Monday, October 15, 2012

Case Study Omagh NI Bombing 1998

Date: Saturday, 15th August 1998.
Location: Omagh, Country Tyrone, Northern Ireland.
Category: Terrorist Attack, Bombing, Vehicle

The very first time I took a course on critical communications and bomb threat management the instructor had noted how most bomb threat warnings are called in to reduce physical casualties as typically the building to be bombed serves as a symbol and the bomber does not traditionally intend to harm a lot of people.

However it was also noted in the last two decades that terrorist groups around the world have been developing bomb threat strategies of a more melevolant nature. Intended to increase the number of casualties to both civilian and of the first responders (typically medical and security forces)

There are three key malevolent bomb threat strategies as identified by EOD expert Craig S Gundry US Army (Ret) CPS, CHS-III

1 - The Mouse Trap

2 The Short Warning

3 The False Bomb location

The Omagh bombing of august 1998 employed two of these tactics the short warning and the false bomb location. It was carried out supposedly by members of the Real Irish Republican Army a splinter faction of the Provisional IRA who were opposed to the signing of the Good Friday or Belfast Agreement on the 10th of april 1998. The bomb was detonated in a crowded market area and inflicted casualties estimated at around 30 (+2) dead and over 200 wounded. I say +2  as one of the women was carrying an unborn child and there was a paramedic who was killed in a vehicle collision rushing to respond to the explosion. Never forget about the men and women who run towards the fire.

This day, the 15th of August was reported to be the last day of major shopping before the start of the new school year and Omagh is reported to be the only town in County Tyrone that had school uniform and supply stores and so on this busy hectic day of shopping you found hundreds of people flooding to Omagh to get the last minute shopping done so that all the little ones would be ready for school. I have been told it was said to be a big day for the town and things like a festival had been planned and we had people of both Protestant and Catholic backgrounds, Tourists from the Republic, a Mormon teenager on an exchange, several young exchange students from Spain all in this one area.

Now this was a tense period on the Northern Irish peace process. Negotiations to end the Troubles had already failed in 1996 and there was a resumption of political violence. They finally signed the act through on 1998 as Sinn Fein (A republican political party that has historically carried ties to the PIRA) had approved of the Mitchell Principles which called for the disarmament and disbandment of all paramilitary forces and a commitment to nonviolence. The RIRA opposed certain clauses in the agreement and began its campaign on January 7th 1998 with an attempted bombing in Banbridge, County Down. this attack was thwarted when responding security forces managed to located and diffuse the device before it could be detonated.

On 13, August,1998 a red Vauxhall Cavalier was stolen from Carrickmacross, County Monaghan, in the Republic of Ireland. the culprits switched the Republic plates with Northern Ireland plates and crossed the border on the morning of the 15th. At approximately 14:10 the vehicle was recorded by CCTV parking outside of an S.D. Kells' clothin store on Lower Market Street in Omagh. This position was also near its intersection with Dublin Road. Two unidentified subjects exited the car and walked east down Market Street turning towards Campsie Road. where they most likely had an extraction team waiting for them.

This photo was recovered in a camera found in the rubble. That car parked to the left of the man and child is the vehicle that contains the bomb.

The next stage in this operation was the phone calls. The phone call traditionally is used as a warning to evacuate the building. It is believed by some that bombers view the building as a symbol and do not necessarily intend to inflict human casualties. Of course some casualties do occur however it is usually believed to be a warning to minimize casualties.

This is not one of those cases. At approximately 1430 a bomb threat call was made to Ulster Television in Belfast, Northern Ireland with the following message

"There is a bomb. Courthouse. Omagh town. 500 lbs. Explosion. 30 minutes"

So we have established that a 500 lb blast will occur at the courthouse in Omagh at approximately 1500. For purposes of the geographical location the courthouse is just under 500 metres from the marketplace. At approximately 1432 a call was placed to the Samaritans Charity society in Coleraine, County Londonderry.

"Am I through to Omagh? This is a bomb warning. It's going to go off in 30 minutes. 200 metres from the courthouse"

At 1435 a second call was recieved at the Ulster Television station in Belfast with a brief message.

"Bomb, Omagh town, 15 minutes."

In  a span of five minutes the callers established a web of confusion as to the location and detonation time of the bomb that would ultimately give them a more successful operation. 

Now in each call the name Martha Pope was referenced. This was a code word, an authentication code if you will to be used between Irish Republican forces and British Police to verify the validity of the call and that it was not a prank.And as such the police response was to immediately evacuate the court house and surronding area and get them a safe distance away. A cordon surrounding the courthouse was established at 1440 hours and the evacuees were positioned 400 metres away on market street. which as it happens was the location of the school supply stores and that red car. They began carefully searching the area around the courthouse.

 At 1510 hours the bomb detonates roughly 400 metres from the courthouse in the crowd of evacuees and children.

Chaos immediately after the bombing.

From there the incident was not over. On the 18th of august 1998 a group identifying itself as the Real IRA, the RIRA admitted responsibility for the event but blamed the police for the deaths. They claimed that 3 clear messages identified the device as being on market street 400 metres from the courthouse parked in front of a commercial target.

 Is it possible that this was an operational screw up that can be blamed on bad or inaccurate intelligence? of course it can but isn't it also possible that the callers had a much darker plan intended for that device then blowing up a clothing store?

Now immediately after the blast and prior to the RIRA accepting the blame. the fingers were all pointing to the Provisional Irish Republican Army. The PIRA who were quite obviously furious having just signed the Belfast agreement and agreeing to attempt at peace. It has been rumored that the PIRA got their own kind of revenge against the real perpetrators of the attack.

Now whether or not that is true I have absolutely no idea. It would not surprise me but I simply do not know if such a thing is true.

Omagh Bombing Memorial placed where the vehicle was parked.

Lessons to be learned from this attack:

1. NEVER assume that the information stated in a bomb threat warning is completely accurate the caller may be misinformed or inaccurate about his statement It is also possible that the caller is bering deliberately misleading in an effort to provoke a specific response.

2. ALWAYS inspect your safe zone and cordon area for secondary devices. Although we found no secondaries in the Omagh incident a search of the safe zone could have revealed the actual intention of the bomb. possibly saving the lives of everyone there.

This was probably one of the darkest hours in the history of the troubles and it caused a severe backlash on both sides of the tension due to a severe number of civilians, women and children dying from the incident.

To the best of my research the RIRA is still active in Northern Ireland even today as they are not satisfied with the Belfast Agreement.


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