Starch and Sniff
October 23, 2008 1:58 PM   Subscribe

During The Troubles in Northern Ireland, the SAS came up with a very creative way of identifying and apprehending PIRA bomb-makers: They set up a laundry.
posted by Cobalt (35 comments total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
The most clever piece about this, in my mind:

To avoid this particular trap, you cannot use a generic laundry staffed by locals. If you do, you can't use coupons that were sent to you and everyone else in your neighbourhood.

In short, you must act different than a normal person. And a good bombmaker/sleeper agent/etc normally should be fitting in as well as they can. Rock & a hard place.

(Not that this is a bad thing, mind you)
posted by Lemurrhea at 2:08 PM on October 23, 2008

The most wonderful piece about this, in my mind:

During The Troubles
posted by CynicalKnight at 2:11 PM on October 23, 2008 [2 favorites]

Metafilter: Embracing the Meshugganah

But wow, bugging every new car going into Northern Ireland? Setting privacy issues aside (much as I'd like not to), that's a lot of data to sort through.
posted by JHarris at 2:13 PM on October 23, 2008

Yeah, that was really interesting. Nice find.
posted by milarepa at 2:16 PM on October 23, 2008

Seems implausible that every new car was bugged. Otherwise, interesting article.
posted by matthewr at 2:20 PM on October 23, 2008

Nice find! The author's other articles in the "Inbox" series appear to be quite good as well.
posted by Horatius at 2:22 PM on October 23, 2008

Goes to show, as in Peru and other places, the only effective way to break up terrorist organizations is through exhasutive, long-plan detective work.

Have we got any of that lying around?
posted by The Whelk at 2:24 PM on October 23, 2008

They set up a laundry.

I think we would have noticed if the SAS had sent shoggoths after the IRA.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 2:27 PM on October 23, 2008 [1 favorite]

So instead of sending in 30,000 troops we only need to send in a few businessmen and detectives? That makes a whole hell of a lot more sense than risking thousands of our boys' & grils' deaths. How do we encourage the US military to think more along these lines?
posted by MaxK at 2:28 PM on October 23, 2008

"Embracing the Meshugganah"

Isn't that McCain's new campaign slogan?
posted by ZenMasterThis at 2:44 PM on October 23, 2008 [1 favorite]

I wonder how many false positives they got...?

The Birmingham Six were convicted because of positive tests that they had been handling explosives. Later it was found that the test also gave positive if you have been handling cigarettes, furniture lacquer or playing cards.
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 2:44 PM on October 23, 2008 [2 favorites]

The PIRA were not "broken" by military or police action; quite the reverse, many state actions served to prolong the conflict and recruit volunteers for the paramilitaries. The political wing of the movement was brought to the table, most of the IRA stood down (some famously going on to prominent roles in Stormont) and the Robert McCartney murder probably put the last nail in the coffin of what legitimacy the armed wing had for most in the Nationalist community.
I say this because the most notorious of the "creative" methods employed by the SAS was to work with the RUC or paramilitaries to shoot to kill with no civilian oversight. Quite apart from the morality, it was a dangerous policy:
“You can’t be afraid to act if life is at stake,” said a former Northern Ireland Special Branch officer. “But if you alienate people you can hand the terrorists a long-term support base from which to operate.”
It's worth considering the whole picture before concluding that there's much to emulate in the more gung-ho aspects of British policy in Ireland.
posted by Abiezer at 2:46 PM on October 23, 2008 [5 favorites]

MaxK: Actually more than 1000 sercurity service representatives were killed, and the British had >27,000 troops in northern island as well as many covert operatives, for anywhere between 30-80 years depending on how you define 'the troubles'. But thanks for the snark.
posted by lalochezia at 2:50 PM on October 23, 2008

While the laundry was indeed being washed, pressed and dry cleaned, it had one additional cycle - every garment, sheet, glove, pair of pants, was first sent through an analyzer, located in the basement, that checked for bomb-making residue

Yes, because that old 'look for the bomb-making residue' trick worked so well, didn't it, in the case of the Birmingham Six.

This attempt to spin the Troubles as a massive triumph for British counter-intelligence just won't wash.
posted by verstegan at 2:53 PM on October 23, 2008 [3 favorites]

The interrogation dragged on for hours. Fulton remained outwardly calm, and denied everything. Inwardly, though, he felt sick. He’d been spying on the IRA for a decade and a half, and he knew that if Scap broke him—if he admitted anything—he’d be a dead man—own a hole,” in IRA slang.

So throughout the interrogation, Fulton sat stone-faced, blindfolded, and facing the wall. Double blind. He held tight to his secret: yes, he was a British spy.

But then, so was his interrogator.

A good article in The Atlantic monthly on how the IRA was thoroughly infiltrated by the British.
posted by TedW at 2:54 PM on October 23, 2008 [1 favorite]

lalochezia: That "thanks for the snark" seemed a bit aggressive. I think MaxK had a decent point in that the US could have invested more into the police approach over the military response to 9/11. In fact our rush to arms was part of what cooled initial global sympathy.
posted by jlowen at 2:55 PM on October 23, 2008

"Well it's cranberry juice, cranapple"
posted by djgh at 2:55 PM on October 23, 2008

Man. If I were Irish, I'd be wondering what the hell is with the laundry and Ireland. And I'd be doing all of my own, by hand, with my tinfoil hat clamped to my head.
posted by scrump at 3:01 PM on October 23, 2008

So instead of sending in 30,000 troops we only need to send in a few businessmen and detectives? That makes a whole hell of a lot more sense than risking thousands of our boys' & grils' deaths. How do we encourage the US military to think more along these lines

I am not actually sure, but it requires you a shift in thinking. If I give you the objective of "protect us from terrorism" and I give you a bunch of battleships, maching guns and missiles, you'll probably start a war. If I give you a bunch of photos, some files, a few engineers and spies you'll probably get some kind of intelligence operation... the deliverable is the same, its just a matter of who is in charge of finding a solution and what they are trying to do.

This is really the reason people have to beware the military-industrial complex. You can run a laundromat checking for bomb chemicals for probably a few hundred thousand a year, and get what appears to be better results than a cruise missile which is worth $15 million - but provides few benefits to industry and the economy. All this forms part of the reason I would like the Western countries involved in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to supply benchmarks, as well as short, medium and long term objectives and have future budgets etc tied to delivery of those goals. To put it better - When there are too many policemen, there can be no liberty. When there are too many soldiers, there can be no peace. When there are too many lawyers, there can be no justice. (Lin Yutang)

One of the things I leared when I trained as an International Development worker was that the main sponsor of our project was the Canadian government. The government was out to wave the flag and implement Canadian foreign policy. Everyone won - the local people got a teacher and a school - Canada got a flag on the wall of the classroom in some third world nation, which might make the people in the classroom a little more favourable to Canada in the future. That's a hearts and minds approach.

Security can be carried out in a million ways. At the end of the day here, we are really talking about power - the ability to contol one's enviornment - and there are all kinds of ways to exercise power. Blowing shit up and killing people isn't often not the easiest or the best way, but it suits a lot of people in powerful positions.
posted by Deep Dish at 3:09 PM on October 23, 2008 [6 favorites]

That's why a frightening number of grown men of my acquaintance at home still have their mammy wash their socks, scrump.
posted by jamesonandwater at 3:11 PM on October 23, 2008 [1 favorite]

It certainly was a clever approach to a difficult problem; I would vastly prefer it if we transitioned over to investigative police tactics for investigating terrorism, rather than the big hammer method we have favored for the last seven years. (Unfortunately as our police departments turn more and more into SWAT styled paramilitary entry teams, I'm wondering how much longer they will embrace the idea of thoughtful deliberate investigations...)

I suspect that even if this technique yielded a number of false positives, as long as the SAS teams that made the arrests did so in a non-kill-everyone-in-the-room method, it should have been pretty easy to determine if they were guilty or not. As opposed to sifting through the rubble of a basement hit by a laser guided munition system that we are using now.

On the whole though, it's probably a good thing that no one caught on to what they were doing, because when the enemy that you are specifically targeting are skilled bombers, and you are in a fixed, downtown location, you really don't want to deal with the explody consequences.
posted by quin at 3:24 PM on October 23, 2008

Interesting. I dare say that the SAS and other government agencies did some damn clever things to combat the IRA. That is not to say that I wish to be an apologist for the British government's appalling actions and policies during the troubles.
posted by ob at 3:34 PM on October 23, 2008

I realize that my point isn't too clear. After reading some of the comments here it seems like some people are saying that the Brits were clever in acting against terrorism and that the present US government's policy is purely gung-ho belligerence. This is revisionism. The Brits did some terrible things in Northern Ireland, and at least one of the British government's most controversial policies, internment, has been used as a model by the current US administration in its war against terrorism.
posted by ob at 3:41 PM on October 23, 2008

There were few 'good guys' on either side of The Troubles.
posted by rocket88 at 3:46 PM on October 23, 2008

ob, I think you're missing that what people are saying isn't that the British government was sugar, spice, and everything nice, just that they did some relatively intelligent things along with the dramatically idiotic things.
posted by wierdo at 3:51 PM on October 23, 2008

As the readers of Bruce Schneier's blog point out, the story of the Four Square Laundry ends with the IRA compromising the operation, ambushing the laundry van and attacking an associated massage parlour.
posted by zamboni at 5:11 PM on October 23, 2008

The Israelis have a term for this type of thinking, "Embracing the Meshugganah," which literally translated means, embrace the craziness, because the crazier the plan, the less likely the adversary will have thought about it, and thus, not have implemented a counter-measure.

Embrace the police surveillance state. I admit it's certainly a gray area, but I'm not really in favor of the government setting up undercover fronts in America. The shit they do to entrap "drug dealers" is bad enough.
posted by mrgrimm at 6:23 PM on October 23, 2008

Sinn Fein on the Four Square Laundry. (From Schneier blog comments...)
posted by mrgrimm at 6:26 PM on October 23, 2008 [1 favorite]

People who keep mixing up the Birmingham Six and the arrests mentioned in this story are missing one very obvious point.

The arrests based on this story were after raids on the bomb factories where "numerous assembled bombs, weapons and ingredients" were found.

The Birmingham Six, as with the Guildford Four and Maguire Seven, were undoubtedly framed. But these bomb-makers were not.

Full disclosure disclaimer: I'm Irish, was raised a nationalist and abhor the worst excesses of the British in Northern Ireland as much as any. Indeed, my mother and her family come from the North and were personally affected by the bigotry, intimidation and down-right persecution in many cases. However, I also abhor (downright hate) cowardly terrorists who plant bombs in high streets or public transport, killing scores of innocent children, pregnant women, and, yes, even members of the security forces "in my name". If that's a free Ireland, you can take it and shove it up your fucking evil cowardly ass, you terrorist fuck-wit...
posted by Mephisto at 8:11 PM on October 23, 2008 [4 favorites]

Are you there cstross?
posted by Pronoiac at 11:21 PM on October 23, 2008

To be less cryptic:

Charlie Stross has a series set in the Laundry, which is about an occult MI6. I wouldn't be surprised if this story were related to the name.
posted by Pronoiac at 11:27 PM on October 23, 2008

ob, I think you're missing that what people are saying isn't that the British government was sugar, spice, and everything nice, just that they did some relatively intelligent things along with the dramatically idiotic things.

Maybe, and maybe I was missing that. It's something that I'm pretty sensitive to and maybe more so than most Brits, but there it is. So, to be perfectly clear on my position, fuck the British government (my government even though I'm an ex-pat) and fuck the IRA. It was a terrible situation and the British government as an elected entity (as opposed to a bunch of mulleted, bad jumper-wearing wanker-cowboys that seemed to be the IRA) did nothing to help themselves or the lives of innocent people that just happened to be caught in this awful situation.
posted by ob at 11:46 PM on October 23, 2008

Are you there cstross?

He's here in Amsterdam for a beer festival. I'll bring the thread to his attention when I catch up with him later.
posted by daveje at 12:42 AM on October 24, 2008

By the way, the gentleman also told the story of how [the British] also bugged every new car going into Northern Ireland, and thus knew everything [Sinn Fein leader] Gerry Adams was discussing. They did this because Adams always conducted mobile meetings and always used new cars.

Man this is my new goto example on, well, a whole bunch of civil liberty and goverment paranoia issues. Anyone know any details on this?
posted by Mitheral at 1:21 AM on October 24, 2008

Mithreal: I think "Operation Vengeful" is what you need.
posted by Abiezer at 7:20 AM on October 30, 2008

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