The Garda's security chief talks to Cormac O'Keeffe about dissidents, Brexit and the jihadist threat.
The recent spike in bomb attacks in the North, aimed at killing police officers, is of particular concern for the Garda's top security chief.
Apart from the obvious risk to the lives of Michael O'Sullivan's colleagues in the PSNI, the incidents flag a warning in relation to the increased bomb-making capabilities of dissident groups.
In one of the four recent cases, which occurred between June and September, some of those suspected of involvement are from the South, with two arrests having taken place.
“I am concerned at anyone still intent of killing and murdering our colleagues in the Police Service of Northern Ireland, the British Security Service and the Northern Ireland Prison Service,” said Assistant Commissioner O'Sullivan, who is in charge of the Garda Security & Intelligence Section.
Last month, the PSNI uncovered a mortar bomb in Strabane, Co Tyrone, which they suspected was going to be used to attack the town's police station. That attack has been linked to the New IRA.
Last August, there was a booby trap bomb near the border in Co Fermanagh, which endangered the lives of PSNI officers and British army bomb disposal members. That attack has been blamed on the Continuity IRA.
In July, there was a bomb blast in Craigavon, Co Armagh, in another attempt to kill police officers, also blamed on the Continuity IRA.
In June, a bomb was found underneath the car of a senior PSNI officer at a golf club in Belfast, an attack claimed by the New IRA.
“We've had two arrests on that [Belfast incident],” said Mr O'Sullivan, “and we have two people on related offences before the courts".
The two arrested in relation the Belfast incident are suspected of transporting the bomb there.
He said that, at the moment, they have no reason to believe the other two attacks involved people from south of the border.
He said the dissident groups are still lacking capability, compared to previous incarnations, including the Real IRA in the 1990s.
In a rare interview, given to the Irish Examiner and RTÉ, he added: “But there is evidence recently that that capability is improving somewhat. The threat they pose is under continuous assessment.”
Mr O'Sullivan, said that the threat from dissident groups in this jurisdiction is “low”.
But he added:
He said dissident activity has increased – but put that in the context of this happening in cycles.
“Yes, there has been a spike in dissident activity, recently, we saw the tragic death of Lyra McKee in Derry and the attacks in Belfast, Strabane and Fermanagh, but we have seen spikes before in dissident republicans, so it's nothing new. We had it in 2010 and 2011. They tend to be cyclical.”
He said there is a “tactical ceasefire” in dissident group Óglaigh na hÉireann and that people can migrate from one group to another.
Asked if there is a link between the risk of dissident attacks and Brexit, Mr O'Sullivan is uncertain: “Is the current upsurge in dissident activity related to Brexit? It may have some impact, but I don't think it's a big impact. I think we would be looking at these type of activities anyway.”
He added: “It is difficult to say, given the cyclical nature of dissident activity. It's a question for further down the road, when we see what Brexit we get, whether it will provide a platform, or re-energise, some of the dissident republican groups.”
He said the Government has said there will not be a hard border and that they are working on that assumption.
But he had this warning if a hard border does materialise:
On Customs checks here, and the security risk they might pose, he said: “We are not aware where customs checks, if any, will be and how they would look.”
Garda Commissioner Drew Harris has previously expressed fears regarding the collapse of EU treaties for Britain in key areas, including the European Arrest Warrant, Mutual Assistance Treaties and access to EU databases and the continuing sharing of information on criminal matters.
Mr O'Sullivan said almost 80,000 exchanges of policing information are made between Gardaí and the PSNI per year, but said this does not include figures for state security between S&I and PSNI and MI5, which, he said, are not released.
He said there is no indication of any “big uptake” in the recruitment of younger members to dissident groups here, saying the average age of dissident inmates in Portlaoise Prison is over 40 years old.
There are currently 38 dissidents in the country's only high-security jail, Prison Service figures show.
Turning to the issue of Islamist extremism, Mr O'Sullivan notes a general improvement in the security situation here.
In 2015, they increased the threat from 'international terrorism' in Ireland from "low" to "moderate", the second of five levels. Moderate means an attack is possible but not likely.
That increase in threat level followed orchestrated terror attacks, including Paris and Brussels.
“There have been no attacks here since then,” he said. “Currently, we are still at moderate [threat], but at the lower end of moderate”.
He added that they are “looking at lowering the threat level” back to low.
He said this is despite warning from “security experts” that it is inevitable Ireland will be targeted and that our services are not prepared for it.
He said a lot of the work in this area, conducted by the secretive National Surveillance Unit and Counter Terrorism International (a section within the Special Detective Unit), is not known about – leading, he said, to inaccurate descriptions by some that Ireland adopts a “low key” approach.
This was stated in a recent report by the Counter Extremism Project, detailed in the Irish Examiner recently.
The Garda chief said it is difficult to say how many suspected jihadists they are supervising here, but said that “fewer than 50” people are of interest because of “Salafi Jihadism”, referring to an extreme version of Islam.
He said “only a handful” would be under “intensive surveillance”.
He said none of the people are suspected of planning any attack in this country and said they are usually suspected of financing terrorism abroad or producing false documents.
Mr O'Sullivan said three people have been deported for posing a threat to the State, including a senior recruiter for Islamic State.
As reported yesterday in the Irish Examiner, he said 20 people were arrested for jihadist terror-related offences between 2015 and 2019 and six were convicted.
One of them was Hasan Bal, convicted of financing terrorism, specifically ISIS, in Waterford Circuit Court in July 2018.
He said they do not envisage coordinated attacks here and prepare more for the eventuality of “lone actors”, though he pointed that research abroad found that such attackers are often not completely on their own.
“Those attacks tend to be short, with fatal consequences," he said, "and that is the type of scenario that we are planning, that we are preparing our armed support units and our emergency response unit for.”
He said an estimated 30 Irish citizens have travelled to war zones, mainly in the Middle East, 16 of whom are believed to be now dead.
Three are known to be in Syria — Lisa Smith and her daughter and naturalised citizen Alexandr Bekmirzaev.
He said five fighters have returned and they have engaged with them and assessed their threat.
As reported yesterday, he confirmed that a criminal investigation is underway in relation to Ms Smith, and Mr Berkmirzaev, for possible terrorist offences committed abroad. He said they are “gathering evidence” in relation to Ms Smith.
“We have avenues open to us in terms of where we can get evidence and how we can get that evidence and we are working very closely with the DPP on how to put information we receive into evidence,” he said.
Mr O'Sullivan said he is confident of producing a “comprehensive file” for the DPP, who will decide if it meets the threshold for bringing a prosecution.
He recognises that the Criminal Justice Terrorist Offences Act 2005 is “untested” in relation to bringing charges for suspected offences carried out abroad.
He said Ms Smith will be assessed in relation to her threat to the State “if and when she returns”.
Mr O'Sullivan said they set up a section "a number of years ago" within Security & Intelligence at Garda HQ to monitor right-wing extremism here.
He said the right wing extremism is “certainly on the increase” in Europe, with British police and security services saying it is the fastest-growing threat.
He described it more as “rhetoric” than “extremism” but said it is nonetheless “concerning”.
They are monitoring it and examining if any of the cases reach the threshold needed under the Prohibition of Incitement to Hatred Act.
But he doesn't think Ireland is "anywhere near" violent right-wing extremism manifesting itself on the streets: "We have individuals with fictitious names and accounts spreading very harmful content, which has no place in society. How to address that is the challenge."