The risk of an attack here is low but we cannot let our guard down, says Cormac O’Keeffe
In an area shrouded in secrecy, scraps of information and a lack of independent experts, questions have been raised about the threat to Ireland from so-called Islamic terrorism and how the gardaí are tackling it.
A range of security sources who spoke to the Irish Examiner this week agree the direct threat is low. But they do highlight some dangers and the challenges of intelligence work.
The main risks are radicalisation and returned fighters.
“There are sympathisers or supporters of Isis here,” said Shaykh Umar Al-Qadri of the Al-Mustafa Islamic Centre in Blanchardstown, west Dublin.
“You hear them saying they can understand why Isis is doing this, they are standing up to the US.” Though small in number, he said it was “very dangerous” if they went unchallenged.
“We in the Muslim community must ensure young Muslims are taught categorically that there is no justification within Islam for what Isis is doing, because the young men are learning their Islam from online.”
He said any radicals known to be attending mosques must be confronted: “We must talk to them and if we can’t talk sense into them we must consider not allowing them in the mosque.
“We must also inform gardaí about them. That is your duty as a Muslim and as a citizen.
“God forbid, if something did happen here, we can say the Muslim community took responsibility to try and prevent that.”
As regards returned fighters, sources estimate 30-40 Irish people have gone to fight in Syria and Iraq.
While it is difficult to get hard estimates on numbers that have returned, one security source estimated that some 20 may have returned to Ireland, but this cannot be confirmed.
“The biggest threat is fellas that have gone out and come back,” he said.
“They have military training and experience of combat. The fear is they might set up a little cell.”
Garda Commissioner Nóirín O’Sullivan has identified this area as a risk, including the threat from so-called lone wolves, or people acting on their own.
One source said there was also the matter of cells here plotting to target someone abroad, as with the plot to kill Swedish cartoonist Lars Vilks.
The plot, intercepted in 2010, involved Muslim people in Ireland, the US and Asia, as well US citizens, two of whom were convicted of terrorism in the US.
So what is the gardaí doing to combat the problem.
The operational arm of security policing in Ireland is carried out by the Special Detective Unit, which boasts around 300 members.
This, since last year, was structured between Counter Terrorism Domestic and Counter Terrorism International, along with the Emergency Response Unit and other units.
An estimated 20-30 people are assigned to CTI, split up into shifts.
Sitting above the SDU is Security and Intelligence Section at Garda Headquarters. It gathers and analyses intelligence and handles informants in the Covert Human Intelligence Source, which has a specific CTI section. S&I also directs any surveillance or interception of communications of CTI suspects, a handful of whom are thought to have their phones tapped.
S&I directs the activities of the National Surveillance Unit and liaises with foreign intelligence agencies.
Figures on the number of radicals that are being monitored is very difficult to establish, with some sources estimating it to be a couple of a dozen people.
Sources point out that much of the public is misinformed when they hear about suspects being ‘monitored’ or ‘tracked’.
“To conduct physical surveillance on people is enormously resource intensive,” said one source.
“To do it properly you could have six-10 people from the NSU and 10-12 from the ERU. You could do that for three to four days, and there may be very little reward to show for it.
He added: “You could log him going to Tescos, going to work, going to the mosque, going home, maybe he meets someone, but not much else.”
He said this is where other building blocks come into play — the application of technical surveillance, such as audio/visual devices and phone tapping; information from CHIS informants; information from community gardaí and the Muslim community.
“It’s the same with dissidents [republicans], the lifeblood of our work is intelligence. That points you to where to go.”
CTI faces issues in dealing with those suspected of travelling to fight in Syria and those returning back.
According to sources, both the S&I and the CTI have had lengthy discussions on how to handle this “tricky” area, particularly those on the way out.
“If you stop them, you show your hand,” said one source.
“They will wonder ‘How did they know I was going out. That fella told them’. And then your CHIS source could be compromised.”
He added: “Also if you stop an 18-year-old and he says he’s travelling to Egypt to visit his granny, there’s not a lot you can do. We don’t have the power to arrest them, on what basis?”
He pointed out that the people don’t have to speak to them, as it is all voluntary. The same when they return.
“Again we have no power of arrest, unless there’s an offence. You are relying on them to talk to you voluntarily. They might have attended camp over there, been radicalised, fought for 6-8 months with an AK in their hand. They’re full of testosterone. They’re not frightened of you and tend not to say too much.”
Sources said that many fit back in and do nothing else to warrant concern, but that some “may have got a taste of mad action” and remain a worry.
CTI try and keep track of them as best they can, but again there’s a limit, like any intelligence agency, as to what they can physically, and legally, do.
There are basic ones, affecting the entire Garda force, such as staffing levels and overtime budgets. But there are a range of other issues affecting both the CTI and S&I.
A number of sources have said that neither section has members who can speak or read Arabic, posing obvious limitations: from monitoring Arabic communications — both online and in phone taps — to reading any Arabic documentation.
It also limits their ability to talk to people on the street and during interrogation. The latter results in the State spending money on interpretation services, which can also affect detention periods for suspects.
Both the London Met and MI5 have no shortages in this area and MI5 recruits civilian language specialists.
But some sources within the units here play down the affects of not having Arabic speakers, saying they converse with people in English. They said S&I have the use of expertise outside the force or through Interpol.
A Garda spokesman said the organisation had “linguistic capabilities to meet our needs”.
While Shaykh Al-Qadri has no knowledge on this, he said it would be a concern.
“If it is true that the gardaí don’t have Arabic speakers, that is a big problem,” he said.
“They should have Arabic speakers. One language the terrorists use is Arabic, they can communicate in it and some of the propaganda websites are in Arabic.”
This ties in with a second issue: the reported lack of a dedicated unit within S&I tasked with monitoring social media or so-called open source information. This was highlighted in the Garda Inspectorate’s Crime Investigation report.
It said the PSNI “use this sort of intelligence on a daily basis and have deployed resources to manage this process”.
Sources said that the SDU had done this sort of work on an “ad hoc” basis and that it played a part in an investigation of a well-known Irish Muslim with extremist views.
One source indicated that S&I have been in contact with the PSNI regarding the software technology they use in their online unit.
Shakyh al-Qadri said he “didn’t have confidence [social media] is being monitored” and said he had come across many disturbing posts on Facebook from Irish muslims.
He also said that the hacker group Anonymous had this week published information on thousands of Twitter accounts of people linked to, or supporting, Isis. He said these include people with accounts based in Ireland.
A garda spokesman said that Operation Mizen was a National Co-ordination Unit which examined a range of open source information, not just on water charges, as previously stated.
He said the unit was liaising with “agencies and academic institutions” to “further enhance” its capabilities.
Shaykh Al-Qadri said there also needed to be some kind of deradicalisation programme for returned fighters.
“All of those who come back must be monitored and they must be obliged to take part in a deradicalisation programme. Unfortunately, we don’t have such a programme, partly because the numbers are small.”
Another gap is the level of knowledge regarding the growing number of ‘prayer houses’ around the country, in people’s homes and in industrial units, that are not linked to mosques. Some of these have been the centre of CTI concern before.
“We have an excellent relationship with the Muslim community and no issues with the mainstream mosques,” said one security source.
“But there’s nothing stopping anyone setting up a prayer house and some of them are more fanatical and they are difficult for us to get into and we’ve had ones where people who were known to us were going into.”
Shaykh Al-Qadri said there was “no solid information” on numbers of such houses and said they should be regulated to provide “transparency”.
A further gap, and a long-term one, is recruitment of Muslim people into An Garda Síochána.
“There’s been no recruitment for so long, that the demographic makeup has not changed,” said a security source.
“You need a community service that looks like the community it serves. That doesn’t just mean Muslims, but also Polish, Latvian and Romanian.”
A source at Garda management level agreed: “Do we want a service that represents the community? Absolutely. They can link in with these communities, of which they are a member, in a positive way.”
He said these issues were to the forefront in the recruitment which had resumed last year.
Shaykh al-Qadri said: “To win the war against radicalism we need to give the Muslim community more assurances that they are part of the society and give them the space to integrate and be part of the gardaí.”
He said he knew of some Muslims who had been recruited into the Garda Reserve and this could be built on.
“It is very essential there are gardaí from Muslim background, who can speak Arabic. It needs to change.”
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