History of terrorism
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The proxy bomb (also known as a human bomb) was a tactic used by the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) for a short time in the early 1990s, whereby people were forced to drive car bombs into British military targets. It has also been used in Colombia by FARC rebels. The tactic has been compared to a suicide bomb, although the bomber in these cases was coerced rather than being a volunteer.
In late 1990 the IRA Army Council gave approval for what was to be the first of a series of proxy bomb attacks. The plan was to kidnap a member of the British security forces or a British Army sympathiser, hold their family hostage and force the kidnapped person to take explosives to a target.
In the early hours of 24 October 1990 armed and masked IRA volunteers took the family of Patrick "Patsy" Gillespie hostage. Gillespie was a Catholic who worked as a cook for the British Army and so was seen by the IRA as a collaborator and legitimate target.
The IRA forced him to drive a car loaded with 1,000 pounds of explosives to the British Army checkpoint at Coshquin on the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. When he arrived at the checkpoint the bomb was detonated by remote control, killing Gillespie and five soldiers from the Kings Regiment.
At Gillespie's funeral Bishop Edward Daly said the IRA and its supporters were "...the complete contradiction of Christianity. They may say they are followers of Christ. Some of them may even still engage in the hypocrisy of coming to church, but their lives and their works proclaim clearly that they follow Satan."
On the same day, there were two other proxy bomb attacks in Northern Ireland. In one, a 65 year old ex-UDR man, James McEvoy was forced to drive a bomb into a British Army checkpoint outside Newry. He managed to jump clear at the last moment, suffering a broken leg, but Ranger Cyril J. Smith QGM aged 21 from B. Coy. 2nd Battalion Royal Irish Rangers was killed and thirteen were injured. Smith was posthumously awarded the QGM as he attempted to warn his colleagues about the bomb rather than running for cover.
In another attack on Lisanelly Army base in Omagh, the proxy bomber was strapped into the car to keep him from escaping, while his wife and children were held hostage. However, the bomb failed to explode.
There were a few more attacks like these in the next month the last one being a failed attempt to destroy a checkpoint at Rosslea, County Fermanagh, on 21 December. The same checkpoint was the subject of a heavy machine gun attack a week later. Another proxy bomb wrecked a UDR base in Magherafelt, County Londonderry, in early February 1991, but there were no fatalities. The proxy bomb tactic caused some outrage in both the unionist and nationalist communities. In spite of this, there were a few more attacks before the tactic was stopped. The final IRA use of proxy bombs came on 24 April 1993, when they forced two London taxi drivers to drive bombs towards Downing Street and New Scotland Yard. There were no casualties, however, as the drivers managed to shout warnings and to abandon their cars in time. A conventionally delivered bomb was detonated by the IRA on the same day in the financial centre of Bishopsgate in central London.
Overall the proxy bomb tactic had the result of discrediting the IRA's campaign in the eyes of Republicans and the nationalist community. According to journalist and author Ed Moloney, 'as an operation calculated to undermine the IRA's armed struggle, alienate even its most loyal supporters and damage Sinn Féin politically, it had no equal'.
Moloney has suggested that the tactic may have been calculated to weaken the position of alleged "hawks" in republicanism – those who favoured armed action over electoral politics. At the same time Moloney argues that the widespread public revulsion would have strengthened the position of those in the IRA such as Gerry Adams who were considering how Republicanism could abandon violence and focus on electoral politics. Peter Taylor wrote of the proxy bombs that, by such actions and the revulsion they caused in the community, the IRA inadvertently strengthened the hand of those within the Republican movement who argued that an alternative to armed struggle had to be found.