Why Irish security forces would struggle in a terror attack

The Government seems to prefer the risk of an atrocity to an overhaul of our patchy defences

Since the Manchester Arena and London Bridge attacks, Irish intelligence experts have ruminated on Ireland’s ability both to predict and to handle such crises. None is reassured by soothing words from senior gardaí that, just like in London, the authorities here would be able to deal with a similar event in less than 10 minutes.

“Capability is a marriage of money, people, equipment and training,” said one serving officer, who believes that Ireland’s security forces, both police and military, lack the required combination of those four essentials.

The key thing is capability, and delivery of that capability. The Metropolitan Police did it in eight minutes, which is extraordinary

“The key thing is capability,” said another officer, “and delivery of that capability. The Met” – London’s Metropolitan Police Service – “did it in eight minutes, which is extraordinary.”

How the UK forces achieved that success has been emerging gradually since last Saturday, but already two key factors have become apparent. The first concerns the command-and-control structure, the second the effective delivery of lethal force.


The command-and-control structure involved in the response to the van attack on London Bridge, and the follow-on marauding at nearby Borough Market, when the three terrorists slashed people with knives, is known as Jesip, an acronym for the joint emergency services interoperability programme.

It was set up in 2012 as a pilot scheme and has since become permanent. Under Jesip all key players responding to a major emergency – police, military, fire and ambulance, and transport – have trained together and are therefore familiar with their respective roles and responsibilities.

Crucially, they know who is in charge and operate under a command system known as gold, silver and bronze, which denotes levels of authority and responsibility, as well as task.

By contrast, during the 2008 massacre in Mumbai, in which 164 people died, arguments about who was in charge between senior officers in a myriad of Indian intelligence and military agencies led to delays of between six and 14 hours before commandos were deployed.

The UK has conducted major exercises at least once a year, usually in real urban settings. No such major exercises take place here

Since its inception Jesip has conducted major exercises at least once a year, usually in real urban settings, including central London, and holds smaller monthly exercises. The big exercises are made as realistic as possible, even if the bypassers, whose reactions range from panic-filled terror to have-a-go bravery, are played, essentially, by actors.

No such major exercises take place here.

According to an Irish security source, UK special-forces troops are currently embedded permanently with heavily armed police, waiting to respond to incidents.

The responders who rushed to London Bridge within seconds of the emergency call about the crashing van included more than a dozen SAS troops on long-term deployment with the police counterterror command. The first four police vehicles – similar to the Garda armed-support unit’s Audi four-by-fours – to arrive at the scene contained SAS men.

As video footage available online shows, the three terrorists were shot dead at Borough Market by security-force personnel who emerged from one of these vehicles. It is not known if the shots were fired by police or soldiers.

In response to the activation of the emergency plan at least eight more special-forces soldiers were helicoptered to the scene. According to sources, airlifted special forces are  dropped so close to the scene of action that they can  engage the enemy almost immediately.

“What you saw in London was the result of five years’ planning,” said a source here. “People think that it’s a case of running in there and shooting, but there are so many aspects to it to make it work right. Eight minutes was phenomenal – phenomenal. But they didn’t arrive at that skill level overnight.”

Thinking like a terrorist

A key counterterrorism tactic is to think oneself into the head of the terrorist. To do that one has to think the unthinkable.

"To you being a suicide bomber is unthinkable, but to him it is natural, very thinkable," said Michael Murphy, a retired deputy director of J2, the Irish Defence Forces' military-intelligence service. (It used to be known as G2; it was renamed because of its connection, jointly, to the Army, Air Corps and Naval Service.)

Murphy said the Government must stop thinking “like a western person”. “These guys have declared war on us. We are at war. You might not like to be at war, but those guys have said you are at war,” he said. “You are a kafir” – an unbeliever. “If you have not converted to Salafism” – the ultraconservative branch of Sunni Islam – “you are a target.”

In thinking the unthinkable several people consulted for this article came up with broadly the same scenario.

The best-case scenario for Ireland is that the terrorists want to kill people elsewhere

"The best-case scenario for us is that they want to kill elsewhere," said David Murphy of Maynooth University, a specialist in military history and security studies. "But maybe they're rushed or panic and think they're going to be arrested and decide, Okay, I'm going today, here and now. We should get into that thought process, but we don't."

But the nightmare scenario is not necessarily a panicked decision to attack, resulting in a spur-of-the-moment assault in a heavily crowded area or the more predictable targeting of a major sporting or cultural event. The nightmare scenario is worse.

“Think about it,” Michael Murphy said. “You’re a terrorist and you want to conduct an operation against the West. The UK: difficult place. They closed down five [embryonic attacks] in recent times. Three got through.”

Instead, Murphy said, the terrorist might think, Let's try Ireland, because they don't seem to be very good at this. "We already know the number of people who pass through without being picked up. So [now] they're telling us that they are prepared in Dublin. 'Okay, let's go outside Dublin . . .' "

Cobra-style group

Last Saturday's attack in London prompted Leo Varadkar, who is expected to take over as taoiseach next Wednesday, to indicate that within 50 days of assuming office he would set up a group like Cobra, the British government's crisis-response committee. This would allow, as his spokesman put it, "greater ministerial involvement in preparing for and managing major security threats".

Cobra stands for Cabinet Office briefing room A, after the location of the committee’s gatherings, in one of several secure rooms at Downing Street, but it also signifies the structure of officials, advisers and experts who have briefed British prime ministers on security incidents for years.

The change that experts here say is more immediately pressing is not one that facilitates greater political involvement but one that would overhaul the State’s approach to security and intelligence by harnessing existing expertise and facilitating far more regular, and relevant, training.

The State has essentially two intelligence-gathering agencies, and, according to those who work in the field, uniquely for a European country, there is no overarching body above them or government security adviser separate from the police and military.

The two existing agencies – the Garda Síochána security-and-intelligence branch, based at Garda headquarters in the Phoenix Park, and J2, based close by, at McKee Barracks – work apart from one another and have individual reporting structures and lines of command. Both work on domestic intelligence gathering, but J2, because of the Irish Defence Forces' overseas peacekeeping commitments, also gathers foreign intelligence.

This has resulted in the Defence Forces’ having a degree of Middle East expertise and some Arabic speakers.

In the immediate aftermath of the attacks in Paris, in November 2015, that left 130 dead and 368 wounded, a Defence Forces intelligence officer was asked to brief Taoiseach Enda Kenny. He gave an illustrated presentation on what had happened in France and what capabilities existed here. His conclusion was that it would be impossible to respond adequately to such an event in Ireland.

He asked if there were any questions. There were none.

A further illustration of a seeming indifference, and stasis, when it comes to modernising the State's approach to security comes from two meetings, in the spring of 2016, attended by Ben Tonra, professor of European foreign, security and defence policy at University College Dublin, and by representatives of the Garda and Irish Defence Forces.

We were talking about counterterrorism, and you had people from the Garda side of the house and the defence side of the house, and they visibly hadn't met before

“We were talking about counterterrorism,” Tonra said, “and you had people from the Garda side of the house and the defence side of the house, and they visibly hadn’t met before.”

With terror attacks on civilians continuing elsewhere, and an incident perhaps inevitable here eventually, Ireland’s intelligence-gathering operation could be reshaped as a new national intelligence entity – call it the national security agency, although some do not like the word agency – and, below it, a national intelligence-analysis centre.

Under the centre, and reporting to it, would be a civilian intelligence-gathering operation that would be concerned with State security and operate separately from ordinary criminal intelligence gathering, which would remain with the Garda Síochána. J2 would remain with the Irish Defence Forces but also report to the agency.

Michael Murphy said the Garda needs to shed its existing intelligence responsibility. Noting the recent discovery that mobile phones once used by the Garda commissioners Nóirín O’Sullivan and Martin Callinan have been lost, he added: “If a person can’t look after their phone – two of them – and they’re responsible for State security, would you trust them with looking after State security?”

The Defence Forces and guards are like the forwards in a rugby match, but they have no scrumhalf, to see the wider picture on the pitch

Another source likened the existing situation to a rugby team.

“The Defence Forces and guards are like the forwards in a rugby match,” he said, “but they have no scrumhalf, someone who is part of what’s going on but is also a little separate and able to see the wider picture on the pitch.”

Murphy outlined the structure to achieve that.

The national security agency would be part of the Department of the Taoiseach, and it would report to the Taoiseach and oversee, at arm’s length, the work of the analysis centre.

This would have a full-time staff and would in turn oversee the work of the new civil intelligence-gathering agency, J2, and other agencies, as well as information coming from the Department of Foreign Affairs, and other relevant sources, relating to customs, the marine, transport and cybersecurity.

The centre would then analyse the intelligence and identify threats. “If you look at intelligence failures,” Murphy said, “not joining the dots is the biggest one.”

Varadkar’s talk of a Cobra-style entity is a start.

“It’s the beginning of a change,” Murphy said. “It’s an acknowledgment that this waffle that we’ve been hearing about the national security committee has been caught out. That it is not fit for purpose in the modern day. I don’t think it was fit for purpose in 1974,” he said, referring to the year it was set up.

The committee, which is tasked to advise the Taoiseach on security, is chaired by the secretary to the government and includes the secretaries general of the Departments of Justice, Defence and Foreign Affairs, plus the director of J2. Those familiar with its regular meetings say, “if a Minister turned up it would be extraordinary”.

In Murphy’s new system the committee would be redundant. His new full-time analysis centre would also allow for tapping into hitherto unused sources.

How many people in this country would be good at intelligence but may not be good soldiers – or in the guards but you can't get them into intelligence?

“It would allow you to bring in civilians,” he said. “How many people in this country would be good at intelligence but may not be good soldiers – or in the guards but you can’t get them into intelligence? You could get in guys from universities, human-intelligence guys, language people, that might not be very good in the Army but would be good in intelligence.”

Mutual respect

Although Ireland’s two intelligence-gathering operations are separate, it would be inaccurate to say that Garda and Army special forces do not work well together. At ground level there is much mutual respect and acknowledgment of expertise.

The Defence Forces’ Army Ranger Wing has about 100 special-forces soldiers and is due to double in size. The Garda has a range of heavily armed rapid-response teams – the emergency-response unit, the newer armed-response unit, and regional support units – who have clocked up considerable success in disrupting gang warfare in central Dublin.

Sources say that, although the emergency-response and armed-response units have run exercises together, joint training in countering a marauding terrorist attack is too infrequent for maximum effectiveness and needs to take place in real urban settings as well, not just in a mock-up in the Curragh.

We've had tabletop exercises, where scenarios are talked through, but there have been no real exercises

“We’ve had tabletop exercises, where scenarios are talked through, but there have been no real exercises,” one military source said.

There is a degree of frustration that Irish special forces, whose skills are acknowledged to be on a par with those of others internationally, are not being used and that joint exercises are not happening in real situations.

There is concern also about the adequacy of helicopter transport, if required at short notice for rapid deployment of significant numbers, and of the equipment and training to allow for night flying.

Sources say the British have told their Irish counterparts that they regard 17 people here as high risk and that were they in the UK they would be under 24-hour surveillance.

David Murphy, the Maynooth University security specialist, sees the Government’s approach to date as an extremely high-risk strategy. “I like to see contingencies,” he said. “When you boil this down to its essence, what is the governmental and the police approach to this? ‘Nothing has happened. We don’t think anything is going to happen, and therefore we will do nothing.’

“To do anything will take time, money and effort, so we’ll actually run the odds on this and travel in the expectation that nothing will happen. If something happens maybe it will be small; maybe only a few people will be killed. That’s your trade-off: contingency or you take the risk of a hit.”