When The Irish Terror Threat Came To El Paso

When The Irish Terror Threat Came To El Paso
Dave Rupert in Ireland

A Forgotten Texas History

EL PASO – The most militant offshoot of the Irish Republican Army had plans to move weapons south across the Texas-Mexico border and to smuggle its leader north from Mexico into the United States.

This fact came out in testimony in the 2003 Dublin trial of Mickey McKevitt, elusive leader of the “Real IRA,” the splinter group that admitted responsibility for the worst bombing of Northern Ireland’s troubles, killing 31 innocent people – mostly women and children – in the town of Omagh five years earlier.

McKevitt’s conviction for “directing terrorism” was big news for Irish immigrants and Irish-Americans in New York, Boston, Chicago and San Francisco. But most Texans never learned of McKevitt’s unfulfilled plan to create a new cell on the United States’ southern border to help his war on Britain.

Meet Dave

In 2000, McKevitt sent trucker Dave Rupert to El Paso to walk across the border, camcorder in hand, to scout the possibility of smuggling arms out of the country over to Ireland or smuggling the Irish guerilla leader himself into the U.S.

McKevitt had already moved a sharpshooter he called “James Smith” from Ireland to Boston and had given Rupert orders to move Smith down to Texas to oversee moving guns and other weapons from the U.S., through Mexico, to IRA stashes in Ireland and Northern Ireland to use against British authorities.

Unknown to McKevitt at the time, Rupert, his trusted American deputy, was actually an FBI plant. Rupert was a Chicago trucker untrained in espionage, but with a knack for winning people over, as he did with McKevitt. Rupert filed reports every night to the FBI and Britain’s MI5.

Dave Rupert

The notion of a leading IRA militant on a watchlist strolling across the bridge from Ciudad Juarez into El Paso may sound harmless and quaint after years of political candidates painting border crossers as criminals, when the fact is that immigrants commit crimes at lower rates than those born in the United States.

But this was a very real plan in those days when George W. Bush had just vanquished John McCain in the South Carolina Republican presidential primary, establishing himself as the Republican nominee for president.

Governor Bush dispatched Texas First Lady Laura Bush to shore up his western flank in El Paso. The first lady checked into the storied Hotel Paso Del Norte, then known as the Camino Real. Also checking into the hotel was Dave Rupert.

Rupert often stumbled, Forrest Gump-like, into history during his 7-year infiltration of Irish militant groups. Perhaps over-estimating his importance to national security as an FBI spy, Rupert asked an earpiece-wearing member of the First Lady’s new secret service team if they were at the hotel for him.

No, the puzzled agent told him, they were there for Laura Bush.

That was not as bad as the time Rupert, to impress Chicago IRA supporters, agreed to design the campaign website for a candidate for governor of Illinois, then crashed the website

An Unlikely Spy

Rupert was an unlikely success story as a spy. A 6’7” protestant from upstate New York, Rupert is the last person you’d expect to fool seasoned IRA masterminds like McKevitt, who had a lifetime’s experience sniffing out spies sent by the Brits.

“They've been chasing him for 25 years, and really never got anybody close to him, and, here I walk in and, you know, ‘Hi, how ya doin’?’" Rupert said. 

Speaking in Belfast last year, President Biden never mentioned Rupert as he celebrated more than two decades of peace in Northern Ireland. But those involved in holding the peace process together credit Rupert with taking out the main threat to peace. McKevitt's "Real IRA" wanted to literally blow up the peace process they saw as a surrender to Britain. 

“Dave Rupert was extremely brave and courageous and thank God he escaped alive,” said Michael Gallagher, whose son Aidan was one of the 31 killed by the Real IRA’s car bomb in Omagh. “If they had had even a clue that he was passing on information to anybody, he would have been dissected. His body would never have been found.”

New details of Rupert’s spy adventure are emerging in Entropy Media's podcast Underbelly: The Rebel Kind, based on never-before-heard tapes my colleague Bob Herguth and I made 20 years ago discussing Rupert’s adventure. The tapes became the subject of a federal court case about reporter’s privilege. Episode 10, "Spying on Mickey," features Rupert’s El Paso sojourn.

How did the U.S.’ domestic intelligence agency, the FBI, wind up paying for a pub for Rupert to run on the Northern Ireland border to ingratiate himself with IRA supporters? An improbable series of events allowed Rupert to ascend where British spies had not: to the top of the Real IRA.

Testifying against McKevitt at his 2003 trial in Dublin, Rupert recounted the mission McKevitt sent him on to Texas’ border with Mexico.

 Rupert walked out the front door of the Hotel Camino Real, camcorder hanging from his neck, and headed toward the main border crossing. This was totally natural for him - he had crossed borders his whole life. 

In his childhood in far upstate New York, he walked across the Canada-New York border with Canadian firecrackers in his pockets. As a trucker, he had driven trucks into Canada and dropped Mexican-bound loads in El Paso, Del Rio and Laredo.

Rupert let McKevitt and his IRA comrades to believe he'd smuggled marijuana across the border in El Paso. But, in reality, the only smuggling he’d done in his life was the firecrackers.

However, those IRA guys who grew up smuggling weapons and goods across the Northern Ireland border loved Rupert’s weed-smuggling stories. Some Irish police called the border region of Ireland where McKevitt lived near Dundalk “El Paso.”

As he walked toward the border, Rupert took a call from the IRA triggerman McKevitt put him in charge of.

“He's a very bad individual,” Rupert recalled. “He was ex-French Foreign Legion Special Forces, I knew him by the name ‘James Smith.’ McKevitt said that he was of a quality that they would bring him home, like if they were going to assassinate [then-British Prime Minister] Tony Blair or something. And, so I had a healthy respect for his ability.”

McKevitt and Smith had both spent time in South Africa acquiring weapons for the IRA, they both told Rupert.

Rupert had visited Smith in Boston and delivered the new orders from McKevitt: Smith was to move from Boston down to El Paso to supervise weapons smuggling here. That’s why Rupert was here to scout, he said.

“McKevitt wanted him to move down to the Mexican border,” Rupert said. “I went down there and we were trying to set up an operation. The idea was he would be doing some weapons procurement over here.” Rupert said.  

But as Rupert walked toward the border, Smith told him there was a problem with the plan. Smith did not want to move down to the border.


The marksman was in love.

“He had a girlfriend in Boston and he would have been very happy if the whole world and the whole IRA deal would have just went away,” Rupert said. “He was real comfortable.”

Rupert had spent six years undercover working his way up to the top ranks of the most violent IRA splinter group. He had earned the leader’s trust to the point that he had been dispatched to the U.S.-Mexican border to scout it for weapons smuggling.

Rupert thought to himself: How the hell am I going to explain to the leader of the Real IRA that his top assassin is refusing an order to move to the border because…he’s in love? 

Rupert trudged on to the bridge over what’s left of the Rio Grande.

“So I went down and took videos of the El Paso border for McKevitt, and I was just amazed how porous that is down there,” Rupert told us. “You walk into Mexico, and I was still waiting for somebody, for a Mexican customs agent, and there was nobody there. There's nobody in the office. You just walk right in.”

Rupert said he could have had a backpack full of explosives and no one would have stopped him.

So that answered Question #1: Yes, the Real IRA could very easily smuggle weapons from the U.S. to Mexico across the Texas border.

But let’s test Question #2: Could Dave throw Hawaiian shirts and sunglasses on Mickey McKevitt and his wife, Bernadette, and have them walk north across the border like American tourists back from a day trip? 

A Plan In Motion 

The old O’Brien’s Café & Bar where Jimmie O’Brien moved his whiskey business from El Paso during prohibition is gone from downtown Ciudad Juarez. It has been more than a century since El Paso’s then-sizable Irish population christened their cathedral St. Patrick’s and distilled on both sides of the border.

So McKevitt’s Irish accent would stand out in Ciudad Juarez or El Paso.

But when Rupert scouted this border in 2000, the idea looked pretty easy to him.

“Coming back, there was a line with probably 200 Mexicans, so if you looked white and spoke  without an accent, they just let you walk through,” Rupert said. “I came through with a camera hanging around my neck and just said I was out for a walk. 

In his nightly email to his handlers in the FBI and Britain’s MI5, Rupert wrote he would have Mickey and his wife fly from Ireland to Mexico, “put their cameras around their necks and walk up to the border as if they were tourists.”

That was before 9-11. But my son, Kevin, and I had a pretty similar experience retracing Rupert’s steps last year: No one stopped us walking into Mexico and minimal stoppage on the way back.

“Right, you were two white men,” El Paso Times border reporter Lauren Villagran told me. “So you're getting waived through, but other people are not. Obviously, that’s racial profiling.”

So, even with all the post 9-11 increased security, could a European terrorist get waved across the border in 2024?

Unlikely, but possible, said Victor Manjarrez, Jr., director of the Center for Law and Human Behavior at the University of Texas El Paso, and a retired border patrol agent.

“It's easy for a criminal element to hide within all that chaos and clutter – you could hide in plain sight,” Manjarrez said. 

In his years directing INS squads from Texas to California, Manjarrez said he had only a dozen what they call “Special Interest Aliens” – people on watch lists for possible terrorism connections from countries generally far from Mexico that would have been in McKevitt’s category.

But in the previous year, U.S. Customs and Border Protection apprehended 51 such Special Interest Aliens akin to McKevitt along the Southern border, he said.

“And that's what surprised me when I saw CBP released that number and I go, ‘Jesus, that number jumped!,” Manjarrez said. “Is the flow greater? Or did they get better at detecting that? Or is it a combination of, of both? I don't know what that answer is, but the number was startling.” 

Asked if he remembered any Irish terror leaders ever getting caught, Manjarrez laughed and said, “No. No, no, no.”

No flood or even trickle of IRA militants has been detected coming over the border from Mexico.

“Has there been a true high-profile case of a terrorist trying to sneak into the United States via the Southwest border in, say, the last decade or two?” Villagran, the border reporter, asked. “If there has been, I haven't covered it.”

Within months of Rupert scouting the border, his visit became academic.

Based on the evidence Rupert had gathered against him working for the FBI and MI5, Mickey McKevitt was arrested by Irish police and charged with “directing terrorism.”

Trial And Conviction Of An IRA Terrorist

With Rupert as the main witness, testifying about his trip to El Paso to scout the border for McKevitt, the Real IRA leader was convicted, served 13 years in prison, and died in 2021. 

Rupert had acquired a hotel room full of weapons for triggerman James Smith to inspect in Boston. FBI agents were in the next room but they did not arrest Smith at the time, Rupert said. U.S. officials arrested Smith in Massachusetts days after Irish officials arrested McKevitt.

But they did not charge Smith. They deported him back to Ireland, Rupert said. We don’t know if the girlfriend who kept him from his El Paso assignment followed him to Ireland. We’re not aware of him being charged with any crime so we won’t use his real name.

McKevitt's "Real IRA" – which had been setting off bombs around Northern Ireland to stop the peace process that voters north and south of the border had overwhelmingly approved – has been largely dismantled. And the peace, for the most part, has held.

The potential Irish terror threat to the United States’ southern border never came to be.

 McKevitt’ farther-fetched scheme to have Rupert smuggle weapons through Canada to the French islands of St. Pierre and Miquelon off Canada’s coast to France and then Ireland, likewise evaporated into the mist.

Dave Rupert lives off the grid somewhere in the United States. In 2013, he was presented with the FBI’s highest civilian award, the Louis Peters Award. 

Abdon Pallasch was a staff writer for The Chicago Sun-Times, The Chicago Tribune and The Tampa Tribune. He has written for The Irish Times and The Belfast Telegraph. He now serves as Dir. Of Communications for Illinois State Comptroller Susana Mendoza. He and former Sun-Times Rock Critic Jim DeRogatis wrote the stories that ultimately led to R&B Superstar R. Kelly's convictions for racketeering and enticing a minor.