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The proxy bomb (also known as a human bomb) was a tactic used mainly by the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) in Northern Ireland during the conflict known as "the Troubles". It involved forcing people (including civilians, off-duty members of the British security forces, or people working for the security forces) to drive car bombs to British military targets, after placing them or their families under some kind of threat. The tactic was later adopted by FARC in Colombia[1] and by rebels in the Syrian civil war.[2] The tactic has been compared to a suicide bomb, although each bomber in these cases is coerced rather than being a volunteer.[3]

Early proxy bombs

The first proxy bombs took place in Northern Ireland during the Troubles. By 1973, increased searches and surveillance by the British security forces was making it harder for IRA members to plant their bombs and escape. In response, the IRA introduced the 'proxy bomb' tactic in March of that year.[4] In these early proxy bombings, the driver and nearby civilians would usually be given enough time to flee the area before the bomb detonated.[5] One of the proxy bomb attacks carried out by the IRA during this period took place in 1975, when an employee of the Northern Ireland Forensics Laboratory in Newtownbreda was forced to drive a car laden with explosives to the building. The explosion caused moderate damage, and operations resumed quickly. The Laboratory would be the subject of one of the largest IRA bombings in 1992, when a 1,700 kg van bomb abandoned in the laboratory parking lot demolished the facilities and caused widespread damage inside a radius of 1 km.[6]

The proxy bomb was also used by Northern Irish loyalists, on at least one occasion. On 11 September 1974, masked gunmen in British Army uniform hijacked a car in Northern Ireland, placed a time bomb inside and forced the owner to drive it into the village of Blacklion in the Republic of Ireland. They claimed to be from the UVF and threatened to attack his family if he did not comply. The village was evacuated and the Irish Army carried out a controlled explosion on the car. They estimated that the bomb would have destroyed most of the village.[7]

October 1990 proxy bombings

October 1990 proxy bombings
Part of The Troubles
Proxy bomb is located in Northern Ireland
Location Coshquin, Cloghoge and Omagh, Northern Ireland
Date 24 October 1990
Target British Army bases and checkpoints
Attack type
vehicle bombs
Deaths 7 (6 soldiers, 1 civilian)
Non-fatal injuries
Perpetrator Provisional IRA

On 24 October 1990 the IRA developed the tactic by introducing the so-called 'human proxy bomb'. Three men whom it deemed to be 'collaborators' (i.e. helping the security forces in some way)[5] were strapped into three vehicles and forced to drive to three British military targets. However, unlike the earlier proxy bombings, they were not given the chance to escape. The three synchronised attacks took place at Coshquin (near Derry), Cloghoge (near Newry) and Omagh in the early morning of 24 October.


The Coshquin operation involved 11 members of the IRA's Derry City Brigade.[8] RUC Special Branch had received some intelligence about the operation,[9] but it was said to be only a "vague outline" of an "impending assault against a base" in the area.[8]

Catholic man Patrick "Patsy" Gillespie (42) lived in the Shantallow area of Derry and worked as a cook in Fort George British Army base in the city.[9] The IRA had warned him to stop working at the base or risk reprisal. On one occasion, the IRA had forced him to drive a bomb into the base, giving him just enough time to escape. However, the bomb failed to detonate.[9]

On 24 October 1990, members of the IRA's Derry City Brigade took over Gillespie's house.[10] While his family was held at gunpoint, he was forced to drive his car to a rural spot on the other side of the border in County Donegal.[10] Gillespie was then put in a van loaded with 1,000 pounds (450 kg) of explosives and told to drive to the Coshquin permanent border checkpoint on Buncrana Road.[9][10] An armed IRA team followed him by car to ensure he obeyed their commands.[8] Four minutes from the checkpoint, the IRA team armed the bomb remotely.[8] When Gillespie reached the checkpoint, at 3:55 AM,[8] he tried to get out and warn the soldiers, but the bomb detonated when he attempted to open the door.[9] IRA bomb makers had installed a detonation device linked to the van's courtesy light, which came on whenever the van door opened. As a safeguard, the bombers also used a timing device to ensure the bomb detonated at the right moment.[9] Gillespie and five soldiers were killed.[10] Witnesses reported hearing "shouting, screaming and then shots".[8] The bomb devastated the base, destroying the operations room and a number of armoured vehicles.[8] It was claimed that the death toll would have been much higher if soldiers hadn't been sleeping in a recently built mortar-proof bunker.[8] The blast also damaged 25 nearby houses.[10]

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."[11]


In tandem with the Coshquin operation, members of the IRA's South Down Brigade took over the house of Catholic man James McAvoy (65) in Newry. He was allegedly targeted because he served RUC officers at his filling station, which was beside the house.[9] He was driven away in a Toyota HiAce van while his family was held at gunpoint.[9] At Flagstaff Hill, near the border with the Republic, members of the IRA's South Armagh Brigade loaded the van with one ton of explosives.[9] McAvoy was strapped into the driver's seat and told to drive the van to the accommodation block at Cloghoge permanent vehicle checkpoint. Before he drove off, a senior IRA member seemed "to have a pang of conscience" and whispered in McAvoy's ear, "don't open the door; go out through the window".[9]

An IRA team followed the van in a car and turned into a side-road shortly before it reached the checkpoint.[9] When McAvoy stopped the van and climbed out the window, a soldier came over and began shouting at him to move the vehicle.[9] Moments later, a timer detonated the bomb.[9] The soldier was killed outright and 13 of his comrades were injured. McAvoy survived but suffered a broken leg.[9][10] The 21-year-old soldier, Ranger Cyril J. Smith, from B. Coy. 2nd Battalion Royal Irish Rangers, was posthumously awarded the QGM as he tried to warn his comrades about the bomb rather than running for cover.[12] Smith was Catholic and originally from Northern Ireland.[13]


At about the same time, there was a third attempted proxy bombing in County Tyrone. A third man was strapped into a car and forced to drive it to Lisanelly British Army base in Omagh while his family was held at gunpoint.[10] This third bomb weighed 1,500 pounds (680 kg) but, due to a faulty detonator, the main explosive charge failed to explode.[9][14]

Later proxy bombs

Several more 'human proxy bombings' were planned, but the operations were called-off, partly because of the outrage it drew from all sections of the community.[9] Nevertheless, there were a few more 'traditional' proxy bombings in the following months.

At 9:30 AM on 22 November 1990, the IRA took over a man's house in Newtownbutler, County Fermanagh.[10] While his parents were held at gunpoint, he was forced to drive a Toyota Hilux pick-up truck to Annaghmartin military checkpoint.[10] He was told that the truck carried a bomb on a five-minute timer. When he reached the checkpoint he shouted a warning and a small explosion was heard, but the main bomb failed to detonate.[10] The vehicle was found to contain 3,500 pounds (1,600 kg) of homemade explosives; the biggest IRA bomb up to that point.[10][15] The same checkpoint was the subject of a heavy machine gun attack on 26 December.[16]

In early February 1991, another proxy bomb wrecked an Ulster Defence Regiment base in Magherafelt, County Londonderry, but there were no fatalities.[17] The proxy bomb tactic caused outrage in both the unionist and Irish nationalist communities. The final IRA use of proxy bombs came on 24 April 1993,[18] 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.[19]

In the early 2000s, FARC rebels began to use proxy car bombs in Colombia. This has been attributed to training given to FARC by members of the Provisional IRA. In the Colombian province of Arauca in February 2003, three brothers were forced to drive car bombs into military checkpoints, each told that the other brothers would be killed if they did not comply.[20]

Effect of the tactic

The 'human proxy bombings' of October 1990 caused widespread outrage even among some IRA supporters, who claimed it irreparably damaged the republican movement.[21] 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."[22]

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, IRA hardliners inadvertently strengthened the hand of those within the republican movement who argued that an alternative to armed struggle had to be found.[23]


  1. "Colombia boat bomb kills seven". BBC News. 25 August 2003. 
  2. "Accounts of Syria rebels executing prisoners raise new human rights concerns"
  3. Moloney, Ed. Secret History of the IRA, p. 347-348
  4. Coogan, Tim Pat. The IRA. Palgrave Macmillan, 2002. p.378
  5. 5.0 5.1 Drake, C J M. Terrorists' Target Selection. Palgrave Macmillan, 1998. p.67
  6. Oppenheimer, A. R. (2009). IRA: The Bombs and The Bullets. A History of Deadly Ingenuity. Irish Academic Press, p. 133. ISBN 978-0-7165-2895-1
  7. Interim Fourth Barron Report (2006), p.167
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 8.3 8.4 8.5 8.6 8.7 Toolis, Kevin. Rebel Hearts: Journeys within the IRA’s soul (second edition). Picador, 2000. Chapter 4: Informers. ISBN 0-330-34648-2
  9. 9.00 9.01 9.02 9.03 9.04 9.05 9.06 9.07 9.08 9.09 9.10 9.11 9.12 9.13 9.14 9.15 Jordan, Hugh. Milestones in Murder: Defining moments in Ulster's terror war. Mainstream Publishing, 2002. Chapter 11.
  10. 10.00 10.01 10.02 10.03 10.04 10.05 10.06 10.07 10.08 10.09 10.10 O'Brien, Brendan. The Long War: The IRA and Sinn Féin (second edition). Syracuse University Press, 1999. pp.203–204. ISBN ISBN 0-8156-0597-8
  11. "Bishop Rebukes I.R.A. for Car Bomb Attacks". The New York Times. 28 October 1990. Retrieved 9 March 2007. 
  12. "Royal Irish Rangers". Palace Barracks Memorial Garden. 
  13. "CAIN – Database of deaths 1990". 
  14. English, Richard (2005). Armed struggle: the history of the IRA. Oxford University Press, p. 126. ISBN 0-19-517753-3
  15. "'Human-bomb' attack fails". The Independent. 21 December 1990. p. 2. 
  16. "Gunmen Attack 20 Minutes after IRA Christmas Cease-Fire Ends". Associated Press. 26 December 1990.,8408916&dq=checkpoint+northern-ireland&hl=en. 
  17. "Car Bomb Causes Damage, Injuries Near Military Base". Associated Press. 3 February 1991. 
  18. "Using innocent people to deliver viable devices to security force targets was a tactic used by the Provisional IRA for a short time in the early 1990s". Belfast Telegraph. 21 September 2009. p. 4. 
  19. Joanne Merriweather (25 April 1993). "Two more bombs explode in north London". United Press International. 
  20. "As manhunt goes on, 'damage already done'". Irish Independent, 19 December 2004.
  21. "Family of IRA victim David Sweeney of Widnes honoured with the Elizabeth Cross". Runcorn & Widnes Weekly News, 13 May 2010. Retrieved 14 January 2012.
  22. Moloney, p.348
  23. Moloney, p. 349

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