Most military officers are familiar with Sun Tzu’s maxim on “knowing your enemy”. Western militaries continue to collect intelligence on adversaries, but there is a significant difference between understanding an enemy as a target and being able to understand how they think. In the case of terrorist organizations, there have been extensive studies on what leads to an individual becoming radicalized, but there is far less literature on what life is like for these individuals after they become members of the group. Professional terrorist organizations are frequently underestimated in certain areas and overestimated in others. Understanding the human aspects of these organizations can help break through these myths and better address the threat from violent extremist organizations.
“Killing Rage” is Eamon Collins’ memoir of his membership in a professional terrorist organization. Collins was an intelligence officer in the Provisional Irish Republican Army (PIRA) who joined the group in Northern Ireland in the 1970s. The book documents his story of joining the PIRA, supporting and conducting operations, his rise to an important position within the counterintelligence branch of the group as well as his capture and turning to inform on the organization. When Collins eventually returns to the PIRA, he is made to face justice from the group before leaving the organization permanently. His ideology and motivations are dynamic throughout his time in the PIRA, his mindset continually shifts and as they do so he faces the consequences from the terror organization. Killing Rage was first published in 1997 and Collins was violently murdered in 1999 under mysterious circumstances.
Collins was partially motivated by ideology as well as real and perceived abuses towards the Catholic community from security forces, but he also had a sense of duty and a desire to serve his community. In his hometown of Newry, Collins saw members of the British military and Unionist dominated Northern Irish security services safely living alongside the locals. His objective was to “replace their security with terror”, extending the fearful mindset of members of the Catholic minority to them as well. Collins developed an ultra-left ideology and he saw the increasingly Marxist IRA as dedicated to dramatic political revolution as well as the recruitment of more dedicated and capable fighters. From his job in the British customs office, Collins reached out to the PIRA by offering information through a relative on an Ulster Constabulary Reservist that could lead to an assassination. He used this initial assistance to the group to facilitate his initiation into the PIRA.
As an intelligence officer in the PIRA, Collins was responsible for finding and surveilling targets for assassinations and bombings. The PIRA managed the training and recruitment process for its members through “The Green Book”, which included OPSEC measures and organizational rules and regulations. Collins’ duties frequently included meeting with informers who wanted to support the movement by identifying targets but did not want to assume the risk of becoming full members of the PIRA. He frequently encountered a problem common to the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, where sources would provide false information on their rivals to security forces to settle personal scores. The PIRA operated, at least in theory, in cells called Active Service Units. In these small units, intelligence operatives like Collins would support a handful of operators who carried out the actual shootings and bombings. Collins would locate and surveille targets, finding an opening for his compatriots to act. Eventually Collins was also invited to join the “Nutting Squad” the PIRA’s internal security units which were responsible for vetting recruits, ensuring that the members were following the rules set by the Green Book, and debriefing members who had been detained by security forces. Simultaneously, the PIRA pushed him into a more overt role in Sein Fein, attempting to guide the political branch from within. All this activity led to attention from the police and Collins was eventually arrested.
Over the course of his career, Collins gradually began to draw away from the ideology and objectives of the PIRA, ultimately leading to his separation from the group. Collins saw members of the PIRA becoming increasingly loose with their targeting of security personnel and accused informers, using tactics like torture and forced confessions. He also began to realize that the violence and terrorist attacks were not furthering the republican cause, they were instead being used by PIRA leadership to support internal power struggles while undermining Sein Fein’s political campaign and negotiations. The extreme pressure placed on Collins by the security forces ultimately culminated in his arrest. Under interrogation, his mental barrier and coping mechanisms that allowed him to objectify his targets finally broke down. Collins became an informer for the police, building a psychological dependency upon his captors. However, while serving as a “supergrass” informer he retracted his testimony that had been used to arrest and sentence many of his compatriots. Collins was ultimately released when a British judge ruled that the police had misbehaved. He then found himself being tried by the PIRA, who aggressively vilified his character and exiled him. Ultimately, Collins fully detached from himself from the PIRA and the republican movement when he experienced the dichotomy of the different justice systems.
The PIRA is extremely useful as a counterterrorism case study, but it is particularly valuable to junior officers seeking to understand the thinking and mindsets of their opposites. Military officers develop thought patterns from their upbringing, education, and training. While these patterns are useful, they can form orthodox perspectives that limit understanding of complex problems like terrorism.
Collins demonstrates the level of skill and dedication terrorists can bring to their operations, particularly after years of experience and specialization in their tactics. Officers should never underestimate their enemies and should appreciate that in addition to local knowledge, terrorists have the benefit of experience in their preferred style of operations. Even professional terrorists are human adversaries who are shaped by their experiences. Their individual motivations can be exploited and used for non-kinetic operations. The PIRA has largely ceased its military operations since the Good Friday Accords, but “Killing Rage” is an excellent primer for junior officers seeking to think about violent extremist organizations from an insiders perspective.
Reviewed by Riley Murray
Riley Murray is a 2nd Lieutenant in the United States Air Force and a 2018 graduate of the United States Air Force Academy. He is currently pursuing his Master’s Degree in the Georgetown Security Studies Program.