1996 MI5 assigned agent David Rupert the task of
infiltrating dissident republican circles in Ireland.
Rupert's priceless intelligence gave MI5 an indispensable
insight in to the membership and modus operandi
of both dissident republican groups on either side
of the border. Throughout his stay in Ireland Rupert
forwarded all of the relevant intelligence he had
acquired to MI5 via encrypted e-mails. Between 1997
and 2001 Rupert posted 2166 e-mails to his paymasters
in British intelligence.
11 April 1998 Rupert dispatched his most controversial
e-mail to MI5 headquarters. It was almost five months
before the now infamous maroon Vauxhall Cavalier
would decimate the centre of Omagh town and kill
29 people. For this reason the e-mail is all the
more startling because in it Rupert informed MI5
that a dissident republican group was planning a
car bomb attack in Omagh [E-mail 104, 11-04-98].
The April car bomb attack in Omagh was eventually
frustrated by gardai south of the border. However,
MI5 management knew the threat was only postponed
and not extinguished. Within days MI5 e-mailed Rupert:
"We disrupted the intention to use the car
bomb, but maybe not for long" [MI5 to Rupert,
E-mail 126A, 17-04-98]. MI5 obviously foresaw the
strong likelihood of a renewed attempt to bomb Omagh.
However, MI5 now held the advantage over the would-be
car bombers in that from as early as April 1998
it knew Omagh was a likely target for a dissident
republican car bomb attack.
e-mails were not the only pre-August 15th information
in MI5's possession which pointed to a dissident
republican attack in Omagh. A second key piece of
intelligence came to light on August 4 when an anonymous
phone-caller warned British intelligence of a planned
dissident republican gun and bomb attack in Omagh
on August 15. MI5 subsequently claimed that it dismissed
this anonymous phone-warning as a rogue RUC Special
Branch call. However, this was a poor attempt at
distraction. The importance in all of this is that
whereas Rupert provided specific details with regard
to the proposed location of the planned bombing,
this phone-warning supplemented his e-mail intelligence
by not only confirming the location, but also providing
the all important precise date of the planned attack.
the windfall of dissident republican intelligence
did not end there. MI5 possessed a third piece of
high-grade information which indicated that a car
bomb attack was scheduled for mid-August. Two days
before the Omagh bombing, FRU agent Kevin Fulton
met with a Real IRA informant whose clothing, according
to Fulton, was covered in dust particles of homemade
explosives. Fulton correctly suspected that a car
bomb attack was in an advanced stage of planning.
Fulton provided British intelligence with the agent's
name and car registration number. Yet once again
this vital piece of intelligence was ignored.
perhaps the most startling disclosure concerning
MI5's foreknowledge of Omagh came during the inquest
into the bombing. According to the Sunday Business
Post (26/8/2001) leading British barrister Michael
Mansfield QC, acting for Lawrence Rush, cross-examined
several RUC witnesses. It emerged that a warning
specifying the precise location of the bomb had
not been passed on to local officers in time to
clear the area.
that, we started getting threatening calls. We were
told by the RUC that our name was on a death-list,"
Solicitor Des Doherty said.
RUC also confirmed to Doherty that a newspaper report
of a spy satellite picking out the car used to transport
the bomb was correct.
said. "It is understood that when the RUC contacted
the Federal Bureau of Investigation in America,
they produced information from the satellite."
suggests that the maroon Vauxhall Cavalier contained
a tracking device which enabled a US GPS satellite
not only to follow the car's movements but also
pinpoint its exact location on the day of the bombing.
At the request of MI5, US intelligence would have
monitored the car as a priority and would have conveyed
this surveillance data to MI5 without delay. Yet
MI5 chose not to relay this information to RUC officers
on the ground on August 15. Furthermore, the presence
of a tracking device on the maroon Vauxhall Cavalier
indicates the involvement of an MI5 agent in the
planning or the execution of the Omagh bombing,
at some point between the unlawful procurement of
the maroon Vauxhall Cavalier and the detonation
of the explosives on August 15.
the Omagh bombing MI5 ordered Rupert out of Ireland
as a matter of urgency. An August 16 MI5 e-mail
instructed Rupert to "insulate yourself from
the gardai" [MI5 to David Rupert, E-mail 305,
16-08-98]. Later that night Rupert was ordered to:
"Collect tickets at Belfast City Airport...You'll
be here [London] for two nights. We need to talk.
It's extremely important" [MI5 to David Rupert,
E-mail 329, 17-08-98]. Rupert's MI5 handlers obviously
feared that their agent might be gripped as part
of a massive cross-border investigation and that
- if placed under sufficient pressure - Rupert might
disclose the prior bomb warning he had conveyed
to MI5 in early April in relation to Omagh. Indeed
all of Rupert's MI5 e-mails on Omagh were subsequently
withheld from Nuala O'Loan when she conducted her
large-scale investigation into the intelligence
background to the tragic bombing. By late August
1998 there were a number of skeletons inside MI5's
now know MI5 possessed four pieces of high-grade
intelligence which forewarned of a dissident republican
car bomb attack in Omagh on August 15. The earliest
intelligence data was dated 11 April. Then came
the anonymous August 4 phone-call, Kevin Fulton's
August 13 intelligence report and finally the satellite
monitoring of the Vauxhall Cavalier arising from
a tracking device planted by a British agent involved
in the Omagh bombing. Yet notwithstanding this avalanche
of intelligence MI5 made no attempt to intercept
the bomb? How can this operational decision be rationally
explained? What was the motivation of MI5 management?
Did British intelligence want to protect the identity
of its agent at all costs? Or was this yet another
"securocrat" plot to subvert the peace?
management did not want to scupper the peace process,
but it did want to protect the identity of its agent
and, at the same time, drive - what it hoped would
be - the final nail into physical force republicanism
at an exceptionally sensitive time in the Irish
August 1998 the provisionals were well on their
way to exchanging the armalite for British ministerial
portfolios. Articles 2&3 were deleted. The constitutional
status quo had been preserved. Provo engagement
with the IICD and future acts of decommissioning
lay only months away. But from British intelligence's
perspective a black cloud hung over the firmament.
By the summer of 1998 MI5 was seriously concerned
about the growing threat from, and the possibility
of large-scale provo defections to, dissident republican
paramilitaries. In the nine months between its formation
in late November 1997 and August 1998 the Real IRA
planted large car bombs in Banbridge, Portadown
and Markethill. Armagh and Moira RUC barracks were
the target of audacious mortar attacks. In early
April 1998 gardai intercepted a BMW 318 series at
the Dublin port of Dun Laoghaire. The BMW was destined
for central London and was packed with 1,200 lbs
of explosives. Once again the prospect of massive
bombs in the heart of London seemed a distinct possibility.
In May two cars containing 500lb bombs were intercepted
on the border. Two dissidents were arrested. In
July a three man unit was captured in London with
a semtex based device and a number of incendiaries.
By August 1998 the Real IRA campaign was gathering
momentum at a time when the Belfast Agreement had
yet to be firmly rooted and the Adams-McGuinness
leadership was confronted with the specter of large
intelligence was confronted with an extremely volatile
political situation. For two decades it had infiltrated
both the military and political wings of the provisional
movement. By 1994 a large number of senior PIRA
members had been compromised and the organisation
was rendered incapable of sustaining an effective
armed campaign. The reformists Sinn Fein leadership
had been nurtured and protected and surrounded by
MI5 agents who influenced the constitutional trajectory
of the movement over a period of two decades. Was
MI5's twenty-year project about to be jeopardised
at its moment of triumph by the emergence of another
IRA and widespread provo defections? No. MI5 would
allow nothing to destabilise the provisional's transition
from armalite to ballot box. Drastic solutions were
it at this point - in April 1998 - that the British
agent at the heart of a dissident republican group
first flouted Omagh as a potential target for a
car bomb attack? Was the carnage of August 15 the
product of his labour? From MI5's perspective Omagh
was an ideal target for a number of reasons. It
was the only town in Ireland that retained an elected
dissident republican. Therefore, a catastrophic
car bomb attack would not only permanently discredit
the emergent political opposition to Sinn Fein in
Omagh but also throughout the whole island. Furthermore,
the resulting death toll would also serve to dissuade
disaffected provisionals from crossing the rubicon
into the realm of dissident republican activity.
At one foul stroke MI5 could deal a decisive blow
to both the political and military wings of dissident
within days of the bombing the Adams-McGuinness
leadership regained the initiative. Amid a torrent
of anti-republican hysteria they were now in a position
to publicly condemn a republican attack and visit
the scene of the explosion. It seemed dissident
republicanism has committed political suicide. Only
weeks previous it seemed unimaginable that the provisional
leadership could countenance a move towards arms
decommissioning and a formal end to its campaign,
however, the tragedy at Omagh now made this a distinct
possibility. MI5 had four instances of high-grade
intelligence concerning Omagh, which when placed
together indicated that town would be bombed by
the dissident republicans on August 15. Yet MI5
deliberately allowed the bomb to proceed to protect
the identity of a key informant and to deliver a
decisive blow against republican recalcitrants.
After Omagh the Belfast Agreement drifted in and
out of political crises, but the peace was secured.
So was Omagh MI5's bomb to end all bombs?