Gardaí sharpen focus on Islamic radicals

Gardaí are expanding the size and expertise of its secretive unit tasked with combating Islamic extremists. The garda’s security chief told the Irish Examiner that the investment would enhance the strength and investigative skills of Counter Terrorism International.

In response to recent criticism from frontline garda supervisors that they weren’t being briefed on the threat, or trained to deal with Brussels- or Paris-style attacks, assistant commissioner John O’Mahoney said a network of trained commanders had been put in place nationwide and training exercises held.

Giving a rare in-depth interview, the head of garda crime and security said Counter-Terrorism International was being expanded.

“Absolutely: In numbers, expertise. These are issues. It’s a new issue to us,” said Mr O’Mahoney. “We have responded to it, but we’re looking at what is happening, the landscape that is out there. Obviously, we have to look at further expanding on what we have currently.”

He said many areas were being expanded and that “investigative skills was certainly one”.

He said interviews were ongoing for Counter-Terrorism International, which is part of the Special Detective Unit and under the direction of Security and Intelligence Section at Garda HQ.

Concerns have been expressed around the small size of the unit and the reported shortage in security and intelligence of key skills, including dedicated expertise to tackle online radicalisation and recruitment and staff competent in Arabic.

Mr O’Mahoney declined to comment on the unit’s size. Separate sources have previously given differing estimates as to its strength and the Irish Examiner understands it has around 20 members. On monitoring online radicalisation, Mr O’Mahoney said they did some work on this area, but “leveraged very much” on Europol, the EU police agency.

He added: “We see it as a very critical area in relation to our intelligence.”

He declined to comment on reports that the force was exploring the adoption of software developed by the PSNI to track and analyse social media sites.

Mr O’Mahoney declined to confirm if the unit had people with proficiency in reading or speaking Arabic, but stressed he had “adequate linguistic skills”.

He would not comment on claims at the Association of Garda Sergeants and Inspectors’ conference last month that gardaí would run around “like headless chickens” if there was a Paris/Brussels-style attack.

The association’s national executive itself highlighted a lack of briefings about the terror threat and called for a “skills analysis of members’ capability” to deal with an attack. Mr O’Mahoney said considerable work had been carried out, particularly since 2015, including:

  • A network of commanders, strategic and operational, have been set up around the country, tasked and trained to respond to any potential attacks;
  • Special training exercises, simulating Paris and Brussels-style attacks, took place last year and this year;
  • Two internal co-ordinating groups have been set up: a strategic group and an operational one, bringing together relevant sections.

Mr O’Mahoney said the threat level here was moderate, meaning an attack was possible, but not likely.

“First and foremost, this country is a safe environment to work and to live in. That’s not to say we would be in any way complacent, and we prepare,” he said

He said gardaí had briefings with French and Belgian authorities to learn from their attacks. Garda commissioner Nóirín O’Sullivan has strengthened the mandate of 270 garda ethnic liaison officers to reach out to the Muslim community.

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