Beginning in late 1986, the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) had turned its attention to driving out the security forces based in Northern Ireland. In response, the British government stepped up action to monitor the movements of IRA members, in an effort to head off further incidents. As part of this escalation, the SAS began regular rotations of its soldiers into Northern Ireland to work with the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) and elements of the UK MI5 intelligence organization. The IRA, however, had been at war with the British Government for over sixty years and had adapted well to the presence of the growing antiterrorist apparatus. In fact, that by early 1987, the Republican guerrillas had perpetrated no fewer than 22 separate attacks on police stations alone. And while some incidents had been prevented, at the time there seemed no end in sight to the ongoing urban war. A series of related events that occured during this time, however, would soon bring about a dramatic reduction in the IRA campaign.
In 1986, an IRA team had used a similar heavy vehicle in an earlier attack by means of a large explosive device placed in the JCB’s steel bucket. The vehicle was then driven through the closed main gates of the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) station at The Birches, County Armagh, and the device detonated, causing major damage. For this reason, authorites were on the alert specifically for thefts of similar heavy equipment. When just such a vehicle was reported stolen, in April 1987, RUC security initiated an immediate investigation.
Following the theft of a JCB mechanical digger/tractor from a construction site in East Tyrone, an alert went up throughout the intelligence networks of the security forces. The digger was soon discovered, parked near a disused farm just 16 km from the RUC station at Loughall. Suspecting an attack was soon to follow, security forces contacted the SAS. In short order, surveillance teams from the RUC’s E4A unit monitored IRA terrorists transporting explosives to a disused barn.
On May 8, the RUC intercepted a phone call between two of the group’s members: the IRA was ready to strike.
Immediately, a joint RUC/SAS team moved in around the Loughall station, which had been quickly but quietly evacuated. RUC snipers took up position while SAS troopers spread out through the compound and nearby countryside (to prevent the escape of any IRA members following the attack). The intercepted call had also provided the SAS sample time to establish a box-type ambush, centered on the most likely approach route.
At approximately 7:20 p.m., an eight man IRA unit (actually two active service units – ASU’s – operating in tandem) approached the RUC station in a stolen blue Toyota van, followed closely by the JCB, laden with beer kegs filled with 500 pounds of explosives in its bucket. Following their plan, five gunmen exited the van and opened fire on the compound, effectively preventing security forces from intercepting the JCB as it smashed through the main gate and made its way into the courtyard. The three terrorists (the driver and two armed guards) jumped from the tractor and ran towards the safety of the getaway van.
The RUC and SAS, however, had anticipated this and as the terrorist entered the pre-established kill zone, they opened fire. Seconds later, the bomb was detonated. In the massive explosion that followed, a large section of the closest RUC building was demolished as was as another structure some 50 feet away. Chunks of plaster, steel and wood were sprayed in all directions, however the design of the JCB’s bucket directed the majority of the blast toward the RUC station. In the maelstrom that followed, all eight terrorists were killed. In a tragic development, two civilians in a white Citroen car appeared, unknowingly driving directly into the ambush zone. Thinking that the car belonged to an unexpected IRA team, the SAS opened fire, killing the driver and seriously wounding the passenger. A later investigation revealed that these individuals had no affiliation with the IRA.
According to standard procedure in counterterrorist operations designed to retain anonymity, British Army helicopters soon arrived to extract the SAS team and deliver them to a secure area.
For a period of time following the failed Loughall operation, the IRA reportedly suffered from a significant disturbance within the group. Elements of the IRA leadership suspected that a mole had revealed the details of the operation to the security forces. This theory caused no small degree of disruption as the group’s internal security was reviewed and revised. In time, however, the IRA search for a mole proved fruitless and it gradually accepted the fact that the security forces were wholly responsible for uncovering the plan.
Having lost eight of its top operatives, senior leaders decided not to let Loughall go unrevenged. And this time, secrecy would be paramount.
Following the dual setbacks of Loughall and the elections, the IRA needed a victory against the British government in order to demonstrate its continued viability and restore the confidence of its supporters at home and abroad. Target selection, therefore, was of the utmost importance. Having learned from Loughall, the IRA began to plan for what would be one of its most important operations. Following a brief period of deliberation, it was decided that the British presence on Gibraltar was the best of all possible targets, for a number of reasons.
Gibraltar was considered a ‘soft’ target; British soldiers were commonly rotated to the peaceful location following demanding duty in Belfast as an unofficial reward. Security was, while not lax, much lighter than any that might be found in the calmest areas of Northern Ireland. So, while they were still on active duty and not on leave, soliders could usually look forward to a long period of rest and relaxation. From an IRA perspective, this mindset was ideal. Additionally, and of at least equal importance, Gibraltar was one of few remaining locations in the world that still represented Great Britain’s colonial-imperialist power (much like that the IRA felt had been thrust upon it in Ireland). For this reason, an attack on the military presence there would not only inflict direct harm on British soldiers, but also stab at the heart of the government in London.
Long-time IRA members Daniel McCann, Sean Savage and Mairead Farrell were selected to carry out the attack.
Despite the extensive security precautions taken by the IRA, Savage and McCann were spotted in November 1997 in Spain by terrorist experts from Madrid’s Servicios de Informacion office. After observing their movements and relaying the findings to MI6 (the British foreign intelligence agency) and SAS headquarters, it was generally agreed that the duo could only be in the region for one of two reasons – to carry out an operation against the 250,000-strong British presence on the Costa del Sol, or a British Army target in Gibraltar. This was narrowed down in the months that followed by a concentrated period of cooperation between British and Spanish intellgience and counterterrosit experts. They soon agreed: the target would most likely be the changing of the guard outside the the Governor of Gibraltar’s residence. In fact it was, and although they did not know it at the time, all the IRA’s secret planning had been in vain.
Havign arrived at this conclusion in November, a cover story was produced that would postpone the scheduled event to March 8, 1988. The story that was released was that the change in scheduling was due to a planned refurbishing of the guardhouse. In fact, the event was deferred in order for authorities to have more time to plan their course of action against the terrorists.
On March 1, authorities documented the arrival of Irish woman travelling under a false name, Mary Parkin. She was observed closely watching the changing of the guard ceremony on numerous occassions during the previous month. There was little doubt – she was providing advance reconnaissance for the IRA team to follow. The following day, the determination was made by the Joint Intelligence Committee in London (on which the SAS had a liason officer) that an attack was imminent and the time to act had arrived. So, on March 3 a team of sixteen operators from the SAS Special Projects Team were dispatched to Gibraltar – all arriving on different flights and at different times. Their mission, code-named Operation Flavius, was to effect the arrests of all suspects before they could carry out the attack.
Having confirmed the target, it was up to the SAS to decipher how the IRA would carry out its mission. Intelligence provided to the SAS team indicated that the terrorists were heavily armed and that the method of attack would almost certainly via a remotely-detonated bomb planted in a car, and parked next to the change of command. For this reason, the orders given to the SP Team were expanded to authorize the use of deadly force ‘if those using them had reasonable grounds or believing an act was being committed or about to be committed which would endanger life or lives and if there was no other way of preventing that other than the use of firearms.’ This was an important distinction, as a terrorist planning to set off a remote-controlled bomb could do so with the flick of a switch on a minaturized detonator. This meant, to an experienced operator, that any untoward movement – a hand moving to a pocket or bag – could indicate an attempt to set off the remote and detonate the bomb.
At 2:50 p.m. on March 6, the three IRA men were spotted entering the town center. Savage had been watched earlier as he drove a white Renault 5 car into the main square and parked it next to the site where the changing of the guards would later take place. After strolling through the square for a short time, they met again in front of the Renault. Minutes later, the three left the area and began walking back toward the border to the north.
Siezing the opportunity, an SAS bomb disposal expert ran to the Renault and quickly inspected it for any signs of a bomb. He reported back that while he could not see an explosive device, it was still possible that the vehicle could contain one – a fact that could not be determined with certainty without actually removing the car to a safe location and dismantling it. This, of course, was out of the question and the SAS had to assume that the Renault did in fact contain a bomb. Acting on the information, Gibraltar’s police commissioner signed over authority for the arrests to the SAS.
On the ground, a four man SAS team trailing the IRA trio was given the go-ahead to nab the suspects and prepared to move in. Back at the operations center, the police chief called over the radio for one of his men to return to base so that he would have a vehicle ready to transport the terrorists to jail. The officer acknowledged the call, however at the time found himself stuck in a long line of traffic. In an effort to expedite his return to base, he switched on his siren and pulled out onto the wrong side of the road.
A short distance away, the sound of the siren rang out across the town square. Already tense from the days spent planning the upcoming car bombing, McCann and Farrell, who were walking together, froze. Looking around, they spotted the SAS men who were then only 10 meters away. McCann then made what was deemed an ‘aggressive movement’ across the front of his body and the closest SAS trooper opened fire, striking him once in the back. In that instant, Farrell made a move for her handbag. Believing that the bag might contain the detonator, the trooper fired twice, killing her instantly. McCann, wounded but still believed to be a threat, was then shot five more times.
A short distance away, Savage heard the gunfire and spun around – directly into the two man SAS team assigned to arrest him. He was ordered to halt, however instead of raising his hands he put his right hand down to his jacket pocket. Again believing that a remote device could be concealed anywhere on his body, both soldiers opened fire, striking Savage between 16 and 18 times. Within a period of seconds, all IRA terrorists were killed and an attack which would certainly have killed and mained scores of civilians was prevented.
In the months that followed, a major inquiry into the incident was launched, amidst accusations that the SAS had never intended to arrest the trio, but rather had been sent as part of an assassination team formed to eliminate three of the IRA’s top operatives. Civilian eyewitnesses to the shootings claimed that the IRA operatives made gestures to surrender, but were shot anyway. The investigation also revealed some disturbing facts: none of the three, McCann, Farrell, or Savage were armed at the time of the shootings. Nor did any of them have in their possession a remote detonation device. Finally, an examination of the Renault found no trace of explosives.
A board of inquiry conducted in the eventually acquitted the SAS shooters, however Operation Flavius remains a point of contention in Great Britain to this day.