“Nerf” is the way to go with urban guerrilla warfare, Gary Brecher (The War Nerd) concedes, citing the Irish example:
The IRA had this “Nerf” strategy of not striking back at stuff like this [Loyalist hit teams torturing and killing insurgents' families], and not killing civilians, which seemed weak to me. But it worked way, way better than I could have imagined. First of all, by not reacting to LVF hit teams, the IRA kept the focus on the Brits, who they considered the real enemy. The Loyalist hit teams, I realize now, were a classic SAS attempt to turn the whole Ulster fight into a tribal war, so the British could come off as the impartial referees trying to keep the savages from tearing each other apart. If the IRA had settled for taking all these Loyalists down into nice soundproofed basements and giving them some hands-on experience of their favorite games, it would’ve been satisfying short-term but would have fed right into the enemy propaganda model.
Now that I understand what they were doing, I’m blown away by the discipline. That’s the key to every good guerrilla group, that sort of discipline that’s almost creepy, not human. I mean, imagine your cousin just got hacked to death in some gaudy way by these Shankill Butcher guys and you know exactly who did it. Which they did; the IRA always had great intelligence on the streets of Belfast, they knew exactly who was doing these killings. But the order comes down that you can’t take revenge, because it’d look like religious gang warfare and take the focus off the Brits. I couldn’t do it. Those guys did, and I feel ashamed for using a word like “nerf” to make fun of military discipline like theirs.
When you look back at the IRA strategy over the 30-odd years they did urban guerrilla warfare, there’s a clear pattern: They always wanted to shift the violence away from Northern Ireland and to the financial center of London. It was fucking brilliant, and I was too dumb to get it. That’s why they ignored all the Loyalist killings, which would be harder than ignoring a pit bull gnawing your leg, and put all their resources into setting up deep-cover sabotage teams in London.
By the early 1990s they had men and women working at the airports, the construction industry, and even in British security. And they used their operatives carefully, never spending their lives until they could get maximum effect. In 1984 one of their men rented a room at the Grand Hotel in Brighton, where the Conservative Party was scheduled to have its yearly meeting. He put the bomb under the flooring, paid his bill and left. A month later the long-delay timer went off while Thatcher and all her allies were sound asleep in their rooms. They missed Thatcher—they didn’t call her the Iron Lady for nothing—but she had the novel experience of seeing a few floors fall into her room at 3 am. And the IRA statement afterwards was a model of guerrilla patience: “Today you were lucky, but you will have to be lucky always. We only have to be lucky once.” That’s the way you play it, for the long haul.
The Brighton bomb was designed to kill, because Thatcher was a legitimate target by their reckoning. (In fact, so many Brits hated her that this was about the only time the IRA was popular in England, with people giving them the old “Try, try again!” cheer.) But most IRA bombings, especially the huge truck bombs that won the war for them, weren’t designed to kill. The IRA had a whole system in place with recognized code words that they’d use when they phoned British TV stations, radio stations, and cops to warn them to evacuate the area. They had to do that because both sides realized that when the IRA killed ordinary civilians, they lost. The British tv stations would replay the footage of wounded and killed civilians over and over and over for years, and eventually the IRA worked out a whole new “nerf” (nerf in a very effective way) method of making war without killing people. They’d park a truck near a financial target like the London stock exchange with a multi-hour timer, then call everybody they could. That was to make sure the Army and Intel Services didn’t decide to sit on the warning in the hope of getting a high civilian death toll, which would have been a big defeat for the IRA.