This week in terrorism history: April 13-19

Freelance journalist Lyra McKee was killed last April while observing this riot in Derry, Northern Ireland.

Easter is the time in the Irish Republican calendar when the failed 1916 Rising is remembered and the long armed struggle against British occupation of Ireland is commemorated. I’ve written about these commemorations and their politicization in Northern Ireland before, here, and here, and here.

So it should come as no surprise that the armed Republican dissident group commonly called the New IRA yesterday plastered their Easter message on walls across nationalist neighborhoods in the city of Derry. The document is an excellent example of the kind of messaging that many armed political groups routinely engage in as they seek to justify their actions, deflect responsibility, and rally support for their cause. Let me elaborate.

In this first passage, the New IRA lays the blame for any armed conflict squarely at the feet of the British government and those who work to enforce British rule in Northern Ireland. And they make the argument that force is necessary to move the needle toward the goal of ending British occupation.

Responsibility for the ongoing conflict rests firmly on the shoulders of the British Government. While British occupation persists particularly throughout those who implement its policies via Stormont, the Irish people are denied their right to national self-determination and sovereignty. Faced with this reality we remain committed to bringing the British government’s undemocratic rule of the occupied part of our country to an end.

While we face an unprecedented health crisis, it won’t be long until Brexit and it’s continuing difficulties for Britain re-emerges. This has reinvigorated the topic of a reunified Ireland. Revisionist agendas and former Republicans turned British politicos endorsing a Border poll will not force the hand of the British establishment. They listen to one thing and one thing only: physical force.

In this next section, the New IRA makes claims about its capability to strike and its willingness to do so. At the same time they warn the public to stay away from “Crown Force,” i.e. police, vehicles in order to avoid becoming collateral damage. This is a clear reference to the killing last April of freelance journalist Lyra McKee, who was fatally shot as she stood next to an armored police vehicle while observing a riot in Derry.

Despite an increased Crown Force presence and a restocked war chest, we have demonstrated again and again that we retain the capacity and resources to continue to strike against those maintaining British occupation. Everyone should be assured that we are united, we are strong and we remain steadfast in our determination to achieve our objectives.

We have repeated often in the past and do so again now; the IRA can strike at will. We warn the public to be aware of this and to remain a safe stance from Crown Force vehicles at all time.

The message of this is obvious: The New IRA will take no responsibility for any civilian casualties that might occur during an attack on the police. That blame they will lay at the feet of the police first, and then the innocent victims themselves.

And now on to this week’s look back at the week in terrorism history.

  • April 13, 2014 — Overland Park, KS: Frazier Glenn Miller, opens fire at a Jewish community center and a Jewish retirement community in Overland Park, a suburb of Kansas City. Three people are killed, including a 14-year-old Eagle Scout and his grandfather. Miller, a retired Army veteran and Green Beret, is the founder and former leader of the Carolina Knights of the Ku Klux Klan and the White Patriot Party, which he ran as paramilitary organizations in the 1980s. He was convicted and sentenced to death in November 2015.
  • April 14, 2014 — Chibok, Nigeria: More than 250 schoolgirls are kidnapped by Book Haram in an attack on the town. The leader of Boko Haram, Abubakar Shekau, claims responsibility.
  • April 17, 2004 — Gaza Strip, Palestine: Hamas political leader Abdel Aziz al-Rantisi, dies in a targeted killing strike carried out by an Israeli Air Force attack helicopter. Two other passengers in Rantisi’s car were also killed, and four bystanders were wounded. Rantisi had succeeded to the leadership of Hamas in the Gaza Strip four weeks earlier after his predecessor, Ahmed Yassin, was himself killed by Israeli forces.
  • April 18, 1983 — Beirut, Lebanon: A car bomb explodes outside the US embassy building, killing 63 and wounding more than 100 others. Hezbollah is responsible for the attack.
  • April 19, 1995 — Oklahoma City, OK: Timothy McVeigh detonates a truck bomb in front of the Murrah Federal Building, killing 168 and wounding hundreds more. This remains the single deadliest act of domestic terrorism in US history. McVeigh is subsequently convicted of the bombing and executed on June 11, 2001.
  • April 19, 2018 — Orange County, CA: Police raid the home of a 26-year-old man after receiving a tip from his family that he harbored violent antisemitic views. Upon search of his home, authorities uncovered ammunition, antisemitic literature, a kill-list targeting local churches and prominent Jewish leaders and a document titled “How to Kill my First Jew.” 

Killing for — and by — the state

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This was a dirty little war* fought with calculated brutality on all sides.

I always knew this about the Troubles in Northern Ireland, but for a long time, and until relatively recently as a mostly casual observer, I largely dismissed the accusations that the British government had a direct hand in facilitating if not orchestrating Loyalist paramilitary murder and mayhem.

I was aware of the accusations but had accepted the official denials that were reinforced in the academic work on the subject that I was reading. For example, Steve Bruce argued in his otherwise excellent work on Loyalist paramilitaries that there was a key distinction between the Loyalists and the government death squads killing political opponents with impunity in places like El Salvador and Guatemala.  The UVF, UDA, and Red Hand Commando were “for the state” but not “of the state” like their Latin American counterparts. Any ties between the Loyalist paramilitaries and the state were unofficial, informal, and unsanctioned.

Paul Larkin’s 2003 book A Very British Jihad was the first to get me to challenge that convenient (for the British) narrative.

A bright spotlight will again be turned on these charges in an investigative report to be broadcast tonight on BBC’s Panorama program in which Northern Ireland’s former police ombudsman Baroness Nuala O’Loan claims that “hundreds and hundreds” of people died with the complicity of undercover state operatives. Panorama explored this territory before, in a two-part investigation aired in 2002, but the scale of collusion depicted in those reports is dwarfed by what is apparently to be revealed in the new story. Official damage control is already under way, with the PSNI’s chief constable preemptively casting doubt on the claims to be made.

Near as I can tell from the pre-broadcast reporting, there is one topic that looks like it will receive much less scrutiny than it ought to, the role of British operatives on the Republican side of the conflict. And that is a serious problem given what is already known about the IRA double agent known as Stakeknife, who as head of the IRA’s internal security unit, the “Nutting Squad,” is said to have been involved in up to 40 murders while under the protection of his British handlers.

In short, a full accounting of collusion in Northern Ireland cannot only focus on state involvement with Loyalist paramilitaries. It must also include coming clean on what remain extremely sensitive topics: the use of informers within the Nationalist community and the ranks of the IRA, responsibility for the fate of informers whose activities were discovered (one of the nagging unknowns in the tragic murder of Jean McConville), the involvement of informers and state agents in IRA killings and other acts of terrorism, and the extent of the penetration of the Republican Movement by agents of the state, especially at the highest levels.

The mural is right. Collusion is state murder, and it matters not whether the gunmen on the payroll were Loyalist or Republican.

*As an aside, I take great pains to explain to audiences on my side of the Atlantic that this was a “little” war only if we remove the raw numbers of casualties from the context of Northern Ireland’s tiny population base. As a proportion of the population affected, the roughly 3,300 killed and 40,000 injured over the 30-year course of the conflict would be the equivalent of more than a half million dead and nearly 7 million wounded had the war been fought in the United States during the same period.