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A special forces team with Operation Irini moves into board a vessel off the Libyan coast. EU NAVFOR
Defence Forces

Inside Operation Irini: Smugglers, social media clues and the high seas search for illegal arms

In our second piece on Operation Irini, Niall O’Connor examines the broader strategy of the EU mission.

SOCIAL MEDIA POSTS by arms smugglers play a key role in the intelligence war against Libyan armed groups, Irish military officers have revealed.  

Inside a military base in Rome is a busy control room monitoring live feeds from satellites, aircraft and warships off the coast of Libya.

The diverse team managing that centre includes a small group of Irish military working on a hugely sensitive mission to halt arms smuggling to the disparate militias of Libya. 

Operation Irini is a United Nations mandated and European Union staffed mission aimed at bringing stability to Libya. Various nations nominate participants as part of the EU Naval Force – Ireland has three members of the Defence Forces involved at a time. 

In 2014 Libya split in two as rival administrations, based in the east and the west of the country, battled each other for supremacy. 

Much of the recent fighting has been centred around the city of Tripoli and involves a diverse number of militias and rebel groups.

The fall of the Gaddafi regime in 2011 has led to a series of of civil wars. 

As part of attempts to bring stability to the region, the EU and UN initiated Operation Irini.

That operation is based in Aeroporto Militaire Franceso Baracca – located in the densely packed residential south eastern outer reaches of Rome. 

The installation is an Italian air force base and there is a monument of an F-104S Starfighter Cold War-era fighter jet at the entrance gate.

When The Journal visited recently there were four Irish Defence Forces members – led by Commander Brian Sweeney, of the Irish Naval Service.

Sweeney had just returned from a conference in Belgium and is the senior national representative attached to Operation Irini. 

He is joined by Captain Damien Kelly of the Irish Air Corps and Chief Petty Officers Donal O’Sullivan and Gerry Foley of the Irish Navy who was about to leave having completed his six month tour.

As previously reported, the team have been instrumental in one of the biggest missions targeting the smuggling of military weaponry into war torn Libya as they seized the MV Victory ferrying armoured vehicles to the conflict. 

Their work at the base is part of a broader and varied team of European military people including Italian, German and Czechs. 


To get to the point of seizing the weaponry there is a lot of unglamorous dogged investigation work behind the scenes and it is this that the Irish team are engaged in. 

IMG_2474 The Irish team at Operation Irini from left: Capt Damien Kelly, Chief Petty Officer Donal O'Sullivan, CPO Gerry Foley and Commander Brian Sweeney. Niall O'Connor / The Journal Niall O'Connor / The Journal / The Journal

Sweeney and Kelly both told The Journal that much of their work centres around monitoring cargo manifests and the comings and goings of large cargo aircraft travelling to Libya – or of suspicious cargo vessels making their way to ports in the north African country. 

Kelly, who at home works in Casement Aerodrome and instructs new pilots, is focused on monitoring the movement of hundreds of aircraft as part of Operation Irini.

“It’s not about monitoring movements of the air assets involved in surveillance – it’s more about monitoring the air flow of large cargo aircraft coming and going that might be transporting the arms or personnel in and out of the country,” he said.   

These investigations, Kelly said, see them looking at satellite imagery, open source information online (including social media), and even the use of generally available online aircraft trackers. 

Kelly said much of his work is akin to a detective analysing data and compiling intelligence files. 

“Libya has a large amount of different airports and air bases that they can operate to – it’s split between East and West.

“There are different groups going to the East or the West and we’ve got the capability to monitor each airfield, to see what kind the traffic flow is.

“Then you’re comparing it against different sources. Open source as well as more classified stuff also, and then analyzing and putting it all together.

Based on the collation of the information then we can come up with a conclusion which then gives a call on exactly what’s going on.

Kelly explained these flights can include passenger aircraft, private aircraft and other types of flights. 

Incredibly many of the arms smugglers use social media to tell friends of their exploits – aircrew on smuggling aircraft are no different.  

“You’d be surprised what you can find on the likes of Twitter and Facebook. People don’t really think about things they post or put up on these social media platforms. It’s surprising how you can get a link in the chain there then,” he added.

Operation Irini does not have a jet fighter response to intercept the aircraft. 

There is always more than one way to disrupt the smugglers and Kelly said it is about intelligence analysis and then this is provided to various agencies, including police, to then put a plan in place to target them in their countries of origin.

EU nation warship

Sweeney explains that out at sea, onboard an EU nation warship, is the Force Commander who is making calls on the operational deployment of naval ships and other teams.

It is this commander who uses the information provided by the Irish team and their colleagues in Rome to move into position to stop the arms smuggling. 

boardingEsperanza6 A boarding team scaling the side of a ship. EUNAVFOR MED EUNAVFOR MED

Sweeney’s role is to monitor the 24 hour, round the clock, operations rooms that keep information flowing to the air and sea units working on monitoring and interdiction duty off the Libyan coast.

The Irish Defence Forces have been involved in Operation Sophia – that mission was aimed at helping migrants in distress in the Mediterranean. 

Sophia was completely dedicated to rescuing migrants as they crossed the treacherous waters of the Mediterranean – Irish Naval Service ships were deployed to participate in that mission. 

Sweeney said that Sophia had a possible “pull factor” for migration and putting people in danger so the work of Irini, meaning peace in Greek, is focused on bringing stability to the region. 

“We don’t deploy ships near the coast on the western part of Libya, where a lot of the smaller migrant activity takes place. We would stay to the East and use the aircraft instead to patrol towards the West,” he added. 

Both Chief Petty Officers O’Sullivan and Foley as well as Commander Sweeney had taken part in the migrant rescue missions. Their roles in Rome are working in the people management section and carrying out a human resources function.  

Foley is an armourer in the naval base in Haulbowline and O’Sullivan is a diver – they said they seized the possibility to go and work on the Libyan mission. When we visited Foley was due to finish his deployment and O’Sullivan would take over. 

“It’s the chance to work with other nationalities – it has been a great opportunity. Working with Czechs, Italians and Dutch – that has been great to see the co-operation,” Foley said. 

It was the naval divers who manned the rescue boats during Operation Sophia and O’Sullivan, who played a key role in the migrant rescue missions said that former operations, like Sophia, are a huge boost for his colleagues in Haulbowline. 

“Sophia was great for the Navy at the time, because it was a complete change of experience from what we normally do. And it built up morale,” he said. 

dcim100mediadji_0079-jpg Irish Naval Service personnel on a previous mission rescuing migrants in the Mediterranean. Irish Defence Forces Irish Defence Forces

He had worked in a number of roles when deployed on Sophia – working on deck with the migrants and with his crew mates as they worked the problem of rescuing hundreds of migrants. 

But it was the moment that he worked onboard the navy’s Rigid Inflatable Boats (RIB) that he remembers most. 

“I think one thing that sticks out in my mind was bringing a young family from a RIB onto the ship and handing a six week old baby from the RIB onto the ship it was a good feeling back then.

“And now just to see the overall picture of how this operation works is a very good experience,” he added. 

Irish capability

The Journal has reported previously on the Air Corps, Irish Naval Service and Army Ranger Wing exercise for boarding vessels at sea

Sweeney believes that while some more junior officers should get the chance to come to the mission there is huge scope for a dedicated involvement of an Irish Naval vessel,  which could include a special forces detachment or an Irish Air Corps aircraft to join Operation Irini. 

“I personally would like to see ships or potentially aircraft from Ireland involved directly again, in the near future, that’s obviously a policy decision, but I think the Navy and Air Corps would certainly be ready to respond and deploy, if called upon, we’d be delighted to take part.

“I think we’ve proven ourselves and Sophia showed we are more than capable and willing to do it,” he added.

Captain Bruno Scalforo of the Italian Navy works directly with the Irish team at the EU NAVFOR operation and for him the big takeaway is how Irish people work. 

“Although they are a small contingent they bring, to the table, their culture that I would say is very similar to the Italians.

“And the other thing that I noticed is that you guys have a very calm, quiet way of handling things,” he said. 

It is this quiet and calm way of handling things that has already bore fruit on a number of occasions especially in the seizure of the MV Victory and her cargo of military vehicles destined to kill people on the streets of Libyan cities.

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