'Imagine if you'd 10 bombs with a timer -- we could be over to London and back. Just tick, tick, tick . . . and we're gone'
Published 22/10/2011 | 05:00
For Michael Campbell it was the realisation of a terrorist's dream.
Over the years, Campbell (39) and his associates in the dissident republican group, the Real IRA, had been thwarted in their efforts to secure the firepower they needed to mount a major terrorist campaign in Northern Ireland and Britain.
The leadership had the experience and the know-how. Its chief-of-staff Michael McKevitt had been the quartermaster of the Provisional IRA until he split from the mainstream organisation in November 1997 following a row at an "army executive" meeting in Falcarragh, Co Donegal, over the peace process.
McKevitt left with a number of trusted friends, including his right-hand man, Michael Campbell's brother Liam.
McKevitt managed to bring some weaponry with him and also boosted his arsenal initially with a purchase in Eastern Europe. But he suffered a setback when the bulk of his weapons were discovered in a bunker at Stamullen, Co Meath.
Gardai also intercepted a string of homemade bombs as they were being transported across the Border for attacks in the North during 1998, until the Omagh massacre delivered a huge body blow to the group.
As they tried to re-organise in the wake of the Omagh fallout, the new leadership, with McKevitt in Portlaoise jail, set about organising fresh arms purchases. By 2004, discussions were well advanced about making contacts again in Eastern Europe. But a number of security agencies were already aware of their plans and this led to the creation of Operation Uncritical, in which undercover British MI5 agents would play a key role.
Unaware that a massive international 'sting' was being set up, Michael Campbell, who is from Upper Faughart, Dundalk, Co Louth, and others developed their scheme and approached a middle-aged London businessman, known as Robert Jardine, who was known previously to the Real IRA because of his involvement in cigarette smuggling.
The terrorists did not know that Jardine had been recruited by MI5 in the autumn of 2002 although some of them had suspicions and made it clear that he would pay with his life if he double-crossed them.
In January 2005, Jardine supplied a female associate of Campbell with a price list of weapons, and nine months later she produced a handwritten account of their requirements.
A fresh shopping list was presented in January 2006 and this included Semtex explosives, rocket launchers, hand grenades, sniper rifles and RPG-7 rockets, all of which had been staple items in the Provisionals' armoury in the past.
However, the talks met with a last-minute hitch and were not renewed until August 2007 when Michael Campbell, along with an associate known as Sean, were sent to Lithuania for a face-to-face meet with Jardine's contact, an MI5 agent, known as Tomas.
Campbell's long-held dream looked set to become a reality the next day as he finally met the main arms dealer, whom the Real IRA nicknamed Rambo, another undercover agent. They walked into a field where Campbell was photographed secretly as he test-fired some of the weapons and inspected others. Highly pleased with their proposed purchase, Campbell and Sean left a deposit of €5,000.
During this meeting the two were also secretly recorded as they discussed the type of weaponry they wanted and how they would be put to use.
Campbell said, in almost an excited whisper: "You imagine us getting over to England if you'd 10 of them (bombs) and 10 clocks in a holdall. You imagine, with a six-hour timer, we could be over to London and back".
And he added: "Just tick, tick, tick . . . gone. Leave it anywhere."
In January 2009 he returned to Lithuania, where he was again captured on camera in a garage while negotiating the final deal with Rambo. As he pointed at some of the equipment, he asked Rambo: "Would be good for booby traps, yes? See them there now, they would be good for under a car, wouldn't they. Booby trapping a car? Anchored to the wheel and the car goes around. Bang."
Campbell was also filmed handing over a €1,000 deposit for a Barrett sniper rifle. Rambo asked Campbell what he intended to do with the Barrett. He replied: "We will be shooting across borders. The Border. You know, from one side to the other." Rambo then asked who were the intended targets and Campbell replied coldly: "Brits".
Asked who he represented, Campbell said: "The IRA".
He had done and said enough to implicate himself fully in the arms trap and minutes later was arrested. In a court in the Lithuanian capital, Vilnius, Campbell pleaded his innocence during his two-year trial and argued that he had been the victim of entrapment.
But Judge Arunas Kisielus yesterday sentenced Campbell to 12 years' imprisonment for weapons offences and supporting a terrorist group.
Prosecutors are also seeking the extradition of his brother, Liam, who is in custody in Northern Ireland, and Brendan McGuigan, from Omeath, Co Louth.