For almost 25 years, virtually every bomb constructed by the Provisional IRA and the groups that splintered off it has contained Semtex from a Libyan shipment unloaded at an Irish pier in 1986.
The arrangements for the biggest arms consignment ever received by the IRA had been made between Thomas "Slab" Murphy, a 36–year–old pig farmer from South Armagh, and Nasser Ali Ashour, a diplomat and Libyan intelligence officer.
Ashour, five years older than Murphy, was believed by MI6 to have been an acolyte of Moussa Koussa, who later became Col Muammar Gaddafi's intelligence chief. It took 30 Libyans two nights in October 1986 to load the Villa, a converted Swedish oil rig replenisher, with 80 tons of arms.
The cargo, landed near Clogga Strand, Co Wicklow, included seven rocket propelled grenades (RPGs), 10 surface–to–air (SAM) missiles and, most significantly, a ton of Semtex–H plastic explosive.
Manufactured at Pardubice, 90 miles from Prague, more than 1,000 tons of Semtex had been exported to Libya from communist Czechoslovakia.
Odourless and not detectable by X–rays, Semtex does not explode even when exposed to a naked flame. When used with a detonator, however, it can produce a blast many times more powerful than a fertiliser–based explosive. The Villa shipment was to transform the IRA's ability to wage war against the British state.
Col Gaddafi had long sought to boost his revolutionary credentials by assisting terrorist groups bent on destabilising Western governments. His determination to help the IRA intensified when the British allowed bases at Upper Heyford in Oxfordshire to be used by the American F–111s that bombed Tripoli in April 1986.
Murphy had been among the IRA men who trained in Libya in the 1970s. He was chosen by Joe Cahill, a veteran IRA leader who had been arrested in 1973 on board the Claudia with a cargo of Libyan arms, to re–establish contacts with the Gaddafi regime.
The first vessel used was the Casamara, a British–registered 65ft yacht, that set sail from Malta in August 6 1985. Its 10–ton cargo was taken on board during a rendezvous with the Libyan ship Samra Africa off the Mediterranean island of Gozo.
That cargo yielded 300 boxes of weaponry including AK–47s, Taurus automatic pistols from Brazil, seven Soviet–made RPG–7s and three Russian DShK 12.7mm heavy machineguns.
Another shipment, again picking up 10 tons of arms off Gozo and landing them at Clogga Strand, was arranged for October 1985.
The following year, Murphy made at least seven trips to the Mediterranean to meet Libyan officials.
On April 28 1986, he flew to Athens on a false passport to see three senior IRA men. Murphy boarded another plane the next day for a meeting with Ashour. Sitting on a boat off a Greek island, they discussed a third shipment of 14 tons, later landed at Clogga Strand.
For the fourth shipment, a new vessel, the Villa, was chosen. It was too large to anchor off Clogga Strand so its cargo was landed at nearby Roadstone Pier.
Adrian Hopkins, a Wicklow man who was the boat skipper for all four shipments, told the French police: "The delivery of the load went off smoothly. On land there were two trucks which brought the cargo to another place unknown to me. Tom told me several times that nothing would be circulated until we had delivered the whole stock."
Hopkins said he was paid $500,000 given to him in plastic bags handed over in the White Horse pub in north Dublin.
Many of the arms contained in the Libyan shipments were of little practical use for the predominantly urban campaign the IRA was fighting. Murphy was intent on bringing down British helicopters near his border farm but the size and complexity of the Libyan anti–aircraft weapons meant this was never achieved.
The fifth shipment was to be even bigger and Murphy was keen to show the IRA's gratitude. "At the preparatory meetings with Tom, the latter insisted I should buy a German shepherd dog and offer it to Nasser from Joe Cahill," Hopkins said.
Murphy also authorised the purchase of a double bed, a large clock and two cans of olive oil, which were picked up at a factory near Valletta, as gifts for Nasser. The gifts, including the dog, were transported to Tripoli on board the Eksund, an ageing 237–ton freighter.
Fifty Libyan soldiers were on the jetty at Tripoli to help load 130 tons of weaponry over two nights. Hopkins later recalled: "According to the agreed code, I transmitted a message to Tom via a shipping company in London. I used the code word Stockholm which indicated the unloading date, October 29 1987."
Murphy had been given the code name "Halliday" while Hopkins was "Pender". But as the Eksund left Libya, it was being monitored by MI6 and the French intelligence services and tracked by a Royal Navy hunter–killer submarine.
When the crew saw a spotter plane overhead as the vessel was five miles off Roscoff, Hopkins messaged Murphy: "Pender to Halliday. The unloading of cargo date plus 17." This was the prearranged code stating that the Eksund and its cargo were about to be scuttled.
Two tons of Semtex, 1,000 Romanianmade AK–47s, 1,000 mortars, 600 Soviet F1 grenades, 120 RPG–7s, 20 SAM–7s, 10 DShKs, 2,000 electric detonators, 4,700 fuses and more than a million rounds of ammunition were found in the hold of the Eksund. Hopkins and four IRA men were arrested, convicted and jailed.
Murphy flew into Split in Yugoslavia to meet Ashour on May 28 1989, to discuss more shipments but it was eventually judged too risky to attempt them.
One of his fomer allies, the IRA quartermaster Michael McKevitt (since convicted of IRA offences) defected to the Real IRA in 1997, taking large amounts of Semtex and other IRA weaponry.
The IRA's Libyan connection was detailed in Toby Harnden's book Bandit Country: the IRA and South Armagh (Hodder & Stoughton 1999