Comparing al Qaeda and the IRA

A really interesting article:

Al Qaeda played all out, spent all its assets in a few years. In my dumb-ass 2005 article, I called the Al Qaeda method “real war” and the IRA’s slow-perc campaign “nerf war.” That was ignorance talking, boyish war-loving ignorance. I wanted more action, that was all. I saw what an easy target the London transport system made for a few amateur Al Qaeda recruits and just thought that since the IRA had several long-term sleeper teams in place in London, they could have wreaked a million times more havoc. Which was true, they could’ve. But could’ve and should’ve are different things, and a guerrilla group that goes all-out, does everything it can, is doomed.


That’s amazing; I’ve never heard of anything like that. It shows how far they’d come by that stage, away from the simple Al Qaeda maximum-blood crap I bought into in that earlier article. In contemporary urban guerrilla warfare, at least in Western Europe, killing civvies is counterproductive. What you want to do, what the IRA had mastered by the 1990s, was messing with the incredibly fragile and expensive networks that keep a huge city going. Interrupt them and you cost the enemy billions of dollars, and they don’t even have any gory corpses to shake in your faces. Fucking brilliant, and I was too dumb to see it!


It’s hard for an American to get your head around any of this, but the point, and it’s very “counter-intuitive” as they say, is that Al Qaeda did everything wrong, spending all their assets and going for maximum kill, and the IRA, the poster-boy for long, slow, crock-pot guerrilla warfare, did it exactly right.

Posted on July 7, 2011 at 6:36 AM67 Comments


IRAsfunds July 7, 2011 6:46 AM

After 9/11, IRA’s funding was hampered by new measures against terrorist funding. Same for ETA.

I have also overheard that rich people from second biggest democracy funded IRA’s.

karlosfandang July 7, 2011 7:11 AM

From the article “The IRA had this “Nerf” strategy of not striking back at stuff like this, and not killing civilians, which seemed weak to me.” Really? Try telling that to the parents of the 2 children killed in 1993 when the IRA bombed Warrington. This is a very poor article. If the IRA were so good then why don’t we have a United Ireland? Their campaign was ultimately futile and wasteful and the failed in their stated objectives.

Larry Seltzer July 7, 2011 7:13 AM

After the 9/11 “I can’t believe what I’m seeing” shock wore off, my thought was “What did they think would happen as a result of this?” It sounds like OBL actually thought the US would fold like a house of cards because of the 9/11 attacks. Some evil mastermind.

jt July 7, 2011 7:20 AM

Haven’t read the article yet, but it’s clear that Al Qaeda was massively successful in wrecking the United State – with the complicity of many U.S. political leaders and mass media, we’ve undermined civil liberties, hurt our international reputation, wasted vast amounts of money and lives in two wars, and greatly inconvenienced many people. For no apparent benefits.

kingsnake July 7, 2011 7:45 AM

I read eXiled a couple of times a week, and always look forward to the War Nerd’s articles …

Martin July 7, 2011 7:46 AM

There’s another explanation for the IRA’s behavior. Namely that it started as an organization with political goals but had to resort to criminal activity to fund those goals. Over time the criminal activity took over and the IRA became about making money – essentially it became a mafia with a sideline in guerrilla activity. The IRA maintained political activity for a number of reasons: it helped recruitment, because there was an element of political idealism in most members, and, for those arrested, there were advantages to being classified as political prisoners.

Pfft July 7, 2011 7:53 AM

That article is wrong in so many respects and missed the real difference between AQ and the IRA: AQ was created by the USA whereas the IRA was simply financed by the USA.

As with all propaganda pieces by IRA sympathisers it shows a very limited view of the history of Ireland. Never forget that the Celts invaded Ireland from mainland Europe and the indigenous people of Ireland consequently “disappeared”.

The mass murder of civilians is a very effective tool. Ask the survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Patrick G. July 7, 2011 8:02 AM

I don’t know if you can even compare the IRA with Al Qaeda in any way that matters.

And a bad comparison can often cover every viewpoint:

One could say the IRA failed completely, because Ireland is still divided and most people in Ireland voted to end the battle and with it any reason to support the IRA. What’s left of the IRA is a criminal network aka “the Mafia”, in for the cash and the power but little else.

And one could say Al Qaeda has won, chipping away the cozy, liberal and civilized cover from our Western World and especially the US, exposing what really lies beneath it.
And as jt described above, all can see the cutback of our civil liberties, the fighting of undeclared wars, the running illegal prison camps and the torturing and killing of innocents. And decades of supporting some of the most inhumane regimes in the world as long as there is something to gain.

But as I said, the comparison isn’t really valid IMO.

Clive Robinson July 7, 2011 8:07 AM

There is a lot of real difference between the IRA and OBL and AQ.

Firstly the IRA were effectivly an “invaded people” trying to rid themselves of “their oppressors”.

That is they had a simple and importanty direct objective that was fully understandable to both their fellow countrymen and their opressors.

OBL did not have a simple or direct objective and failed to get a rational message across to either the “oppressed” or the “oppressors” and thus did not actually have much support.

Now if you were to compare the IRA with the Taliban or Hezbollah you will see why they are succeding in home territory where AQ and OBL failed.

Mike B July 7, 2011 8:29 AM

The Northern Irish situation was tailor made for a truly non-violent resistance movement. There were legitimate political grievances about an minority rule government that was part of a fully modern democracy.

AQ’s goals have dubious legitimacy and on a tactical level they tend to face authoritarian regimes that know how to deal with non-violent protest (or at least they did). When it comes right down to it they are a bunch of religious fanatics that care more about dying than trying to improve either their own lives of the lives of their families. For them salvation comes in the afterlife. The IRA didn’t want to improve their circumstance through death…they just wanted a better life.

Mike B July 7, 2011 8:30 AM

BTW anyone who watches Deadliest Warrior already knows the IRA is better than the Taliban 😉

Clive Robinson July 7, 2011 8:57 AM

The author is also well of base with his “London Transport” comments.

Firstly those that did 7/7 where a tiny group of people compared to the IRA, they could not have done much more damage than they did without considerably more resources both human and technical.

Also the actual impact they had was a one off and mainly psychological, they caused both death and disruption. However to most Londoners the disruption was over in considerably less than 24 hours.

Secondly the IRA did very successfully attack the London Transport system they caused a hugh amount of disruption over and over again to the rail networks around Balham south London on an extended campaign in the 1980’s. Balham is just outside of Clapham Junction which was at the time the busiest station in the UK (possibly also the western world). Unlike other areas around Capham which are well built up with houses etc, the Balham area has a large green space (Wansdworth/Balham commons) that allowed easy almost invisable access to the railway signaling equipment they targeted.

I know all this because I had the misfortune to have suffered the effects of all the attacks involved. And on all occasions I actually found ways around the disruption on the parts of the London transport systems that remained functioning through out.

So what was the difference between IRA and 7/7 as the actual team sizes where about the same in both cases?

Firstly 7/7 was a “one off” suicide run.
Secondly 7/7 had few or no resources.
Thirdly 7/7 had little or no technical ability.
Fourthly 7/7 had no support structure
Fifthly 7/7 had no home community support.

All in all it is actually surprising that 7/7 actually came to fruition.

GPD July 7, 2011 9:27 AM

To piggy back on jt’s comment, we (the United States) is ten years into a bankrupting, useless war, and Al Qaeda has managed to keep us engaged by paying Afghani farmers $5 to snipe, fire RPGs, and place IEDs.

Alex July 7, 2011 9:47 AM

Al Qaeda screwed up 9/11. They would have had a much more successful campaign if they’d randomly taken out a plane every few months rather than attempting to fire off all of their guns at once.

Usually terrorists want to instill fear into the target populace. In this case, Al Qaeda did nothing. The US government and media did the instillation of fear for them.

Rookie July 7, 2011 10:30 AM

I agree with the author on the overall premise that maximum impact and all-out war might work well for conventional militaries, but don’t serve guerrilla forces very well.

In reading the entire article, however, I think the author exercised selective memory and gave the IRA way too much credit for it’s supposed “nerf, don’t cause too many casualties, be nice, we’re just Boy Scouts” guerrilla campaign. Phoning ahead to head off civilian casualties on the London attacks was a later development, and was certainly a calculated political decision.

There are plenty of dead and wounded people that would be surprised to hear that the IRA didn’t “strike back” in reaction to real attacks and imagined threats.

BF Skinner July 7, 2011 10:49 AM

First – Clive is this a new you?

Second – “nobody cries when the stock exchange gets blown up.”
A banker might. Everytime an exchange get’s blown up GoldmanSachs doesn’t give out a bonus.

shanks July 7, 2011 11:03 AM

I disagree with the assessment on a couple of points.

One: The IRA was pretty much limited to NI & UK in operations (apart from US laundering money to support it) while AQ franchise was fairly global spanning at least 10 countries.

Two: AQ’s impact will be a bit more than the quaint “Troubles” that London went through. The worldwide impact in political, legal and civil laws is dramatic; from the loss of habeaus corpus, detention, gitmo, torture…hell, lots of countries acted as if their hair was on fire, when patently it was false.

Three: The Financial cost is tremendrous, in the trillions; random warmongering amongst muslim states, clash of civilisations talk fueling price surges, recessions and depressions.

Take a look around you. This is a scorched earth policy by nation states against semi trained riffraff; religious, economic Pyrrhic war.

AQ has set back the world by about 2 decades at least. On an clear eyed, independent scorecard, they’d be judged a clear winner.

Aj July 7, 2011 11:13 AM

The IRA’s aim was more than a united Ireland, it was also about civil rights for Catholics. The situation for Catholics in N.Ireland was very similar to African Americans in the Southern USA pre 1960.

It was almost impossible for a Catholic to get a job, resulting in very high unemployment for Catholics. Social housing existed, but Catholics were forced to live in slums segregated from the rest of the population. The majority of Catholics were unable to vote, as you had to be a property owner to vote. The Police were Protestant and extremely biased (and violent) against Catholics.

OnTheWaterfront July 7, 2011 11:36 AM

“the weight of industrial power and bigger population would have to prevail. That’s how the Soviets defeated the Germans on the Eastern Front, and the US defeated Japan.”

Not sure I agree with the Japan part.

Trichinosis USA July 7, 2011 12:14 PM

No mention at all of Congressman Peter King’s overt and possibly covert support for the IRA throughout the years? I tend to think disinformation is in play here rather than ignorance. To mention Clinton but not King’s too-friendly interaction with the IRA is just flat out lying by omission. As the first poster mentions, there’s a lot of fundraising for the IRA that has taken place right here in “The Homeland(tm)”.

bruce July 7, 2011 1:33 PM

Writing as a Brit who’s lived through it, I’d like to remind everyone that the IRA had support from Colonel Gadaffi and the good people of Boston. And it’s not often one sees those two in the same sentence. I feel that it was mostly international opinion that stopped more severe reaction, special forces for instance, and the IRA operated on a knife edge, avoiding provoking just that. Of course, the resilience of the population, particularly that of London, stopped them succeeding.

But I’m biassed.

Xie Jun nai July 7, 2011 2:08 PM

The Arab spring is the result of AQ’s action and the US response.
Where’s the Irish spring?

Daniel July 7, 2011 2:34 PM

“AQ was created by the USA whereas the IRA was simply financed by the USA”

That sums it up.

YerMan July 7, 2011 3:39 PM

@Mike B: there was one (NICRA).The level of violence they were met with was significant. People seem to forget (or were never told) that the British Army deployment was welcomed by most Catholics, who expected them to be a neutral party – there’s tales of soldiers being served tea and sandwiches. That relationship soured, particularly when internment was introduced, and died completely at Bloody Sunday.

Talking about the IRA is complicated by the fact that there has been three distinct IRAs, before the splintering caused by “cessation of hostilites”: the Old IRA, the parts of Collins’ army that didn’t accept the Treaty, the remnants of which carried out the Border Campaign in the 50’s. This organisation took a serious shot in the arm at the start of the Troubles (Bloody Sunday made a good recruiting poster), then split into the Official IRA (Marxists, declared permanent ceasefire in 1972, one of the organizations that merged to form the Worker’s Party Of Ireland) and the PIRA (who everyone knows).

@bruce: special forces were deployed: SAS officers were been in-country from 1974.

jacob July 7, 2011 3:43 PM

I tend to think the comparison is limited but serves a good purpose in what it is to show.
1. Few wars are won with huge overwhelming force used only once.
2. The bleed ’em til they lose the will to fight is more historically accurate.

I would use the example of the civil rights movement. Activists did not storm and beat up the cops. The cops were caught beating up demonstrators. With the advent of tv, the rest of the country jumped in. Nobody likes to see the little guy get beat up.

The bus strike is another example.
AQ could have accomplished more by throwing dead squirrels into power relays than blowing up planes. The infrastructure in a modern society is a weak point. An attack on trucking w/o fatalities is another.

The middle east could be changed with passive resistance if done on a large enough scale by commited people.

In U.S. our politicians jump up and in front of the parade when they see it approaching.

The crowd and the cloud can and does have more impact than we give it credit.

I wonder what if the US said here is our software how do we protect it? Open source and review (when done) may have shown us a way. A small crowd can and will muck things up. It is more difficult to fool a lot of people looking at it from many angles. (elections aside )

I relish the thought of 100,000 programmers cut loose on infrastructure software and network. After we isolate it from those same people, of course, until the review is done and ready to go.. 😉

really July 7, 2011 3:43 PM

@OnTheWaterfront – one of the reasons the Japanese lost through lack of industrial might is that they could not rebuild/replenish their navy in a timely fashion to prevent the eventual attacks on the Japanese mainland.

L-5 July 7, 2011 5:14 PM

I must admit to seeing War Nerd linked here. While War Nerd is entertaining reading, remember that Exiled has a love-hate relationship with the truth.

Dr. T July 7, 2011 5:18 PM

The IRA and al Qaeda had completely different goals. The IRA’s goal was not to exert maximum terror; it was to become enough of a nuisance that Great Britain would make major political concessions. Slaughtering thousands of innocent Brits would have backfired and resulted in oppressive levels of British control of Ireland.

al Qaeda’s goal was to spur attacks by radical Muslims around the world against the Great Satan and other governments and nations that were not Islamic theocracies. Because radical Muslims are spread throughout the world, al Qaeda wasn’t worried about massive military crackdowns. al Qaeda underestimated the desire for vengeance the suicide hijackings would create among US citizens, and they underestimated President Bush who rapidly put troops into Afghanistan. However, al Qaeda did not make a mistake by spending money quickly: Osama bin Laden was a billionaire. If he and the his top aides had not been killed in a cave complex in Afghanistan in 2003 or 2004*, al Qaeda would have retained access to those billions.

*I don’t believe that Osama bin Laden was in the Pakistan residence. I believe that the SEALS killed a brother, half-brother, or cousin of Osama bin Laden. Parse the White House reports of the DNA testing. The reports talk about a DNA match, but they never say it is an exact match to Osama bin Laden. The DNA shows only that the dead man is a member of the large bin Laden family. The quick disposal of the body was because President Obama wanted no real forensic examination.

Wang-Lo July 7, 2011 5:53 PM

@Xie Jun nai: “Where’s the Irish spring?”

It’s in the soap dish in me loo dearie.


Dirk Praet July 7, 2011 8:04 PM

I believe there is more to the comparison than just methods and strategy. Where IRA’s tactics were well-founded in a contemporary context and filosophy, those of AQ had its roots in medieval fundamentalist Islam and a deep hatred against all things western and secular (democracy, free speech, media, technology).

OBL’s major mistake was not underestimating US resolve and reaction, but overestimating the effect that high-profile PR stunts like the USS Cole bombing, 9/11 et all would have on the muslim world. My best guess is that he saw himself as some new Saladin whose unparalelled stand against the American Satan would unite muslims all over the world around him to rise against the west and its satellite dictatorships across North Africa, the Middle-East and beyond. It’s really remarkable how much he even physically tried to make himself look like historical pictures of Saladin, up to dying his beard.

It never happened. AQ’s failed approach and subsequent demise is nothing more than a total leadership failure by folks with ideas rooted in the Middle Ages and unable to grasp the concept that the world has evolved beyond a return to a nostalgic era of muslim caliphates ruled by sharia. The lessons learned for future AQ leaders are simple: use your assets and resources wisely, don’t try to rush things and most of all: update your filosophy to the reality of the 21st century. People no longer want to be ruled by either secular or religious despots. The Arab Spring is the best proof thereof.

Muhammad Naveed Khurshid July 7, 2011 8:29 PM

Who formed Al-Qaeda? Who gave funding to Al-Qaeda? Who gave weapons to Al-Qaeda? Who got benefit from the creation of Al-Qaeda? How is Al-Qaeda surviving? What will be the future of Al-Qaeda?

These questions need answers before further discussion.

Dave July 8, 2011 12:10 AM

Haven’t read the article yet, but it’s clear that Al Qaeda was massively successful
in wrecking the United State – with the complicity of many U.S. political leaders
and mass media, we’ve undermined civil liberties, hurt our international reputation,
wasted vast amounts of money and lives in two wars, and greatly inconvenienced
many people. For no apparent benefits.

I’m not sure if that was by design though. Did he know the US would react like that? If it had reacted like the UK did to the IRA, Spain to ETA, etc (“Keep calm and carry on”), he wouldn’t have achieved much except get the whole world pissed at him.

In addition the original article isn’t exactly rocket science, you target the infrastructure and not the people. This isn’t 20/20 hindsight, it’s just basic Guerilla Warfare 101, attack an identifiable non-representative subset of the population, not the population as a whole. If OBL had ordered jets flown into AIG and Fannie Mae (after waiting a few more years), people would probably have applauded.

Richard Steven Hack July 8, 2011 2:05 AM

Two points:

1) You don’t win by NOT killing people. The Weathermen tried that in the ’60’s – they were a joke. The only people they killed were themselves.

9/11 was one of the few effective terrorist attacks in history. That was due to two reasons: 1) It hit a high media value civilian target; and 2) it killed people in the four digits as opposed to most terrorist attacks which kill people in the single or double digits.

The fact that it was used by the US government (and others) as an excuse to further extend US military power abroad and breach civil rights at home is not something that concerns Al Qaeda. It should massively concern the US electorate.

2) Al Qaeda has lost nothing other than some of their lower level people. They are still functioning at about the same level they were in the past. They were always a “franchise” operation with a small coterie of strategists and a large contingent of extended but mostly local supporters around the world. That remains the case today. There are perhaps 100 serious members of Al Qaeda in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. There probably never were more than that, alongside perhaps five to fifteen thousand supporters scattered around the world.

The Taliban has little or nothing to do with Al Qaeda other than the same general interests vis-a-vis Afghanistan and the expulsion of US forces there. The only reason the Afghan Taliban supported Al Qaeda up until 9/11 was because bin Laden deployed his Al Qaeda troops to support the Taliban against the Afghan Northern Alliance in exchange for the Taliban allowing him to maintain his training camps in Afghanistan.

There are a number of “new Taliban” who are more radicalized and more associated with Al Qaeda than in the past. The “Taliban” these days refer to a number of different groups, some of whom remain focused primarily on Afghanistan, and others on Pakistan. Neither are precisely Al Qaeda and neither are interested in Al Qaeda’s foreign objectives. Conflating the two is one of the major mistakes – if it IS a mistake and not deliberate, which is likely – of US policy in the region.

The same applies to most so-called “Al Qaeda” in Iraq, Yemen, Libya and elsewhere. Most of them are not “Al Qaeda” in the sense of people particularly interested in attacking the US. Most of them are primarily interested in their local affairs, and only have antipathy to the US because of the US general policy of supporting corrupt dictators and monarchies in the region or the presence of US forces in their country.

Even the original “Al Qaeda” as such is not really that interested in the US except as a result of US foreign policy. As I’ve said repeatedly, if the US changed its foreign policies vis-a-vis support for corrupt Arab governments and support for Israel against the Palestinians, Islamic terrorism – if not antipathy due to past US wrongs – against the US would evaporate – except for those people who directly experienced loss due to US actions, such as in Iraq.

Terrorists interested in attacking the US will be coming out of Iraq and Afghanistan for the next generation, thanks to Reagan, Bush I, Clinton, Bush II, Obama, and the rest of the war criminals the US electorate puts in power every four years.

Rumor has it that Israel may attack Iran within the next two or three months. The result of that will be Iran and Hizballah exporting even more terrorism to the US. And those guys are far more capable than Al Qaeda ever was.

As for the IRA, comparisons are meaningless due to the differences in culture, politics, and situations. The only connections are in the past between the IRA and some of the Palestinian groups, who cooperated in several instances.

“it’s just basic Guerilla Warfare 101, attack an identifiable non-representative subset of the population, not the population as a whole.”

This was the original concept of The People’s Will, the Russian revolutionaries in the 19th Century. However, it was subverted by the Marighella Principle developed in the 1960’s in South America, which says you create chaos by attacking the people and eventually the people will turn on the government and not the terrorists. That rarely works and resulted in most of the South American terrorist groups who believed in it being crushed with the support of the people of their country. The classic case was Che Guevera in Bolivia.

However, it depends on how you define “identifiable non-representative subset of the population”. The People’s Will explicitly said the targets are the government. Most anarchists would agree (although there is a subset of “chaos” anarchists.)

But when you have a society where the government is controlled and operated by people outside the government – as in the US – not just a small clique of rulers supported by a military and some rich people as in many Third World countries – you have to hit many other people as well: corporations, the wealthy, police, military, the media, even schools and churches. All these social areas are responsible for supporting the status quo which the revolutionary is fighting against. The issue then becomes how you attack these targets and how to explain these targets to the general population via your media campaign.

The World Trade Center was picked because it was 1) symbolic of US financial manipulation of other countries political establishments, 2) symbolic of US foreign influence, and 3) loaded with high-profile US corporations (and not a few Israeli corporations – one of whom bailed out a few months before the attacks, leaving behind a rather large rent penalty.) Not to mention having been a failed target of Islamic terrorism in the past – ego boo does play a part. Killing thousands of US civilians was just a bonus.

The fact that the US electorate didn’t understand the reasons for the attack merely reflects on Al Qaeda’s limited understanding of media relations and the nature of the US electorate. bin Laden thought he could bring home his motivations to the US population. That was his biggest mistake.

His second mistake was relying on ONE major attack to do the job. Terrorism does not work unless it is CHRONIC. If he had pulled off a similar level of attack at least once a month or so, it would have been far more effective even if it resulted in the same or worse level of US response against Afghanistan.

But despite his alleged finances (which aren’t in the billions despite what you may have heard since most of his assets around the world are frozen by various countries), he doesn’t have the competent manpower or resources to pull that off.

Alternatively, the recent suggestions that Al Qaeda is now more interested in lower level but more chronic terrorism incidents is a much easier strategy to pull off and potentially as effective if done correctly. A couple dozen guys with AK’s, suppressed pistols and sniper rifles, some grenades and grenade launchers – and a LOT of Semtex – could paralyze several US major cities for months. But I doubt Al Qaeda can even pull that off.

But I suspect Iran and Hizballah could if they are further provoked.

Richard Steven Hack July 8, 2011 2:07 AM

“If OBL had ordered jets flown into AIG and Fannie Mae”

By the way, keep in mind that the other two planes were headed for the White House and the Pentagon – NOT civilian targets. So Al Qaeda DID follow proper terrorist targeting principles in two out of three targets.

Londoner July 8, 2011 3:40 AM

Factually incorrect on fairly core parts of the article:

1) The LSE bomb (which was in 1990, not 1992) was not a truck, it was hidden in a toilet and blew a hole in the wall – I guess this was exaggerated to capitalize on the media’s banker bashing mentality.
2) The IRA did attack and kill protestant paramilitaries many times.
3) Lloyds didn’t actually go under, and the problems it had were largely due to large awards in american courts for asbestos claims.
4) NORAID was a large source of the funding, this was already drying up when Clinton got involved because Americans had got a taste of terrorism directed at them and they recognised the link between the IRA and Gadaffi.
5) Tony Blair’s mum was Scottish not Irish, but his grandfather was a protestant Irish Orangeman, who don’t really get on with the IRA.
6) Sin Fein is not the largest party in the Northern Irish Assembly, that would be the Democratic Unionist Party with 9 more seats.

The article is trying to suggest that the IRA strategy was better than Al Qaeda, I guess it really depends on how you measure success, neither have achieved their goals yet and both have pretty much run out of money. I suppose you could say that Gerry Adams and Martin McGuiness have ended up with ‘respectable’ jobs that have made them fairly well off, whereas Bin Laden ended up dead.
IMHO both organisations are pretty pointless and nasty, both were fighting a religious war, both killed innocent people along the way, neither should be glorified, neither should be seen as better than each other, and neither have achieved their ultimate aim.

bob July 8, 2011 3:45 AM

This is “interesting”? Just because the idiot realised he was an idiot doesn’t make him interesting. A rarity maybe.

Two different terrorist groups from two different ideologies with two different aims.

The only thing that’s interesting is that a seemingly literate person is sufficiently stupid to think a word like “terrorist” has a single, world-wide, situation-wide definition.

S July 8, 2011 3:48 AM

Ill informed. I say that with family both sides of the split, with a family grave in Co. Armargh a few rows away from an IRA volunteers memorial, I say that as someone who grew up in London in the 1970s and 1980s

Anyone who thinks “the troubles” were quaint never lived in Northern Ireland in the 1970s -Britain was on the brink of a civil war.

In Northern Ireland [Ulster|Occupied six counties -your choice] the fighting was vicious. Paramilitaries from either side would phone up for a taxi from the other side, lure them out, kill them. Even today in Co. Armargh, a minicab won’t pick you up unless a local can vouch for you. Random killings based purely on religion did take place. Eniskillen and Omagh to cite two. The number of people killed in the troubles may be on a par with the number of deaths on 9/11, but in a small area, everyone had relatives killed. FWIW, the PIRA did apologise for “mistakenly” killing a Catholic relative,

If there is one big difference between any of the NI paramiliary organisations and AQ is that they all had tangible goals “a united ireland” “ulster”, etc. Tangible, though not compatible with the wants and needs of a large fraction of the population. Al Quaieda’s is much less realistic.

Another is that the PIRA, INLA and others used false code-word warnings as a tool for amplifying chaos. Plant a bomb somewhere on the UK motorway system (Staples Corner, 1992), and phone in coded warnings listing a number of places where a bomb may be: every location had to be taken seriously. There was no need to rely on suicide bombers, when you have a telephone network.

GreenSquirrel July 8, 2011 4:43 AM

Having spent the majority of my adult life in uniform, in Northern Ireland, I frequently find it entertaining (is that the same as interesting?) when people in the US make strong assessments about the various republican factions and their strategies. In this instance, not only was “nerf war” pretty much wrong, but the follow up still avoids anything but passing contact with the truth.

Other people here have pointed out the factual errors, so I wont bother, but they are there.

What is potentially interesting, is that within the nonsense, there are some gems of value:

“And that’s why guerrilla war isn’t as romantic as Rambo fans like to think. ”

Pretty much spot on.

However, the rest of the guerrilla war descriptions dont really apply to the Irish Republican “Armies” (IRA, OIRA, PIRA, INLA, CIRA, RIRA, OnH, SnaE etc) so I am not sure there is any meaningful way to compare the two terrorist organisations. Even a comparison between PIRA and AQ is meaningless using the standards mentioned in the article. (For example, PIRA did defend territory and carried out the same “strike back” attacks as the UVF/UFF/LVF/RHC/etc).

What I do find depressing (for want of a better word) is the frequent attempts by Americans to romanticise the Irish Republican movement and that tends to be the point at which any further debate fails. For example:

“I’ve been reading up on it, and the counterinsurgency methods the SAS taught to the Loyalist hit teams were as sick as anything from the Middle East.”

This is fundamentally nonsense. The Shankill Butchers were not a team trained by the SAS as part of a British policy to keep the conflict as a tribal war. It is simply so wrong, there is nowhere to begin a rebuttal conversation. It also makes me strongly suspect there is little of value in anything else written.

I feel slight more secure in this position when the factual details are wrong and claims like the SAS tried to keep the 1990s violence in Belfast are made.

While some of the headline items of the 90s were on the mainland, I cant even begin to list the amount of attacks – on both sides – that took place in Northern Ireland during this period.

Neither side of the NI divide limited their attacks to legitimate targets and both nationalist and republican paramilitaries were heavily involved in criminal enterprises (mostly drugs, prostitution and human trafficking). When L/Bdr Stephen Restorick was killed in 1997 (and then became the last soldier to die until 2009) the killings didnt end. Even the PIRA ceasefire of 97 didnt end the troubles as the breakaway groups were too numerous to be centrally controlled and deep down PIRA still had to maintain community discipline somehow.

Fundamentally, the troubles have never ended, the IRA havent won (even getting a few SF into Stormont isnt a win as all they have done is alienate their grass roots support and boost the dissident groups) and it is almost certain that the improved civil rights in NI (still far from a normal society) would have happened with, or without, the conflict.

Any attempt to claim IRA victory, or compare them to AQ in a “Top Trumps” manner is simply childish.

Jenny Juno July 8, 2011 5:35 AM

I’m not sure if that was by design though.
Did he know the US would react like that?

Based on his only post-9/11 interview it sounds like he expected it:

“I tell you, freedom and human rights in America are doomed,” bin Laden said as the U.S. war on terrorism raged in Afghanistan. “The U.S. government will lead the American people in — and the West in general — into an unbearable hell and a choking life.”

Tim#3 July 8, 2011 5:59 AM

It is a shame that the article focusses so little on the funding of the IRA terrorists by US residents, whether via Noraid or others. One also wonders how much the IRA’s move towards property damage in the late 80s & 90s resulted from their fear of encountering more events such as the great success at Loughgall.

Clive Robinson July 8, 2011 6:00 AM

@ BF Skinner,

“First – Clive is this a new you”

Err no, though I did post the aboves from a hospital bed.

Though I still have hopes of being a “new me running around” with appropriate surgical intervention it is yet to be 😉

Clive Robinson July 8, 2011 6:15 AM

@ Greensquirrel,

“Having spent the majority of my adult life in uniform, in Northern Ireland”

Hmm that says a lot, I wonder if our paths ever crossed.

One of the things that always caused me to shake my head was when the press where told “Special Forces” were in N.I. they allways assumed that it was the Saturday and Sunday club…

Valerie P. July 8, 2011 6:55 AM

“Firstly the IRA were effectivly an “invaded people” trying to rid themselves of “their oppressors”.”

This statement goes to prove that the IRA propaganda campaign worked.

Vikings, Normans, French, Spanish… enough said.

GreenSquirrel July 8, 2011 9:04 AM


“Hmm that says a lot, I wonder if our paths ever crossed.”

They may well have – you do remind me of someone I met in the late 80s / early 90s but I am terrible with names now.

“One of the things that always caused me to shake my head was when the press where told “Special Forces” were in N.I. they allways assumed that it was the Saturday and Sunday club…”

Agreed – it is a pet peeve of mine, although there were a few of them about, if you believe a fraction of the claims everyone was wearing the sandy beret.

I did get a bit annoyed that they could jump the queue on some courses though – however, in retrospect i can see why…

GreenSquirrel July 8, 2011 9:06 AM

@Valerie P.

Especially as the Scots were an irish tribe that invaded and kicked out the locals.

Clive Robinson July 8, 2011 9:41 AM

@ Valerie P.,

“This statement goes to prove that the IRA propaganda campaign worked…”

How far back in time do you want to go Homo erectus?

Seriously how many generations does it take to make somebody a native of the land?

If you go have a look at what various people did in Ireland from Cromwell through to Churchill it might make your eyes open very wide even if you can try setting it in the context of the time.

And no not IRA propaganda unless they have the contract for printing most of the history books used in English schools.

As Greensquirrel mentioned the Scots have a lot to do with the mess that is Ireland the island and the people who live there. Many Protestants are of Scottish descent and how they got there is another part of the brutal history of the British Isles and Ireland.

As an interesting counter point have a look at the Irish Potato famine and how the tenant farmers were treated then compare to the Scottish Potato famine just a few years later.

Robert in San Diego July 8, 2011 10:55 AM

I’m pretty sure it was Grand Laidlaw (Australian defense researcher) who theorized marginalized, failing, unintegrated terror groups were more likely to “go all in” and engage in mass casualty, indiscriminate assaults on society. The IRA was never at that point, in part because, even when banned, they had an actual political party they reported to/were in touch with.

jacob July 8, 2011 12:44 PM

@clive The Scots are actually Irish. 😉
Nationalism, nativism, or whatever can be good and bad. The Galatians, the normans, the neaderthals, etc. People have been going over the hill in search of food, trade or “company” for millenia.

We are social creatures that like to hold onto our stuff. Hence, the contradiction.
We like our iPads but hate that someone is peeking over our shoulders. People put down stakes and say this is ours, you go away unless I invite you to sup.

Aldo Moro July 8, 2011 1:36 PM

Security services seemed to have quite heavy infiltration in the later years. Look at the number of bombs that failed (seemingly because their materials had been tampered with before deployment).

Also the PIRA killed Catholics and accused them of being informers. It’s unclear how well-founded these accusations were and that caused bad feeling. There was also a PR clanger killing Australians in Germany.

In ceasefire times terrorist weapons experts have reportedly been working in Central America.

Clive Robinson July 8, 2011 2:32 PM

@ Jacob;

“@clive The Scots are actually Irish. ;)”

Yup long ago they were and in more recent times some became Irish again (but “for god’s sake don’t tell them that” look up “Ulster-Scots” and “The Plantation of Ulster” to see why).

The important difference for the last few hundred years was the religion and it goes back to Tudor times England and Scottland are Protestent countries (by laws in the case of England, and Catholics were band from political office in Ireland untill the “catholic emancipation” of 1829 not that it made much difference as the Orange Order held all but a tiny number of political posts in N.I. untill recently).

In the much maligned Ireland the non landowning (because it had been stolen from them by Oliver Cromwell by the “Act of Settlement”) people were mainly catholic dirt poor and had less worth than the livestock they tended for the benifit of the Scottish and English Landowners.

The Landowners where protestant and in later times did not even live in Ireland. They got the land by the usuall “Royal Favours” etc and passed it down through the generations and ensured it was not available to catholics (a practice that was still evident in the six counties that make N.I. less than 20years ago and catholics still come up against it today when trying to get planning permission).

Now if you are an “absentee landlord” living it up in London off of the profits of the land, how do you ensure that the money keeps flowing in?

Easy you apoint people to do it for you and you pay them a percentage of the proffits etc. It also helps proffits if these middle men are happy to exploit the tennets as hard as possible.

Now one way to ensure that outlook is to employ people who belive that the tenent farmers “are beyond the pale” and religious and racial discrimination are as we still see today a good way to do this. Thus “good protestant Scotts” and their decendents (Ulster-Scots) were employeed…

As I said earlier have a good look at the differences between the two potato famines and see especialy why land reform started with the Scottish potato famine.

Oh and “beyond the pale” is a statment about catholic tenant farmers, in that they where never alowed inside the fence (palings are a sharpend stick driven into the ground around which other split wood would be interwoven etc). Even today you will hear the expressions “he’s a left footer”, “he’s a right footer” or “he’s a two be four”. And you can often tell if you are in a catholic or protestant area simply by looking at what colour the curb stones are.

Oh and as it’s comming up to their marching season (12th of July) have a look at the history of the “orange men”.

A few years ago there was a great deal of problems in the two weeks following the Orange Order Matches that went on for several years, the solution was rumored to be a quiet word in employers ears not to allow Orange Men annual holiday in July 😉

GreenSquirrel July 8, 2011 4:29 PM


“Seriously how many generations does it take to make somebody a native of the land?”

This is something that makes a mockery of ultra nationalist views and the concept that people can get revenge for what distant ancestors did.

Yes, what Cromwell did was barbaric but that in no way, shape or form justifies anything that people did in the 20s, 30s, 60s,70s,80s or 90s. It is as meaningless as Pict descendants justifying murdering the Irish, or the Welsh trying to burn Rome. It just doesnt make sense.

In some context we rationalise it and people actually believe it (NI is one of these odd contexts) but the reality is every nation we have today is mixed up from ones that went before it. Arguing for indpendence that was “taken” 10 generations ago is meaningless.

We have two choices – we learn from the past, but forgive and get on with our lives or we can get bogged down in an eternal conflict based on “your great-great-great grandfather was horrible to my great-great-great grandfather so I will be horrible to you.”

One leads to peace and societies that can grow, the other is the road to constant war as every generation maintains the justification for its own set of atrocities.

There is no one alive today who was mistreated by Cromwell, nor anyone who suffered in the potato famine. Why do either of these acts provide any justification for any actions now?

  • btw –
    for anyone who thinks NI is quiet normally has a daily item about “masked men” knee-capping some poor unfortunate (normally from the same community as the masked men, just to add insult to the injury), explosives being found and the like. It is still very, very active.

BF Skinner July 8, 2011 6:29 PM

@clive “I still have hopes of being a “new me running around” ”

I can hook you up with a clone lab. Gonna have to do something ’bout that hippie Klingon DNA though.

“they were and in more recent times some became Irish again ”

Which just goes to show you people are more bound by their self interest than their blood.

Aren’t the worst conflicts fratricidal?

Z.Lozinski July 8, 2011 6:46 PM

‘”beyond the pale” is a statment about catholic tenant farmers’

No it’s not. I believe that’s a later usage. “Beyond the Pale” originally (C14-C15) referred to the area of Ireland outside “the Pale”. At that time the Pale (or the English Pale) was the area of direct English rule around Dublin and Drogheda. And yes the paling was part of the boundary – for the entirely practical reason of slowing down cattle rustlers. An early security mechanism!

(PS. I hope your hospital stay is over soon.)

There may be an angle here that is relevant to your forthcoming book. One of the early strands of Irish legend is the Ulster Cycle, which includes tales of various cattle raids, usually with an element of cunning. This element of cunning is much like some of the stories told about Odysseus by Homer. The point in both cases is how the group you described as “deviants” – people who are able to hack or somehow sidestep the normal social mores – were praised for their craft and cunning in early legends.

Clive Robinson July 9, 2011 12:20 AM

@ Z.Lozinski,

“No it’s not. I believe that’s a later usage”

Your explanation sounds more plausable than the one I was given some (more than 30) years ago because there are other similar expressions (for “the enemy beyond”) in many languages for similar encampments / fortresses. And is also similar to the use of other words to indicate ‘indigenous’ or ‘native’ people, and even today for those living in the areas inside or surounding a city such as ‘urbanite’ or that have developed later connotations such as ‘bourgeois’ (derived from the French for town dweller).

@ Greensquirrel,

“Why do either of these acts provide any justification for any actions now?”

They shouldn’t (out of a historical context), but for many they do.

When I was much younger than I am today I used to help teach young people to sail, and we used to get groups of kids from N.I. over. You would hear them talk about things that happened half a millennium ago as though it had happened only the day before.

I found in later life that this “racial memory” existed in many many cultures and was offten associated with those of religious conviction. And more importantly through the ages people had with law or religious edicts tried and failed to stop it’s effects.

It often occurs when people are persecuted and I suspect is the result of those trying to protect their culture and pass it on as a gift to their children. But over the years all that remains is the hurt that eventialy becomes demonisation.

And I see this as a real problem because we lose the historical context which stops us learning the correct lessons to stop similar persecutions occuring in the present and future.

For instance take something that is just on the edge of passing out of living human experiance, the build up of Nazi Germany in the 1930’s and what happened subsequently.

It is important to understand how the Nazi party gained power, and even more importantly how it maintained the power. That is we have to acknowledge that for the average German life had been very bad after WWI due to reparations and the economic decline that follows a war. The Nazi party made the majority of Germans lives better, food became available factories got reopened roads were built and affordable personal transportation became available. And many many more “good things” with apparently little bad initialy.

However the economic improvment was unsustainable and effectivly based on credit and Germany was bankrupt.

It’s what happened next we need to study carefully because if we look at present day Southern Europe we see a very very similar situation of countries over reaching themselves economicaly for some political ideal (being in the Euro Zone) and becoming bankrupt in all but name.

As has often been observed he who pays the piper calls the tune, but when the music stops the piper has to be paid. And as always after a party in your home you have a lot of mess and you only have three choices, live in it, clear it up yourself or have others clear it up for you. In the latter case the cleaners are going to have to be paid one way or another.

The question simply boils down to how…

And as history shows us those who can not keep their house in order will often opt for what seems like a soft option instead of actually getting on with the hard task. However at each step down the soft option route, less options become available and the real solution just becomes harder and harder. And this is where people can often turn to crime.

In the case of Governments their first crimes are usually to steal from those within by the use of punative taxation usually of a minority so as not to upset the majority. However that only goes so far and in the past they have turned to stealing from those “out side the home” by invasion or war.

To Governments war is seductive because in the past almost the first thing that happens is the home economy improves dramaticaly as production of weapons etc means factories open people have money in their pocket from making armaments and they then spend it creating strong economic churn. But it’s not real economic growth only faux, and either the music stops or you move onto the next dance or start a fight.

In Germany the way the Nazi Government stole from it’s citizens was to put in place methods by which certain select German citizens where stripped of first their rights and then their ability to work and then their property and lives. Thus they had no right of complaint as the Government handed their jobs to others, then their property to others and eventually even their bodies where appropriated and used to make payment to others.

But the important point is not that it was done that is now past and we can not undo it, but how it was done so we can stop it happening again.

As almost always it started with and was maintained with popular support and what appeared to be innocuous laws and rules that only applied to other people… That is by pandering to peoples self interest at the expense of others.

In Europe and America we are once again at a point where the economies due to self interest and political stupidity have collapsed due to lack of sustainable growth. The question is thus do we take the soft seductive path, or the harder but sensible path, so far the signs are not good.

America and the UK have entered into a faux war that due to “out sourcing” did not kick start the home economies, and the Southern European countries are holding out their hands to the Northern European countries on the threat of pay us or we demolish the Euro house…

What we need is to understand the proper lessons of history and not allow ourselves to be seduced down the wrong roads. Robbing Peter to pay Paul is not the way to go, living within our means and working hard for Peter to earn the money to pay Paul is but it’s going to be hard not soft.

The continuing problems in N.I., the middle east, far eastern european and many many other areas are based on the false perception of history for self interested reasons both by individuals and governments. The only way to stop it is to correctly learn from historical facts not tales that grow further from the truth on each telling.

wkwillis July 9, 2011 3:55 AM

Just to counter a bit of Nazi propaganda still running around, the Germans borrowed more money from the US than they paid to the Brits, French, Belgians, etc. Never paid it back, so they got reparations, not paid them.
The aftermath of World War II was very different.

Clive Robinson July 9, 2011 4:47 AM

@ wkwillis,

“… the Germans borrowed more money from the US than they paid to the Brits French, Belgians, etc…”

I was aware from looking into it some years ago the German State and some other German entities were borowing money but how much was comming in from where and to whom was unclear at the time. Likewise what was going out in reparations and purchases (for food raw material etc) has been a murky area.

Back when I looked the figures from the various historians varied wildly and the few sources available to me back then suggested that various people were cooking the books.

One such cooking was re casting of gold held by the Germans for reserve purposes, it appears that they were adding other metals to the mix etc.

I guess more information has become available more readily since then do you have any upto date refrences?

AlanS July 10, 2011 10:40 PM


“…the Scots have a lot to do with the mess that is Ireland the island and the people who live there. Many Protestants are of Scottish descent and how they got there is another part of the brutal history of the British Isles and Ireland.”

As a Scot I take exception to that statement. Like much that is written of the historical background to the modern conflicts it is selective, simplistic, self-serving mythology.

The history is much more complicated than you and some others are presenting here. You have to go back and read some modern histories written by professional historians on 17th Century, especially works on the periods leading up to, including, and following the Wars of the Three Kingdoms period to get some basic understanding of the origin of modern disputes. The political and religious disputes and alliances of the period were complex and are not easily reduced to a simple statements.

Also the nationalistic terms Irish, Scots and English often aren’t salient. The more salient terms of reference are often Presbyterian, Episcopalian, Catholic, Jacobite, Royalist, Covenanter, Highlander, Lowlander, etc.

“As an interesting counter point have a look at the Irish Potato famine and how the tenant farmers were treated then compare to the Scottish Potato famine just a few years later.”

Again, this is selective history. Please read about The Killing Time, Culloden and its aftermath, the Highland Clearances, etc. Scottish history was pretty brutal during the 17th and parts of the 18th Century.

I suspect a difference between the Scots and the Irish in regard to the potato famines is that the Scots had more options. Agriculture was constantly failing in Scotland, famine was nothing new, so many people made their living by other means when necessary–Scottish Highlanders were a major supplier of mercenaries to the continental armies and later on fueled the growth of the British Empire. Scots often engaged in trade in in continental Europe and played a major role in both the Dutch and British East India Companies. And by the time of the potato famine, as a result of the Union of 1707, American markets had opened up. By the 1750s Scotland dominated trade with America. And Scotland’s universities were becoming dominant during this time. As the old joke goes, Aberdeen alone had as many universities as all of England. Scotland, in fact, despite being one of the poorest countries in Europe in the early 18th Century, had one of the highest literacy rates in the world. About 40% of the teachers in the US were coming out of Scottish Universities. Scottish educated teachers dominated American education.

GreenSquirrel July 11, 2011 3:53 AM


“They shouldn’t (out of a historical context), but for many they do. ”

We can agree on that.

I think the problem is that society, through various mechanisms, reinforces the idea that because one persons great, great, great grandfather was barbaric to someone else’s great, great, great, grand-da then it a violent action is somehow “understandable” if not overtly justified.


While I totally agree with what you are saying and do my utmost to avoid selective history fallacies, it is interesting that you have taken offence here.

I think this is an example of people believing comments about, and actions against, their forefathers are somehow the same as comments and actions against them.

I certainly feel this when people talk about English / British atrocities from hundreds of years ago, but I think we shouldn’t. Once people can get over the personal link like this, we may be able to move past the long held beliefs that revenge has to last for eternity.

jon livesey July 11, 2011 11:16 PM

Even while attempting to avoid confusing a moral judgment about a terrorist organization with a judgment about its effectiveness, I find this article bizarre.

The IRA ended up being completely disavowed by the voters in Ireland, North and South, and ended up decommissioning its weapons under International Supervision.

Maybe that’s not quite defeat on a par with putting a bullet through your own brain in a Berlin bunker, but calling the strategy and execution “brilliant” seems completely wrong.

The IRA failed to achieve a single one of its aims – which at one time included a takeover of the Irish State – while Northern Ireland is still part of the UK alongside Great Britain.

Better yet, all participants now accept the long-term view the British held all along, which is that the future of Northern Ireland is to be decided by a democratic vote of its people, which removes even the IRA’s claim to somehow “represent” the people of Northern Ireland.

This author lives in a fantasy world of his own.

deepcover July 13, 2011 12:50 AM

By now, I’ve gotten so good at identifying an RSH screed that I can hit PgDn in the second paragraph.

Nerfball July 15, 2011 4:56 AM

It does open the question, does it not, about responses to terrorism … and the idea that a relatively “low-key” approach to guerrilla warfare, urban or otherwise, has benefits, would also apply to the responses to it.

BTW, FWIW, I think the same would apply to the Viet Cong. They were very effective up to the Tet Offensive. Then, as the War Nerd says, they spent all their assets in one single period, with very little to show for it, and the initiative shifted to the NVA. But, since the US DoD was simultaneously working from the “spend all assets at once” memo, the US never held the initiative, not once, not ever.

Incidentally, I think the same would also apply to Robert the Bruce’s insurgency against the English invaders and would-be overlords of Scotland. Did he ever spend all his assets at once? I don’t think he ever had the chance to … ditto for Alfred the Great’s terrorist insurgency against the Danes …

And as anyone who’s ever read “Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee” knows, the great successes of the Sioux patriots against the US invaders, occupiers and would-be overlords of the Midwest, were usually low-key guerilla attacks on an enemy made vulnerable by over-extended supply lines, right up to the Battle of the Little Big Horn.

anonymous July 18, 2011 10:26 AM

“It sounds like OBL actually thought the US would fold like a house of cards because of the 9/11 attacks.”

Or he was smart enough to see the contradiction between speech and action and target the ideological vacuum when there was a dumbass for a president.
Seeing what happened after 9/11, it’s clear that the basis for Western freedom was dismantled by the gutless people in charge here.

Belfast Bob July 22, 2011 8:16 AM

I live in Belfast and was a teenager at the height of the troubles. The article Schneier linked to is a pile of offensive garbage typical of green-haze Americans who have never bothered to come here or learn any Irish history outside of the Socialist Worker.

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