A ROCKET fired by al Qaeda at a massive container ship blew the lid off a multi-million euro illegal cigarette operation run by a millionaire businessman with links to Provo chief Thomas 'Slab' Murphy, the Sunday Independent has learnt.
The massive smuggling operation was uncovered when terrorists fired two rockets at the Asia Cosco cargo ship as it made its way along Egypt's Suez Canal.
One of the rockets hit a container that was destined for a bogus furniture company in Dundalk.
Inside was €4m-worth of illegal cigarettes, which were bought for as little as 20c a packet in Vietnam, destined for the Irish market.
The Sunday Independent has learnt that a millionaire businessman from Co Louth who set up dozens of bogus companies and bank accounts was arrested by gardai, but has been subsequently released without charge.
Senior security sources revealed the Co Louth businessman has become a multi-millionaire supplying both the Irish and UK markets.
Dramatic footage of two men firing rockets at the Cosco Asia as it travelled up the canal on August 31 has been posted on the internet by the terror group calling itself the Al-firqan Brigade, which is a known affiliate of al Qaeda.
The terror group responsible, which is also fighting in Syria with anti-government factions, says it was attacking Western trade. It also carried out an attack on another container vessel in the canal the same day, again doing little damage.
One of the rockets blew a hole in the container of cigarettes on its way from Sinagapore to a bogus furniture company in Dundalk, which gardai have traced to the 40-year-old businessman behind Ireland's biggest tobacco-smuggling ring. He has associates in the south Armagh IRA.
Gardai believe this man, who has a clean record, and another ex-IRA man from Belfast operating out of south Armagh, are among the biggest smugglers of tobacco in Europe.
They send out couriers to the Far East to pay for containers of cigarettes, which usually travel from Vietnam to Singapore and then to Rotterdam. From there they are transferred to smaller ships to Dublin Port. They bulk-buy the Modeng-brand cigarettes at a price of only 20 cents on the Asian black market.
According to sources, the container hit by the Islamists' rocket was inspected on board. When it was found to be full of cigarettes in plain packaging, and the destination was a company in Ireland, the ship's owners contacted Interpol.
A tracking device was placed in the container at Rotterdam and it was tracked by satellite through Dublin Port to Co Louth where it was intercepted at Castebellingham.
Four men were arrested under the Finance Act for suspected tax evasion, but released without charge. Gardai are preparing a file on the matter for the Director of Public Prosecutions.
One of the men is from Crossmaglen in south Armagh and the others from the Dundalk area. The man behind the operation was not at the scene and was not arrested.
Customs said the cigarettes, sold at €4.50 a pack or €40 for a carton of 10 packets, had a street value of €4.3m. The loss of rev- enue to the State was put at €3.7m.
The seizure further underlines the massive profits being generated in the north Louth-south Armagh-north Monaghan area and controlled by members of the IRA, which was supposed to have ended all its activities seven years ago.
Last Tuesday, customs officers uncovered yet another diesel laundering operation at Silverstream, Co Monaghan.
The two plants had a capacity to launder six million litres of fuel a year, and could have represented a €3m loss to the State in terms of taxes, customs said.
Customs seized 20,000 litres of oil, a lorry, a van and five bags of bleaching earth, along with other equipment. Three tonnes of toxic waste were also uncovered.
A report commissioned by the tobacco industry last year by accountancy firm Grant Thornton estimated that smugglers were supplying 28 per cent of the cigarettes smoked in Ireland, constituting a loss to Revenue put at €586m per annum.
Customs and gardai seized 58 million cigarettes up to June this year.
By Jim Cusack