Three real IRA terrorists were found guilty yesterday of planning three car bombs, including one that exploded outside BBC Television Centre.
Another car bomb went off in west London and a third device, left in Birmingham, failed to explode. The men were arrested while preparing a massive explosion, apparently aimed at Christmas revellers.
Brothers Robert Hulme, 23, and Aiden Hulme, 25, and Noel Maguire, 34, were convicted at the Old Bailey of conspiring to cause explosions between 1 January and 15 November 2001.
James McCormack, 34, and John Hannan, 19, admitted the charge at an earlier hearing. They will be sentenced today.
The breakthrough in the case came when Customs officers investigating a diesel smuggling fraud from the Irish Republic raided a farm in West Yorkshire where the terrorists were based. Armed anti-terrorist officers discovered another car bomb almost "ready to go". Police said outside court that a Vauxhall Cavalier was apparently going to be used in a street attack during the Christmas period.
The Real IRA launched the bombing campaign in 2001 as part of its attempt to wreck the Northern Ireland peace process. The dissident group – responsible for the 1998 bombing in Omagh that killed 29 people – was considered the main terrorist threat to Britain after the IRA agreed to a ceasefire.
The gang's first attack was the detonation of a bomb in a taxi at 12.30am on 4 March close to the main entrance of BBC Television Centre, causing extensive damage and slightly injuring one man.
In the next explosion, in Ealing, west London, a bomb was detonated just before midnight on 2 August outside two pubs, injuring 11 people. The third bomb, which failed to go off, was planted outside a busy nightclub in Smallbrook Queensway, Birmingham on 3 November.
Customs officers had been investigating "diesel washing", an operation in which red dye used to colour cheap agricultural diesel is washed out and the cleaned fuel sold on to private motorists at a profit. The operation avoids paying duty and nets the fraudsters about £10,000 profit for a tanker of diesel. One of the men arrested by Customs gave details of the Real IRA members' involvement in the fraud.
Police and bomb squad officers found a hand grenade, a Smith & Wesson .38 revolver, ammunition, a home-made timing device of the same type recovered from the Birmingham bomb and three detonators in the Cavalier. Police also found a box for the mobile phone that was used to issue coded warnings before the attempted attack in Birmingham. The fingerprints of McCormack, Hannan and Robert Hulme were on the box. A day after the discovery Robert Hulme was arrested while waiting to sail to Ireland from Merseyside.
Another breakthrough was provided by a woman aged 73 who recognised a man from closed-circuit television pic-tures and e-fits published after the Ealing bomb. Police raided a house in Edmonton, north London, and arrested Maguire.
While there was no direct physical evidence to show the men had placed the bombs, the prosecution was able to piece together circumstantial and scientific evidence. The five men are considered by anti-terrorist sources to be Real IRA "foot soldiers". All had links with the Real IRA stronghold in Dundalk, Co Louth.
The cell is thought to have been behind several smaller explosions in Britain. Fingerprints found on a bus ticket found after the BBC taxi bomb have not been traced, leading to suspicions that at least one gang member isat large.