Are Ex-Militants Peddling Terror Overseas?

Looking grim and neat in their pressed shirts and ties, the three Irishmen at the center of a diplomatic storm that threatens to rattle the fragile Northern Ireland peace process appeared in a Colombian court for the first time last month since their controversial trial began a year ago.

The strange, compelling saga of three Irishmen in a Colombian court dates back to August 2001, when Martin McCauley, James Monaghan and Niall Connolly were arrested in the Colombian capital of Bogota as they stepped off a plane arriving from a region of the country held by FARC, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia.

Colombian prosecutors accuse the three middle-aged men of training FARC rebels in the use of explosives and terrorist tactics. They are also accused of holding false papers. If convicted, they could get up to 20 years in a Colombian jail.

The three Irishmen, for their part, have vigorously denied the charges, saying they were in the South American nation to study the peace talks between FARC and Colombian government officials, which have since ceased. They have also expressed concerns over the fairness of the Colombian justice system.

But among many Colombians, the arrest of the three men with past links to the Irish Republican Army has fueled anger over what they believe is an example of an international terrorist group bringing state-of-the-art know-how into Colombia's brutal 38-year-old civil war.

Proof of the export of IRA's urban terror skills to FARC, according to Colombian officials, came on the night of Feb. 7, when a massive bomb blast in an upscale Bogota nightclub killed 36 people. It followed a daring attack in the heart of the capital last August, just minutes before President Alvaro Uribe was sworn into office.

And back home in Northern Ireland, the arrests of the three Irishmen have been seized upon by some unionists as a sign of republican disinterest in implementing a cease-fire under the terms of the peace process by engaging in international terrorist activities.

Republicans, most of whom are Roman Catholics, hope for an ultimate merger of the British province of Northern Ireland with the Republic of Ireland to the south. Unionists, most of whom are Protestants, are those who believe Northern Ireland should remain part of the United Kingdom.

Terrorist Equivalent of Management Consultants

In the tenuous world of peace processes, Northern Ireland is sometimes touted as a successful work in progress since the historic 1998 Good Friday Agreement was signed a year after the IRA agreed to a cease-fire. The deal paved the way for the IRA's political ally, Sinn Fein, to join multiparty peace talks.

But ideological rifts within the ranks on both sides of the sectarian divide have placed serious hurdles along the difficult course of maintaining the peace in Northern Ireland.

On the Republican side, two breakaway groups — the Continuity IRA and the Real IRA — accuse Sinn Fein and the mainstream IRA of turning their backs on Irish republican principles and have continued to mount sporadic attacks in Northern Ireland and Britain.

But quite apart from domestic attacks, recent reports indicate the breakaway IRA groups might be fanning out some of its experienced militants to far-flung corners of the world as a sort of terrorist equivalent of management consultants to militant groups in distant lands.

"On the one hand, you have people with political differences with the mainstream republican family, who do not support the peace process," says Ben Tonra, director of the Dublin European Institute. "On the other, on a personal and individual level, you have pathological individuals linked to terrorist groups who by nature are not nice people."

Getting Back at Britain

In the long bloody years since "the Troubles" peaked during the 1970s and '80s, both sides of the sectarian divide have fostered an unknown number of highly skilled, well-trained "fighters for the cause."

As Northern Ireland, with its grim images of barbed wire-topped walls and watchtowers glaring over the shattered ruins of bomb attacks became a metaphor for sectarian strife, a generation of young men — and women — found themselves joining the IRA.

At the height of the Troubles, one of the key supporters of the IRA was Libyan President Col. Muammar Qaddafi, who assisted the organization with cash, arms and training in camps across the North African nation.

"It was Qaddafi's way of getting back at Britain," says Eunan O'Halpin, professor of modern history at the Dublin-based Trinity College. "There were, for example, large consignments of Semtex [explosives] shipped from Libya to the U.K. and around 1987, French customs intercepted a hundreds of tons of arms bound for the IRA."

But in the 1990s, in a bid to reach out to the West, Qaddafi handed over to Britain a list of his contacts with IRA leaders and details of the arms supplied by Libya.

Foot Soldiers With Nothing to Do

Beyond the Libyan connection, O'Halpin says the IRA's links in the Middle East were extensive during the '70s and '80s, with IRA fighters training with militants of myriad groups in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley.

They formed the basis, experts say, of links between the IRA and several Middle East-based groups, including Palestinian militant organizations.

Although the mid-1990s saw attempts by republicans and loyalists to come to the peace table, experts say paramilitary groups on both sides of the sectarian divide have had a spotty record of abandoning bullets for the ballots.

"There are strong suggestions that what the IRA is doing is selling its expertise to other groups," says O'Halpin. "It's not simply a matter of fraternal ties with groups. They've got a lot of expertise and you've got a situation where there are a lot of semi-retired foot soldiers and technicians with nothing to do."

Personal Favors to Repay

Transitioning from "freedom fighters" to ordinary citizens with regular jobs has proved difficult for many.

"It takes as long to build peace as to fight a war," says Avila Kilmurray, director of the Community Foundation for Northern Ireland, a Belfast-based organization aimed at building sectarian peace. "It can't be left to the politicians. To build peace you have to build the rest of society. Peace-building does not take place without risks. There's always a risk that groups will fall back into violence."

With links to several militant groups across the world, including the Spanish ETA — Euzkadi Ta Askatasuna in the Basque language — and Sri Lanka's Tamil Tigers, experts says exchanges of expertise in return for arms and cash — including narco-dollars — continue on an individual basis.

"It's interesting to note that links with other groups in the past were constructed on a personal basis," says O'Halpin. "So there are hundreds of foot soldiers out there with favors to repay members of other groups, including groups that haven't yet headed for political solutions."

Sleeping With Anyone

Allegations of links between dissident Irish republicans and Palestinian militant groups abound. Last April, a Red Cross explosives expert based in the West Bank refugee camp of Jenin told British newspapers he found pipe bombs in the restive Palestinian refugee camp identical to those he encountered in Northern Ireland.

"When I saw the bombs, it was a flashback to Northern Ireland. The way the pipes were cut and the whole design of the pipe bombs is exactly the same," Paul Collinson told The Sunday Telegraph.

Israeli security experts also believe a West Bank sniper who killed 10 Israeli soldiers and settlers in March 2002 had links to IRA members.

But while the PLO and IRA during the 1980s had symbolic ties as secular nationalist revolutionary groups, the ideological links between the IRA and Islamist Palestinian groups such as Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad tend to be more complicated.

According to Jeffrey Bale of the Center for Proliferation Studies at the California-based Monterrey Institute of International Studies, links between the IRA and Islamist Palestinian groups could be based on a so-called shared opposition to the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands or more simply, IRA militants could just be "paid guns."

But allegations of links between the IRA and Palestinian Islamic groups do not surprise O'Halpin.

"All these groups are promiscuous," he says. "They sleep with anyone — the next morning there's a rose on the pillow and they're gone — or a shamrock on the pillow."

The Cuba Connection

Although the IRA and FARC do not share a past history of links, some experts suggest the ties alleged in the latest court case may have been forged for mutually beneficial reasons.

While the IRA has years worth of experience in urban terror tactics, Colombia's drug-running guerrillas are believed to be flush with narco-dollars.

For its part, the IRA has repeatedly denied it had any "military" involvement in Colombia.

But in a June 2002 report, the BBC quoted a British security assessment as suggesting the IRA's activities were "cleared by people at the top of the organization."

The IRA involvement in Colombia, the report adds, was part of a Provisional IRA plan to use Colombia as a "training ground to carry out tests" of new devices and weapons.

Experts suggest the Colombian connection has grown out of old IRA links to Cuba, where a number of IRA men and women on the run are believed to have sought refuge and acquired, among other things, excellent Spanish language skills.

One of the three Irishmen arrested in Colombia, Niall Connolly, is a fluent Spanish speaker who has lived in Cuba.

Cuban authorities have confirmed Connolly lived there as a Latin American representative for Sinn Fein. However, Sinn Fein denies he is a member of the party.

With a verdict expected soon, the mystery of the three Irishmen in Colombia is inching closer to being solved. But it could open up another can of worms in the world of shadowy international links between militant groups of various stripes and persuasions.