Security expert Dr Dave Sloggett considers the implications of the recent spate of devices sent to British military recruitment centres and suggests that the threat from terrorism might be closer to home:
Ask senior political leader at the moment where is the main threat from terrorism in the United Kingdom and the answer will be Syria. So far this year fourteen people have been arrested for either travelling or attempting to travel to that war-torn country. This contrasts markedly with the twenty four people arrested for similar offences in the whole of 2013. Clearly as far as Syria is concerned something is going on.
Only days ago images of the first British citizen to die in a suicide bombing in Syria were blazing a trail across social media. Other pictures of those who have chosen to travel to Syria and make the ultimate sacrifice have also been circulating in all forms of the media. The back-stories of each of them show how young and impressionable they are which highlights the potential for more to follow in their wake. For western intelligence services clearly this threat poses a clear and present danger.
But is that the sole focus of the work in counter-terrorism in the United Kingdom at the moment? With senior police officers going on the record to declare that the threat has never been as serious as it is today are there surely other dimensions which are closer to home that should also be of concern.
The recent spate of low-level bomb attacks against British Army and Royal Air Force recruitment centres across various locations in southern England according to the Cabinet Office “bears all the hallmarks of Dissident Republican activity”. While the devices themselves were described as ‘crude’ they nevertheless show that some within the Dissident Republican movement have turned their sights back on the mainland of the United Kingdom. The series of attacks suggest that the Dissidents are ready to move their campaign of violence back onto the mainland in order to raise the political temperature.
These events provide a timely reminder that anyone who stereotypes the diverse and multi-dimensional terrorist threat that we face in the United Kingdom today as coming solely from Islamic terrorism is doing a disservice to many in the community.
Without doubt the Dissident Republican movement is on the move again. This is a fact that has been tacitly recognised in public statements by senior officers of the Police Service of Northern Ireland in the last few months. Any objective analysis of the activities of the Dissident Republican movement shows that since the open letter to the Guardian newspaper timed to coincide with the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games in London the security landscape in Northern Ireland has changed.
One indicator, how many Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) have been deployed in Northern Ireland in the last two years, stands out. In 2012 a total of forty-one reports in open sources appeared that explicitly mentioned IEDs. By the end of 2013 that figure had increased to sixty-nine. This is a sixty-eight percent increase in IED activity in a single year. Clearly the announcement of the formation of the so-called New IRA has had an impact on their operational capability on the ground.
Just because the Dissident Republican’s appear to be resorting to increased uses of IED does not necessarily equate to a paradigm shift in the threat they pose on the mainland of the United Kingdom. To bring terrorism back to the mainland requires a logistical infrastructure to be in place. Much of that either disappeared or became dormant at the time of the signing of the Good Friday Peace Agreement in 1998. Reawakening those contacts or creating new logistical support frameworks takes time.
The Dissidents are also struggling with recruitment on the ground in Northern Ireland. Many of those attracted into becoming involved in the movement have yet to gain the kind of operational experience that would make them suitable to be deployed on the mainland in an active cell. With the hard-line element of the Dissident Republican movement well known to the British Security Services their freedom of manoeuvre is highly restricted.
Bringing terror back to the mainland
This combination of circumstances creates a short-term problem for those in the Dissident Republican movement that seek to bring terror back to the mainland. The sending of a number of simple devices in the post simply underlines their current predicament. If they could strike on the mainland they would have done. It would have had far more impact.
But that should not mean that anyone should be complacent. It is the greatest enemy of any intelligence services, the feeling that they have the situation ‘under control’. With so many young men appearing to be drawn into the Dissident Republican movement in Northern Ireland it is a question of time before something happens involving someone who was not known to the security services.
While the focus on Syria has to remain a priority this series of letter bombs provides a timely reminder that the current security landscape has never been more complicated. In such an uncertain and unpredictable situation being prepared to deliver a resilient response when the attempts to disrupt acts of terrorism fail is crucial.