Terrorist groups may be profiting from the upsurge in diggers being used to rip ATMs out of business premises across Northern Ireland in the dead of night, a senior detective has warned.
Det Ch Insp Henderson made the comments following the seventh ATM raid across Northern Ireland this year, others having taken place as far apart as Belfast and Counties Fermanagh and Antrim.
In the latest raid a digger was stolen from building site in Ahoghill in the early hours of Monday and used to rip the ATM out of the nearby Nisa shop on Brook Street.
Neighbours called the PSNI in around 3.25am, alerted by recent police appeals to be aware of unusual plant machinery operations at night. Police said they arrived less than five minutes later, but that the gang had already made good their escape.
DCI Henderson said while there was no evidence of direct paramilitary involvement in the seven ATM robberies this year, he suggested the groups may be siphoning off some of the cash taken.
In the latest raid, the gang used a silver people carried which had the roof cut off to enable the ATM to be lowered in and driven away.
“It’s a live investigation but what I can say is we are actively looking at it being several gangs involved in these crimes,” said Mr Henderson.
“We have no evidence that paramilitaries are involved, but all crime in Northern Ireland usually goes back to paramilitaries, whether committed by them or whether they tax the perpetrators of the crime and take some the criminal assets from them.”
Mr Henderson said a number of ATM raids in the Republic in recent months could be linked to the NI thefts.
He said catching the perpetrators was a “key priority” as the raids cause immediate financial harm to the businesses targeted but also caused fear in the wider community.
The raids are also impacting upon a vital service many local people rely on, DCI Henderson added.
“In areas where ATMs have been stolen, local people may have to travel considerable distances to find an alternative way to withdraw money and the livelihoods of the business owners who have worked for years to build up their businesses is also jeopardised.
“There’s also the loss of very expensive machinery, which cause delays in production, damage to the local economy and the likelihood of criminal finances being redirected back into funding further organised crime or terrorism.
“The reckless actions of these criminals are despicable and I want to assure the public our dedicated team of detectives working across Northern Ireland specifically focusing on this crime is actively working with the banking industry and retailers. We are doing all we can to catch the people responsible - it is a key priority for us.
“The key to stopping these crimes and getting ahead of these criminals is information from the public.”
Walter Millar, who owns the Nisa shop in Ahoghill, said engineers have been inspecting his property.
“It basically destroyed the gable wall of that part of the business,” he told the News Letter. When he arrived just after 3.30am the area was “swarming” with police.
Police are now inspecting CCTV in the area to build up a picture of events.
“I was aware there was a building site with a digger a few hundred yards down the road. So the thought had crossed my mind that this could happen. Going forward I would just ask construction companies to try and make sure that their plant machinery is more secure.”
Retail NI chief executive Glyn Roberts said he is in almost daily contact with the dedicated team of detectives chasing the ATM gangs.
“I am satisfied that they are making progress,” he told the News Letter. “But at the end of the day they will be judged by the number of arrests and convictions.”
If these gangs are not stopped there is a real danger many rural communities will lose local access to convenient ATM cash, he said.
They are attacking local family-owned small businesses which are the backbone of the rural economy, he added.
He confirmed there was a surge of 21 ATM attacks in 2019. A close partnership among all stakeholders curbed the problem then and is being used once again in 2019, he said.
DUP leader Arlene Foster and party colleagues met senior officers at police headquarters in Belfast on Monday about the raids.
“The loss of ATMs across Northern Ireland has been a devastating blow for many rural areas and particularly for the businesses who have seen such destruction of their premises,” she said. “The cost to construction firms with damaged and stolen plant as well the as the cost to shop owners.”
UUP leader Robin Swann said: “The continued attack on rural communities and small businesses continues with another attack of an ATM in Ahoghill. There was a similar spate in 2009 but banks, police and ATM providers came together and put deterrents in place. They need to do the same now.”