Northern Ireland terror expert predicts bomb 'spectacular' by dissidents in Brexit run-up
Ex-PSNI officer says that New IRA upping the ante
An expert in counter-terrorism has warned that dissident republicans are planning a major bomb "spectacular" in the run-up to Brexit.
Ken Pennington also said that between now and October 31 - the UK deadline for leaving the EU - the New IRA may attempt a series of deadly attacks, like the booby-trap device that was planted under a police officer's car earlier this month.
Mr Pennington, a former PSNI superintendent who served with police for 30 years before moving into counter-terrorism, said the likely target for a lethal explosion was a "major economic hub such as Belfast or Londonderry".
The retired officer, who helped foil a car bomb attack at Victoria Square in Belfast city centre in 2013, said Brexit was "like the fall of the Berlin Wall on a European scale" which makes it "very significant" for the New IRA.
"The border between Northern Ireland and Ireland is a truly international phenomenon," he told the Belfast Telegraph.
"There will be protests on the border, which means the world's Press will descend on Northern Ireland to cover the story, and what does terrorism want? It wants the oxygen of publicity."
Mr Pennington said incidents like the Bishop Street car bomb in Londonderry in January, the murder of journalist Lyra McKee in the city in April and the attempted murder of a PSNI officer at the start of June show that the New IRA is upping the ante.
He also predicted "a series of attacks in the run-up to and including Brexit Day on October 31, primarily against police - but if they feel the police are too difficult a target, they will move to people associated with police".
"Certainly over the summer we'll see a rise in the tempo of dissident terrorist operations," said Mr Pennington, who fronts The Last Castle, an anti-terrorism and human rights consultancy.
"Then after August, when the nights start closing in, it will be easier for them to mount their operations."
When asked to define "spectacular", Mr Pennington said he was talking about "a large vehicle-borne IED [improvised explosive device] in the city centre".
"They attempted that in Derry at the courthouse at the start of the year," Mr Pennington said.
"I'll think they'll go for a massive bomb in a city centre - in Belfast, Derry or wherever they can inflict the maximum economic damage.
"It's also about the publicity. They're going to want this to be somewhere significant. Westminster Bridge happened because it's Westminster Bridge."
But he said there could be no real certainty about where the next dissident terrorist strike might be because of certain factors that must be taken into account.
"A terrorist attack has three components: intention, capability and opportunity. Do they want to do it? Have they the means to do it? And is there a chance to do it?
"If you take away the opportunity they'll move to secondary targets.
"And, of course, minds will be concentrated on the security side and they will be working to prevent something happening, as well."
Referring to the recent failed booby-trap bomb under the car of a senior off-duty PSNI officer at Shandon Park Golf Club, Mr Pennington said that was typical of the New IRA murder gang's modus operandi.
"That's just a given," he said.
"That could happen any day. That's what they want to do.
"These people are not large in number - there are less than 400 of them - but an under-car booby trap is a very low-risk attack.
"We're not dealing with Isis here. They're not suicide bombers. They don't want to hurt themselves. They'll do their hostile reconnaissance, they'll check if the target is security-aware or not and then they'll place the device."
He added: "I see a series of attempts at those from now onwards but I think they'll be looking towards a spectacular in and around the time of Brexit."
New fears have emerged that membership of the New IRA is on the rise. At the weekend, Irish security sources, quoted by The Sunday Times, reported that members of a group styling itself Oglaigh na hEireann (OnH) are defecting to them.
The OnH - comprising former members of the Provisional IRA - was responsible for dozens of punishment shootings and attacks on security forces, as well as a spate of terrorist attacks on police in Northern Ireland.
These include d the maiming of Catholic PSNI officer Peadar Heffron, who lost a leg in 2010 after an OnH bomb planted under his car exploded.
Asked about the threat level posed by the New IRA, Mr Pennington said they could prove to be new PSNI Chief Constable Simon Byrne's "biggest headache" going forward.