The IRA has secretly infiltrated the criminal underworld in Britain and is using its contacts to obtain equipment to carry out the current bombing campaign, anti-terrorist sources have discovered.
Professional gangs are unknowingly supplying firearms, stolen vehicles, and forged identification papers to the terror organisation. But there is evidence of a growing backlash among the criminal fraternity who are furious at being "exploited" by the IRA.
The police and MI5 are hoping this new trend could help them identify IRA units and operatives working in Britain.
This includes using their existing network of informers, but they are also trying to use the dislike of the IRA along with huge financial "rewards" to persuade underworld members to inform on the terrorists.
As an encouragement, up to pounds 1m has already been offered for information leading to the conviction of the people who carried out the Docklands bombing in east London, in which two people died.
When the reward was announced Commander John Grieve, head of Scotland Yard's Anti-Terrorist Branch, said that it was aimed at criminal informers as well as the public. He said: "We will use every weapon given to us by the community to bring terrorists to justice. We all know that some criminals are motivated by money and we can use that to get the information we need."
Anti-terrorist officers have found evidence of IRA members pretending to be "normal" criminals to mix with underworld groups in cities throughout the country, including Manchester, Newcastle, and Liverpool, but mainly in London. With the growing availability guns, stolen vehicles and forged documents, including driving licences and passports, it has become safer in some cases to use established criminal services rather than the IRA running the risk of smuggling all its own materials.
This is a new trend as, traditionally, IRA units have been very self contained and avoid contact with other organisations because of the security risk.
An intelligence source said: "We know the IRA has infiltrated the criminal infrastructure on the mainland and has been making good use of it for some time. This is obviously an area we are exploring." A different police source said: "They are exploiting the criminal-support mechanism."
Intelligence officers believe that apart from hatred of the IRA's tactics, criminals have a more practical interest in exposing suspected terrorists - they do not want the extra attention of MI5 and anti-terrorist officers that contact with the republicans brings.Reuse content