LONDON — Deep inside the innocuous glass-and-chrome office tower off St. James Park, through the fifth-floor situation room, past the scores of wall trophies honoring Scotland Yard's finest, and beyond the thick set of steel doors and hidden surveillance cameras at the end of an unmarked, unadorned corridor lies the awful truth for Britain's ongoing war against terrorism.
It is here, in the computer banks and intelligence files of Scotland Yard's secretive anti-terrorist unit, that the mounting mosaic of Irish Republican Army bombings and armed attacks that have made headlines this summer throughout Britain and Europe combine to form a simple yet foreboding picture of the future:
The war--or perhaps more accurately, the latest campaign in a decades-old struggle by the IRA to drive Britain out of Northern Ireland and unite the province with the Irish Republic--has only just begun.
Since January, the IRA's current campaign of bombings and assassinations has claimed 36 lives and injured scores more in dozens of attacks from Belfast to West Germany. The IRA has struck almost at will in the heart of London and at the very core of Britain's ruling elite. It claimed responsibility for demolishing a private supper club of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's Conservative Party just around the corner from Scotland Yard in June, then for blowing a hole in the side of the London Stock Exchange, and finally for killing one of Thatcher's closest personal friends in the devastating July 30 car bombing of Conservative Party legislator Ian Gow.
"Very simply stated, we expect them to try again," said one senior investigator in the Yard's counterterrorism division who asked not to be identified by name. "It will be similar to the Ian Gow attack in impact but different in the nature of their target.
"They're very versatile, and, at the moment, quite desperate. Their backs are up against the wall. Time and politics are working against them. And, frankly, they're pretty good at what they do. They're professional, and they've got a lot of experience. Keep in mind, they've been going for 20 years now."
They have indeed. In the decades since the young men and women of the Provisional Irish Republican Army declared war on Britain in their fight for independence, the IRA has become one of the world's most sophisticated terrorist organizations.
Although the guerrilla army enjoys some significant grass-roots support in the province, its actual numbers are surprisingly few. Cmdr. George Churchill-Coleman, who heads Scotland Yard's anti-terrorist squad, estimates that there are no more than 200 hard-core IRA operatives throughout the region, and just a dozen or so operating on the British mainland at any given time.
As in any guerrilla war, though, the size of the force is not nearly as important as its conviction and expertise. And no one knows that better than Churchill-Coleman.
A 30-year veteran detective at Scotland Yard, the commander has been Thatcher's point man in the war on IRA terrorism during the five years that he has headed the anti-terrorism unit. Although his image appears on television screens throughout Britain each time the IRA strikes, the commander is an intensely private man, and, given his added concern for secrecy, Churchill-Coleman has turned down more than 150 separate requests for press interviews.
The Yard did, however, permit a Times reporter to visit the fifth-floor command center that has become something of a war room in Britain's campaign against the IRA this year, and to interview one of the unit's key strategists. It was here, by analyzing the IRA's present makeup and tactics, that intelligence experts concluded that this summer's attacks are only the beginning of a wave of IRA violence likely to grow far worse before it subsides.
"They're running a sustained campaign right now," the strategist said. "All they've really done so far is put down two or three devices once every week or 10 days. And they're doing a pretty good job of it. The Ian Gow killing, for example, made a big impact. He was a man of stature, a man who didn't fear anyone and, as a top opponent of the IRA, Ian Gow was a legitimate target in their mind.
"They won one there, I'll give them that. But those are damned hard things to prevent."
Indeed, the IRA is known to operate in small, tightly controlled cells, and, although the identities of its hard-core members are known to Scotland Yard, none have been caught with sufficient proof to make a strong enough case to convict in court.