Colombia: A Safe Haven for Mutually Beneficial Exchanges

The Sunday Life picks up on an interesting reference to an episode some would, no doubt, prefer to forget about. A report from the influential US-based RAND Corporation intended to advise the US government on policy in tackling terrorism focuses on how and why terrorist groups share knowledge for their mutual benefit.. and uses, as one case study, the PIRA’s Colombian adventures with FARC.. The full report, which was published on May 9th, is available online here. The RAND Corp news release stated

In the former demilitarized zone in southwest Colombia, the Provisional Irish Republican Army trained terrorists in the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, commonly referred to as FARC (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarios de Colombia). New technologies and knowledge included remote-detonation technologies and Mark 18 “barracks-buster” mortars, as well as guerrilla warfare tactics. These skills helped FARC improve its urban warfare capabilities in 2001. The IRA reportedly benefited by using the freedom of the demilitarized zone to experiment with its own weapons and received cash from FARC.

From notes on page 71 of the report [pdf file]

Adam Ward and James Hackett, eds., “The IRA’s Foreign Links: Externalising Its Expertise?” IISS Strategic Comments, Vol. 9, No. 5, July 2003. It is important to keep in mind that this is not the first time that FARC and PIRA have allegedly exchanged knowledge and information. PIRA purportedly initiated contact with FARC in 1997 through the ETA, with which PIRA has a long-standing relationship and has exchanged knowledge and technical know-how, particularly in bomb making. According to an April 2002 U.S. Department of State report, one of the three PIRA men, Connolly, Sinn Fein’s representative in Cuba, initiated the contact with FARC in 1997; and, from 1998 to 2001, at least 15 PIRA militants have traveled to Colombia, along with Iranian, Cuban, and Basque terrorists, to train FARC. One expert alleged that senior PIRA leaders would have sanctioned this kind of an exchange of technology with another militant group, even though they are publicly adhering to a cease-fire. Notably, PIRA has a long-standing policy prohibiting “freelancing” by its members; as such, the Colombia Three did not likely act alone, despite vehement denials
from Sinn Fein, which does not want to be seen as violating the cease-fire. U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, responding to the information that this relationship developed after the 1997 peace process began in Northern Ireland, said on a trip to Bogotá in December 2002 that the groups were “sharing experiences and knowledge.”

And from page 79 of the report itself [pdf file]

PIRA Rationale

There are four key reasons that PIRA would be willing to share its technical experience with FARC. The first is that, until recently, the group wanted to remain technically and operationally relevant during the current cease-fire, which prevents PIRA from engaging in armed conflict. In September 2005, the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning determined that PIRA successfully decommissioned all its weapon stockpiles after years of stalled negotiations over whether or not PIRA would turn over its weapons to the government. However, at the time that the Colombia Three were arrested in Bogotá, many observers believed that PIRA would never turn over its weapons because the group was committed to establishing a united Ireland and had said it would do so by force if necessary. Because the group was committed at the time to a political rather than a military approach, it was limited in what it could do operationally to maintain its viability.

During the period of active operations from 1969 to 1997, PIRA was able to innovate technologically because it was forced consistently to come up with new ways to confront the enemy and gain the operational advantage. Because it was no longer engaging the enemy, PIRA had to be creative about how it remained relevant. Prior to decommissioning in September 2005, the group wanted to be able to resurrect its operations as soon as it believed the cease-fire was no longer working. To do this, PIRA needed to maintain the operational skills of its recruits and ensure that it had the appropriate technological capabilities to engage security forces when the time came. PIRA also wanted to maintain its credibility as a “revolutionary organization” with other like-minded groups and, by teaching these groups new skills, it helped to preserve its stature.

The second reason that PIRA was apparently willing to share its expertise is related to the first reason, and that is that, unlike PIRA, FARC is still operationally active. FARC confronts its enemy on a regular basis and has the ability to test new weapons on its adversary and train its rank and file in new technologies and operational strategies. If PIRA helps in this regard and FARC then tests this knowledge and weapons in its operations, PIRA can see whether or not these tactics and weapons are successful. In this way, PIRA can continue to exercise its bomb-making and other terrorist skills and use FARC as its “testing ground” to practice these skills.

Similarly, PIRA may have shared this technology to gain some knowledge in return. In the case of FARC-PIRA exchange, PIRA provided FARC with technological know-how in exchange for a safe haven in which to test its own new weapons away from watchful British and Northern Ireland security officials and cease-fire observers. Although there is no information available in the public domain to confirm that PIRA was engaging in new weapon testing in Colombia, some security officials with whom we spoke suggested that PIRA may have been building and testing a new weapon there. These officials suggested that PIRA feared its weapon-testing activities may have been attracting the attention of security officials at home and, as a result, sent the Colombia Three to the despeje to continue their efforts in a “safe” environment.

A third reason may have been some sort of payment for services rendered. PIRA is now receiving less money from its supporters in the United States as a result of September 11, 2001, and may have seen the opportunity to advise FARC as a new source of funding. British intelligence has speculated that PIRA could have received as much as $2 million for its efforts, which would make up for some of the losses suffered as a result of reductions in funds collected from U.S. sources. With all eyes on the Islamic terrorist threat, PIRA leaders may feel freer to conduct these kinds of activities because they believe the world’s attention is focused elsewhere. Moreover, the costs of running a nationwide organization such as Sinn Fein, which boasts 1,500 election workers, is expensive, and the group’s criminal operations may not be enough to sustain it militarily and politically.