The IRA, ETA, ‘Old terrorism’ & IED Use

By: Katerina Zejdlova, Analyst, IB Consultancy

The month of October marks two significant anniversaries in this regard: the 1994 eventual final ceasefire & the final and permanent 2011 cessation of armed activity by the Basque militant group Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (ETA).

Improvised explosive devices (IEDs) have long been in common use for the purposes of terrorism. The month of October marks two significant anniversaries in this regard – the 1994 eventual final ceasefire in Northern Ireland between the Irish Republican Army (IRA), the Northern Irish Loyalist forces and the British forces, as well as the final and permanent 2011 cessation of armed activity by the Basque militant group Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (ETA) in Spain. Both of these milestones marked an end to two decades-long prominent national-level separatist conflicts in Europe, also commonly referred to as notable examples of ‘old terrorism’ in academic literature. This article will take a look back at these two militant groups, specifically focusing on IEDs and their use as a part of the tactics of ‘old’ terrorism which utilizes violence with finite political goals in mind and commonly limits itself to a specific territory. With ETA and the IRA having been the two major separatist terrorist groups in Europe active in the same era and utilizing heavily overlapping tactics, it comes as no surprise they were also known to maintain contact since the 1970s, including the exchange of arms as well as explosive training and knowledge. As such, it is thus fitting to jointly look back at their violent tactics involving IEDs use.

ETA, the Basque Country and Spain

ETA originally emerged in the 1950s largely in response to the suppression of Basque and other regional rights in Spain under the far-right dictatorship of Francisco Franco. ETA’s first attack utilizing explosives which took place in 1973 therefore targeted the car of Franco’s prime minister in Madrid. Following this ‘debut,’ detonating IEDs placed in vehicles (VBIEDs) has in time become ETA’s ‘signature’ method of explosive use during the decades of its activity. Its IED attacks commonly targeted high-profile politicians or military members, however notably they also resulted in extensive collateral civilian casualties. When placed in victims’ vehicles, ETA’s car bombs were scarcely manually ignited but rather e.g. wired to be set off after reaching a specific speed limit. Alternatively, ETA was also known to place explosives inside cars parked along the routes the victims were known to take and remotely activated when the victim’s car passed by. Apart from larger car bombs ETA however also commonly used simpler smaller bombs consisting of a few kilos of explosives, a timer and a detonator placed inside e.g. cooking pots, as well as standard letter bombs.

The explosives used by ETA were initially the Goma-2 explosives – a nitroglycol and ammonium nitrate-based explosive manufactured and widely used in industrial and mining settings in Spain – or ammonal explosives. During the latter stages of the conflict ETA switched to the use of Tytadyn – a powerful and fast-burning compressed dynamite used in mining and manufacturing in France. Factories making Tytadyn were raided multiple times by ETA in collaboration with smaller French separatist groups. During these assaults tonnes of the explosive had been stolen, with some used in attacks but much of it also recovered in subsequent raids by the Spanish police.

Northern Ireland, the IRA and the ‘Troubles’

The history of the Northern Irish conflict and IED use is slightly more complicated, as it involves various actors as well as different factions that have taken on the name of the IRA throughout the course of the violent conflict. Even though the IRA’s roots reach all the way to the Irish War of Independence in the 1920s, this was not the earliest use of explosives in the Northern Irish conflict. In the late 19th century the Fenian pro-Irish rebels orchestrated a number of bombings in London, first using gunpowder and subsequently a then-novel explosive – the dynamite. The first of these attacks constituted the first recorded planned insurgent bombing campaign in history. Later on, early IRA bombings took place in the 1930s, however its most significant bombing campaign took place as a part of the so-called ‘Troubles’ – the main phase of the Northern Irish conflict from 1968 onwards. During the Troubles bombing became the main go-to terrorist tactic, with some 10,000 bomb attacks having taken place in Ireland and the UK during the course of the three decades. These bombing were not only undertaken by the IRA – primarily the Provisional IRA (PIRA) – but also by the opposed loyalist paramilitary groups, namely the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF).

The IRA became one of the most advanced militant organizations when it comes to IED manufacturing. Initially starting off with primitive devices, the IRA’s bomb-makers gradually perfected high-level skills in IED manufacturing, having also produced many pioneering bomb technologies. Part of the IRA’s sophistication in IED manufacturing was achieved due their rapid ‘standardization’ of bomb-making.

The PIRA went from having makers of varied level of skills producing each bomb to an organized way of bomb-making, with various parts of the bomb manufactured by specialized individuals and eventually put together under the supervision of the PIRA’s ‘Engineering Department,’ ensuring the quality of the explosives produced. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that even though the UVF also developed certain technical prowess, they had never quite caught up with the IRA’s IED manufacturing skills.

The common types of smaller bombs used by the IRA were grenades, petrol bombs, incendiaries, dynamite, gelignite devices, fire bombs or letter bombs. The IRA’s home-made IEDs essentially converted many industrial, household and agricultural items (e.g. fertilizers) into agents of destruction. Moreover, vehicle bombs also became a prominent tool of the IRA who perfected the tactic and added additional sophisticated measures such as time delay (including experimentation with the so-called ‘sleeper bombs’), remote radio control and booby traps. These explosives would commonly contain a mixture of ammonium nitrate and fuel. Up to a few hundred kilos of explosives could be loaded onto a vehicle, making the IRA’s VBIEDs powerful enough to destroy whole buildings. One of the largest bombs detonated by the IRA was an ammonium nitrate IED in 1993, yielding the explosive power of a 1,200 kg TNT equivalent.

Moreover, an infamous terrorist bombing tactic called the ‘proxy bomb’ was adopted during the Troubles. This tactic, first used by the IRA, involves forcing people (commonly employees of the security forces) under threat to drive car bombs directly to British military targets. The reason for the adoption of this method stemmed from the increased security measures taken by the British forces, making it harder for IRA members to simply plant bombs and escape. Later on, the UVF replicated this method in a number of bombings in the Republic of Ireland. This tactic was further emulated e.g. by the FARC rebels in Colombia, with suspected IRA members even known to have attempted to train Colombian rebels in bomb-making.

EOD in light of the Basque and Northern Irish conflicts

Until the intensive bombing campaigns of the Troubles the British possessed very limited EOD experience. As such, British security forces were therefore initially rather unprepared for addressing the rapidly emerging IED threat that came with the escalation of the conflict. However, the Northern Irish conflict essentially fostered rapid development and refinement of British EOD capabilities. Lessons were learned from a number of bomb disposal deaths in the early 1970s, resulting in the development of a rigorous EOD doctrine by the mid-1970s. Moreover, new equipment including remotely operated EOD vehicles became commonplace, and as such aided to further reduce the risk to EOD technicians. Prompted by the intensive IED use during the Northern Irish conflict, the Ammunition Technicians of the British Royal Logistics Corps (RAOC) consequently became a highly experienced bomb disposal unit.

Spanish EOD capabilities before the ETA attacks had been at an even more rudimentary stage. Until the first ETA bombing Spain did not have a dedicated EOD unit. Only in 1975 the TEDAX bomb disposal unit was created in response to ETA’s attacks, initially drawing on explosive handling expertise from the military. However, this knowledge of military-grade explosives did not extend to homemade IEDs which the newly established unit needed to adapt to. The Police TEDAX unit was first deployed in 1977, successfully dismantling an IED placed by the GRAPO Leninist militant group. Since then various TEDAX units have been created as a part of Spanish national and regional police bodies as well as the Armed Forces.

As such, the intensive IED use in the Northern Irish and Basque conflicts substantially revolutionized the Spanish and British EOD response doctrines and led both countries to develop highly skilled EOD response teams. These decades of terrorist violence therefore not only led to the rapid development of IED expertise for malicious purposes, but also prompted substantial improvement in EOD response. This experience and knowledge would later prove to be of renewed relevance with the advent of post-9/11 terrorist attacks both countries suffered in the subsequent years.