SPIN DNA: Groundbreaking Investigative Journalist Rory Nugent ‘Inside the IRA’

Former Staff Writer Rory Nugent embedded inside the IRA and, years before anyone had heard of Al Qaeda, was lunching with Osama bin Laden while writing about the rise of Islamic fundamentalism. Those were the days.
Nugent in Ayod, S. Sudan during a morning drill of the Sudanese People's Liberation Army. Credit: Corinne Dufka

In this ongoing series, we revisit some of our most memorable moments with SPIN’s journalists, photographers and editors. 

Writer Rory Nugent started working with SPIN in 1993, brought in by our then Features Editor Elizabeth Mitchell. He hit it off with Editor in Chief Bob Guccione Jr, who was looking for the right writer to get inside the Irish Republican Army, who had been terrorizing Britian for decades. And as they say, the rest is history… 

And what history he made. With his incredible adventures inside the IRA, after which, in the article, he correctly predicted the so-called Good Friday peace treaty with the British government. Or that time the news declared him deceased. Or when his boat capsized and he was adrift for days in the ocean. And his time in Sudan, where he was jailed pursuing his article on Wahhabism, the most radical form of Islam that inspired Al Qaeda’s war against the West, and the Taliban.

All in the name of the story, right? 

“I knew someone who had connections to the IRA and asked him to ask them if we could have a reporter live with them for a story,” says Guccione. “When I first met with a representative in NY, I said we weren’t on their side and we weren’t going to romanticize them, but we would listen to and tell their view of the conflict, which frankly, to that deep a level, no-one had done before. 

“It took a year for them to say yes. When they did, Rory and I met with two of their soldiers in a motel in Cookstown, Northern Ireland, where they told us the conditions for allowing Rory in. At one point the more senior of the two men said, ‘Mr Nugent, if you are picked up by the British, you won’t make it to the police station.’ I stood up and said ‘let’s just call this off. Rory you don’t have to risk your life for this story.’ But Rory said, ‘No, I’m doing this story.’ He spent weeks with them, staying at their houses, watching the men get their children breakfast before school, then have a cigarette and a cup of tea in the kitchen before starting their day as an IRA rank and file member or leader — he lived with both. He’d walk past one of the seven heads of the organization in the street and acknowledge them with only the most imperceptible of nods, because he knew who they were, and the British government didn’t.”

Nugent is the O.G., working in a time when journalists were taken seriously,  and regularly took phenomenal risks to get the story and shape our real, factual, understanding of the world. 

Do you remember that time, when working in the field was well rewarded and massively revered? Well here Nugent shares with us just how incredible it and his life was, and how he made the bloody best of the golden years of journalism. 

 

Nugent aboard a boat he built while navigating New Bedford Harbor. Credit: Virginia Creeper

 

 

SPIN: How did you come to work for SPIN? 

Rory Nugent: In 1993, my introduction to SPIN began with lousy food in an expensive restaurant. Luckily, I was entranced by the person picking up the tab, the extremely sharp and engaging Features Editor, Elizabeth Mitchell. 

She had read my books, The Search For The Pink Headed Duck  and Drums Along The Congo, along with a magazine story I had written on the civil war in Sudan, and thought I might be a good fit for SPIN. I walked back to the apartment carrying several SPIN issues and plopped them on the table. At the time, three of us shared the joint: me, my girlfriend, artist Virginia Creeper, and George Trow, New Yorker writer. I said how much I liked Mitchell and told of my desire to work with her. Creeper and George were unimpressed and advised me to stick with books.

Several assignments came in over the transom and a few days before I had to decide on the future, Elizabeth called. She had a story for me to ink, but before she could get into it, I first had to meet the bigshot at SPIN, Bob Guccione.

Bob and I agreed to work as a team, and that afternoon I began researching one of the toughest and most rewarding stories of my career. The assignment demanded that I get inside the Irish Republican Army and stay embedded for six weeks or more. No outsider had ever done this before, and I followed Bob’s lead. He had opened the door, his contacts crucial; my job was to work the room, earning the trust necessary to become intimate with the inner workings of the most secretive army in the world.

It took months to peel the onion and go deep; meanwhile, Bob never turned off the faucet, pouring dough into the project, committed to the story. Likewise, Elizabeth and I clicked during the edit/rewrite process. And when invited to stay at Spin as a staff writer, I said, “Sure”.

 

How did the IRA story come about? 

The story developed in two very different stages. The first phase, after they agreed, involved a lengthy introduction to people, place, and organization. I recognized this two month wait, in Ireland (last week Dec., Jan. & Feb, 1994) as part of a vetting process. I was sure that most people I met and suspected of having something to do with the IRA were grading me, measuring my persistence and reaction/performance to mind games and rather stupid tests of physical endurance. In conversation, people were obviously guarded. While frustrating and boring as all get out, I understood that it came with the territory. After all, I was asking people to trust me with their lives -– if allowed inside, I’d know names and addresses and could match that info with past action.

All the while I kept a room in the midlands at a hotel with a Republican clientele, wanting to separate myself from other journalists hanging out in Belfast and focus the spotlight on me alone. 

Likewise, knowing I was being graded, it was much easier to discern cops/tails when navigating outside Belfast and dealing with them in a proficient manner. Usually, I’d change cars at the rental office 4x a week, the folks working the counter groaning as I opened the office door. In early March a contact told me to leave and that I’d get word in New York  on when to return. Back in NYC, I pumped out a 25-page paper of facts, notes, observations and directions to take the story. Elizabeth and I used it as an outline for the story to come.

Bob stayed in the loop and inserted himself as broker, flying to Ireland after I got the call to return. Together, in a hotel dining room, we met a mid-level IRA representative. As I understood the meet, the IRA wanted to make sure that Bob and I knew what would happen if I was nabbed by the cops, or if something went wrong on an op that I was observing, like a bomb exploding prematurely. Either way, I’d be a dead man and it’d be on Bob and the magazine, not the IRA. Take it or leave it. We agreed. 

Bob left the next day and everything changed for me in Ireland. Suddenly, people I knew opened up and I was treated as a fellow volunteer. Finally, I got answers to questions like, What goes through your head from the time you kiss the kids goodnight, and minutes later, you are handling an AK-47 or RPG and preparing to take on the cops or Brit army? Days after the meet, I was told to move to Belfast, where I took a room above a cop bar. Hide in plain sight and always wear a smile coming and going through the door. A nod to every cop/patron you pass. No routine, every day a different schedule, walk, touring, shooting pix, etc. Two times a day, I’d place a call from street pay phones and ask the person answering if he/she could recommend a dry cleaner’s or wine shop or whatever—each time the destination changed. As I headed that direction, someone would either bump into me and hand off printed instructions to a certain locale or a car would pull up with a driver telling me to get in. So would begin that day’s travel to an interview session with the IRA OIC (Officer in Command) and other members of the Army Council. It was through my time interacting with them, 6 weeks, that I got the quotes regarding their willingness to push the pause button and agree to follow a map leading to disarmament and what would be known as the Good Friday Agreement. 

My lengthy interviews with volunteers usually took place outside Belfast, and I’d end up sleeping in their house or barn. Toward its conclusion, the story I wrote tells the tale of peace in the offing and what the IRA expected in return for putting the guns down. There was never any trepidation on my part. The danger was obvious and part of the deal from the get-go. Surprise is what puts nerves on edge. Besides, my idea of danger is considerably different, I suppose, than most. The previous year I had spent nine weeks covering the civil war in South Sudan and bore witness to more than 27,000 people dying within a half-mile of my shadow. I even got to hear the BBC radio announce my death during one of the more vicious firefights I documented. And previously, in 1980, after my boat capsized smack dab in the middle of the north Atlantic, I spent five days adrift. No food. No water. No shelter. Hard to scare me after that experience.

  

Tell me more about your writing process at SPIN.

I had to pitch story ideas to both Elizabeth and Gooch (Guccione). Once we all agreed on a story, I began research, seeking a firm grip on the history, context, and the backgrounds of major players, past and present. For instance, my next story for Spin came out of a question: What dynamic force will fill the void created by the collapse of Soviet Russia? My guess was Islamic Fundamentalism. And to do the story, this Irish-Catholic New Yorker had plenty to learn before leaving for Khartoum, Sudan, where the Islamic officer corps was drawing the maps and plotting the course ahead to 9/11. To prepare, my daily diet included consuming at least one book on Islam, followed by dinner with various professors of Islamic studies, and then two hours pre-bed memorizing bits of the Koran.

In Khartoum, I usually spent most of every day hanging around the office of Hussein Al-Turabi, the chief architect and top general of a Sunni army preparing to defeat the lingering agents born out of the Western Enlightenment. A new Caliphate was the goal and Turabi was leading the charge.

I used to sit in the waiting room throughout the day waiting for Turabi to summon me. Sometimes I’d get ten minutes with him. Sometimes it was hours. A few times I got to sit on a couch across from his desk all day long. Occasionally we’d go on long drives together or walks. This is where all that early research paid off, allowing for conversation that didn’t bore him and meanwhile, offered me an education in the mechanics of revolution in the making, its intellectual underpinnings and militant goals, theory and practice.  It’s also, I believe, why he invited me to lunch with another guest he considered important to the future of the movement, Osama bin Laden. I was twice arrested and twice freed thanks to Turabi. And it was he who introduced me to the man I took out to dinner several times a week for two months, an English speaker, brilliant but friendless and penniless, who loved good food, Ayman al-Zawahiri [who succeeded bin Laden as head of Al Qaeda].

 

How was your working relationship with Elizabeth Mitchell. 

She’s honestly the best magazine editor I ever worked with. She knew how to draw out the best in me and her temperament was alluring, i.e. she was fun to be around whether it was at work or at some bar. When the mag needed a copy of some sort and the issue was about to close, she’d buy me a pack of Camels and ask me to fill the void. I’d sit in an office and pound out leads and hand them to her until she liked one and I’d go at it, and then she’d line edit as each page came out. 

When she left to become the launch editor of George Magazine (after Bob didn’t appoint her EIC, his big mistake) I found her replacement impossible to work with and had to watch that person destroy a story I wrote. After that, I moved out of SPIN and worked for Elizabeth at George and other editors at different glossies.

 

Now I want to know how you see journalists then and now. 

In the ‘90s, the heyday of glossies, stories in, say, a rock ‘n roll rag were the sort I used to ink. Think about it: a music magazine runs a story about politics and war between pieces about musicians and slivers of the zeitgeist. That shit simply doesn’t happen anymore; indeed, most of today’s rags seem to dedicate each issue to a single theme and often end up boring as all get out. Online vs. pen, pad, and digestion.

The demands of online publications leave little to no time for the writer/investigator to digest what he or she has observed and experienced. If you have to file every day or every few days, you end up writing your notes rather than a considered piece that actually might inform the reader beyond the soundbite.

I used to work for a wire service and daily newspapers before that. More often than not, I’d churn out the work that was little more than a rough draft of what I wanted to pen. But time, i.e. deadlines, are imperatives that must be obliged. Magazines, on the other hand, offer the writer a certain luxury on the job, that is, the ability to write and rewrite and rewrite a story on and on. 

 

And what has your life been like since SPIN?

More journalism for different publications, plus writing another book and ghosting two others,

All the while realizing that I’m too damn broke to do anything but write until I die. The scribbling biz is no cash cow.

IMPACT

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