Manufacturing Terrorism: The Case of Northern Ireland

A no-deal Brexit risks a hard border between the UK’s Northern Ireland territory and the sovereign Republic of Ireland (Southern Ireland), which is a member of the European Union. Under the Good Friday Agreement (1998), Southern Ireland has the right to enjoy cross-border access to the North. Ex-MI5 chief, Eliza Manningham-Buller, recently warned that a hard Brexit could see a return to the violence that, for decades, plagued the region. Author, academic and terrorism expert TJ Coles reports.

But let’s not forget that the intelligence agencies and the state in general have six ways of manufacturing terrorism: 1) Attacking other countries and waiting for retaliation (blowback); 2) organising terrorists to do their bidding (proxies); 3) goading individuals or cells into terrorism (provocateurs); 4) allowing terrorists to commit crimes (green-lighting); 5) attacking civilians and blaming others (false-flags); 6) and, in at least one documented case (in Al-Hurriyah, Iraq), using crisis actors to pretend to be victims (simulations). In my new book Manufacturing Terrorism (2018, Clairview), I document the many reasons for state-sponsored terrorism. Reasons include justifying foreign wars and domestic repression.

Northern Ireland is the territory that Irish Republicans failed to win back from the British Empire, hence it constitutes part of the UK. By the 1960s, decades of oppressive policies against the minority Catholic communities by the UK-supporting Protestants led to a civil rights struggle for Irish Catholics. The struggle blended with Republicanism and saw a rise in support among Irish Catholics for the socialist political party, Sinn Féin. During the so-called Troubles (circa 1960s-90s), a war was fought between the Sinn Féin-backed Irish Republican Army (IRA) and its offshoots, and the British authorities and their paramilitary Unionist groups, including the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF).

The so-called Troubles make a case study for how terrorism is manufactured. The British intelligence agencies, including MI5, MI6, Special Branch and Army intelligence, employed policies that resulted in blowback. They also used proxies and provocateurs, green-lighted certain attacks and even engaged in false-flag operations. Let’s look at some examples.


Violence begets violence. Former IRA leader and later deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland, Martin McGuinness, told The Journal (Ireland): ‘I come from a community that was discriminated against for far too long – not just treated like second class citizens, but third class citizens in our city. As a result of that there was a conflict.’ Tony Doherty’s 31-year-old father, Patrick, was murdered by a British soldier on Bloody Sunday 1972, the infamous murder of 14 civilians. Patrick was shot from behind as he crawled from the scene. The soldier who killed him claimed he had been carrying a pistol. In 1981, aged 18, Tom Doherty joined the IRA and served time in prison for planting a bomb. Reflecting on Bloody Sunday, he says: ‘My journey towards the IRA happened on that day … [It’s] not that surprising to find that as an 18-year-old I ended up walking down a street in my own city with a bomb in my hand … It changed the discourse even among children in that we started talking about murder.’

Breige Brownlee says: ‘I was 11 years old. The house has been getting wrecked with British soldiers in. My fathers, brothers, were arrested and going through general harassment in the home. And, seeing what was happening on the streets, I … joined the IRA in the late ‘70s.’ British Grenadier Guard Mick Corbett served two tours of Northern Ireland. He told the Derry Journal: ‘It gave me a lot more understanding and a different perspective and empathy. If I had been born in Creggan I know I would have joined the IRA.’ Bloody Sunday and the Hunger Strikes (1981) ‘are seen by many as the two seminal watershed moments in the Northern Ireland conflict that increased passive and active support for [IRA] activities,’ write two researchers, Gill and Horgan.


The British state, centred in London, supported various paramilitary forces in Northern Ireland that were loyal to the Queen. Although they had their own agendas, the UVF and the Ulster Defence Association (UDA) were also proxies of the British. In 1974, for example, three car bombs exploded in Dublin and Monaghan. Thirty-four died, including an unborn baby. The IRA was blamed, but in 1993 the pro-British UVF admitted responsibility. In a defence case, the Court of Criminal Appeal refused to publish information given to an inquiry into the bombings.

In 1987, to give another instance, a shipment of weapons arrived in Belfast. One of the arms dealers alleges that the supplier Armscor (which provided weapons for Apartheid South Africa) struck, at the behest of MI5, a deal via a British agent working for the pro-British UDA to supply them with arms. Journalist Ian Cobain reports that within weeks of the shipment arriving, Michael Stone threw grenades and shot at funeral attendees, murdering three people. Pro-UK groups killed 230 people in the six years that followed the arrival of the weapons shipment, compared to 70 in the previous six years. In 1994, Loyalists murdered six people in a pub in Loughinisland, County Down, with weapons from the shipment.


In 1982, the British Army set up a secret organisation called the Force Research Unit (FRU). The late Brian Nelson, a British soldier working for the FRU, was told by his handlers (one of whom was a Sergeant Margaret Walshore of Scotland Yard) that they wanted to take control of the pro-British Loyalist gangs and paramilitaries, who were murdering Republicans. Nelson posed as a taxi driver and operated in Republican areas. The British police force operating in Northern Ireland, the Royal Ulster Constabulary, gave Nelson ‘a considerable number of files’ (BBC) on Republican targets. In addition, Nelson infiltrated the pro-British UDA and encouraged the pro-British UVF to carry out assassinations of Republicans. In exchange for information, the UVF gave him explosives. Nelson developed an index of 1,000 Republican targets that the British and Loyalists wanted dead, including their photos and addresses.

Detective-Sergeant Nicholas Benwell who worked on the Stevens Inquiry agrees that Nelson was a ‘provocateur’: ‘Nelson went around North Belfast trying to recruit an assassination team, and when one unit were unable to assist, he moved on until he found another one.’ Benwell was also tasked with interviewing Nelson’s handler, Sgt. Walshore. Fearing exposure, the British sent Cambridge-based Deputy-Constable (later Sir) John Stevens to ‘investigate.’ Scotland Yard, Special Branch, MI5, the British Army and its units, as well as the Northern Ireland police and the RUC obstructed the inquiry in their own ways, even denying the existence of special agents like Nelson.


Ex-Irish PM Bertie Ahern established two judicial inquiries. British PM Tony Blair denied the investigators access to key information. It wasn’t until June 2015 that the Southern Ireland police, the An Garda Síochána, were ordered to hand their files on the case to the Irish government. Irish News saw documents that were allegedly stolen and confirm that one of the FRU’s operatives was Peter Keeley (a.k.a., Kevin Fulton). Keeley alleges that, on several occasions, he passed information onto his British handlers concerning impending IRA attacks, but the attacks were allowed to happen. In 1990, Eoin Morley was murdered, allegedly by the IRA’s splinter group, the Irish People’s Liberation Organisation. Eoin’s mother Eilish alleges that Britain’s Special Branch withheld intelligence and that Britain’s Royal Ulster Constabulary failed to investigate. The murder was one of many cases where, according to a lawyer’s statement, the Chief Constable ‘failed to effectively investigate th[e] incidents or … [Keeley’s] involvement in them, because it was regarded as too important not to terminate his cover.’


The Military Reaction Force (MRF, 1971-73) was a secret, plain-clothes unit of the 39th Infantry Brigade of the British Army, founded as part of Operation Banner. The infiltration and death squad consisted of around 40 individuals, some ex-Parachute Regiment, Royal Marines, SAS and SBS. It operated mainly in Belfast and used tactics honed in Britain’s colonies, including Cyprus and Malaya, says Lt. Col. Tony Le Tissier, formerly of the British Royal Military Police. Operatives later disclosed to the BBC that the British allowed the MRF to murder (Northern) Irish people, including alleged IRA suspects. The MRF used Tommy guns, a weapon of the IRA. A former MRF soldier says: ‘We were not there to act like an Army unit, we were there to act like a terror group.’

Both Loyalists and Republicans set up physical barricades in their areas, partly in response to drive-by murders committed by both sides. The MRF would shoot both unarmed and armed guards (‘give ’em a blast,’ as one MRF soldier said). Because the MRF soldiers wore plain clothes, communities on both sides blamed the other. As the British Ministry of Defence put it in now-declassified files: ‘There can be no useful purpose in admitting the existence of any such organisation … There seems to be considerable advantage in maintaining as much confusion as possible.’


As I document in the book, this practice of creating terrorists is not confined to Britain or Northern Ireland. The US created an extensive network of right-wing terror groups in Europe from the end of the Second World War to the early-1990s as part of Operation Gladio; the French secret services used and abused Algerians long into the 1990s as part of their neo-colonial wars; and all sides today are working with jihadis to topple enemy regimes in the Middle East. Until scholars and activists learn to stop dismissing such well-documented facts as paranoid ‘conspiracy theory,’ the deep state and even the executive will continue to have a free hand in sowing the seeds of terror.

Buy TJ Coles’ new book Manufacturing Terrorism