The crying game

In north Belfast, loyalist paramilitaries were once vigilantes fighting the IRA. Now they are crimin

Jack Clarke lives in Tiger's Bay in north Belfast. He is only nine but already he is on antidepressants and is seeing a psychiatrist. "It's for the dreams and the crying," says his mother, Alison, who is worried sick about her youngest son.

The dreams are about Jack's 16-year-old brother, Dean, and the crying is about him, too, because last year Dean killed himself. Jack's dreams also feature the man who drives up and down his street and smiles at him, because he is the man who sold Dean the 22 tablets he took before he hanged himself.

The drug dealer is in the Ulster Defence Association (UDA), and the small Tiger's Bay enclave of red-brick terraces was, throughout the Northern Irish conflict, one of the loyalist paramilitary army's staunchest heartlands. It has lost its strut and swagger and its Union Jacks are tattered. However, one local minister estimates that about 80 per cent of the men in the area have been, or currently are, members. When people in "the Bay" talk about "the men", they mean the UDA.

The UDA started out in 1971 as a vigilante organisation. It claimed it was defending Ulster from the IRA, but specialised in the doorstep assassinations and drive-by shootings of Cath olic civilians. There is mounting evidence that British security forces colluded with its gangs. The UDA, which was banned in 1992, was responsible for 430 murders. It has always been riven with feuds and, following its ceasefire in 1994, many of its victims were loyalists.

A tentative foray into socialist politics was short-lived - the Ulster Democratic Party lacked persuasive leaders, and UDA men were soon back to supporting "the Big Man", Ian Paisley.

Killing machine

The UDA has survived as a criminal organisation, engaged in extortion, money laundering, armed robbery, prostitution and drug dealing. A local brigadier spent more than £800,000 over a recent two-year period on gambling and cars. Some of the money came from charity funds.

In 2006, police raided a north Belfast bar at which the UDA was preparing for a show of strength. A speech was to be read extolling the organisation as a "well-oiled ruthless killing machine" that would never go away. Jon Bon Jovi's "Blaze of Glory" was to be played, from the soundtrack of the film Young Guns 2.

Jack Clarke knows nothing of the history that left his family home in a tiny Protestant ghetto, with high, fortified fences - once called peacelines, now known as interfaces - separating it from neighbouring Catholic areas. He was born the year after the Good Friday Agreement was signed. The Troubles were all but over, though the violence lingered in and around Tiger's Bay.

His brother Dean was a typical teenager of the post-Troubles generation. Known as "wee Dean", he was a keen footballer whose social life included what has become known as "recreational rioting" along the interfaces. He rang one night to say he'd been "split open on the Limestone [Road]", and when his mother picked him up, she found he was drunk on cider.

Late last October, Dean took a massive dose of "blues", crude tranquillisers the UDA is willing to sell to any child who has the necessary 50p for a tablet. Alison says her son became aggressive, and, when she sent for his father, a Catholic, from whom she is separated, Dean pulled a knife on him. He kept breaking down and saying he wanted to be with his granny, who was dead.

He kept running off. Alison says when they finally got him to hospital she tried to persuade staff to keep him there, but he told them he wanted to leave to watch Liverpool on TV and they let him go. "So he came home, watched the match, went out for a Chinese and I never saw him again," she says. "Dean hanged himself on the railings on the Limestone Road."

Alison buried her eldest son, and then she denounced the UDA. "People are afraid to speak out," she says. "But when you lose your son, you say what you want." On Remembrance Day 2007, one of its so-called brigadiers told a gathering at a local memorial to the UDA "fallen" that the drug dealers had to go. "If you can't shoot them, shop them," he said, to the strains of the Carpenters singing "What the World Needs Now Is Love". According to Alison, though, "nothing has changed".

Young and foolish

There is a mural on a prominent wall in Tiger's Bay celebrating the prowess of the "young guns" of the UDA. At its centre is a painting of a boy in a white baseball cap. This is Glen Branagh, known as Spacer. Aged 16, he blew himself up on Remembrance Sunday in 2001 during a riot. As he raised his arm to throw a blast bomb across police lines at Catholic youths on the other side of the interface, the bomb exploded.

Spacer was a member of the UDA's youth wing, the Ulster Young Militants (UYM). "He was as game as a badger," recalls Billy, one of his friends from that time. "He would have taken on Goliath." Others say he was just young and impressionable.

The UDA put about the lie that the bomb had been thrown across the interface by the nationalist youths, and that Spacer had bravely caught it and was trying to dispose of it to save women and children when it exploded: that he was a martyr. Hundreds of UDA men attended his funeral. The boy's family have erected a simple plaque at the foot of the CCTV camera that now stands where he fell. The inscription speaks only of their love for him. Someone has thrown orange paint over it.

Billy, who was also in the riot that day, is 23 now. "I loved to riot," he says. "I lived to riot. We all did. We didn't know anything else. We started when we were eight or ten years old. I went to school, came home, did my paper round and went over to the Limestone Road. March to August was the season. It was mutual hatred. We wanted to kill them and they wanted to kill us. We were young, foolish. It was pointless."

He, too, was in the UYM. "It was harder not to get involved than to get involved," he says. "They'd give you money for things - punishing people, throwing blast bombs, acting as general dogsbodies. Then if you tried to leave, they'd demand it back."

Billy did leave, though. "I wish the UDA would hurry up and go away. They are making life miserable in this area. They are just out to make money. They have the young ones destroying the place." He drives a taxi now - though his car is giving trouble at the moment. He is a builder, but there is a slowdown in the building trade. He is palpably depressed. "There is nothing in this area for young people."

He says his parents support Paisley. He doesn't vote. He says the local MP, Nigel Dodds, who is minister for enterprise, trade and investment, does nothing for Tiger's Bay. "I wouldn't give the DUP the time of day," he says. "I am a Protestant and a unionist. I am what I am. I still hate republicans with a passion. I despise them. Sinn Fein shouldn't be in a British government. They are foreigners. But I'd go out with ordinary Catholics, good guys."

Urban saints

Young men from Tiger's Bay have traditionally joined the British army, and some of Billy's friends have served in Afghanistan and Iraq. "Some of them have made a decent go of it," he says. "I'm from an army family. My granda got the Burma Star and the Atlantic Star. My heart was set on joining at one time. But I wouldn't go and fight America's wars."

Davy Ferris is a youth worker at the First Step centre, run by the local Methodist church. He's helped out by volunteers, who call themselves the "urban saints". Interface rioting still goes on, sporadically, Davy says, but it is no longer fierce. He works closely with youth workers on the Catholic side of the interface to try to stop it, and neither the UDA nor the IRA now encourages it.

"The total hatred has gone," Davy says. "Now adays it is often about romance. Boys from here go over and nationalist girls come down. Then some of the nationalist boys come and say, 'What are you doing talking to our girls?' and a few stones are thrown. It's more about proving who's alpha. They are trying to engage in a social way, but violence is the only way they know." When Dean died, some of the many young people who went to his funeral were nationalists he had known from the interface.

Davy works hard at trying to give the young people he meets confidence. One of Dean's friends is a championship runner, he says. "But there is a lot of apathy." Stephen Nicholl, an Ulster Unionist councillor and manager of the Healthy Living Centre on Duncairn Gardens, agrees. "The key thing is trying to get young people to raise their sights," he says.

"The sense of hopelessness in Tiger's Bay has a tangible effect on health. The older people who lived through the Troubles had certain ways of coping, and the younger people have learned these as ways of dealing with ordinary day-to-day situations," he says. "A 16-year-old girl who breaks up with her boyfriend goes to the doctor for antidepressants. If the doctors stop providing the drugs, they get them on the black market." A minster spoke about the "Three Vs - violence, valium and vodka".

After the infamous Holy Cross affair in 2001, when loyalists from nearby Glenbryn picketed a Catholic primary school on the interface with Ardoyne, hurling abuse, blast bombs and bags filled with urine at four-year-old girls, a report into the needs of north Belfast was carried out. One of its key recommendations was that there should be "capacity" building, as well as significant investment. The Department for Social Development in Northern Ireland has been working on "community empowerment" schemes, but admits that it is hard to get the people of Tiger's Bay to engage. "You can't underestimate the difficulties," a spokeswoman says.

Nicholl says it is to do with low morale. "It is very fragmented - unionists fighting unionists. People with skills leave and don't come back. The nationalist areas around it are bursting at the seams and the Tiger's Bay people see Catholics moving into streets that were traditionally Protestant. People see themselves as being under siege and so they see change as threatening." Davy says there is an urgent need for more youth workers - but the budget for youth work across Northern Ireland has been slashed.

Anne Thompson, the principal of Currie Primary School, on the Limestone Road, says Tiger's Bay has imploded since the Troubles ended. "They feel they are a forgotten people," she says. "There is no sense of a common enemy any more, so they have turned on each other. Groups set up and then split into little cliques. There is a vacuum. In the past, young men were seen as the future protectors of their community, so there was no need for them to have an education. We don't send many children to grammar school, but we send ten times more girls than boys."

Parents in Tiger's Bay, many of them very young themselves, want a better future for the new generation, she says. She is trying hard to help them to see education as a way forward for the community. "We have a group for mums, and one for dads, and we are trying to get funds for a parent-and-child group. We encourage parents to play with their children, and to realise that play is learning. We try to show them that education isn't threatening." It is difficult, she admits. "They have so many other worries, not least the UDA."

At the youth centre, Davy shows me a photograph of Dean Clarke playing draughts with his friend Soup in the centre. "Soup was a great wee chess player," says Davy. Soup hanged himself a month after Dean. Davy shows me some of the memorial Bebo sites the teenagers have set up for their friends. He is worried by one entry we find. "Well Soup mate whats happinin? Speak to you soon when I come up there. Nyt nyt." Davy says he'll try to talk with the boy who posted it. "The kids in north Belfast are hurt, and we don't know how long that will last," he says.

Stephen Nicholl's project is focusing on the very youngest primary school children. "We are trying to teach them simple things," he says. "Like how to smile."

Susan McKay's book "Bear in Mind These Dead" is published by Faber & Faber on 5 June (£14.99)

NEAL FOX FOR NEW STATESMAN
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They know where you live

Imagine your house being raided by armed police. That’s what happened to Mumsnet’s Justine Roberts after she fell victim to an internet hoaxer.

At around midnight on Tuesday 11 August 2015, a man dialled 999 to report a murder. A woman had been killed in her London home, he said, before hanging up without offering his name. A second call followed. This time, the man claimed to be the killer. He told the operator that he had now taken the woman’s children hostage at the Islington address. They were locked with him inside a room in the house, he said. The police responded with reassuring speed. Fifteen minutes later, eight officers, five of them armed with automatic weapons, accompanied by saliva-flecked dogs, arrived at the scene and took up position in neighbouring front gardens. When one officer banged on the front door of the house, the team was greeted, moments later, not by a masked murderer but by a blinking and bewildered au pair.

Justine Roberts, the woman whom the caller claimed to have killed, was in fact nearly 2,000 kilometres away – in Italy, holidaying with her husband and children. After explaining this to the police, the au pair called Roberts, who assumed that the incident was an unfortunate misunderstanding, one that could be unpicked after the vacation. It was no mistake. Roberts had been the victim of “swatting”, the term given to a false emergency call designed to bait an armed unit of police officers to storm someone’s home. It wasn’t until a few days later, as the family was preparing to return to London, that Roberts discovered that she had been the target of a planned and sustained attack, not only on her household, but also on her business.

Roberts is the founder of Mumsnet, the popular British internet discussion forum on which parents share advice and information. A few days before the swatting incident, members of 8chan, a chat room that prides itself on being an open, anonymous platform for free speech, no matter how distasteful, had registered accounts on Mums­net with the aim of trolling people there. When legitimate Mumsnet users identified and then ridiculed the trolls, some retreated to 8chan to plot more serious vengeance in a thread that the police later discovered. Roberts wasn’t involved in the online skirmish but, as the public face of the site, she was chosen as the first target.

After the initial armed response, Roberts’s perception was that the police were unconcerned about the swatting attack. “We were told that there was no victim, so there was not much that could be done,” she told me. The hoax caller, however, was not finished. In the days after the incident, there was chatter on Mumsnet and Twitter about what had happened. A Mumsnet user whom I will call Jo Scott – she requested anonymity for her own safety – exchanged heated messages with a hacker who claimed responsibility for the 999 call.

“It descended into jokes and silliness, like many things do,” Scott said. “I didn’t take it seriously when the hacker said he had big surprises in store.” She doesn’t believe that what happened next was personal. “I think I was just easy to find.”

A few days after police were called to Roberts’s home, Scott was in her bedroom while her husband was sitting downstairs playing video games. At 11pm, she heard a noise outside. “I looked out of the window and saw blue flashing lights in the street,” she recalled. “I could hear shouting but I didn’t pay it much notice.” Then she heard her husband open the front door. Police rushed into the house. An armed officer shouted upstairs, asking Scott if she was hurt. When she replied that she was fine, he told her to fetch her two young children: he needed to see them. Scott shook her sons awake, explaining, so as not to alarm them, that the police had come to show the boys their cars. As the three of them went downstairs, the officers swept up through the house, repeatedly asking if there were any weapons on the property.

“I was beyond confused by this point,” Scott said. “Everyone was carrying a gun. They had little cutaway bits so you could see the bullets. My eldest asked one of the officers if he could have a go on his gun and went to touch it.”

As Scott sat with an officer downstairs, she asked what had happened to her husband. “I later found out that the noises I’d heard were the police calling for him to come outside,” she said. “He dropped the PlayStation controller as he left the room. It was only later that we realised it’s a good job he did: in the dark, the controller might have looked like a weapon.”

Outside, Scott’s husband had been surrounded and arrested. Other police ­officers were on the lookout in the front gardens of nearby properties, having warned the couple’s neighbours to stay indoors, away from their windows. “One of the officers said it was beginning to look like a hoax,” Scott said. “Then he mentioned swatting. As soon as he said that word, I twigged that I’d seen the term that day on Twitter in relation to the Mumsnet hack.”

***

The term “swatting” has been used by the FBI since 2008. “Swat” is an acronym of “Special Weapons and Tactics”, the American police squads routinely called to intervene in hostage situations. It is, in a sense, a weaponised version of a phoney order of pizza, delivered as a prank to a friend’s home, albeit one that carries the possibility of grave injury at the hands of police. For perpetrators, the appeal is the ease with which the hoax can be set in motion and the severity of the results. With a single, possibly untraceable phone call, dialled from anywhere in the world, it is possible to send an armed unit to any address, be it the home of a high-profile actor whom you want to prank or that of someone you want to scare.

In America, where swatting originated, the practice has become so widespread – targets have included Tom Cruise, Taylor Swift, Clint Eastwood and the Californian congressman Ted Lieu – that it is now classed as an act of domestic terrorism. In the UK, where Justine Roberts’s was one of the first recorded cases, swatting is classed as harassment, though that may change if these and other forms of internet vigilante attacks, such as doxxing, become increasingly commonplace.

Doxxing involves the publication of someone’s personal details – usually their home address, phone numbers, bank details and, in some cases, email address – on the internet. It is often the prelude to swatting: after all, the perpetrator of a hoax cannot direct the police to the target’s home address until this is known. (During the week of the Mumsnet attacks, one of the perpetrators attempted to locate another target using their computer’s IP address, which can identify where a person is connected to the internet, often with alarming precision. Their calculation, however, was slightly out; police were called to a neighbour’s address.)

Though doxxing has a less dramatic outcome than swatting, the psychological effects can be just as severe. For victims – usually people who are active on the internet and who have outspoken opinions or who, in the eyes of an internet mob, have committed some kind of transgression – the mere threat of having their personal information made available on the web can cause lasting trauma. A Canadian software developer whose home address, bank details, social security number and email history were published online in 2014 told me that he now keeps an axe by his front door. “I still don’t feel safe here,” he said. “It’s terrifying.”

Christos Reid, a social media manager for a software company, was doxxed last year. Reid’s information came from a website he had registered seven years earlier. “I woke up one morning to find a tweet announcing my personal details,” he told me. When he asked the Twitter account holder to take down the address, he was told to commit suicide. Reid said he was “OK for about half an hour”; but then, after he went out, he broke down in the street. “I’ve become more paranoid,” he said. He no longer gives out business cards with personal information.

Reid lives in London, but at the time of the doxx he was attending an event in Nottingham, home to the British police’s largest cybercrime division. He was impressed with the police response, even though they told him that they had not heard of the term “doxxing” before. “I was interviewed by two separate people about my experiences who then compiled everything into a case file and transferred it to the Met. When I arrived home, an officer visited me to discuss what happened and my options.”

The policeman explained harassment law to Reid, and offered advice on how to improve security at his flat and what to do if someone hostile turned up at the address. Reid shouldered the repercussions of what had happened alone; no suspects were identified. A spokesperson for the Metropolitan Police similarly said that although detectives from Islington CID have investigated the swatting attacks made on Roberts and Scott, no suspects have been identified “at this time”, even as “inquiries continue”.

Doxxing may seem to be a mild form of harassment but it carries with it an implicit threat of impending violence; the worrying message is: “We know where you live.” Unlike swatting, which is always malicious, doxxing is sometimes viewed by its perpetrators as virtuous. In November 2014, hackers claiming to be aligned with the internet group Anonymous published personal information allegedly belonging to a Ku Klux Klan member from Missouri. The hackers said that their action was a response to the KKK’s threat to use lethal force against demonstrators in the city of Ferguson, Missouri, protesting against the killing of the unarmed black teenager Michael Brown by a white police officer. In January 2015 hackers claiming to be from Isis took over US Central Command’s Twitter account and posted information about senior military officers, including phone numbers and email addresses. In each case, those carrying out the doxxing believed, however mistakenly, in the virtue of their actions and hoped that the information could be used to bring punishment or ruin to the subject.

The term “doxxing” may be new but the practice is an old one. The Hollywood blacklist revealed the political beliefs and associations of actors and directors in the late 1940s as a way to invite shame, deny employment and dissuade others from following their example. “But it has become a lot easier to find people’s private details with the help of the internet,” Jeroen Vader told me. Vader owns Pastebin, a website that allows users to upload and distribute text documents, and where much of the personal data is anonymously uploaded and shared. “People post their private information on social networks,” he said. “A lot of people aren’t aware that their information is so easily available to others.”

In Justine Roberts’s case, the perpetrator may not even have needed to look at social networks to mine her personal information. “If you’re on the electoral roll, you’re easy to find,” she said. “There’s not much you can do to stop people getting hold of your data one way or another, whether it’s for nefarious reasons or simply to better advertise to you. We live in a world that is constantly trying to gather more information about us.”

Jeroen Vader said he has noticed an “upward trend” in the number of doxxing posts uploaded to Pastebin in recent months, but insisted that when someone uses the site’s abuse report system these offending posts are removed immediately.

Across social media companies, action is more often reactive than proactive. Victoria Taylor, a former director at Reddit, one of the largest community-driven websites in the world, said that the rule against publishing other users’ personal information has been “consistently one of the site’s most basic policies” and that “any violation of this rule is taken extremely seriously by the team and community”. Still, she was only able to recommend that victims of doxxing send a message to the site’s administrators. Similarly, when asked what a person can do to remove personal details that have been published without permission, a Twitter spokesperson said: “Use our help form.”

The spokesperson added: “There has def­initely been an overall increase in doxxing since 2006, both on Twitter and on the internet more generally.” She attributed this rise to the emergence of search engines such as Intelius and Spokeo, services designed to locate personal information.

***

The surge in the number of dox­xing and swatting attacks is in part a result of the current lack of legal protection for victims. Confusion regarding the law on doxxing is pervasive; the term is even not mentioned in either US or European law. In a tutorial posted on Facebook in 2013, the writer claims: “Doxxing isn’t illegal as all the information you have obtained is public,” and adds: “But posting of the doxx might get you in a little trouble.”

Phil Lee, a partner in the privacy, security and information department of Fieldfisher based at the law firm’s office in Silicon Valley, said that differing privacy laws around the world were part of the problem. “Various countries have laws that cover illegal or unauthorised obtaining of data. Likewise, some of the consequences of releasing that data, such as defamation or stalking, cover elements of what we now term doxxing. But there is no global law covering what is a global phenomenon.” Indeed, Roberts believes that her London address was targeted from America – the 999 call was routed through a US proxy number.

One challenge to creating a law on doxxing is that the sharing of personal information without permission has already become so widespread in the digital age. “If a law was to state something like, ‘You must not post personal information about another person online without their consent,’ it wouldn’t reflect how people use the internet,” Lee said. “People post information about what their friends and family members have been doing all the time without their consent.

“Such a law could have a potentially detrimental effect on freedom of speech.”

Lee believes that a specific law is unnecessary, because its potentially harmful effects are already covered by three discrete pieces of legislation dealing with instances where a person’s private information is obtained illegally, when that information is used to carry out illegal acts and when the publication of the information is accompanied by a threat to incite hatred. However, this does not adequately account for cases in which the information is obtained legally, and then used to harass the individual in a more legally ambiguous manner, either with prank phone calls or with uninvited orders of pizza.

Susan Basko, an independent lawyer who practises in California and who has been doxxed in the course of her frequent clashes with internet trolls, believes that the onus should be on the law, rather than the public. She points out that in the US it is a crime to publicise information about a government employee such as their home address, their home and cellphone numbers, or their social security number, even if the information is already online. “This law should apply to protect all people, not just federal employees,” she said. “And websites, website-hosting companies and other ISPs should be required to uphold this law.”

Basko said that doxxing will continue to increase while police have inadequate resources to follow up cases. For now, it is up to individuals to take preventative measures. Zoë Quinn, an American game designer and public speaker who was doxxed in 2014, has launched Crash Override, a support network and assistance group for targets of online harassment, “composed entirely of experienced survivors”.

Quinn, who spoke about the problem at a congressional hearing in Washington, DC in April last year, recently posted a guide on how to reduce the likelihood of being doxxed. “If you are worried you might some day be targeted,” she wrote, “consider taking an evening to stalk yourself online, deleting and opting out of anything you’re not comfortable with.”

Both Scott and Roberts have changed their privacy habits following the attacks. Scott is more careful about interacting with strangers online, while Roberts uses scrambler software, which ensures that she never uses the same password for more than one online site or service.

For both women’s families, the effects of their encounters with armed police have also lingered. When one day recently Roberts’s husband returned home early from work, the au pair called the police, believing it was an intruder. And Scott is haunted by what happened.

“What if my husband had made a sudden move or resisted in some way? What if my eldest had grabbed the gun instead of gently reaching for it? What if people locally believed that my husband did actually have guns in the house?” she asks. “I don’t think the people making these sorts of hoax calls realise the impact.” 

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism