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Illustration by Security Management

Today in Security History: The Valhalla and Arming the IRA

It was just after midnight on 14 September 1984. The swordfish boat Valhalla sailed out of Gloucester Harbor on Boston’s north shore. Her crew had topped off the boat with fuel, 20 tons of ice, and 7,100 pounds of mackerel and squid. In the forward engine room, they had stacked more than 7 tons of AK-47 rifles, ammunition, grenades, bulletproof vests, and explosives, all destined for the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and the six British-ruled counties of Northern Ireland.

The IRA of the 1980s considered itself a legitimate paramilitary organization. The American and British governments classified it a terrorist group. IRA soldiers planted bombs and employed snipers. They kidnapped and killed British soldiers. They fought for a unified Ireland and the end to British rule.

South Boston mobsters Patrick Nee and James “Whitey” Bulger had helped to amass the weapons loaded aboard the Valhalla. As Irish-Americans, Nee and Bulger were sympathetic to the Irish fight. Nee had immigrated to the United States with his parents from the Gaelic-speaking village of Rosmuc. He had fought in Vietnam as a U.S. Marine before returning to join South Boston’s Mullen gang. Bulger collected protection money from South Boston bookies and drug dealers. Balking at paying meant being killed.

On the 14th day at sea, the Valhalla established radio contact with the Irish fishing boat Marita Ann. Valhalla’s crew, battling high seas and winds in darkness, transferred its illegal cargo and turned to head home. The Irish Navy seized the Marita Ann 200 miles off the Irish coast. An IRA commander had turned informant for police intelligence. The U.S. Coast Guard detained the Valhalla when she arrived in Boston and interrogated the crew for hours.

The loss of the largest arms shipment in Irish history is a lesson in operational security (OPSEC) and planning. On the American side, at least a dozen gangsters had a hand in the operation. Wives and girlfriends also knew of their collection, as well as occupants of safe houses throughout Boston where Nee and Bulger stored their cache of weapons. The compartmentalization of information had been corrupted. Planning was flawed.

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The Valhalla sailed at the beginning of the Atlantic’s hurricane season. During the trip, a mammoth storm from the Bahamas nearly sank the boat with 40 to 50 foot waves. Nee and Bulger had used money orders to purchase guns. The orders were traced and used to support an indictment of Nee.

The worst offense to OPSEC was in Ireland. The IRA, known to excel at compartmentalization of information, had dropped its guard. Too many people knew of the operation, and at least one happened to be a government informant.

Read more about James “Whitey” Bulger of South Boston, his life of crime, and his 16 years on the run in Hunting Whitey: The Inside Story of the Capture & Killing of America’s Most Wanted Crime Boss, by Casey Sherman and Dave Wedge.

By R. Scott Decker, PhD, retired FBI agent and author of Recounting the Anthrax Attacks: Terror, the Amerithrax Task Force, and the Evolution of Forensics in the FBI