M15 set up arms sting to lure gang members


British court hears how a US spy penetrated to the heart of the subversiveorganisation, writes Sam Greenhill.

The operation to snare the "Real IRA" gang began with a US spy infiltrating the heart of theorganisation, Woolwich Crown Court heard yesterday.

Mr David Rupert, working for the FBI and MI5, was able to give the security services a clear picture of the group's chilling intentions, which were to seek sponsorship from a rogue state such as Iraq.

With this in mind, MI5 arranged an elaborate sting - code-named Operation Samnite - crown prosecutor, Mr Richard Horwell, told the court.

An MI5 agent posing as an Iraqi arms dealer made the first contact on January 19th, 2001, phoning a secret number supplied by the "Real IRA". It was answered by Michael McKevitt, who Mr Horwell said was the leader of the "Real IRA". Five more calls followed and, on February 7th, the first meeting was held at a location in Eastern Europe. This was attended by Declan Rafferty and Fintan O'Farrell and they met a British agent who they believed was an Iraqi official called Samir. They explained they were representing McKevitt. Mr Horwell said: "Rafferty said that with Iraqi support they could defeat the British, but suffered from a 'lack of funds and hardware'." The second meeting was held on March 10th, 2001 and was again attended by Rafferty and O'Farrell. At the next meeting, on April 9th, McDonald and Rafferty travelled to Eastern Europe. McDonald is said to have told the "Iraqi": "We would appreciate your help, but if you don't help us we will go on." The "Real IRA" pair then presented a list of their requirements on a piece of tissue paper. They were 5,000 kg of plastic explosive, 2,000 detonators, 200 rocket-propelled grenades and 500 handguns.

McDonald pressed for an early delivery. On May 16th, the penultimate meeting was held in Austria, with Rafferty sent to finalise details of the final meeting which was to be held in Slovakia on July 5th. This was attended by Rafferty, O'Farrell and McDonald and, in a restaurant, they met Samir and another agent who posed as a senior Iraqi officer who would authorise the supply of the weapons.

"Asked about the precise requirements of the Real IRA, they produced their own list of specific ordnance which they said was available to the Iraqi government," said Mr Horwell. The terrorists wanted the first shipment to be sent to Belgium or Holland in a truck. They were also expecting one million dollars in four instalments.

After the meeting the three men were arrested by armed Slovak police working with MI5. The court heard that Rafferty and O'Farrell had no previous convictions, but McDonald had one weapons conviction 18 years ago in France.

In mitigation, the men's barristers argued that Co Louth, where they are all from, was a very difficult place to avoid republicanism. Mr Ken Mcdonald QC, for Rafferty said: "These men all come from the same coastal village in Louth. They have been friends for many years and their families are friends and we ask the court to understand that in this situation friendships and loyalties are crucial."

Explaining, he said the wider community is always expected to give its support. "In highly republican areas it can be difficult or impossible to refuse. "The requests don't come from strangers, they come from friends, family and neighbours." He said his client had been "asked, cajoled and pressured" to become involved in the "Real IRA" plot. But the judge, Mr Justice Astill, threw out all of their arguments and sentenced them each to 30 years in prison.