Irish dissident convicted in MI5 weapons sting

October 24, 2011 - 8:42 AM
Lithuania IRA Dissident

Michael Campbell, a 39-year-old with alleged links to the Real Irish Republican Army looks on before a court session in Vilnius, Lithuania , Friday, Oct 21, 2011. A judge found Campbell guilty Friday of trying to buy weapons and explosives during a six-year sting orchestrated by Britain's domestic spy agency MI5, in a case that drew attention to a hardcore Irish Republican Army splinter group's plans to spread terror to London. (AP Photo/Mindaugas Kulbis)

VILNIUS, Lithuania (AP) — A Lithuanian judge found an Irish man guilty Friday of trying to buy weapons and explosives in a six-year sting orchestrated by Britain's domestic spy agency MI5 — a case that drew attention to a hardcore Irish Republican Army splinter group's plans to spread terror to London.

Judge Arunas Kisielus of the Vilnius Regional Court sentenced Michael Campbell — a 39-year-old with alleged links to the Real IRA group — to 12 years in prison for weapons offenses and supporting a terrorist group.

Video footage and intercepted communications showed that Campbell paid some euro6,000 (about $8,300) for high-grade explosives, grenade launchers, detonators, AK-47s and a special assassin's rifle to Lithuanian agents posing as arms dealers.

In an audio recording, he is heard discussing how easy it would be with the type of equipment on offer to plant a bomb in London and escape.

"You can imagine us getting over to England ... You imagine, with a six-hour timer, we could be over to London and back," Campbell says in an audio clip after mulling over a price list for explosives and detonators. "Just tick, tick, tick, tick ... gone.

Kisielius sentenced Campbell to five years for weapons possession, six years for attempting to smuggle weaponry and explosives, and 12 years for supporting a terrorist group. However, Kisielius said the sentences on the weapons charges would be canceled since no harm was caused and that Campbell did not have prior convictions for similar offenses.

The case against Campbell was extraordinary in that an MI5 informant testified in open court — evidence that is thought to have clinched the conviction.

His defense lawyer, Inga Botyriene, said she expected Campbell to appeal. He has 20 days to do so once he receives a translation of the verdict. The time Campbell has spent in detention since his 2008 arrest would be subtracted from his 12-year prison sentence.

"It's a not a big surprise," Botyriene said of the verdict. She argued that Campbell was a victim of entrapment by foreign agents, who lured Campbell to Lithuania, where the MI5 had a better chance of winning a conviction. "That's why the trial is in Lithuania," she said.

His arrest was part of an international sting operation aimed at incapacitating the Real IRA, which broke from the IRA in 1997 over the IRA's support for a peace deal. The group is regarded as a terrorist organization by the U.K. and the United States.

Real IRA, which vows to continue the armed fight for independence from British rule, has claimed responsibility for a number of recent attacks in Northern Ireland, including the murder of two British soldiers in March 2009. Most of their recent attacks have been unsuccessful — due largely to a diminished or aging weapons stockpile.

"The evidence acquired during the investigation proves that the weapons and explosives would have been used for terrorist attacks and killing of innocent people in the United Kingdom," said Irmantas Mikelionis, chief prosecutor of Lithuania's Organized Crime and Corruption Investigations Department.

MI5's original hope had been to starve the group of needed cash and nab key figures in the process. The groups have raised funds through used bank robberies, welfare fraud, counterfeiting and cigarette or fuel smuggling.

"The conviction of Michael Campbell is the result of a successful joint operation between the Security Service and the Lithuanian authorities," said a senior British security official speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of his job. "They have put behind bars a senior member of the Real IRA whose intention was to kill innocent members of the public in Northern Ireland and in Britain."

It was the Real IRA's cigarette smuggling that led the spy agency to Eastern Europe.

Security officials came across an import-exporter in his mid-40s who had been smuggling cigarettes in the Baltics with three Irish dissidents. The man was recruited as an MI5 informant in 2002 and Lithuanian intelligence agents were brought into the sting operation.

But the sting took another twist in 2004.

The wife of one of the three Irish dissidents asked the smuggler-turned-informant if he could exploit his criminal contacts in Eastern Europe to acquire arms. In the two years that followed, she provided the informant with weapons wish lists and he introduced her to a Lithuanian agent posing as an arms dealer. Security officials believe others in the Real IRA were giving her instructions.

In 2007, the informant arranged a meeting between Campbell and the supposed arms dealer at his lodge in Lithuania.

Disappointed by those weapons, Campbell asked to meet another dealer.

Covert video surveillance shows Campbell inspecting weapons with the second Lithuanian agent, who probes Campbell about why he wants the weapons and who the intended targets are.

"Brits," Campbell says, before asking for armor-piecing rounds, which are often used against soldiers or police and their vehicles.

After exchanging more money and discussing transporting the weapons to Ireland, the Lithuanian agent presses Campbell about what organization he represents.

"IRA," Campbell says, shortly before Lithuanian agents swoop in and arrest him.

Campbell is the brother of Liam Campbell, who is also wanted by Lithuanian prosecutors. Liam, 47, co-founded the Real IRA with Michael McKevitt and was one of four leaders in the paramilitary group found liable by a civil court for a 1998 car bombing in Omagh, Northern Ireland, that killed 29 people.

One of the only other cases where an informant gave evidence in open court was American David Rupert — a former FBI/British agent who provided testimony that led to the conviction of McKevitt.

Lithuanian authorities praised the bravery of agents and the informant, who has since been given a new identity.

"The danger of being disclosed, the danger of being accused for cooperation with secret services were hanging in the air each time they contacted the members of the terrorist group," Mikelionis said.

MI5 has battled with entrapment defenses in the past. Desmond Kearns, accused of smuggling guns for the Real IRA, walked free after a judge ruled that he had been wrongfully entrapped during a sting. He had been charged with attempting to smuggle arms and explosives from Europe in an alleged Real IRA arms operation.

Prosecutors in the Campbell case say undercover agents only got involved once it was clear that dissident groups wanted to buy weapons.

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Dodds contributed to this report from London.