What is the reality of the threat posed by Islamic extremists in Ireland?

The public’s knowledge of the threat posed by Islamic extremists in Ireland is as limited as the amount of information provided to it by the authorities. As part of ongoing reports on this area, Cormac O’Keeffe was given a rare in-depth interview with the head of the Garda’s security services, Assistant Commissioner John O’Mahoney, about the reality of the situation here and what is being done about it. 

Also present was Sergeant Dave McInerney, who, as the head of the Garda’s Racial, Intercultural, and Diversity Office, has a key role in developing an accurate understanding of, and good relationship with, the Irish Muslim community

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BAR the bizarre ‘Jihad Jane’ plot in 2010, the issue of Islamic extremism in Ireland has rarely come up as a significant issue in the eyes of gardaí and the Department of Justice. 

However, this has shifted in the last year.

It changed forever in June 2015, when three Irish people — Athlone couple Laurence and Martina Hayes and Meath woman Lorna Carty — were murdered on the sunny beaches of Sousse in Tunisia by a gunman inspired by Islamic State (IS). Last November, Irish couple Katie Healy and David Nolan narrowly escaped with their lives from the Bataclan massacre in Paris.

Shortly afterwards, Ireland was included by IS as being part of a “coalition of devils” in a slick Hollywood-style propaganda video.

In the High Court, meanwhile, a deportation case is being heard involving a person who gardaí allege is the “foremost organiser and facilitator” of IS fighters in Ireland and a “senior operative” for the terrorist group.

Last March, a week before the Brussels attacks, five Irish citizens, three of them children, escaped death as a suicide bomber blew up an Istanbul shopping street.

Three weeks ago came dramatic, and, according to some gardaí, reckless claims at the Association of Garda Sergeants and Inspectors (AGSI) that gardaí here would “panic” and “run around like headless chickens” if there was a Paris-style terror attack in Ireland.

The AGSI conference agreed that there was a need for information, briefings, and training to equip frontline gardaí and supervisors in relation to the threat here and how to respond to any attack.

Shortly after that conference, news broke of the capture in Syria — and subsequent release — of Laois man Joshua Molloy, who was fighting with a Kurdish group against IS.

And throughout the last year, there have been increasing signs of divisions, and, at times, public disagreements, among the leaders of the Irish Muslim community here on the vexed issue of how to respond to the threat posed by extremism.

These developments in the Irish mindset have been framed by the devastating, indiscriminate, and unpredictable nature of the attacks in Paris and Brussels.

The targets of the atrocities — pubs, restaurants, sports stadiums, music venues, metro stations, and airports, as well as the institutions of the European Union — have heightened levels of anxiety and fear.

Two weeks ago, there were intelligence reports that IS was planning attacks on beaches and other holiday resorts of southern Europe popular with tourists, Irish included.

And just last week, the US National Intelligence chief James Clapper said IS terror cells were active in Britain, Germany, and Italy and were planning further attacks.

Also last week, it emerged that an Algerian-Irish citizen was among thousands of foreign fighters listed in IS records which were obtained by international media.

But what is the threat here? What is being done about it and what is the understanding of, and relationship with, the Irish Muslim community?

THREAT LEVEL

“First and foremost, this country is a safe environment to work in and live in,” says Assistant Commissioner John O’Mahoney, head of the Garda Crime and Security Section. “This is important, so as not to scare people.”

The reality, he tells the Irish Examiner, is this: “We do not consider ourselves in any way in the same league as the United Kingdom, nor in the same league as France or Belgium.

“That’s not to say we would be in any way complacent with it, and we prepare. A lot of preparation goes in to ensure we mitigate. I could never come out and say ‘No, we could never be subject to an attack’.”

So, what is the threat level?

Perhaps not widely known, we have five levels in Ireland:

Low: An attack is deemed unlikely;

Moderate: An attack is possible, but not likely;

Substantial: An attack is a strong possibility;

Severe: An attack is highly likely;

Critical: An attack is imminent.

The threat is currently at moderate, upgraded from low last year.

“The assessment is not something just pulled out of the sky,” says Mr O’Mahoney. “It’s based on intelligence we generate ourselves, our assessment of intelligence that’s provided by other police forces and security services, it’s based on us looking at what’s happening around the world from open sources, the climate that is there. They are the driving factors.”

He says the assessment was not “put up on a shelf” once it was done . It is “continuously assessed”, but has remained at moderate after the Brussels attacks.

He says that while the “threat overall” is that an attack is possible, but not likely, within that there were areas which they “look at more closely than others”.

“Obviously Shannon Airport, for very good reasons, is one of those, multinational companies is another and embassies — certainly the UK, US and Israeli embassies.”

He says they police Shannon Airport, a number of US multinationals, and the embassies on a “24-hour basis”.

Some security sources say the US tech giants, some with their European headquarters here, would provide the type of ‘spectacular’ target that might attract IS.

In relation to the common travel area with the UK — another possible reason why Ireland might feature in IS plans — Mr O’Mahoney says they kept “close co-operation with law enforcement in the UK, both at a policing level and a security level”.

The release of the IS online video last December was thought to be the first time that Ireland was included in its list of enemies. The Irish flag was pictured along with those of other countries that formed what IS called a “coalition of devils”.

At the time, a number of security analysts told the Irish Examiner that the video suggested Ireland was “a legitimate target” for IS supporters here, but stressed it did not mean Ireland was under threat of an attack.

“We had a very close look at it,” says Mr O’Mahoney. “It’s one part of the assessment and one part only, with a whole load of other things that come to our attention.”

He says a key component was “capability and intent” of the IS network or supporters here.

FOREIGN FIGHTERS

One of the main potential threats is from returned foreign fighters — Irish citizens who have gone to fight in war zones, such as Syria and Iraq, and have, or may, return home.

In the region of 5,000 citizens of EU countries have gone to fight in Syria and Iraq, according to a European Parliament briefing paper, published last March, citing figures from The Soufan Group, a New York-based security research body.

Most of the fighters (3,700) come from four countries: France (1,700), the UK (760), Germany (760), and Belgium (470). An estimated 30 Irish citizens are included in the figure. As a percentage of the population, Belgium comes top (42 per million), followed by Austria (35), Sweden (31), and France (26).

Ireland’s rate (7 per million) is similar to Germany’s (9), and higher than Spain (3).

“These individuals are perceived as a serious security threat to EU member states because they may have become further radicalised and acquired combat experience and therefore be capable of carrying out deadly terrorist attacks once they return to Europe,” said the EU briefing document.

Credit: European Parliamentary Research Service

“These concerns are exacerbated by the fact that some jihadist groups have urged Muslims in the West to undertake such attacks.”

The Irish figure of 30 is an estimate. Numerous sources have pointed out that it was not possible to know all of those who have gone out. Many could fly out to Britain or mainland Europe and at that stage purchase an onward flight to Turkey.

“They’re various figures out there,” says Mr O’Mahoney. “There’s figures of 40 and talk of 50. But people go out for various reasons: Some for humanitarian reasons, some go to fight with ISIL, some go with the intention of fighting against ISIL.”

He says Garda policy is to engage with those going out and coming back.

“We’ve had direct contact with some people before they go out, and our policy certainly is to engage with people when they return.”

He accepts people could travel out, and in, without their knowledge: “It’s not possible to know everyone who has gone out and everyone who has come back. We depend on our intelligence. We hope we know everyone who has gone out. There could be people out there we are not aware of.”

While a small number of EU countries (UK, France, the Netherlands, Germany, and Belgium) have criminal offences to prevent travel for terrorist purposes, the majority of member states, including Ireland, do not.

The EU briefing document notes there is a difficulty in proving such an offence, but it does provide authorities a power of arrest and detention pending prosecution.

Mr O’Mahoney declines to speculate how many foreign fighters have returned. Garda sources have previously told the Irish Examiner it was very difficult to know, with some sources estimating about half of the fighters have returned.

The EU briefing said the threat from foreign fighters must be assessed on a case by case basis, as they could also come back disillusioned.

It said one study found that one in nine of fighters “returned to perpetrate attacks in the West”.

Mr O’Mahoney says: “People have returned, and we’re quite happy, particularly some of those who travelled in the earlier years, they are not a threat to this country.

“Where people are returning and where we assess there is a threat they are a particular interest to us.”

Asked how many people there is in that group, he declines to say. He says they were part of a wider group, including those involved in recruiting and financing, that they were watching.

On the size of the wider group, Mr O’Mahoney again declines to comment.

“There’s a very small core of people who we are particularly interested in, [including] for suspicion of recruitment or potential for recruitment and potential for provision of finances. Where we see people actively engaged we dedicate resources to that.”

Pushed on numbers, he will only say “very small numbers”.

Other sources suggest this could range anywhere from five to 25. Some of these individuals are thought to be referred to Garda by foreign security services.

The reality of IS recruitment in Ireland is currently being played out in a dramatic deportation case before the High Court.

The State contends that a 52-year-old Middle Eastern man was “a senior operative of ISIL” and its “foremost organiser and facilitator within the State”.

A sensitive area that Garda security services are currently working is the potential exploitation of the migration crisis by IS and foreign fighters.

Earlier this month, the EU border agency warned that potential terrorists, including returning foreign fighters, were using the crisis to travel unchecked through Europe.

“That’s something we have taken very seriously,” says Mr O’Mahoney. “There is a vetting procedure in place. We have sent people from [Garda] Counter Terrorism International along with Department of Justice officials to Greece to assist in the vetting process.

“For the vast majority this is a human tragedy, yet it would be very naive to think the possibility wasn’t there that people working with ISIL with evil intent would avail of that crisis. We, obviously, would look to mitigate against those risks.”

Linked to the threat posed by recruitment and returned fighters, is it danger from so-called lone wolf attacks, or people acting on their own.

This was a danger highlighted by Garda Commissioner Noirin O’Sullivan after the Charlie Hebdo attacks in January 2015.

Mr O’Mahoney agree this is a particular difficulty: “When you look at lone wolves, it’s very, very difficult. It’s a huge challenge, for someone on their own, to get information.”

But he says that, by studying some lone wolves, such as Anders Breivik in Norway (who killed 77 people in July 2011), there were “tell-tale signs that weren’t picked up”. He says the gardaí and agencies worldwide were learning to spot those signs — such as people acting out of what is normal for them, travelling on a regular basis, being less open about their activities.

AC O’Mahoney says much of this information comes from the community.

MUSLIM COMMUNITY

Mr O’Mahoney says that the strategic decision within the Garda Síochána in the late 1990s to set up a Racial and Intercultural office, in order to create links with ethnic communities, including the Muslim community, was crucial.

“While we had the Twin Towers attacks in 2001, I don’t think anyone envisaged Europe being under attack,” he says. “Fortunately, because of the work we have done that is standing to us now.”

Sergeant Dave McInerney headed up this office in 2001, and has run it since. In first making contact with the Muslim community, he went to the South Circular Rd mosque in Dublin.

“It was a wonderful place to start and all very positive,” he says. “It’s not possible to do this work from Garda HQ. The only way to understand the Muslim community is to go and meet them.

“For police, it’s very important to know where people are from, what languages they speak, what are their cultural differences and, at a time of crisis or investigation, to have a point of contact.”

He says there a re now around 270 garda ethnic liaison officers across the country, for whom interact with minority communities is part of their workload.

“They call into the mosque, ask ‘how are things going, is everything okay’,” explains Sgt McInerney. “They go to Friday prayer, meet the imam, speak to people after Friday prayer.

“People in the mosque would know how to contact gardaí if there is some problem.”

He accepts that this level of interaction depends on the number of jobs the force has to do and overall resources at district level, with staffing number severely hit under austerity and only now beginning to return.

“The thing is, we got in at the start [back in 2000],” he says. “I have been working with these communities for so long. They want a fair response, fair treatment, they want to be treated respectfully, but they want the police to work and are willing to help us.”

He says this included providing information on anyone giving cause for suspicion: “If they feel there is something wrong in the community, if you engage with the community, you hear things. You will, absolutely.

“If somebody converts to Islam and people think there’s something wrong, you hear bits and pieces, if their actions and beliefs are strange, and they are concerned. The Muslim community is very concerned about who is coming to the mosque. It is something that will come to our attention if they feel it is of concern.”

He says that, for example, the mosque in Clonskeagh (Islamic Cultural Centre) and the Shia mosque (also in Dublin) “always assist us in relation to any crisis within the community”.

Sgt McInerney is keen to correct the bad press the Muslim community often receives.

“Unfortunately, it’s the negativity people want to hear about,” he says, adding that there seemed to be a fear of the Muslim community in broader society.

“The Muslim community have been here since the 1950s. I cannot remember any serious incident with the Muslim community here regarding the State. They are a very easy community to police, very respectful. They believe in a peaceful way of living.

“It’s unfortunate they have these extremists within their community, but the Muslims we engage with want the good name of the community upheld and are happy to work with the police.”

He says it required “sustained engagement” and was something gardaí “must constantly work on”.

A related area Sgt McInerney is concerned about is Islamophobia and the emergence of anti-Islamic group Pegida, albeit small in number, in Ireland.

“Those groups [Pegida] we would worry about,” he says. “It’s tough enough for the Muslim community when there are terrorist attacks.

“Our concern is that there would be Islamaphobia. But, so far, so good, there hasn’t been a major rise.”

He says Ms O’Sullivan has begun bringing all the ethnic liaison officers to Templemore College for a briefing from senior management.

“There is more of a mandate now to go out and meet the minorities. There is more of a focus now on the vulnerabilities of minorities, especially the vulnerabilities of the Muslim community, because of what’s happening throughout Europe.”

LESSONS FROM THE REST OF EUROPE

The importance of the relationship with the Muslim community, the issue of radicalisation, and Ireland’s preparedness for at attack are some of the lessons from Europe that both Sgt McInerney and Ms O’Mahoney are mindful of.

One of the commonalities of the lessons from Britain, France, and Belgium is the tenuous, indeed fractured, relationship between wider society and the parts of the Muslim population.

Experts have referred to push and pull factors for many young recruits, some of them on the fringes of criminality.

In Britain, a key part of their ‘Prevent’ security strategy, in the words of London Met counter-terrorism boss Richard Walton, is to “prevent radicalisation from germinating” and identify those “on the cusp of extremism”.

Mr O’Mahony said he is aware of the Prevent strategy: “I have been briefed on the Prevent strategy. I was over there only last month.”

Asked should we have a similar overall strategy, he replies: “We are in a much different situation. First of all the population [here] is considerably smaller and secondly, we have an ‘in’ with the community, which the UK didn’t always have. They are trying to get into the community and are catching up.”

But some senior Islamic leaders in in Ireland, including Shaykh Umar Al-Qadri of the Sunni Blanchardstown mosque in Dublin, Shia imam Shaykh Ali al-Saleh of Dublin’s Milltown mosque, and Ahmadiya Muslim Association or Ireland imam Ibrahim Noonan, based in Galway, have all repeatedly raised concerns at the threat, although small now, posed by extremism and radicalisation.

They have also highlighted and criticised the silence, as they see it, of many of the largest mosques in not accepting there is a threat from radicalisation and actively trying to tackle it.

There have been concerns expressed at the lack of regulation within the Islamic community of weekend Koran and Arabic schools as well as prayer rooms.

All these issues played a part in Shaykh Al-Qadri resigning earlier this year from the Council of Imams, traditionally dominated by the Clonskeagh mosque and, to a lesser extent, the South Circular Rd mosque.

The differences, indeed divisions, within the community has become more visible in the last year and has even spilled onto national radio.

Shaykh Al-Qadri has called on the Government to become involved in encouraging a more representative Islamic council.

The three clerics have highlighted that there is a small number of Irish Muslims sympathetic, and even supportive, of IS — visible on Facebook and Twitter.

Some of the imams, including Shaykh Al-Qadri, have received abuse and threats on social media.

Ms O’Mahoney is reluctant to comment in detail on these concerns or the alleged silence of the mainstream mosques.

“In any community there’s different views and the Muslim community is no different,” he says. “Our job is to deal with all of those communities in the same way and we make up our own minds. I am not getting into the differences, [but] I am aware of tensions.”

Sgt McInerney says he is also aware of these issues: “You talk to people all the time and if they are not happy they will talk about the politics.” He said he was also aware of a related issue raised by the imams mentioned — about foreign speakers invited to talk to Muslim student organisations here and who some describe as radical.

“We were aware of that, but it’s a hard one to control. It is a reality. Some might have a hard view, a rigid view, an old-fashioned way, but it’s a hard one to gauge. If we hadn’t got that relationship with the community we wouldn’t have known.”

An international cleric from South Africa spoke in Trinity College earlier this month and said there were linkages between radical speakers, extremism, and violence.

“You can’t say you don’t want the violence, but not do anything about extremism,” said Shaykh Owaisi al-Madani.

Shaykh Al-Qadri, who is also chairman of the Irish Muslim Peace and Integration Council, drafted an Anti-Extremism Declaration which he wants all foreign speakers to sign up — and wants it incorporated into Department of Justice visas.

Sgt McInerney says he has heard of concerns that many Muslim student organisations were a bit old-fashioned and that a “certain message is being delivered that maybe wouldn’t conform with modern thinking”.

He accepts it is a “huge issue” in Britain, but says it wasn’t an area gardaí were involved in as such, unless the security of the sState was at issue. “I wouldn’t say we have a structured relation with the students’ groups, but that may change.”

GARDA STRUCTURES

Speaking of structures: What is the state of the Garda structures and our preparedness for Paris or Brussels-style attacks?

Last week, the AGSI said their members had not received information, briefing, or training related to the threat from terrorism or how to respond to an attack.

One unnamed delegate even claimed gardaí would run around “like headless chickens” if there was an attack.

Mr O’Mahoney declines to comment on the unattributed comment but said he recognised the entitlement of the association to raise issues.

“We have been training and have been doing so for years, in physical exercises and table-top exercises.”

He said there were multiagency exercises, involving the Army (including the elite Ranger wing), the ambulance service, and fire brigade service. Asked what the exercises were preparing for, he says: “In response to attacks — how we deal with attacks in the nature of what we’ve seen in Paris and Brussels”.

He says “operational commanders” had been trained to respond to such attacks and that chief superintendents had been trained as “strategic commanders”.

He says they had received briefings “both at an operational level and a strategic level” from the French and, very soon, from the Belgian authorities into the IS attacks on their soil. The briefings have taken place both here and abroad.

“The information we receive from the briefings from those countries are done in the spirit of ‘look, this is what we need to be doing in the future’. Out of those briefings there are learnings and that’s put into our plans and also from a training perspective.”

He says the Paris and Brussels attacks involved a “quickly evolving marauding terrorist-type attack” not usually seen in Europe before.

AC O’Mahoney says the suicidal nature of such attacks “inherently poses a risk to the community” as well as first responders from the gardaí.

He says they were examining the use of the armed regional support units (RSU) as part of the response to terror incidents.

“We are looking at the way we are using RSUs into the future... to have an armed response that is capable of responding to threats at any given time, whether its organised crime or dissident republicanism or international terrorism.”

The new RSU for Dublin, due to become operational in the autumn, will have the airport as part of its responsibility.

AC O’Mahoney says the Garda security services had “more experience than anyone else from a European perspective” in dealing with domestic terrorism and that this know-how carried over to dealing with Islamic extremism.

In relation to structures, Counter-Terrorism International (CTI), a dedicated section within the Special Detective Unit, is the operational arm.

It was renamed two years ago and is tasked with monitoring and investigating international terrorists, including IS recruiters, returned fighters, and active supporters.

Its size is kept a secret — something that Mr O’Mahoney refuses to throw any light on. Garda sources have previously given various estimates as to its strength, but the balance of sources suggest a staffing of around 20 members.

Sitting above CTI is the Security and Intelligence (S&I) section at Garda Headquarters, headed by Detective Chief Superintendent Peter Kirwan, who sat in on our interview. S&I has separate units for domestic and international terrorism. It gathers and analyses intelligence supplied by all gardaí and intelligence officers, as well as 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. The numbers targeted are thought to be very small. S&I also directs the National Surveillance Unit and liaises with foreign intelligence and police services.

AC O’Mahoney reveals that two co-ordinating groups were set up in the force regarding international terrorism.

“There has to be a wider approach in how we do our business, we’re all working together in the organisation, he says.

“We have a co-ordination group, at operational level and at strategic level.”

He says the strategic group, which he chairs, include officers from Garda National Immigration Bureau, Garda Bureau of Fraud Investigation (which investigate terrorist financing), Criminal Assets Bureau (as necessary) and Crime and Security.

The operational group, which Chief Kirwan chairs, includes members from S&I, CTI, SDU and local units from the six regions.

GAPS

The Irish Examiner has previously reported gaps in the security services, including what is believed to be a lack of officers competent in Arabic as well as the absence of a unit to track IS supporters and militants online.

“I have heard all the doubts cast in relation to our linguistic skills,” says Mr O’Mahoney. “From an operational reason, I am very, very happy that we have adequate skills to deal with the situation.”

Repeatedly asked could he not say he has people with Arabic skills, he refuses to confirm or deny, other than to repeat he has adequate skills. Separate sources have suggested the gardaí have available experts from outside security services or from Interpol.

The lack of expertise or a dedicated unit to identify Irish IS activists and sympathisers and foreign fighters online is considered by some experts to be a particular failing in our structures.

Mr O’Mahoney says: “We have work done in that area. We do it ourselves. We leverage very much on Europol as do other European countries in relation to open source information.”

Europol has a dedicated Internet Referral Unit tasked with combating terrorist propaganda and violent extremist activities online. Gardaí have a liaison officer in the EU police agency.

Asked about reports that the gardaí were exploring adopting specific software the PSNI has developed to analyse social media, Mr O’Mahoney declines to comment.

But he does say that the gardaí were looking to expand the CTI unit.

“Absolutely: Numbers, expertise. These are issues. This is an issue, it’s a new issue to us. 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 says there were many different areas and that “investigative skills was certainly one”.

There have been some suggestions that the Garda Síochána should adopt the model used in the Criminal Assets Bureau and hire professional civilians for particularly expertise.

In CAB, forensic accountants have been taken on. In the Garda security services they could hire in specialists in Arabic, digital forensics and social media analysts and other IT experts.

While these are gaps, a benefit seen by many is that the Garda Síochána is both the police and security service. There have been criticisms of the models in France and Belgium, which are hampered not only by separate police and security agencies but little fiefdoms within the police service, between frontline and elite units.

“It [our unitary model] cuts out the bureaucracy, first of all, everybody talks to everybody,” says AC O’Mahoney. “I also see the garda on the beat as part of the security service.”

It is a point that dovetails with the importance that Sgt McInerney places on community policing in the overall strategy.

“People don’t realise how important community policing is,” he says. “If you have proper community policing throughout the world, if marginalised people felt they could trust the police, you wouldn’t have a lot of these issues. You wouldn’t have extremism or radicals, because people would see police as fair, the State as fair.

“There is something going right here [in Ireland]. But it’s something you must constantly work on. You have to engage all the time.”


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