Violent Dissident Republicanism: What happens next?

Jun 2, 2021 | Blog, Northern Ireland-Related Terrorism

Following a recent bomb plot targeting an off-duty Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) officer, the threat of violent dissident republicanism (VDR) is once again under the spotlight. As simmering intercommunal tensions escalated into violence across the Province over recent months, it is unlikely that the drivers of VDR activity will abate anytime soon. Whilst VDR attacks in Northern Ireland remain likely, the probability of VDR groups conducting attacks on the UK mainland remains low, as curtailed capabilities hinder any low-level intent.

On 19 April, a police officer discovered an explosive placed outside her car in Dungiven, Co. Derry/Londonderry. Whilst the bomb failed to explode, police investigations concluded that the device was viable and designed to cause a fireball, with the potential to inflict fatal injuries. Assistant Chief Constable Mark McEwan stated that the service believed the New IRA was responsible for the attempted bombing. The methodology of this latest attack is more reminiscent of the improvised devices used during the Troubles than what has been associated with New IRA attacks in recent years, reflecting the “growing sophistication” of New IRA devices.

The Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre (JTAC) assesses the current threat from Northern Ireland-related terrorism (NIRT) in the Province to be SEVERE, indicating an attack is highly likely to occur. It has remained at this level since its first publication in 2010, reflecting a constant threat of attack in Northern Ireland. The EU Terrorism Situation and Trend Report 2020 and Global Terrorism Database (GTD) data demonstrate ample evidence of an escalation of VDR activity in the Province. Since 2014 there has been a notable increase in VDR attack planning, targeting and weapons engineering activity across Northern Ireland with the UK reporting 55 security-related incidents in Northern Ireland in 2020.

Analysis of recent VDR activity

The latest attack in Dungiven coincided with a resurgence of intercommunal violence across Northern Ireland which began on 29 March, as a result of tensions over the Brexit Northern Ireland Protocol and the uncertainty over the future of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. Whilst violence between Loyalists and Republicans did not dissipate after 1998, tensions have notably worsened since the 2016 Brexit referendum, with the post-Brexit settlement serving as both a target and a recruitment aid for VDR groups.

VDR factions have endured due in part to their ability to capitalise on the militarised dynamic which has remained in place in many communities after the Good Friday Agreement. VDR groups have also found fertile ground to recruit new members, notably young people, as underlying socio-economic inequalities and lack of opportunities persist in the country. As a result of the residual distrust between Republican communities and the security services, engaging members in deradicalisation and disengagement processes has proved a particularly difficult task. The organised crime-terror nexus has also offered a gateway into VDR activity for youth in the Province.

Since 2007, a steady rise in paramilitary VDR violence in opposition to the mainstream Republican acceptance of the PSNI has occurred. Three main factions have been responsible for the majority for these attacks in recent years, the Continuity IRA (CIRA), the New IRA and Óglaigh na hÉireann (Soldiers of Ireland). Whilst a targeted attempt on a serving PSNI officer is a relatively rare occurrence, compared to pre-1998 levels, over 200 terrorist incidents targeting the police have occurred since the Good Friday Agreement according to GTD figures. The last confirmed attempt to murder a police officer by a VDR group in Northern Ireland occurred in March 2020, displaying the enduring intent of VDR groups to target PSNI and security officials.

The New IRA has been the most prominent and active VDR group within the Province since 2014. Whilst the levels of violence are far lower than that of the Provisional IRA, they have remained actively involved in murders, paramilitary violence and assassination attempts in Northern Ireland as well as several plots on the mainland. Between 2009 and 2019, the group was linked to the murder of six police officers, soldiers and prison officers in Northern Ireland, a mortar attack on a police station and numerous paramilitary-style shootings and assaults. In 2019, a New IRA gunman opened fire on police in Derry/Londonderry, killing journalist Lyra McKee. Whilst the New IRA has continued to wage a low-level campaign against security forces, the risk posed by the group to conduct larger scale attacks in Northern Ireland cannot be discounted.

Of the three main VDR factions, the New IRA poses the greatest risk to mainland UK security at present, having shown the most intent and capability to conduct attacks. In March 2019 the group carried out a coordinated incendiary device campaign, sending parcel bombs to Heathrow and London City Airports, Waterloo railway station and the University of Glasgow. High-profile plots by other VDR groups targeting the UK mainland have also included a disrupted bomb plot planned for ‘Brexit Day’ in January 2020 by CIRA. The viable bomb was intended to be transported by ferry to Scotland and later smuggled to England, timed for Britain’s exit from the EU to bring attention to the Irish sea border. Successful attacks by VDR groups on the British mainland in the future however are unlikely, given VDR groups’ limited capabilities in Great Britain and recent operational setbacks.

The Dungiven attempted bombing is the first attack since the arrest of ten alleged New IRA leaders in 2020 following a joint MI5/PSNI Operation ARBACIA. Despite this operational challenge, the New IRA has demonstrated it has retained the capacity to launch attacks. According to security services in Northern Ireland, the new leadership of the New IRA is reportedly more radical, with aims to reinvigorate the group by permitting cells to carry out attacks without seeking approval from the central command. By changing the command structure, with more autonomy for field commanders, VDR groups now have greater resilience to setbacks and improved operational agility, with the potential for an increase in the frequency of attacks in the near term.

In terms of the recently demonstrated capabilities of VDR groups, firearms (AK-variants and munitions) and small IEDs, such as Molotov cocktails and pipe bombs, have most frequently been used. Under-vehicle IEDs (UVIEDs) and explosively formed projectiles (EFPs) have also been recently deployed, at a lesser frequency, to target law enforcement and military targets. Compared to other terrorist actors on the mainland, VDR groups have much greater access to weapons through legacy IRA stocks, improvised and criminal sources, making them more dangerous than the average terrorist operating in the UK. According to GTD data, since 2019, the number and diversity of attacks using explosives has increased, partly due to ‘old guard’ Provisional IRA members making bombs for the New IRA. However, PSNI Operation LEDGING  has recently resulted in a series of arrests, targeting the New IRA’s bomb-making activities and storage of explosive devices and equipment, which may diminish current capabilities.

What happens next?

Whilst the Dungiven attempt ultimately failed, further attacks on police officers, military and targets associated with the British government within Northern Ireland are highly likely in the coming months. Over the medium term in Northern Ireland, more unrest is also highly likely, with instability instigated by the Northern Ireland Protocol set to continue which may result in further inter-communal violence. As the politically sensitive summer months approach, with the resumption of the Orange Order marches in July, these latest developments may also add to the risk of future violent disturbances. The new change of command structure of the New IRA may also bring about a slight uptick in opportunistic style attacks in the Province.

Although current VDR campaigns have thus far been less intensive than that of the Provisional IRA pre-Good Friday Agreement, VDR groups still pose a threat to UK mainland security. Recent activities have demonstrated a rising sophistication in strategy and competencies in producing viable devices. Following the 2019 incendiary device campaign and the 2020 Brexit bomb plot, it is evident that the intent to target the UK mainland remains, albeit the capabilities to conduct these attacks on the mainland are currently quite limited. Therefore, it is expected that VDR groups will remain largely parochially focussed. Given recent marked increase in the incorporation of bomb hoaxes in Northern Ireland, this strategy may however also be deployed on the mainland in the near term, with the potential to cause distress to the public, business interruption and a strain on police resources.

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