IRA dissidents splinter groups have been doing their utmost of late to blow holes in the cease-fire in Northern Ireland.
On Aug. 3, for example, a car containing 90 kg (200 lb) of homemade explosives blew up outside a police station in the town of Derry (a.k.a. Londonderry). A warning had been phoned in indicating that the device would detonate in 45 minutes, but the blast took place only 23 minutes after the 3:20 a.m. call while the police were still trying to evacuate the immediate area. No one was injured, but several businesses were badly damaged.
The following day an improvised explosive device (IED) was found in the driveway of a British army major in Bangor, the largest town in Northern Ireland’s County Down, which is also in the historical province of Ulster. After about 30 nearby houses were evacuated, there was a controlled explosion of the booby trap, which was designed to detonate under a car.
Dissident republican groups were held responsible. If the bomb had gone off, said the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI), the damage could have been catastrophic.
These attacks, along with at least a dozen this month alone â€“ including a couple as we write â€“ came five years after the main paramilitary republican group, the Provisional IRA (PIRA), decommissioned its final tranche of weapons. It has been more than a decade since the Good Friday Agreement, signed in 1998, that set out a pragmatic arrangement of partial devolution for the British-controlled province.
At this point, the threat level is the highest it has been since the main breakaway Irish republican group, the self-styled “Real IRA,” exploded a powerful bomb in 1998 that ripped though a market district in County Tyrone. On Aug 15, 1998, a 140-kg (300-lb) Semtex-boosted ammonium nitrate bomb killed 29 and injured about 220 in the town of Omagh. It was the worst republican atrocity of the “Troubles,” and provided bloody proof that not all republicans were satisfied with the agreement.
Fresh Campaign of Attacks
Government officials, other authorities and citizens of Northern Ireland seem likely to face a revival of bombings, shootings and attempts at intimidation. Attacks and security alerts have intensified over the last 18-20 months.
In January 2010, a 33-year-old Catholic police officer was seriously injured by a dissident republican car bomb about a mile from his home in Randalstown, County Antrim, northwest of Belfast. A month later, a vehicle-borne improvised explosive device (VBIED) exploded outside Newry courthouse during the police evacuation of the area.
In April, there was a series of attacks on consecutive days, including the detonation of a car bomb outside Newtownhamilton police station in County Armagh, injuring two. There were five pipe bomb attacks one day alone in Belfast.
On April 12, a bomb placed in a hijacked taxi exploded outside Holywood Palace Barracks in County Down â€“ close to the province’s headquarters of MI5, the U.K.’s counter-intelligence and security agency. No warning was given.
Not only was did the MI5 locale represent a sensitive target, but the attack took place on the very day that policing and justice powers were transferred from London to Belfast after 38 years of Whitehall control. The following day, yet another car bomb was defused outside that same police station.
On Easter Saturday night, a car bomb was left outside Crossmaglen police station in south Armagh and was defused by the army. The car was packed with containers of flammable liquid â€“ an ominous reminder of the attempted jihadi-inspired car bomb attacks on London and Glasgow in August 2007.
In July, the republican dissidents turned to Taliban-style tactics, planting a bomb on a road between two villages in south Armagh. The explosion left a 3-meter crater in the road and wrecked a stone bridge. Police believed that there had been an attempt to lure them into a follow-up ambush. Eerily, it was located at the same spot as a lethal IRA attack on five soldiers during the 1980s.
Taking Aim at Police
The PSNI have been targeted, in part because of its growing number of Catholic members, who are seen by hard-core dissidents as having “sold out” to a constitutional settlement.
Police in the province have indicated that one of goals of dissident republicans is to kill Catholic police officers as a way to destabilize what has become an increasingly successful effort to recruit Catholics to the Police Service of Northern Ireland. The Royal Ulster Constabulary, the predecessor of the PSNI, was overwhelmingly Protestant.
There threats against army barracks and civilian premises show no sign of ending. Warnings of bombs on railway lines have brought army and police under attack by gunmen as authorities respond to search for explosive devices.
There are some undemanding ways to keep the pressure high. For example, some of the warned attacks turn out to be hoaxes. On Aug. 4, for example, several hundred houses were evacuated from West Belfast. No explosive device was found.
In other cases, there are no warnings, or those that are given turn out to be dangerously inaccurate. Also of note is a return to proxy bombings: In the aforementioned Derry and Holywood Barracks incidents, the terrorists hijacked taxi cabs. They forced the drivers at gunpoint to drive the explosive devices to the targets while their families were held hostage. During the 1990s, the Provisional IRA (PIRA) used this insidious tactic for a time, only stopping in response to the outrage of church and community.
A Look at the Dissident Groups
There is, in the words of Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams, a “veritable alphabet” of dissident groups that are currently operating.
Most notable among these are the Real IRA (RIRA) and Continuity IRA (CIRA) — both of which split from the Provisionals around 1997. These main groups have a complex and informal structure and rival factions. They are said to have but a hundred or so active operatives, but in the past year these dissidents have stepped up their recruitment efforts. Moreover, evidence has been emerging of collusion between the RIRA and CIRA in recent attacks.
Responsibility for the Derry car bomb was not claimed not by the usual suspects â€“ members of the Real IRA, which has been held responsible for most of the recent attacks.
It was claimed by yet another fission product, Ã“glaigh na hÃ‰ireann, a splinter group of the Real IRA that uses the Irish nomenclature originally used for the IRA and which translates literally as “soldiers of Ireland”. (A group operating with the same name earlier split from the Continuity IRA.)
Of added concern is the high level of intelligence that seems to be possessed by the dissidents about the locations of PSNI officers. Such information may have helped in their targeting. This might indicate that an element remains in the republican heartland that still supports terrorism.
Expertise Appears to be on the Rise
These groups do not have the expertise level of PIRA, which remains unrivalled in that regard. However, this proficiency rests on how much of the PIRA expertise and weapons have been carried over to the new splinters.
The Real IRA stole Semtex and bomb-making components from PIRA in the 1990s. Dissidents have improved their bomb-making abilities, as became obvious this year. One attack, for instance, included a portable device that is easily planted in a vehicle â€“ which reduces the potential exposure of the terrorists to surveillance. The targeting of high-profile premises such as MI5 headquarters and the use of under-vehicle booby traps that employ mercury tilt switches are echoes of their PIRA forebears.
The device used in the car-bomb attack on the PSNI officer in January in Randalstown was triggered by remote control rather than by a mercury tilt switch under the vehicle, a more customary method. An IED in a parked vehicle was detonated at a distance as the target drove past in his own car â€“ resembling ambush tactics employed by the Taliban. It appears the bomb was set off when it reached a specific location, where a terrorist could fire an electronic signal at the device under the car. Reports indicated that mechanism had been tried out two months earlier by an ex-PIRA bombmaker on a device placed in a car that was parked outside Belfast’s Policing Board HQ.
The border areas close to the Republic of Ireland are the likely immediate sources of explosives. In late May, for instance, an alleged dissident bomb-making factory was found near Dundalk, in Ireland’s County Louth. In July, for another example, five men were arrested on suspicion of smuggling explosives across the border.
Experts believe that the dissident groups lack significant local support and, when compared to their antecedents, don’t have a comparable range of weaponry, expertise, trained personnel, funding or a cohesive chain of command.
Nevertheless, concerns have been growing that these groups will obtain help from overseas, including assistance from other terrorist groups, and could start attacking mainland Britain. This could bring back an old maxim â€“ “a bomb in London is worth 20 in Belfast.”
Yes, there have also been a number of failed attacks. But that is cold comfort, since it takes but one to cause death, injury and mayhem. It evokes another Provo statement after a brutal attack that fell short of its ultimate goal: “Today we were unlucky, but we only have to be lucky once. You have to be lucky always.”
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