Northern Ireland

Shopping for bombs: How MI5 caught the Real IRA's Michael Campbell

BBC Ireland Correspondent Mark Simpson explains the background to the MI5 weapons sting against the Real IRA.

It was codenamed Operation Uncritical and it involved MI5 agents travelling from England to Ireland, to Poland to Spain, and eventually to a field in the Lithuanian countryside.

It was there that Irishman Michael Campbell, 39, from County Louth, was caught red-handed trying to buy guns for the Real IRA.

The key to the MI5 sting was a middle-aged London businessman, Robert Jardine. He was involved in importing and exporting goods, including furniture and contact lenses.

He also had a secret sideline in cigarette-smuggling. This is where the Real IRA came in.

They knew Jardine, and Jardine knew them.


In 2004, when the Real IRA began discussing importing weapons from eastern Europe, they knew that Jardine could help. What they did not realise was that he was an agent working for MI5 at the time.

Nonetheless, they were suspicious. At one stage they tested him.

They brought him to meet one of their leaders in south Armagh and put him in the back of a van, the inside of which was covered in bubble-wrap.

On the floor of the van was a spade.

They were clearly trying to scare Jardine into thinking he was about to dig his own grave. However, he kept his nerve, acted as normal and convinced the Real IRA that he could be trusted.

In October 2005 they gave him a shopping list of weapons which they wanted. Three months later, Jardine was given another handwritten list.

The wish-list included sniper rifles, rocket launchers, RPG-7 rockets, hand-grenades and Semtex explosives.

By this stage, Jardine had already gone to Poland and Lithuania to put them in touch with a weapons contact, known simply as Tomas.

He too was acting for the intelligence services and played along with the sting.

It seemed that a deal was about to be done, but the Real IRA suddenly went cold on the idea.

It was not until the summer of 2007 that their interest stirred again. Michael Campbell, and an associate known as Shaun, were sent to Lithuania to look at the weapons on offer.

They stayed at a country lodge and Tomas showed them the weaponry.

The next day, the main arms-dealer arrived. The two Irishmen nicknamed him Rambo. They failed to spot that he too was a role-player involved in the MI5 sting.

Having spent two days looking at the arms and explosives available, Campbell and Shaun were secretly recorded talking about bombs.

Campbell said: "You imagine us getting over to England, if you'd ten of them and ten clocks in a holdall. You imagine, with a six hour timer, we could be over to London and back."

Shaun's reply was mainly inaudible, but he was heard saying "two or three".

Campbell added: "Just tick tick tick tick, gone. Leave it anywhere."

After inspecting and firing weapons they left a 5,000 euros deposit.

Secret recordings

Two months later they met Rambo again, this time in Marbella on the southern Spanish coast.

The following January, Campbell went back to Lithuania to see the weapons he had bought.

During a secretly recorded exchange, he was asked why he needed them.

Campbell said: "We will be shooting from across borders. The border."

Rambo replied: "And who will be targets?"

Campbell simply said: "Brits."

He was later asked about which organisation he represented and replied the "IRA".

Image caption The handwritten weapons list given to Jardine

Shortly afterwards, Campbell was arrested.

The episode shows that groups like the Real IRA are following the terror textbook of the Provisional IRA. They are trying to buy weapons from abroad for use in Northern Ireland and, if possible, London.

Libya was the main supply route for the Provisionals in the 1980s; the dissidents have been concentrating on Europe with much less success.

The Real IRA split from the mainstream IRA after its ceasefire in 1997. The dissidents brought with them some weapons and explosives, but not enough to sustain a long campaign of violence.

They have been trying a number of international suppliers, however, the Lithuanian route now appears to be closed.

Crucial to the success of the MI5 sting was the London businessman Robert Jardine.

He now has a new life and new identity, far away from home.

There is little doubt that if the Real IRA found him, they would kill him.

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