The new dissident IRA is plotting “multiple casualty attacks” — with a senior intelligence source describing background activity as “relentless”.
This latest assessment comes just weeks after the murder of prison officer David Black, and after police seized Semtex explosive devices capable of piercing armoured vehicles.
In a reference to those finds, the source said: “We’ve done well to get ahead of them.”
It’s a sentence that describes a constant intelligence battle and the fine line between life and death — what dissidents would term success and failure.
Leaders of the new IRA coalition are said to be determined to “prove themselves”, and the overall assessment means the possibility of a so-called spectacular attack cannot be ruled out.
Police officers remain the principal targets.
Detailing that relentless background activity, the intelligence source said it included constant meetings, attack planning, conspiracies with key figures “walking and talking” often in forest parks trying to avoid the watching and listening of police and MI5.
Asked about the threat and the potential scale of what was being planned, the source responded: “Multiple casualty attacks — that’s their aspiration, what their conspiracies direct them towards.
“They are ambitious in what they want to do,” he continued, “in effect prove themselves.”
The source cautioned that it is not just about a few “notable individuals”.
“What concerns me is the next set of people, the people who are not so readily named,” he said.
“There are notable individuals, (but also) other people, equally significant, but who have kept a lower profile,” he said.
The latest IRA grouping emerged in July as a pull-together of several factions. These include the Real IRA, Republican Action Against Drugs (RAAD) and a number of “unaffiliated” dissident figures.
It has brought under the one roof those who carried out the attacks on police constables Peadar Heffron and Ronan Kerr, and on the soldiers at Massereene.
The murder of David Black, at the beginning of last month, is also now part of that list of violent actions. It is why the threat level here remains at ‘severe’.
But it will take time for PSNI intelligence and MI5 to fully assess the capabilities and capacity of this latest IRA coalition.
Clearly the amalgamation is designed to bring together equipment and expertise and to eliminate weakness.
And the building of this new terror coalition is on-going, with the intelligence source describing a “winnowing process” — meaning the weeding out and dumping of those under suspicion and not trusted.
The organisation is operating in many parts of Northern Ireland, in border counties and in Dublin.
And the police/MI5 counter-strategy is concentrated on the group’s finance, equipment and personnel.
“We need to be razor-sharp... not allowing them a windfall, a propaganda windfall,” the intelligence source said.
He pointed to arrests, planned attacks interrupted, devices seized, significant amounts of cash found and success against dissident smuggling and counterfeiting.
And the source emphasised two other key factors — “little or no public support” for the dissident factions, and greater co-operation with police investigations from within the nationalist/republican communities.
This, he said, can be seen in the David Black investigation, adding: “It’s surprising the people who are now helping us.”
Their plots are sporadic and can have terrible outcomes, but they can’t emulate the Provos’ campaign
By Brian Rowan
The building of this latest IRA is a work in progress.
For 15 years now there has been a dissident threat of one description or another — from the bombs in Moira, Portadown, Banbridge and Omagh in 1998 right through to the killing of David Black in a drive-by shooting on the motorway just a few weeks’ ago.
The first seeds of dissent are found in the period between the original IRA ceasefire of 1994 and the Good Friday Agreement of 1998; found more precisely in the fallout, rancour and resignations at a so-called General Army Convention (GAC) in late 1997.
But, in the 15 years since, the different dissident creations and manifestations have not come close to matching the threat and expertise once associated with the mainstream IRA.
Adams and McGuinness have not been toppled, nor has their peace strategy, which, for some, was the key aim of that GAC in 1997.
So, this is the frame within which the new IRA coalition has to be assessed.
Arms, expertise and personnel have been brought together under a new command structure and inside a group that has been weeding out those that it doesn’t trust.
But will these changes alter the nature and patterns of activity?
Will it move from sporadic attacks to something more sustained?
These are the questions, and if the latter can be achieved, then this will be the step change. There are times, including recently, when the dissidents have come close to putting together a series of deadly attacks, and within this particular pattern we again see the fine margins between what they would term success and failure.
Just days after the murder of David Black, a booby-trap bomb was found on a road in the Bally
gomartin area of Belfast. It has now been confirmed that the target was a soldier and the device had fallen from underneath his car after he had travelled a short distance.
It was a bomb that had all the right components — mercury tilt switch and a commercial explosive, but the magnets had not held it to the bottom of the vehicle.
And this is that thinnest of lines between life and death.
In their cold thinking, dissidents were looking for another kill and another headline and, on this occasion, it may not have been the new IRA coalition at play.
This newspaper has been told the bomb make-up compares more to “ONH engineering”.
In other words, it was a device similar to those previously built by the group Oglaigh na hEireann, which remains outside the new IRA grouping.
Just a few weeks later police, in a planned or intelligence-led operation, seized a Semtex device capable of piercing armour, the type of bomb that could give this latest IRA the “multiple casualty” strike it is trying to achieve, both to prove and to launch itself.
There is no one individual or mastermind behind the building of this dissident coalition.
“Given the scale of what they have undertaken — it’s a team,” an intelligence source commented.
And it is known that within that team there are some who played parts in the IRA “war”.
The decades-long fight that ended in military stalemate.
So, this takes us to the big questions.
Can this new dissident coalition recreate that IRA war?
The answer is no. In one form or another they have been trying for 15 years.
And that then asks another question.
What will multi casualty attacks change in a political and security sense?
The answer is nothing.
But this penny hasn’t yet dropped.
And both off and on stage, the war games are still being played — deadly plots formulated without purpose or point other than to kill.