death toll would also serve to dissuade disaffected provisionals from crossing the rubicon into the realm of dissident republican activity. At one foul stroke MI5 could deal a decisive blow to both the political and military wings of dissident republicanism.

Indeed within days of the bombing the Adams-McGuinness leadership regained the initiative. Amid a torrent of anti-republican hysteria they were now in a position to publicly condemn a republican attack and visit the scene of the explosion. It seemed dissident republicanism has committed political suicide. Only weeks previous it seemed unimaginable that the provisional leadership could countenance a move towards arms decommissioning and a formal end to its campaign, however, the tragedy at Omagh now made this a distinct possibility. MI5 had four instances of high-grade intelligence concerning Omagh, which when placed together indicated that town would be bombed by the dissident republicans on August 15. Yet MI5 deliberately allowed the bomb to proceed to protect the identity of a key informant and to deliver a decisive blow against republican recalcitrants. After Omagh the Belfast Agreement drifted in and out of political crises, but the peace was secured. So was Omagh MI5’s bomb to end all bombs?

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