London attacks show Ireland needs new security strategy

Lack of dedicated intelligence service disadvantages State in terrorism fight

The revelation that one of the three men involved in the brutal attack in London last weekend had been an Irish resident will place Ireland’s security and intelligence infrastructure under an uncomfortable spotlight.

One critical question that will be asked by the UK and other European intelligence and police services is whether Rachid Redouane was unknown to An Garda Síochána because he was radicalised only in the last few weeks or months or was he simply overlooked despite his radical opinions and associations? The latter is more likely. Islamist extremists can be radicalised quite quickly but the journey from holding extreme opinions to murder usually takes years rather than months. It is therefore probable that Redouane associated with extremists while living in Ireland.

Almost alone among other similar-sized European countries, Ireland has no dedicated intelligence service. Instead the Garda crime and security branch (CSB) takes the lead on Islamist counter-terrorism in addition to tackling dissident republican activities, serious crime and other specialist security roles.

Garda CSB is under immense strain. It is not only tackling the Kinahan-Hutch gangs but it is has also been forced to respond to the escalated smuggling threat along the Border. The recruitment freeze and slashing of the Garda budget following the recent economic crash has left specialised units such as the national surveillance arm undermanned and overstretched.



The Garda lacks the linguistic, cultural and other specialist skills to tackle Islamic extremism. There is a certain naivete in how to tackle Islamic extremism in Ireland. John O'Brien, a former senior Garda, claimed in an interview with Morning Ireland that Muslim immigrants in Ireland were much better integrated than in the UK – Muslim role models play sports such as Gaelic football – and that Ireland consequently did not face a major threat. Moreover, he said, there were excellent relations between the State and leaders of the Muslim community in Ireland.

Such an analysis misses the lesson of London and previous attacks – the perpetrators usually come not from those inside “the community” but from outside. There is a pattern of young men with contradictory motivations – often holding criminal records, a history of drug or alcohol use, with a record of poor educational achievement, a patchy mosque attendance and threadbare knowledge of Islam – carrying out such attacks.

Although outreach activities are important, they are no replacement for sustained intelligence work when it comes to identifying those who fall off the mainstream community grid, who seek their inspiration online and in small extremist circles.

There are enormous contradictions among many of the individuals who have carried out attacks on behalf of Islamic State in Europe in recent years. Detecting them is often much more difficult than the challenge of infiltrating dissident republican organisations – whose operatives tend to be well known and helpfully parade to be photographed by Garda surveillance units from time to time.

Redouane and the other two men involved in the London attacks, Khuram Butt and Youssef Zaghba, were careful not to draw too much attention in the months leading up to their attack (even if Butt and Zaghba were on MI5's radar as "low priorities").

Ireland has too often dragged its feet when it comes to prioritising European counter-terrorism cooperation. For example, Dublin has been slow to connect with the European Union's intelligence exchange network (the Siena system with its associated databases of suspected and convicted terrorists). Ireland is too reactive – arrests of suspected terrorists or their associates frequently occur because of the intelligence work of other EU member states rather than detection on the part of the Garda.

Border security

If Ireland wants to maintain the Common Travel Area with the UK following Brexit, it must be able to secure it jointly or it runs the risk of having its sovereignty undermined by foreign intelligence services and freedom of movement impeded between the two states. Increased political priority and resources must be given to Irish security – it is telling that the State does not have a regularly updated national security strategy, a national security adviser or a director of national intelligence.

The announcement by Fine Gael leader Leo Varadkar that he will seek to establish a national security Cabinet subcommittee is welcome. However, that alone will not solve Ireland's intelligence deficit.

Intelligence services have a distinct role from policing in that they are not simply collecting information for prosecution purposes. Rather an intelligence officer’s job is to inform political leaders about potential threats, so-called horizon scanning based on particular knowledge and skill sets. The quartet of good intelligence work is situational awareness, explanation, prediction and strategic notice.

Ireland should look to New Zealand as a model for reforming its intelligence structures: Wellington, which faces a lesser terrorist threat than Ireland, has established a small but respected intelligence service and a government communications security bureau that proactively monitors cyber activity by potential extremists. Both agencies operate on a combined annual budget of less than €90 million.

New Zealand's proactive, secure and capable intelligence infrastructure means it can contribute to and draw upon the "five eyes" network (the United States, the UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand), arguably the most advanced intelligence network in the world, to scan for possible threats to its security.

An Garda Síochána is too overburdened, focused on crime investigation and civilian policing tasks to do strategic notice to the level required in the current global security environment. Only a new Irish intelligence service reporting directly to a Cabinet Minister can deliver such a distinctive value to the State.

Dr Edward Burke is a lecturer in strategic studies at the University of Portsmouth