How an MI5 'weapons dealer' tricked a Real IRA leader
- 2 July 2010
- From the section Northern Ireland
It was a case which could have come straight from the pages of a spy novel - but in fact it was a deadly real-life narrative.
A self-proclaimed leader of the Real IRA attending exotic meetings across Europe, plotting to secure the sophisticated weaponry which would be used to target the British commander of UN forces in Bosnia as well as police officers in Northern Ireland.
In fact Paul McCaugherty had been enmeshed in what a judge described as "an elaborate and successful hoax", which ended in his conviction on a plethora of terrorist charges on Wednesday.
At the fulcrum of the operation, said in court to have been directed by MI5, was the use of so-called Covert Human Intelligence Sources (CHIS) known in court as "Ali" and "Amir".
Ali was the key figure. Posing as a Pakistani weapons dealer, he met McCaugherty on six occasions between August 2004 and June 2006.
The locations varied, from Amsterdam and Bruges to Istanbul.
However, the main focus of the conversations remained the same - how, in exchange for 100,000 euros, Ali would deliver plastic explosives and scores of automatic weapons.
McCaugherty was occasionally frank about how they would be used.
He talked of a plot against General Sir Michael Rose, now retired, but one of the most distinguished soldiers in the British Army.
He spoke of noticing how police left the back door of their Land Rovers open during the hot, summer months and how he would toss inside the grenades Ali was promising to deliver.
The case also revealed details of how the Real IRA planned to fund the cost of the expensive arsenal.
At the very beginning, Amir "bumped into" another defendant who was buying cheap cigarettes on the European continent.
An MI5 officer, named only as "3522" told the court that security services had established a link between dissident republicans' lucrative cigarette smuggling activities and concurrent attempts to procure weapons.
McCaugherty also boasted to Ali about a Ponzi scheme which his organisation was operating at home in Ireland.
He claimed it was a "semi-con" into which individuals were investing as much as £7,000.
Both McCaugherty and another defendant, Dermot Declan Gregory, were also convicted of using the profits from a Portuguese restaurant for terrorist ends.
This was a small diner called the Panda in Alvor, which was at one stage generating about £700 a month from a Dutch tenant.
Unaware that his every word and gesture were being taped and filmed, McCaugherty also gave chilling information about the group he worked for.
He said that it was "one of the heads of the same snake" and the same group which had been responsible for making the bomb which killed 29 people in Omagh 12 years ago.
One of the men the families of the Omagh victims believed had a role in the attack was Seamus McKenna.
They took a civil case against him and a number of other men and he was the only one found not to be liable.
However, during a police interview in which he was pleading duress, Gregory told officers that he believed that Seamus McKenna had been involved in forcing him to hand over the deeds of the Portuguese restaurant.
He also volunteered his view that Seamus McKenna had been involved in the Omagh bombing.
He said: "Before the Omagh bomb, he called in my yard looking a light for an Almera and I think it was a Nissan Almera was involved in the scouting of that."
Twelve years after Omagh, the police have never had any reliable information about the make of car which they believe scouted the route for the car containing the bomb.
But while the case shed significant light on the activities of the Real IRA, the methods of the security services remained largely in the shadows.
However, some details did emerge about the methods used.
Amir, who was primarily used in the initial stages of the operation, was described as "freelance, employed occasionally" and "paid a daily fee when required".
His role was to play the role of someone who was prepared to sell cheap but genuine cigarettes and other items like laptops and clothes.
When he "bumped into" another defendant he first offered him cheap cigarettes before quickly moving the conversation on to the possibility of selling him weapons.
The defendant's lawyer, Orlando Pownall QC, successfully argued that this was entrapment and his client was cleared.
That Amir was not a seasoned operator seems clear.
It emerged that he did not believe he would have to give evidence and when it became clear that he would have to, he demanded an honour from the Queen and payment of £650,000 for doing so.
The star of the show though was Ali who played his role so successfully that despite regularly admitting suspicions that he was set up, McCaugherty remained fixed to his ruthless goal.
His stubborness will likely be rewarded with a severe prison term when he is sentenced in September.