Andy Oppenheimer looks at the rise in attacks by Republican paramilitaries in Northern Ireland and their potential for escalation.
On 5 November 2010 a military hand grenade, reputedly of Russian provenance, was thrown in a street by a cyclist in West Belfast, injuring three officers of the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) and blasting out chunks of pavement.
Shrapnel embedded in the shutters of shops nearby were evidence of the 5 metre kill radius of the weapon used in the attack, which was claimed by the dissident group self-styled as ‘Óglaigh na hÉireann’. It was the latest in a two-year-long resurgence in dissident republican activity which, were it being conducted on the ‘mainland’, would warrant a good deal more media and government attention.
The intensity of renewed attacks can be seen by a series of events in August. On the third of that month, a car containing 90 kg (200lb) of homemade explosives blew up outside a police station in Derry. The device was warned to detonate in 45 minutes but the blast came only 23 minutes after the call, at 3.20am, while the police were still trying to evacuate the immediate area. Miraculously, nobody was injured but several businesses were badly damaged. The attacks was the latest in a two-year-long resurgence in dissident republican activity which, were it being conducted on the ‘mainland’, would warrant a good deal more media and government attention.
The following day an under-car booby-trapped IED was found in the driveway of a British Army major’s home in Bangor, Co. Down, and a controlled explosion carried out after some 30 houses in the area were evacuated. According to the PSNI, the damage would have been potentially catastrophic if the bomb had exploded.
The attacks was the latest in a two-year-long resurgence in dissident republican activity which, were it being conducted on the ‘mainland’, would warrant a good deal more media and government attention.
The two attacks, along with at least a dozen in August alone, came five years after the main paramilitary republican group, the Provisional IRA (PIRA), decommissioned its final tranche of weapons, and more than a decade since the Good Friday Agreement (GFA), which in 1997 set out a pragmatic arrangement of partial devolution.
The threat level is presently the highest since the main breakaway group, self-styled the Real IRA, exploded a 140kg (300 lb) Semtex-boosted ammonium nitrate bomb in the town of Omagh on August 15, 1998, killing 29 people and injuring 220 – the worst republican atrocity of the so-called ‘Troubles’ and the first major sign that not all republicans were satisfied with the GFA, ready to lay down their weapons, and settle for a constitutionally arranged and peaceful future.
A catalogue of attacks
Attacks are now coming almost weekly and in April and June 2010, almost daily. Arguably the most bizarre discovery was a pipe bomb attached to cans of petrol that was found in a car parked at Belfast Airport on 29 October – abandoned, reportedly, for a whole year. It had failed to explode due to a faulty timer (rather than being an attempt at extremely long-delay detonation!). The pipe bomb was only discovered because the car was about to be towed away.
Regardless of its ineffectiveness, passengers on returning flights were inconvenienced in having to be accommodated overnight before they were allowed to drive their cars back home – and the discovery has sparked extra concerns about airport security in the province, coming as it did only a day after two Al Qaeda devices were found on cargo aircraft in Dubai and East Midlands airports.
The devolved government, authorities, and citizens of Northern Ireland now face a long-dreaded revival of bomb attacks, shootings, and intimidation. Attacks and security alerts intensified through 2009 into this year. In January 2010 a 33-year-old Catholic police officer was seriously injured by a dissident republican VBIED (vehicle-borne improvised explosive device – car bomb) about a mile from his home in Randalstown, County Antrim. A month later a VBIED exploded outside Newry courthouse during police evacuation of the area.
In April a series of attacks occurred on consecutive days, including the detonation of a VBIED outside Newtownhamilton police station, injuring two. On another day there were five pipe bomb attacks in Belfast. On 12 April, a bomb in a hijacked taxi exploded outside Holywood Palace Barracks – close to the province’s HQ of MI5, the British Intelligence Service. No warning was given.
Not only was this a sensitive target, but a timely attack – as it occurred on the day policing and justice powers were transferred to Northern Ireland. Only the next day another car bomb was defused outside that same police station. On the night of Easter Saturday a car bomb was left outside Crossmaglen police station which, when defused by the Army, was found to incorporate flammable containers – an ominous reminder of the attempted jihadi-inspired car bomb attacks on London and Glasgow in August 2007. On the night of Easter Saturday a car bomb was left outside Crossmaglen police station which, when defused by the Army, was found to incorporate flammable containers – an ominous reminder of the attempted jihadi-inspired car bomb attacks on London and Glasgow in August 2007.
In July the dissidents turned to Taliban-style tactics, planting a bomb on a road between two villages in south Armagh, which left a 3-m crater in the road and wrecked a stone bridge. The attack was viewed by police as an attempt to lure them into an ambush and was eerily located at the same spot as the lethal IRA attack on five British soldiers in the 1980s.
On the night of Easter Saturday a car bomb was left outside Crossmaglen police station which, when defused by the Army, was found to incorporate flammable containers – an ominous reminder of the attempted jihadi-inspired car bomb attacks on London and Glasgow in August 2007.
The PSNI are the main targets of the dissidents as its growing Catholic membership is believed to have ‘sold out’ to a constitutional settlement. Army barracks and civilian premises are also under constant threat. Warnings of bombs on railway lines have brought army and police under attack by gunmen as they searched for devices. Some attacks are hoaxes – as on 4 August, when several hundred houses were evacuated from West Belfast but no device found.
Warnings are either nonexistent or inaccurate. Of note is a return to proxy bombing: for the Derry and Holywood Barracks attacks the terrorists hijacked taxi cabs and forced the drivers at gunpoint to drive the device to target while their families were held hostage. The PIRA used this horrendous tactic for a time in the early 1990s, only ceasing it in response to church and community outrage.
Who are the groups?
There is, in the words of Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams, a “veritable alphabet” of dissident groups currently operating, beginning with the Real IRA (RIRA) and Continuity IRA (CIRA), both of which split from the Provisionals around 1997. [To offer a nuclear analogy: I tend to think of the Provos as highly enriched uranium – and the dissident spin-offs as the highly toxic radioactive byproducts which come out of the other end of the reactor].
With a complex informal structure, the groups are said to number ‘only’ a few hundred or so active operatives, but in the past year have stepped up recruitment. There is evidence emerging of collusion between the RIRA and CIRA in recent attacks.
The Derry car bomb was claimed not by the usual suspects – the Real IRA, which has been held responsible for most of the recent attacks – but by yet another ‘fission product’, Óglaigh na hÉireann (ONH), a splinter group of the Real IRA and using the Irish nomenclature originally used for the IRA, translating as ‘soldiers of Ireland’.
Is dissident expertise catching up?
The groups are not yet near the unrivalled expertise level of PIRA, although some police officials believe they are not far away from it. Much depends on how much PIRA expertise and weapons have been carried over (the Real IRA stole Semtex and bomb-making components from PIRA in the 1990s), and how far the current groups can collude, establish reliable supply chains of weaponry, develop bombing and ambush techniques, and replenish recruitment when operatives are arrested.
It is said that ONH has acquired commercial explosives (which are far more reliable than homemades) which have not purloined from PIRA arsenals prior to its final tranche of decommissioning in 2005.
By 2010 Republican dissidents had improved their bomb-making abilities. One attack included a portable device easily planted in a vehicle – reducing terrorists’ exposure to surveillance. Targeting attacks at high-profile premises such as MI5 HQ and using under-vehicle booby trap mercury tilt devices – which make the car explode at the slightest touch or movement – are echoes of their PIRA forebears. Targeting attacks at high-profile premises such as MI5 HQ and using under-vehicle booby trap mercury tilt devices – which make the car explode at the slightest touch or movement – are echoes of their PIRA forebears.
In the car bomb attack on the PSNI officer in January in Randalstown, the device was triggered by remote control rather than by an under-vehicle booby-trap device. The IED in a parked vehicle was detonated at a distance as the target drove past in his own car – resembling Taliban mine ambush tactics.
Targeting attacks at high-profile premises such as MI5 HQ and using under-vehicle booby trap mercury tilt devices – which make the car explode at the slightest touch or movement – are echoes of their PIRA forebears.
The border areas overlapping the Republic are the likely source of explosives. In late May an alleged dissident bomb-making factory was found near Dundalk, Ireland. In July five men were arrested on suspicion of smuggling explosives across the border.
Basil McCrea MLA, a member of the Policing Board, on the Stephen Nolan Show on Ulster Radio claimed last week that the dissidents are up to 97% of PIRA capability. This may be based on intelligence and also on forensics carried out on the devices used already, both preempted and exploded, which will reveal ‘signatures’ – specific bomb making techniques.
It remains to be seen, but while the dissidents are enhancing their expertise, at the time of writing they were nowhere near approaching the level of the PIRA campaign. The Provisionals were able to blow up a proportion of the City of London and would launch 30 operations a day at the height of their campaign.
Focus on ONH – ex-Provo bombing expertise
In an interview with the Belfast Telegraph (3 November 2010), the ONH spokesman admitted its membership consisted of “former members of other organisations, and that’s across the spectrum – Provisional IRA, INLA, Real IRA. The vast, vast majority of people who were recruited were deliberately selected for their skills, experience and know-how.” In response to being asked if they have what previously would have been Provisional IRA bomb-making expertise, the representative admitted that “former IRA volunteers have applied to join ONH on the back of those successful operations.”
However, judging by the ‘simplicity’ of the November grenade attack – redolent, albeit on a much smaller scale, of the Mumbai attacks two years ago – chaos, injury and death is often the result of such basic, but well-planned, onslaughts.
Evidence has indeed emerged that more than one former PIRA bomb-maker has been involved in attacks – namely, that the fingerprint (individual ‘style’ of components, composition and structure) of the device used in Bangor was different to the make-up of the device used when OHN targeted a police dog-handler in east Belfast. They stated in the Belfast Telegraph interview that “Had we been targeting his partner it [the bomb] would have been under her seat. Our intelligence and surveillance showed us that she regularly drove him to work. We deliberately picked areas [for attacks] that were seen as safe zones for security forces. It was to send a direct message that nowhere is safe.”
A former PIRA bomb-maker is said to have tested a remote mechanism on the VBIED which exploded at Policing Board Belfast HQ. Of concern is the high level of intelligence possessed by the dissidents on the locations of PSNI officers when targeting their attacks. This indicates a certain element in the republican heartlands is still supporting terrorism.
Approaching a PIRA campaign?
While most people – including republicans and nationalists – are inclined towards a new era of peace, many are warning that a new generation of young recruits, who did not suffer during the past 30 or more years and may be unemployed and disaffected, are romantically associating themselves with terrorism. Combine this element with former active republicans with operational experience, and the challenge for the authorities is potentially formidable.
It is believed that the dissidents still lack significant local support and a comparable range of weaponry, expertise, organization, trained personnel, funding, or cohesive chain of command. The acquisition of weaponry, including grenades and commercial explosives, indicates this is moving up. Nevertheless, a growing fear is that they will obtain help from overseas, including from other terrorist groups, and start attacking mainland Britain – harking back to an old IRA maxim: “a bomb in London is worth 20 in Belfast.” Nevertheless, a growing fear is that they will obtain help from overseas, including from other terrorist groups, and start attacking mainland Britain – harking back to an old IRA maxim: “a bomb in London is worth 20 in Belfast.”
Despite reassurance that the groups are not numerically strong, and may be infiltrated – recent history tells us it does not take many determined individuals to create a terrorist attack. As for the number of failed attacks, only one has to succeed to cause death, injury and mayhem, echoing another telling IRA statement, made after the Brighton Grand Hotel bombing in October 1984: “Today we were unlucky, but we only have to be lucky once. You have to be lucky always.” Chillingly, OHN have stated “Eighteen months ago, they told us we couldn’t even detonate a bomb. “ Now they can – and much depends on how far they – and the other groups – will be able to take their campaign.
Nevertheless, a growing fear is that they will obtain help from overseas, including from other terrorist groups, and start attacking mainland Britain – harking back to an old IRA maxim: “a bomb in London is worth 20 in Belfast.”
|About The Author|
Andy Oppenheimer is an independent analyst in CBRNE (Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear Weapons and Explosives) and author of IRA: The Bombs and the Bullets – A History of Deadly Ingenuity (Irish Academic Press, 2008). He has given several conference presentations on the Dissident Bombings during 2010.
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