By John Horgan
On 24 April 1993, the city of London was brought to a standstill. A massive terrorist bomb exploded at the NatWest tower, killing one person and injuring at least 40 more. The truck bomb, planted by the Irish Republican Army (IRA) was designed to strike at the financial heartland of London, and it succeeded. In addition to the human casualties, what has since become known as the Bishopsgate bomb caused $1 billion in financial damages.
Twenty years later, the IRA is no more. Its members have laid down their arms and its leadership committed to a hard-fought peace process that has since brought stability and prosperity to a region of the world that has suffered four decades of terrorism. Perhaps the most visible signal of that progress came with the official visit of Queen Elizabeth II to the Republic of Ireland in 2011.
In a week in which terrorism came to the streets of Boston and was foiled in Canada, the past several years has seen the slow rise of terrorist activity on the streets of Northern Ireland.
The problems in Northern Ireland are mostly over. However, despite the extraordinary progress made via a hard fought peace process, the legacy of Northern Ireland’s Troubles is still deeply felt. Many people remain disaffected, disillusioned, and impervious to the prosperity brought by the stability of the peace process. Sectarian tensions occasionally bubble to the surface, and communities remain deeply divided with polarized identities. Visitors to Northern Ireland today will see a great change from the region’s darker days, but visitors will also see even greater signs of attempts to keep those communities separate via the increase in intimidating ‘peace walls’ (large structures that keep those divisions alive and visible). Given how deeply affected Northern Ireland has been from the Troubles, inter-community tensions will understandably take generations to fully heal, and that road will not ever be an easy one. But there are those who would quickly see that healing process stopped in its tracks.
Though the Irish Republican Army is no more, several small groups have split away from the ‘mainstream’ Republican movement, shunning the peace process and condemning the IRA leadership for compromising on the core ideals of traditional Irish Republicanism – to gain a United Ireland. The result has been a prolonged attempt at developing and sustaining campaign of low-level terrorism, characterized by intermittent though influential and impactful attacks.
These groups have many names. Known collectively as “dissident Republicans,” they comprise several small militant splinter groups. The “Real IRA” and the “Continuity IRA” are probably the most well known of these, though both of these entities have given rise to what my colleague Dr. John Morrison once called serial splintering, spawning several further sub-groups. They operate both in Northern Ireland and in the Republic of Ireland. What unites them is their hatred for the Sinn Fein leadership, their rejection of the authority of the Police Service of Northern Ireland, and their equally abject rejection of the various peace agreements that emerged in recent years. The differences between the various dissident factions will seem inconsequential to onlookers, but carry immense significance to respective followers. The various groups are as divided by personalities, jealousies, and petty rivalries as they are divided along geographical, ideological, and strategic lines.
Aside from a clichéd call to “uniting Ireland,” what they want is never entirely clear because their aims are often lofty and obscure when you examine the respective groups’ ideological statements. On a day-to-day basis, what drives and sustains them is their utter hatred for Sinn Fein and the IRA leadership for what the dissidents feel is a ‘sell-out’. The dissidents view the peace process as an abject failure, a compromise that hasn’t delivered the Irish Republican fantasy of a 32-county Irish Republic. They want a united Ireland, but won’t engage in democratic means of achieving that. They take great psychological solace from their ‘outsider’ status, with one faction reveling in what they call a state of ‘noble isolation’.
There are some important tactical differences between the various factions, but in a nutshell, they engage in low-level terrorist tactics in an attempt to grab attention. They’re aware of their ability to carefully choreograph media attention and they commit semi-regular acts aimed at disruption (e.g. by leaving a pipe-bomb in a public place) and targeted killings. They have killed prison officers and police officers, and have increasingly threatened members of Sinn Fein. Though their ranks include former senior members of the IRA, they have attempted to recruit adolescents and young children in recent years. They are adept at social media. They engage in public displays of strength, marching and protesting, and in intelligence gathering on future potential targets. They are aware of the fact that they are heavily monitored by the security services but view this as a badge of honor, affirmation of their importance.
These dissidents are characterized by remaining a heterogeneous and divided cluster of small groups. There is always the danger, however, that a highly symbolic act of violence could serve to unify them in ways that will appear obvious only with hindsight. Entrepreneurial dissidents have made multiple attempts to form a coalition, but these have failed to gain much traction. There is a sense, however, that the forthcoming 100th anniversary of the 1916 Irish Republican rebellion may ultimately serve to focus the dissidents in ways we haven’t seen before. We should not rule out the possibility of a high profile, targeted attack in the next two years.
Nobody is overestimating the dissident Republican threat, but it would be very dangerous to underestimate them. They continue to recruit and train, and they are deeply embedded in crime, especially in the Republic of Ireland. A single successful attack (especially if the target is psychologically significant to them) could serve to unify their otherwise divided elements and re-energize their (albeit small) base of supporters. Their small size and lack of popular support should not be taken as a measure of their weakness. Instead it points to their unpredictability given their insensitivity to the broader community consensus that the dissidents are fighting a fantasy war that nobody wants. But unpredictability and insensitity to the broader public make for very dangerous conditions in the context of terrorist threat assessment. The current consensus is that the dissidents may well be infiltrated by police and intelligence agents given a fairly persistent track record of foiled and failed bomb plots in recent times. But they have often found inspiration from high visibility targeted attacks, and given that the 2016 anniversary may well be their last opportunity to prove relevant, it would be wise to keep a close eye on their efforts.
John Horgan is author of Divided We Stand: The Strategy and Psychology of Ireland’s Dissident Terrorists. He is Director of the International Center for the Study of Terrorism at the Pennsylvania State University, where he is also Associate Professor of Psychology. He is a member of the editorial boards of multiple journals, including Terrorism and Political Violence, Studies in Conflict and Terrorism, Journal of Investigative Psychology and Offender Profiling, Behavioral Science of Terrorism and Political Aggression, and Dynamics of Asymmetric Conflict. Dr. Horgan is a member of the Research Advisory Board of the FBI’s National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime (NCAVC).