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Sunday, 4 March, 2001, 13:46 GMT
Dissident republicans: Terror threat
Explosives found in Belfast
Terror tactic: home-made explosives
The bomb attack at the BBC is yet another indication of the threat posed by Irish republicans opposed to the peace process.

At their most brutal in August 1998 they carried out the worst single atrocity of over thirty years of violence in Northern Ireland when they bombed Omagh killing 29 people.

That attack caused such a backlash, even among republicans, that for a time it seemed possible that the threat from dissident groups would fade away.

But uncertainty over the peace process, and anger over the speed of reforms following the Good Friday Agreement, have given renewed vigour to those opposed to the peace process.

Clear danger

Mainstream republicans once considered the splinter groups to be amateurish malcontents, but security chiefs in Northern Ireland and Britain say they pose a clear danger.

The leading dissident group is the so-called "Real" IRA, which was blamed for the Omagh bombing.

Dissident attacks: Northern Ireland
Feb 2000: County Fermanagh hotel bombed
March 2000: 500lb bomb intercepted
April 2000: Mortar attack on RUC
May 2000: Mortar attack on army
Nov 2000: Booby-trap car bomb defused
Jan 2001: Mortar attack on army
Jan 2001: 1,100lb Armagh bomb found

It was born out of a republican split in October 1997 when the IRA's then quartermaster-general resigned over the direction Sinn Fein was taking in the peace process.

It quickly took over from the older Continuity IRA as the leading home for dissidents, although there seems to be a overlap in membership between the two groups.

The Real IRA's followers, thought to number at least 100, are believed to include IRA members who have been frustrated by the standing-down of operations.

In recent years it has proved that it has access to some IRA arms dumps and semtex explosives.

Leading IRA bomb-makers are believed to be among its members.

Pattern of attacks

Security chiefs in Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic have been closely monitoring the dissidents as a pattern of attacks built up.

Attacks in last year
28 explosions, booby-traps, shootings and arms finds in Northern Ireland
5 attacks in London (some suspected)
The Real IRA declared a ceasefire after the outcry over Omagh, but its town centre bombings soon resumed.

It then started a campaign of so-called barrack buster attacks on military and police bases.

The large mortars - some of which are crude and inaccurate, but all potentially deadly - have been fired at several bases in Armagh, Tyrone and Londonderry.

Dissident attacks: London
June 2000: Hammersmith Bridge
July 2000: Ealing Broadway
Sept 2000: M16 (Suspected, no warning given)
Mar 2001: BBC Television Centre
During the last 12 months the dissidents have ratcheted up their campaign.

They have been responsible for a total of 28 explosions, booby-traps, shootings and arms and explosives finds in Northern Ireland, and have been blamed for five attacks in London, in the last year.

While they pose a limited but not insignificant threat to the peace process, the security forces have been successful in the intelligence battle against the dissidents. Despite this it is clear that these groups are becoming increasingly sophisticated.

The attacks in Northern Ireland are designed to chip away at unionist and nationalist faith that the peace process can create a normal, peaceful society.

The dissidents are also trying to put pressure on mainstream republicans not to give concessions in the peace process.

The hardline republican 32 County Sovereignty movement has already made it clear that it intends to mirror the challenge the dissidents are making to the IRA, at the polls in the forthcoming local government elections.

High profile

But it is clear the dissident republicans are now seeking more high profile targets on in Britain of the kind chosen by the IRA at the height of its bombing campaign.

During the Troubles, the IRA set the precedent that bombing Britain was the best way to get attention, and it chose London Docklands as the most graphic proof that it was breaking its ceasefire over discontent with the peace process in 1996.

Hammersmith Bridge: Real IRA target
Hammersmith Bridge: Real IRA target
In June last year the Real IRA launched its first attack in London when it bombed Hammersmith Bridge.

A month later a device was left on a railway line near Ealing Broadway in west London.

It was also suspected of carrying out a rocket attack on the MI6 spy headquarters in central London in September last year.

The attacks in London appear to indicate that the Real IRA is seeking to score propaganda and publicity coups by bringing large parts of the city to a halt.

Covert units

But more importantly, the attacks add credence to fears that the Real IRA has successfully replicated the IRA's highly disciplined "active service units".

The units, comprising of just a handful of members living apparently ordinary lives, were designed to allow the IRA to leave operatives in London and elsewhere for long periods of time without exposing themselves to capture.

In security terms, operations planned and executed by an active service unit were generally far harder to stop than bombing operations planned and run from across the Irish Sea.

The Provisional IRA has always been a skilled procurer of arms and the Real IRA appears be no less proficient.

It appears to be turning to Eastern Europe for weapons.

In July last year security services apprehended a major arms shipment in Croatia which they believed was heading for Northern Ireland.

The find was reported to include heavy machine guns, rocket-propelled grenades, plastic explosives and anti-tank weapons.

Weapons similar to those found in Croatia were intercepted in County Meath in the Irish Republic in October 1999.

The BBC's Mark Devenport
"The group... remains as ruthless and dangerous as ever"
See also:

13 Mar 00 | Northern Ireland
Omagh bombers 'may never be tried'
15 Feb 00 | Northern Ireland
Plea to PM over bomb atrocity
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