Risk of ‘lone wolf’ terror attack a concern, says senior garda

Many of the 30 Islamic State fighters who went from Ireland to Syria and Iraq are now ‘deceased’

A lone wolf terrorist attack is a “concern” for Ireland but gardaí are equipped to respond within minutes, the Garda office in charge of national security and intelligence has said.

Assistant Commissioner Michael O’Sullivan said the Garda was taking advice on using physical barriers on streets that would prevent vehicles being driven at people in areas such as Grafton Street in Dublin.

“Lone wolf attacks are probably the greatest concern for all police and security services throughout Europe. It is a concern for us,” Mr O’Sullivan told the media at an Interpol conference in Dublin on Wednesday.

Another concern was the return to Ireland of people who had gone to countries such as Iraq and Syria to fight for Islamic State, he said.


Of an estimated 30 fighters who had travelled from Ireland to such locations in recent years, gardaí believed “quite a number of those are deceased”.

“We believe some are missing, and there are a small number who we believe are in the theatre of war,” he said.

While some of those who travelled from Ireland had not been involved in terrorism or fighting, the atrocities they had seen meant they could pose a challenge to the Garda and especially social services and the education system on their return.

Of the risk of Ireland being targeted, he said Isil, or Islamic State, had preached “attack the western world with a stone, with a car, with a knife”.

“That was just before the Woolwich attack in London, so you can see the connection and how the internet and social media has been used by Isil to encourage attacks in the west,” he said, referencing the murder of British Army soldier Lee Rigby in southeast London in 2013.

“Our assessment at the moment is that the defeat of Isil in Syria and Iraq; they’re going to regroup and look how now they can attack the western world.”

Hate speech which sought to radicalise would-be terrorists was also of concern to the Garda.

“I have to say the Muslim community here - 60,000 according to the last census - are very law abiding, a very genuine community,” he said.

Gardaí were reaching out and into that community with liaison officers and community policing.

The Garda was working on prevention of terrorism with the Centre for the Protection of National Infrastructure in the UK, which was part of MI5.

“We take their advice and their guidance on measures that can be put in place here in Dublin and around the country; preventative measures.”

Isil sympathisers

For example, he said bollards at the entry and exit zones to locations such as Grafton Street in south Dublin were used for anti-terror purposes. There were also a small number of Isil sympathisers in the Republic who were “of interest” to the Garda and were being monitored by the force.

Armed Support Unit and Emergency Response Unit patrols could respond in the capital within three minutes and other back-up vehicles were seven minutes away.

“Our capability is much, much better than we were four years ago,” he said, citing an incident where a person with an imitation firearm was spotted on the Dart; the train was stopped and the person disarmed in five minutes.

In another incident, a man was seen “wielding an axe on O’Connell Bridge” in central Dublin and he was disarmed in four minutes.

Last year the Terrorist Financing Investigation Unit was established to examine domestic and international terror financing, with one conviction already secured for the financing of Isil.

Mr O’Sullivan told journalists the defeat of Isis in the “theatre of war” in Syria and Iraq would have implications for all European nations.

“Currently it’s estimated there are approximately 2,000 foreign fighters left in the theatre of war, which has been diminishing and decreasing in size,” he said.

“There is concern internationally in relation to where they may go next. At the moment there really isn’t evidence that they are returning to Europe, including Ireland.

“We have a small number that we believe are still alive in Syria and Iraq. They may go to other theatres of way, including the Philippines and the horn of Africa; north Africa.

“Of other concern to us, certainly, are returning families. These are families not involve directly in the war but children, women, males; and they may have witnessed the most appalling crimes known to man. And they will return, and they will become a challenge (requiring) a multi-agency effort; not just for An Garda Síochána but for other (services) as well.”

At the Interpol conference, delegates from police and security forces from across the globe discussed finding ways of better cooperating to combat terrorism and organised crime.

Mr O’Sullivan said the lines between the two were now blurring. While terrorism, including the threat domestically, had traditionally operated independently of organised crime, this was no longer the case.

“If you look at the attacks in Belgium, Paris, London Bridge; what you see is terrorism facilitated by organised crime — through the procurement of firearms or false documentation. So organised crime is now facilitating terrorism. And we see that ourselves in the domestic situation and the organised crime situation here.

“We see elements of what we now call the dissident republican movement who are involved in extortion, who are involved in punishment beatings and who are involved in drug trafficking, diesel laundering, false documentation, tobacco smuggling. That is similar to what is happening in the broader context around Europe.”

Conor Lally

Conor Lally

Conor Lally is Security and Crime Editor of The Irish Times