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Claiming of package bombs by IRA underscores increase in Northern Ireland tensions around Brexit – UK Analysis

Written and edited by Ollie Wiltshire

Executive Summary

On March 5, three suspicious packages were found at three separate locations in London, including City Airport (LCY), Heathrow Airport (LHR), and Waterloo Station, and one at Glasgow University.

A claim was made taking responsibility for five devices (one of which has yet to be uncovered), on behalf of a group referring to themselves as the Irish Republican Army.

Actions from the new IRA  will increase frictions in Northern Ireland and cause further disruptions in Great Britain, with additional incendiary devices and false alarms.

Although the Brexit vote brought about new tensions surrounding Northern Ireland, the security landscape is in such a position that a  resurgence of “the Troubles” seems unlikely.

Take additional security measures with regards to screening mail sent to private and work facilities.

Current Situation

On March 5, three suspicious packages were found at three separate locations in London. At approximately 09:55 (local time), a package was found at The Compass Centre, an office building on the grounds of London’s Heathrow Airport (LHR). The package was opened by the staff within the building, causing the device to ignite and burn part of the package. The building was evacuated and no one injured. Specialist police officers arrived to inspect and safely dispose of the device. Despite the fact that the building was evacuated, the incident did not affect operations at the airport.

Police said that the device would have been capable of lighting an initially small fire. The devices were sent in A4-sized postal bags, which contained yellow padded envelopes.

On the same day, at around 11:40 (local time), a second package with an incendiary device was found in the postal room at London’s Waterloo Station. The package was not opened and specialist officers disposed of the device. The station was not evacuated, but the area around the location where the device was uncovered was cordoned off. Operations were not affected.

Later on March 5, a third similar package was found around 12:10 (local time) at the offices in City Aviation House, in London’s City Airport (LCY). The building was evacuated and no one was injured.

The next day, on March 6, a suspicious package was found at the University of Glasgow. The device was posted to a British Army recruitment office on campus. The package was not opened, however, various buildings at the university were evacuated.

Later in the day, Officers from the Met’s Counter Terrorism Command linked the three devices found in London to the one found at the University of Glasgow, based on subtleties and similarities in markings and the types of device. It was subsequently announced that security forces suspected factions of Northern Irish republicans to be behind the incidents.

On March 11, a claim was made through a media outlet in Northern Ireland, taking responsibility for five devices (one of which has yet to be uncovered), on behalf of a group referring to themselves as the Irish Republican Army (IRA). The claim used a number of codewords recognized by security forces as being traditionally linked to the IRA and dissident republican factions.

On March 14, the trial of a former British soldier began in Northern Ireland. The former-soldier was charged for two murders during the 1972 “Bloody Sunday” protest, in which 13 unarmed Catholic civil rights marchers in Londonderry (locally referred to as Derry) were killed by British paratroopers.

Background

More than 10 militant incidents, including attacks, threats, and arrests, were reported in Northern Ireland since the beginning of 2017. These include an incident on January 19, when a car bomb was detonated outside a courthouse in Londonderry (Derry). Following the incident, two individuals were arrested, thought to be linked to the IRA.

Tensions between the Republic of Ireland, the UK, Republican factions within Northern Ireland, and their Unionist counterparts have significantly increased in recent years following the referendum on the UK’s decision to leave the European Union. Particularly, the matter of the “Irish backstop” has caused a number of issues. The backstop was planned as an EU plan to guarantee that there would never be a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, however, pro-Brexit Members of Parliament see it as leaving the UK in a potentially indefinite customs union with the EU. More broadly the issue of the position of Northern Ireland following Brexit has been highly contentious with the majority of Catholic Republicans voting to remain in the EU and majority of Protestant Unionists voting to leave.

Assessments & Forecast

Assessments: New IRA to increase friction in Northern Ireland, cause further disruptions in Great Britain

Despite the fact that the packages sent at the beginning of March appear to have come as part of a coordinated plan to disrupt and cause harm at major targets within the UK, they do not necessarily indicate that the group behind them has particularly sophisticated capabilities. The devices themselves do not seem to have been well made or successful, as evidenced by only one partially detonating. With this, it is likely that the group behind the attacks do not pose a significant threat to the safety of security of businesses and citizens in Great Britain. Furthermore, there is no indication that the group who sent the packages are of any considerable size or have a robust organizational structure as a militant faction, let alone have the capabilities of the former IRA. That said, the incident is highly noteworthy for two main reasons.

First, it is both indicative of rising tensions in Northern Ireland and has the potential to further increase fears of an IRA resurgence in the country. Fears among Protestant communities will likely increase, potentially causing sectarian gangs to attempt to arm themselves and carry out rival attacks. The majority of such attacks are liable to take place in major cities such as Belfast and Londonderry (Derry). FORECAST: In the immediate term, such violence is likely to come in the form of stabbings, small shooting attacks (targeting buildings more than people), and small IED attacks. The death toll is initially not expected to be high. That said, all of the above will catalyze tensions and build on a cycle of violence which could escalate.

Second, the disruptions which were witnessed in Great Britain may encourage other dissident Irish groups, or other unrelated militant groups, to look to carry out similar attacks with the intention of shutting down major airports or transportation hubs.
FORECAST: With that in mind, additional IED attempts, package bombs, or bomb threats are liable to continue in 2019, increasing tensions and fears within Great Britain.

 

Assessment: Although Brexit vote brought about new tensions, security landscape unlikely to see resurgence of “Troubles”

The increase in incidents since the Brexit referendum on June 23, 2016, has clearly shown that the underlying religious and political currents that led to the decades of fighting up until the 1990s have not completely dissipated. On the contrary, to some extent, they have the potential to reemerge, potentially bringing about the worst violence in Northern Ireland since the Good Friday Agreement signed in 1998, which brought about peace in the region. In addition, the issues, such as the trial of the British soldier over the “Bloody Sunday” incident, have the potential to add to the existing frictions.

FORECAST: However, it is important to note that the security and political landscape in the UK has significantly changed since 1998 and has done so in such a way that a return to a similar situation as “the Troubles” is highly unlikely. For one thing, within Northern Ireland, there has been almost a whole generation who have come of age since the end of the violence, many of whom will have far less intense memories and feelings of aggression over Northern Ireland’s history. In addition, IRA supporters in the Republic of Ireland, as well as in the USA, are far less likely to take an active role in aiding the organization in attacking the UK, as occurred during “the Troubles”. Thus, the IRA is likely to be far less well-armed, far less socially accepted, and far more underground. Finally, since the end of the “the Troubles”, the UK took drastic steps to upgrade its security and anti-terrorism infrastructure, mostly due to the then-new threat of Islamist militancy. This means that the new IRA would be not only building itself to fight against decades of institutional memory on Northern Irish militancy but also many years of continuous training and expertise obtained while the UK defended itself against jihad.

Recommendations

  1. Travel and operations in the UK can continue while remaining aware of underlying threats and disruptions caused by militancy.
  2. Take additional security measures with regards to screening mail sent to private and work facilities. When screening posts for suspicious items, look out for the following: Oil stains on the envelope, too many stamps, unknown/unfamiliar sender, recipient not expecting the letter, typos/spelling mistakes, non-standard envelope, envelope within an envelope, no postal authority stamp.
  3. Immediately alert authorities of any suspicious behavior or items.

Far-right militant threat reflected in September 2018 arrest data; risk to immigrant communities, anti-Brexit figures to increase – UK Analysis

Executive Summary

Statistics demonstrate that the number of attempted militant attacks from far-right groups has significantly risen in recent years.

Since the Brexit vote, far-right militancy has been catalyzed by the polarization of British politics and a concurrent increase in Islamist militancy.

Nationalist rhetoric is expected to continue to manifest in an increased risk of attacks on minorities, as well as those seen as liberal or against Brexit.

Travel to the UK may continue going forward while remaining cognizant of the risks emanating from far-right militancy.

Please be advised

Statistics released by the UK Home Office in September demonstrate the increasing militant risk emanating from within the far-right. Since the assassination of anti-Brexit Labour Member of Parliament (MP) Jo Cox in 2016, the proportion of those arrested for militant-related charges who are considered ‘white’ has risen significantly. According to the Home Office report, white suspects constitute 38% of all those arrested on such charges in 2017, ahead of ethnically South Asian (referred to un the UK as Asian) suspects for the first time since the institution of the 2000 Terrorism Act.

In 2016, the far-right, allegedly neo-Nazi National Action group was officially banned under the Terrorism Act, the first group of its kind to face such action in over 70 years. The group is reported to have continued operations and is believed to have between 60-100 active members nationwide. Members of the group reportedly supported the murder of Jo Cox, sent threatening messages to LGBT and Jewish figures, including MPs, and held small-scale demonstrations in several cities in the UK before the 2016 ban. A member of National Action admitted to having planned to kill Labour MP Rosie Cooper with a machete in the summer of 2017, while in September 2018, three individuals from the Midlands were charged for their membership in National Action.

Notable Incidents

Three people were injured after a deliberate car collision near the al-Majlis al-Hussaini center in Cricklewood, North London during the overnight hours of September 18-19. The collision occurred following verbal altercations between the occupants of the car and a large group of people visiting the center. The assailants were consuming alcohol in the car park of the center and reacted belligerently when requested to stop by visitors.

Security forces arrested two 15-year-olds in Ramsgate, Kent on the south-eastern coast on September 20 in relation to an ongoing investigation into a possible far-right inspired militant attack, although police sources stated there was no imminent threat.

In March 2018, a number of Muslim MPs, businesses, and individuals were sent letters threatening attacks on April 3, deemed ‘Punish a Muslim Day’, however, no attacks were reported to have manifested on the day.

In February 2018 police arrested an alleged white supremacist on suspicion of planning to attack an LGBT+ event with a machete in the northwestern town of Barrow.

Assessments & Forecast

Since Brexit vote, far-right militancy has been catalyzed by the polarization of British politics and concurrent increase in Islamist militancy

The vote on the UK’s future in the EU in 2016 increased political factionalism, decreasing the emphasis on centrist politics which had continued for almost two decades, increasing nationalist sentiments and energizing elements of the far-right. The following years have witnessed persistent anti-migrant and anti-non-white rhetoric within far-right propaganda. This rhetoric has been coupled with an envisioning of opposition to Brexit as tantamount to treachery by such groups, with online abuse and threats against liberal, left-wing, and anti-Brexit figures significantly increased after the vote. The threat from such rhetoric was highlighted by the February 2018 in Barrow.

This rhetoric has supposedly exacerbated sentiments of disenfranchisement and alienation among the Muslim community, increasing the potential pool for recruitment and radicalization by Islamist groups and by individuals accessing online materials. This came alongside a series of militant attacks between March-June 2017, including the suicide bombing in a Manchester arena, a ‘lone-wolf’ vehicular and stabbing attack near Parliament in London, and the coordinated stabbing and vehicular attack that took place near London Bridge.

As demonstrated by the vehicular attack on a mosque in Finsbury Park, London shortly after the London Bridge attacks, the Islamist inspired attacks further heightened anti-Muslim, far-right sentiments and support. Thus, these incidents underscored the cycle of far-right and Islamist related militancy, with both influencing and exacerbating one another.

Expected continuation of nationalist rhetoric to manifest in increased risk of attacks on minorities, as well as those seen as liberal or against Brexit

FORECAST: Given ongoing political tensions surrounding Brexit, as well as the recent arrest of high-profile nationalist figure Tommy Robinson, it is plausible that nationalist and far-right sentiments and support will continue to grow, at least in the medium term. Other factors liable to augment such sentiments include the far-left policies of the opposition Labour Party, perceived snubbing of British interests by the EU in Brexit negotiations, and right-wing rhetoric from foreign sources, such as US President Donald Trump and European leaders, such as Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban.

It is therefore likely that the recent trend in increased far-right and white supremacist motivated militant-related activity will continue. Radicalized individuals and groups are liable to plan attacks on high-profile figures, organizations, and groups perceived to be pro-immigration, anti-Brexit, or related to an ethnic or religious community. As demonstrated by the planned attack in Barrow, they may also target groups which they perceive to be against traditional values, such as the LGBT+ community.

Based on precedent, these attacks are likely to remain rudimentary, with regards to their modus operandi; stabbing, physical assault, and vehicular rammings are the preferred methods of attack among far-right militants. That said, further intimidation campaigns, such as the ‘Punish a Muslim Day’ for example, may also be launched, in addition to trends like the recent trend of sending harmless white powder to high-profile individuals and community centers. While there have been reports of individuals attempting to access or assemble explosives, given the difficulty of obtaining or manufacturing such devices, they pose a lesser risk than the more low-sophistication methods mentioned above.

Recommendations

Travel to the UK may continue going forward while remaining cognizant of the risks emanating from far-right militancy.

Organizations related to ethnic or religious minority groups or the LGBT+ community are advised to maintain heightened vigilance and take precautionary measures to mitigate such risks.

Alert authorities immediately if suspicious behavior or items are witnessed.