Belfast Telegraph

Dissident terror camp: Deep in the woods, their every move was being watched

By Chris Kilpatrick

On a spring morning, the otherwise tranquil surroundings of an isolated woodland reverberated with the crack of gunfire.

The remoteness of Formil Wood outside Omagh seemed the perfect place for the dissident terror gang to hone weapons skills. Balloons and other targets including a mess tin were erected in a small clearing so the four could assess the capability of a rifle owned by one, and their ability to use it.

The purpose, it was said in court and accepted by the judge, was to ready themselves to launch a dissident terror attack.

Little did those gathered in the secluded wood know their every move and word was being captured by intelligence services and would ensure their training was never put to murderous use.

Those in attendance that day, March 30, 2012, were Sharon Rafferty, a 39-year-old mother-of-three, and Sean Kelly, a grandfather aged 49. They were joined by brothers Aiden and Gavin Coney, in their late 30s and fathers to young children. All but Kelly had never been convicted in relation to any terror offences.

He had benefited from the Good Friday Agreement's early release clause, having been handed a 24-year jail term in 1993 for planting a booby-trapped bomb under the car of an RUC constable.

The gang were said to have styled themselves on the ideology, philosophy and activities of the Real IRA, without being affiliated to that organisation.

On March 30, 2012 all four defendants attended the training camp for target practice. Shots were fired at up to 30 balloons and a mess tin.

In court last week, details of a witness statement were read, detailing how gunfire rang out for around 40 minutes.

A small number of spent cartridges were retrieved in a subsequent sweep by the security forces who believed the group had cleansed the wood following the shooting exercise.

The weapon was a .22 Walther rifle, a legally-held gun licensed to Gavin Coney. He was later linked to the training camp by DNA on a discarded cigarette butt.

The huge surveillance operation which culminated that spring day was put into motion just months after the murder of Ronan Kerr in April, 2011.

In October of that year Kelly became the subject of intelligence service attention over concerns he was embroiled in dissident republican activity.

He had complained on a number of occasions about the frequency with which his vehicle had been stopped by police.

Very quickly Rafferty also came under intense scrutiny, given the alarming content of conversations the pair were sharing.

During those talks the pair discussed a number of terrorist-related issues, including the targeting of Catholic police officers, the publicity surrounding killing people, frustrations about "the leadership" and lack of progression and the possibility of targeting police officers in Toome.

Other topics centred on recruitment, the issues of security, so-called touts and fundraising.

An earlier discussion picked one up talking about how Catholics were "the ones we need to target" and referring to a 2010 bomb attack on Catholic PSNI officer, Peadar Heffron, having "went like a dream".

Three days before the gathering at the Omagh camp, Kelly and Rafferty were recorded discussing whether the penetration of a rifle would be "as good as they say it is".

Kelly was recorded claiming he had taken others to the home of the governor of Maghaberry Prison on two occasions.

They were also taped bemoaning the dissident republican leadership and their lack of opportunities to take part in any activities, speculating that it was because they were deemed "culchies". Other conversations included the wishes of one to blow a "Jeep load of those b******* (referring to members of the security forces) sky high".

Northern Ireland's Director of Public Prosecutions, Barra McGrory QC, appeared in person at an earlier bail hearing, due to the perceived seriousness of legal issues raised in the case.

Mr McGrory said of the recorded conversations including Rafferty and Kelly: "These are very chilling comments which would reveal the nature of the activity that was going on in the forest."

Six weeks after the test session at the makeshift firing range, all four were arrested in raids on their homes.

One police officer involved in the covert operation against the gang said it had undoubtedly saved lives. Detective Superintendent Kevin Geddes, from Serious Crime Branch, said: "Officers have worked closely with colleagues in the security service and the Public Prosecution Service to reach a point where charges were brought and convictions secured. It is clear from the evidence placed before the court that these individuals were intent on using this weapon and training facility to further their terrorist objectives.

"I have no doubt that lives have been saved by this proactive operation. Those who would seek to commit terrorist acts should be in no doubt about the absolute determination of police and partner agencies to use every mechanism available through the criminal justice system to reduce the threat posed by individuals and terrorist groupings and to keep everyone in our community safe.

"We believe that the vast majority of people in our community support us in this objective. We urge them to continue to work with us by providing information about individuals or suspicious activity so that we can continue to keep everyone safe."

The volume of evidence gathered, particularly on Kelly and Rafferty, through video and audio surveillance, as well as the tailing of the four suspects by investigators, was described as unprecedented by the judge.

Judge David McFarland said "essentially these were confessions on your part".

"It's the first time I've come across a case with detailed and prolonged recordings of various conversations and they do give an insight into the then thoughts of you, Kelly and you, Rafferty," he added.

Sean Kelly was branded a danger to the public and was handed an indeterminate jail term after he admitted six terrorist offences.

He was told he will serve a minimum of five years in prison.

Rafferty, from Cabhan Aluinn in Pomeroy, was handed an eight year sentence – half of which will be spent in prison, with the remaining four years on supervised licence upon her release.

Terence Aiden Coney (36), of Malabhui Road, Carrickmore, and his brother Gavin Joseph Coney (37), of Gorticashel Road, Omagh, were each sentenced to serve five years and nine months – half to be spent in prison with the remainder on supervised licence after release.

Karen Quinlivan QC, the barrister representing Kelly, spoke of the nature of the surveillance against her client which included recording conversations, following him and subjecting him to stops and searches, and having his vehicle searched. Regarding the conversations, Ms Quinlivan said Kelly was "someone who engaged in exaggerating his own importance." An example of this, she said, was his untrue claim about having been an officer commanding of the Provisional IRA in the H-Blocks.

Gavan Duffy QC, representing Rafferty, spoke of his client's clear criminal record and said the "deprivation of her liberty" has had a significant impact on her family, including her three children.

Mr Duffy told the court a lot of what was said between her and Kelly was "exaggeration and bluster ... so much so that she only faced charges relating to her presence in Formil Wood in connection with the acts of target shooting".

Judge McFarland acknowledged that while the conversations contained elements of "bragging, bravado and exaggeration" during which Kelly was trying to impress Raffety and vice versa, it was clear they expressed support for terrorist acts, with Kelly "indicating his own involvement." He told Kelly and Rafferty: "You don't express any doubts or remorse about terrorist activity."

The judge also placed the pair under notification orders under anti-terror legislation – Kelly for 30 years and Rafferty for 15.

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