COMMITTEE ON INTERNATIONAL RELATIONS US House of Representatives
April 24, 2001 Investigative findings on the activities of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) in Colombia.
Prepared by the Majority Staff of the House International Relations Committee
On August 11, 2001, two members of the Irish Republican Army (IRA), along with a representative of Sinn Fein, the IRA's political wing, who was known to be stationed in Cuba and reportedly on the payroll of the Cuban Communist Party, were arrested by Colombian authorities at the El Dorado airport in Bogota after leaving territory in southern Colombia controlled by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), a designated foreign terrorist organization. The three men were carrying false identification documents (passports) and were found to have traces of explosives on their clothing and on items in their luggage. Two of the Irish nationals were the IRA's leading explosives engineer and a mortar expert.
The Irish nationals were first detained by Colombian authorities and were initially charged by the Fiscalia, the Colombian prosecutor's office, for using false travel documents. The three claimed they were in Colombia to monitor ongoing peace efforts in that country between the government of President Andreas Pastrana and various rebel groups. The three were later formally indicted by the Fiscalia in February, 2002 and charged with training FARC terrorists in explosives and using false passports to cover their true identities while in Colombia.
In addition to having positive forensic trace evidence of explosives on their belongings, the three Irish nationals have been identified by a FARC defector who surrendered to the Fiscalia in 2001. This individual reportedly identified photographs of three Irish nationals as the same individuals from whom he received explosives training in the FARC safe haven. Committee investigators are aware of additional corroborating witnesses in addition to this FARC defector, and as a result, Colombian authorities believe they have developed a strong criminal case against the three Irish nationals.
The initial case against the Irish nationals was developed by Colombian military intelligence, and both the U.S. and the British embassies in Bogota responded to inquiries from Colombian authorities regarding the three after their arrest on August 11. Because two of the three were traveling on falsified British passports, the first information about the arrests was received by the British embassy in Bogota when a weekend duty officer received a call from Colombian authorities. The initial British response to the arrests was to conduct routine consular work and to request assistance from the U.S. embassy in Bogota.
The obvious question, of course, is that if the IRA were legitimately concerned with the peace process in Colombia, why would the detained Irish nationals have needed false passports to conceal their identities, and why would the IRA have sent experts in explosives? Following the arrest of the Irish nationals, the Colombian government, in fact, changed its procedure for entry of foreigners into the FARC safe haven, requiring a license from its peace envoy, until the demilitarized zone (DMZ) was finally closed on February 20, 2002.
The claim by the three Irish nationals that their activities in the DMZ were related to the peace process does not appear to be supported by the facts. The Colombian government, which organized and tracked mediation efforts by outside groups and individuals including numerous Europeans, did not know of the three's activities in the FARC safe haven.
Committee investigators interviewed ambassadors representing the group of ten nations working in support of the Colombian government's peace process with the FARC. These diplomats were in the FARC safe haven in Colombia at the very same time in July/August, 2001 that the three Irish nationals were in the DMZ. None of these diplomats recognized these Irishmen by name or by the photos that committee investigators showed them, nor had they been aware of any FARC links to the Irish or the Irish peace process. Additionally, they said the FARC leadership with whom they met to discuss the peace process never mentioned the Irish peace process or these Irish nationals. However, a senior Latin American diplomat interviewed said he was not surprised that the IRA may have been brought in to train FARC in urban warfare techniques to counter the $1.3 billion in U.S. counter-drug assistance, including helicopters, provided to Colombia beginning in FY 2000.
Events in Colombia make it clear that global terrorist networks are interchangeable, aggressive, and know no boundaries or borders, threatening anyone and any nation. The situation in Colombia illustrates the growing phenomenon of proceeds from illicit drugs playing a major role in financing the activities of global terrorist networks. The FARC is believed by knowledgeable Colombians to take in as much as $2 million a day in illicit drug proceeds. British sources suggest, although there is no hard evidence, that the IRA may have received as much as $2 million for the explosives training they provided to the FARC. There also may be some ideological alliances, as some in Colombia believe. There is no evidence of any payment in drugs by the FARC for the IRA training.
Colombian authorities believe that at least five and as many as15 IRA-linked individuals have been traveling in and out of Colombia since at least 1998. According to Colombian authorities, the arrests in August, 2001 are merely the first publicly-exposed IRA activity in Colombia. However, more alarming than the number of IRA-related individuals who have visited Colombia is the stature of some of these individuals who Colombian authorities identified as senior IRA explosive experts and technicians.
Colombia produces 90 percent of the cocaine and at least 70 percent of the heroin sold in the United States. Largely because of this serious drug threat, the U.S. has a significant presence in that country to assist the Colombian authorities in fighting that threat.
The FARC is formally designated as a foreign terrorist organization (FTO) by the U.S. Department of State. It is thought to be "the most dangerous international terrorist group based in this hemisphere," according to a State Department official. The FARC narco-terrorists openly target American civilians in Colombia, kidnaping and killing them. U.S. federal indictments were issued on March 18, 2002 against several FARC leaders based on evidence of conspiracy to traffic drugs to the United States.
Improvements in the FARC's ability to carry out terrorist bombings which Colombian authorities link to the IRA's activity directly impact our national interests in Colombia. The country is already the third largest recipient of U.S. aid, and of particular concern is the large American presence (DEA, special forces, contractors, embassy personnel, etc.) related to drug-fighting efforts in Colombia. Hundreds of temporary duty personnel (TDY) are in Colombia on any given day. As American assistance increases and the U.S. enlarges its direct counter-terrorism role against the FARC, more Americans could be at risk from the IRA terrorist training of the FARC identified by Colombian authorities.
In light of the long history of very strict IRA discipline against freelancing by its membership, the only real question remaining in the committee's inquiry concerns what the Sinn Fein leadership (IRA's political wing) knew about these IRA activities in Colombia, and when did they learn of them. These were the questions posed in Chairman Henry Hyde's March 13th invitation letter to Gerry Adams, president of Sinn Fein. In a brief meeting, a senior Sinn Fein leader was adamant about the group's lack of knowledge of these events in Colombia. Only time and history can ultimately judge this response. However, since the congressional staff's most recent return from Colombia, the IRA has suggested an answer to the questions in its April 8th statement on its much welcomed and constructive second arms decommissioning: "...the IRA is a highly disciplined and committed organization...we are relying on the discipline and commitment of our support base and volunteers."
Some apparently would hope this matter would disappear so as to not impede shared governance in Northern Ireland. The United States does not have the luxury of turning a blind eye when American lives and national interests are put at risk by IRA activity in Colombia. Colombian authorities believe that the rapidly escalating casualties they have suffered from terrorist attacks since the FARC safe haven was ended in early 2002 are in substantial measure attributable to these IRA training activities.
At the request of a bipartisan group of members, the committee's investigative staff has conducted an extensive nine-month inquiry, interviewing Colombian officials, advisors, and police. Committee investigators also conducted inquiries in Cuba, Mexico, the United Kingdom, Ireland (including Northern Ireland), and the United States. In the wake of the August arrests of the three Irish nationals, Investigative Counsel John Mackey has conducted dozens of interviews, met with numerous experts from law enforcement and intelligence services here and abroad, and reviewed documents and materials. Absent the excellent work of Colombian military intelligence leading to the arrests of the three Irish nationals in August, 2001 and their excellent follow-up along with that of the Colombian police and the Fiscalia, the IRA activity in Colombia would likely have continued unnoticed, indefinitely.
The IRA has had well-established links with the FARC narco-terrorists in Colombia since at least 1998. More Irish nationals than just the three arrested in Colombia in August, 2001 may have been involved in visiting Colombia for possible terrorist activities. It appears they have been training in the FARC safe haven in explosives management, including mortar and possibly car-bomb urban terrorist techniques, and possibly using the rural jungles of the safe haven as a location to test and improve the IRA's own terrorist weapons and techniques.
Explosives management training for the FARC by the IRA, and possibly by other foreign-based terrorists suspected by the Colombians, such as Cubans, Iranians, ETA (the Spanish Basque terrorist group), among others, has markedly improved the FARC's proficiency in urban terrorism in the last few years. ETA has had past relations with the IRA, is active in both Cuba and Colombia, and may provide the link which brought the FARC and IRA together. (Note: The Sinn Fein representative arrested August, 2001 in Colombia was Cuban-based and Spanish-speaking.)
New techniques in urban terrorism are being employed by the FARC in car bombings which target police explosives teams and other first-responders whose job is to dismantle or neutralize these deadly devices. (The police have lost more than 10 percent of their bomb technicians to bombings in the last 12 months.) This is a typical IRA method of operation. The use of mobile mortars on trucks and pickups, which the FARC is getting increasingly effective at using, is also strikingly similar to known IRA explosive techniques and practices. Neither committee investigators nor the Colombians can find credible explanations for the increased, more sophisticated capacity for these specific terror tactics now being employed by the FARC, other than IRA training.
Alleged IRA training is now having a severe and adverse impact on Colombian life. Apparently IRA explosives management training techniques are resulting in more effective explosives attacks against the Colombian urban infrastructure including bridges, power lines, reservoirs, and other facilities. The training provided by the IRA and exposed by the arrests last summer has been followed by numerous bombings and other terrorist attacks. The military and police casualties mount daily, weakening Colombian democracy further. One police Colonel from Narino Department (a FARC stronghold) told us of an unprecedented loss of three police bomb technicians and 19 police officers who were killed by FARC mortars in just the last 18 months alone.
Colombian authorities assert that not only has the IRA operated in the former safe haven on behalf of the FARC, but also the Iranians, Cubans, and possibly ETA (Basque terrorists), among others. Colombia is a potential breeding ground for international terror equaled perhaps only by Afghanistan, and the IRA findings are the strongest among these global links because of the arrests of the three Irish nationals and the accompanying evidence. It is likely that in the former FARC safe haven, all of these terrorist groups had been sharing techniques, honing their terrorism skills, using illicit drug proceeds in payment and collectively helping to challenge the rule of law in Colombia, the oldest democracy in South America.
As the forces of global terrorism, illicit drugs, and organized crime converge upon Colombia to produce new challenges to the international system, the United States must reassess its current policy permitting military assistance provided under Plan Colombia to be used exclusively for counter-narcotics programs. The threat of drug-financed terrorism and organized crime of a global reach, illustrated by developments in Colombia, must be addressed by changes in U.S. law that will permit American assistance for counter-terrorism programs.