Irish ex-marine jailed for 18 years for bomb-making

Ciarán Maxwell (31) sentenced after supplying bombs to dissident republicans

Undated police handout photo  of Ciaran Maxwell (31). Photograph: Metropolitan Police/PA Wire

Undated police handout photo of Ciaran Maxwell (31). Photograph: Metropolitan Police/PA Wire

 

A former Royal Marine from Larne, Co Antrim, who built explosives for dissident republicanism has been sentenced to 18 years in prison.

On Monday, Ciarán Maxwell (31) from the unionist-majority seaport town, was convicted at the Old Bailey in London after he assembled what the PSNI has described as one of the most significant stockpiles of weapons and ammunition, in size and capability, in Northern Ireland’s history.

The now discharged 40 Commando Royal Marine had served in the US, Cyprus and Britain.

It emerged he had set up 43 hides for weapon, more that half of which were found in and around the Larne area, and another 19 hides were discovered close to his home in England.

Maxwell was sentenced to 18 years in prison and must serve a further five years on licence.

At least four dissident republican attacks in Northern Ireland are believed to have been carried out with weapons supplied by Maxwell.

Mr Justice Sweeney said Maxwell was motivated by hostility to the UK and had betrayed his position in the marines.

The father of one, previously described by a family friend as a “straightforward” young man “with his head screwed on”, was brought up in a nationalist area of Larne in a quiet family that is well-respected in the town.

He attended St Comgall’s Catholic secondary school and, while he was known to the PSNI prior to his arrest, had no previous criminal record.

Long tradition

There is a long tradition of people from an Irish Catholic background in Larne entering the British navy and other armed forces.

The question of what exactly motivated Maxwell to join the marines and then engage in stockpiling such a vast array of explosives, weapons and ammunition has not been definitively answered in court proceedings.

His defence barrister had told the court his client had suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) through his 20s after he was the victim of a sectarian beating in Larne in 2002, when he was 16.

The incident was reported in the republican An Phoblacht newspaper at the time. Maxwell was attacked by loyalists, “beaten by golf clubs, iron bars and hammers” and “left for dead in a field”, the court in London heard last week.

But a prosecution barrister said there was “no direct evidence” the severe beating, which left Maxwell with a fractured skull and multiple other injuries, influenced his activities, but rather that he was “motivated by dissident republican sympathies and a hostility broadly to the United Kingdom”.

The judge also rejected this account.

Maxwell told police he had taken a member of the Continuity IRA to one of the hides, where he had concealed pipe bombs.

The court was told the man was Niall Lehd, a friend of Maxwell’s, who was convicted in 2014 of possession of an explosive substance with intent to endanger life.

Maxwell’s lawyer claimed the marine – who had the wifi password “tiocfaidh1” – had faked support for dissident republicans because he was “paralysed” with fear and he now believes old contacts wish him and his family serious ill.

Significant arsenal

Based with 40 Commando in Taunton, Somerset, he enlisted in the marines in 2010 and had been living in Exminster, Devon, before a significant arsenal of explosives, weapons and ammunition stockpiled over many years was recovered last year by four UK police services, including the PSNI and the Met, and the military.

Items found included 14 pipe bombs – four of which were deployed in Belfast, Armagh and Carnlough – anti-personnel mines, mortars, explosively formed projectiles, firing systems and initiators, military igniters, detonators, component parts for improvised explosive devices, a handgun, ammunition, British army magazines, a PSNI uniform and fake police badge, detonating chord, and chemicals and materials to make further bombs.

In February he pleaded guilty to, between January 1st, 2011, and August 24th , 2016, preparing terrorist acts – making bombs and storing stolen military weapons – as well as cannabis possession with intent to supply and possession of bank card images for fraud.

Over a four-day sentencing hearing at the Old Bailey – Maxwell appeared by video link from Woodhill Prison in Milton Keynes – the court heard he had maps, plans, documents including the IRA Green Book guide, and a list of targets such as police stations, police officers and those linked to the criminal justice system, military staff, an MI5 member and loyalists.

Suspect barrels

The PSNI said his arrest came after hides with a range of explosive substances, as well as ammunition, weapons and bomb-making tools, were discovered in Carnfunnock Country Park and Capanagh Forrest, near Larne, after members of the public reported finding suspect plastic barrels buried in the ground.

Searches in Larne included a former quarry on the Old Glenarm Road, a former convent and the Inver river area.

PSNI Det Chief Insp Gillian Kearney said the role of the public in the case had been “really significant” and had undoubtedly saved lives.

“It is one of the most significant finds we have had here in Northern Ireland, and I can’t underestimate how grateful we are to the members of the public who came forward, were vigilant and shared that information with the police,” she said.

DCI Kearney, who describes Maxwell as a “very methodical and dangerous individual” said he had been engaged in a very sophisticated operation, his military training was useful to him and “gave him access to munitions and items that he could use to help him stockpile and further his activities”.

No beliefs

Police were able to identify Maxwell because his DNA, picked up at one of the Co Antrim hides, was on a national database in connection with a physical assault case he was involved in (not the beating he suffered as a teenager).

The court had heard when Maxwell applied to the Royal Marines in 2009, he said he had “no beliefs” on an application form.

On Monday the judge said there was “insufficient evidence” to suggest a sinister motivation for him joining up.

DCI Kearney said Maxwell’s motivation was unclear, and whatever his reason for enlisting, “quickly he has become heavily involved in engineering of devices and very dangerous activity which made him a very dangerous individual”.

He did have links to “a small violent dissident republican group but he did operate independently”.

After his arrest the former serviceman claimed he had “got in over his head” and had no intention of committing an act of terrorism or killing anyone, but a prosecution barrister said “Mr Maxwell repeatedly accepted that the devices would be used by others for terrorist purposes”.