Tuesday, 4 September 2018

The 1994 IRA Attack on Heathrow: the West Hampstead connection


Just before 6pm on Wednesday 9 March 1994 four mortars shells hit Heathrow Airport. Earlier, news agencies had been telephoned by a man with an Irish accent and using a known IRA code word he said, ‘In one hour’s time, a large number of bombs will be going off in Heathrow Airport. Clear all runways. Stop all flights’. The Anti-Terrorist branch of the Metropolitan Police and airport officials decided not to close the airport after a sweep of the terminal buildings and the runways found nothing suspicious. About 45 mins after the mortars landed they closed Heathrow.

The missiles had been launched over the airport fence from 6ft-long tubes fitted in the back of a red Nissan Micra parked about 400 yards away in the Excelsior Hotel car park, just outside the airport. After launching the missiles, a charge inside the car set it on fire and the blaze spread to surrounding cars. The Nissan had been stolen in Kilburn the previous Saturday night and fitted with false number plates. A special hotline phone number was given out to contact the security forces with any information.

Burn out Nissan car with launch tubes (Getty Images)
Two days later a second wave of four mortars landed on the airport. They narrowly missed a group of cleaners walking towards Terminal Four after working on a nearby Boeing 757. The police found the launch unit had been hidden in woodland several hundred metres away. Unfortunately, they failed to locate the third launch site which the terrorists had partly buried in scrubland just inside the perimeter fence south of Terminal Four. In the third attack on the 14 March five missiles took off and one struck the terminal roof.

Fortunately, very little damage was caused because none of the Semtex warheads fired in the three attacks exploded, due to a fault with the detonators. The IRA had begun to receive Semtex high-explosive from Libya in late 1986. It is horrifying to think what would have happened if a mortar shell had exploded near a fully fuelled aircraft.

Here is a news clip about the Heathrow attack:

Two weeks earlier in West Hampstead a man had been asked by an Irishman to move his car which was blocking a garage door in Elmcroft Mews off West End Lane. The Mews are next to and behind today’s Nandos. From then on, he noted the comings and goings in the Mews which he could see from his flat. He was suspicious because he saw men with rubber gloves working in the garage late at night. Three days after the Heathrow attack the West Hampstead man rang the anti-terrorist hotline, tipping them off about the garage. When they searched garage No.26 in the Mews they found traces of Semtex on the floor.

No.26 on left, Elmcroft Garages, (Dick Weindling, Sept 2018)
Nando's, 254 West End Lane, with entrance to Mews (Dick Weindling, 2018)

On 4 May a man using the name 'Fraser' rang the owner to return the keys and get his £50 deposit back, saying he no longer needed to use the garage. An undercover officer pretending to be the owner’s agent met Fraser and gave him the refund. He was followed back to his flat in Earls Court. Anti-terrorist police and the security services discovered his real name was Michael Gallagher. They set up a surveillance operation on Gallagher for an astonishing two-and-a-half years. He was followed from England to Scotland, Ulster and Dublin. Hundreds of his conversations were recorded at his bugged flat in Warwick Road where he lived with his girlfriend Mary Attenborough and working in her computer firm. She had previously been a maths lecturer at South Bank University. A library of 1,700 tapes, covering 15,000 hours recording were built up.

The tapes revealed Gallagher boasting that he took his orders direct from Dublin, dealing with Donal Gannon, one of the top six IRA leaders. But he became worried with the lack of contact and he started making forbidden phone calls to his IRA contacts and arranged to meet his handler. A team of 29 anti-terrorist officers and MI5 agents tracked Gallagher through London, only to see his IRA contact abort the meeting and walk straight past him in the street. From then on, the IRA feared Gallagher was becoming a liability. He became isolated and lonely, often confiding his fears to his girlfriend Mary, unaware they were being taped.

Undercover police photo of Gallagher at garage No.26

Gallagher was finally arrested on 28 October 1996 as by then police believed he would never lead them to the bigger IRA men they hoped to capture. Mary Attenborough was not charged.

On 24 February 1998 Gallagher was found guilty of conspiracy to cause an explosion after a trial lasting two and a half months. Commander John Grieve, the head of the anti-terrorist branch, said: ‘Gallagher was quite an unusual creature. He took great risks. He lived in London ready to do the IRA’s bidding and was essential to the IRA’s campaign on the mainland. Without people such as him the IRA’s campaign would be impossible.’ Commander Grieve thanked the West Hampstead man who called himself a ‘nosey neighbour’, and said, ‘We asked for millions of eyes and ears and we got one nugget of gold’. The judge suggested the man should be given £500 reward for providing the crucial information.

Michael Gallagher, 1998

The jury refused to believe Gallager’s story that he was merely showing off and that the conversations on the tapes were describing the plot of a book he was going to write. They found him guilty, and he was sentenced to 20 years imprisonment.

Born in Glasgow, 55 year old Gallagher was brought up by staunchly Nationalist Irish parents from County Donegal. He left school at 17 and got a job with the DSS, he married and had three sons. His belief in a united Ireland led him to make contacts with Republican hard-liners in Glasgow’s bars. He regularly moved between England and Scotland gathering more Republican contacts. A strong family man, he would visit his sister, niece and nephew at their home in Baillieston, Glasgow. After 12 years, he left the DSS and became a second-hand furniture dealer. But after he began drinking heavily, his debts soared, the business foundered and his wife left him. He began working for the IRA and was given money to set up the 1994 attack by renting the West Hampstead lock-up garage. The press dubbed him ’Mr Fix-it’.

In February 2011 it was announced that Michael Gallagher was one of five IRA men serving long-term sentences in British jails, who would be sent to Ireland before Christmas to finish their sentences.

Today, most people in West Hampstead have no idea that the IRA mortars launched in the Heathrow attack were made in a garage behind the shops in West End Lane.

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