Good intelligence crucial to keeping terrorists quiet
MI5 holds the key to defeating the dissidents by running informants to frustrate their gun-and-bomb campaign, argues Alan Murray
They're back. But - mercifully - not with a bang. For a month we've waited in anticipation for the threat from dissident republicans to resurface. It had been expected that Christmas shopping would be disrupted with hoax bomb alerts causing chaos in main streets across the province and that the 'big bomb' would be detonated.
The warnings from the police and the Army to their personnel have been explicit - and leave police officers and soldiers in no doubt that the dissidents have the capacity to kill and intend to.
So why the relative lull in dissident activity in December when fearful events and massive disruption was predicted?
Since the end of November, when undercover soldiers assisted the PSNI to foil an attempt to murder a trainee police officer in the border village of Garrison, the dissidents have been relatively quiet.
An occasional shooting of the so-called 'punishment' variety has been perpetrated in Belfast and, more often, in Londonderry, but the expected mayhem hasn't materialised.
In early December, following the arrest and charging of two men in relation to the Fermanagh incident, the dissidents held a so called 'council of war' in a pub in Co Tyrone.
The event was so well-leaked from within the dissident ranks that the PSNI actually mounted road checks to monitor those attending.
This, and the interception in Fermanagh of a 'hit squad' from one of the groups, has almost certainly prompted a security review by the godfathers of dissident terrorism.
They came within a cat's whisker of obliterating a huge chunk of the building housing the Policing Board near the centre of Belfast last time out, but an interception by specialist police and Army units - as happened in Fermanagh - stops terrorists in their tracks.
The knowledge that the intelligence agencies have an informant so well-placed inside or adjacent to a terrorist cell gives every activist the jitters.
Interceptions like the Fermanagh one cause a multiplicity of suspicions to fester among the terrorist fraternity.
It may be that the interception came about through a routine surveillance operation, but the terrorists can't be sure of that and, as the saying goes, "when in doubt, don't go out".
That may be why in the period leading up to Christmas the terrorists have stayed their hand.
But the discovery of the potential huge bomb just outside Newry this week leaves little doubt that their intent remains to obliterate somewhere at some time.
It would be foolish to equate the three main strands of dissident republican terrorism with the resourcefulness of the Provisionals, but within the Continuity IRA, Real IRA and Oglaigh na hEireann, in particular, there exists an ability to inflict loss of life and huge destruction.
The fusillade of shots fired at Crossmaglen police base on Wednesday night merely demonstrated that the dissidents feel they can have the run of the place in south Armagh after dark - most of the time anyway.
Overall, the dissidents know that the resources aren't there to kill them off, or, to use more politically correct terminology, to physically squeeze them on the ground so they can't move.
The stark reality is that resources are never likely to be there in sufficient numbers ever again to do that.
The key to defeating them in the current political climate is the acquiring of strategically well-placed informants within and around the most active of the dissident cells and their strategists so that their organisations become strangled and paralysed by uncertainty and doubt - as, indeed, the Provisional IRA did.
But that will take time and we will witness bouts of activity from the dissidents as devices are assembled and gun and bomb attacks are mounted and then bouts of inactivity, like last month, when interceptions and arrests will induce uncertainty.
The more informants are recruited by MI5 - now the lead intelligence player here - the greater will become the instability within these terrorist groups and eventually the greater the duration of the bouts of inactivity.
But that will take time to achieve and - inevitably - some fatalities, such as occurred last March, will be suffered on the way.