A specialist police anti-terror unit in Northern Ireland is conducting almost 70 investigations into dissident republican activities, the majority undercover surveillance operations, its lead detective has revealed.
In an unprecedented step, the officer heading the dedicated evidence-building team has spoken publicly about the intelligence tactics employed in the fight against violent extremists.
Police Service of Northern Ireland Detective Superintendent Kevin Geddes said while some of his present case-load was in the public domain, with arrests or searches having been carried out, much of it was still in the covert stage and involved gathering evidence against suspects who are likely unaware they are being watched.
He revealed that new state-of-the-art recording and listening technology provided by the Security Services was giving his officers potential evidence that would have been impossible to obtain in previous years.
“We have 68 current investigations and that’s a mixture of proactive and reactive investigations, purely focused on terrorism and the vast majority of that would be focused on violent dissent republicanism,” he said.
The Terrorism Investigation Unit (TIU) forms part of the PSNI’s Serious Crime Branch but until now the police had been reluctant to divulge its inner workings.
It has recently been in the lead in a number of high profile terrorist cases where surveillance evidence proved crucial, including the convictions of four people for involvement in a dissident training camp in Co Tyrone and a man for carrying out reconnaissance on Merseyside police headquarters.
Mr Geddes revealed that PSNI Chief Constable George Hamilton has deployed 25 new officers to the unit, bringing his staff to 79.
The 49-year-old detective, who has been a police officer for almost 30 years and is originally from the north of Scotland near Inverness, said the role of the TIU was to carry out arrests, conduct searches and extract evidence from the intelligence and surveillance data gathered by other officers working in the PSNI’s Intelligence Branch and Special Operations Branch.
“We would be listening to recordings and trying to work out what this means but we would rely on others who actually put the devices in or who actually do the surveillance and bring the evidence to us,” he said.
The detective said his unit used MI5 for “advice, assistance, technology and assessments” but highlighted that legislation in Northern Ireland dictated that it had to be PSNI officers who did the work on the ground.
“We would work quite closely with them, they provide intelligence support and provide skills and techniques and technology that as a police service we wouldn’t have,” he said.
He added: “We are constantly looking for new covert techniques, always researching, and that very much is where we rely on the Specialist Operations Branch who are experts on that within the PSNI and also MI5 to come up with new ways of doing this.”
Mr Geddes also flagged up successful working relationships with the Garda in the Republic of Ireland, Northern Ireland’s Public Prosecution Service, the Northern Ireland Office, the Metropolitan Police’s specialist anti-terror unit SO15 and the FBI in the US.
He said the latter played a crucial role when the PSNI was attempting to gain communications data from American service providers such as Google and Hotmail.
The detective insisted all the unit’s operations were subject to rigorous oversight and were compliant with human rights legislation.
His team investigates all forms of terrorism, so international threats posed by Islamic extremists such as Islamic State (IS) and al Qaeda are also on its radar.
While Mr Geddes said his officers were “monitoring” a number of individuals in regard to those issues, the primary concern in Northern Ireland, and therefore the vast majority of the unit’s workload, remained violent dissident republicanism.
He said its operations focused on the so-called New IRA, the Continuity IRA and Oglaigh na hEireann (ONH).
Mr Geddes said while in recent months the number of attacks may have dropped that was in large part due to the greater success of the PSNI disrupting dissidents, estimating that for every attack that occurs around three or four are thwarted.
He said a core rump of extremists remain and in the last year they had demonstrated that their ambition and capability had increased.
Mr Geddes said that while a number of years ago many incidents involved basic pipe bomb type devices, there had been recent evidence of more sophisticated weaponry, such as the shoulder grenade launcher used in an attack on police in north Belfast last November.
He also said police were on high alert for the potential ramping up of activity in the lead up to the 100th anniversary of the 1916 Easter Rising.
“It is a centenary, it is an anniversary, and traditionally with Irish terrorism when there has been an anniversary we would see a bit of an upsurge, so it will be a challenge for us,” he said, stressing the need for “another narrative” for next year to show that republicanism could be pursued through peaceful means.
“With 2016 the centenary brings a challenge but it also is an opportunity,” he added. “If we can be in the right place at that time you could celebrate 2016 as the year of peace.”
Mr Geddes said on some occasions, where teenagers were in danger of getting involved in dissident republicanism, officers would work with partner agencies to intervene in a bid to dissuade them.
“If at the start of something we can see, without doing all of the expensive intelligence gathering, you could actually divert someone away from terrorism then that is something we would be very keen to work with others in doing - providing another message instead of the dissident message to 17 or 18-year-olds who maybe don’t see much of a future,” he said.
Mr Geddes said his unit worked hard to foster links and co-operation with communities in which they carried out operations. He claimed officers were now more mindful of trying to minimise the disruption any arrest or search operation might cause to members of the public.
“If we turn up and do a search with Land Rovers and are doing searches for a couple of days, then what does that mean for that community? We think about that and we balance that with the risk and threat,” he said.
The detective said he was very grateful that Mr Hamilton had diverted the extra officers to his unit, in the context of cuts across other parts of the PSNI, and predicted that would enable more proactive investigations to be taken on in the next two years.
He said he was very mindful of the need to justify value for money and stressed the importance of an extra £200 million the Government gave the PSNI in 2011 to specifically combat terrorism in the last four years.
“The officers, the technology, the training, all that is funded by the extra money,” he said. “Without that we would be in a very different place.”