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THREAT ASSESSMENT: N. IRELAND TERRORISM THREAT LEVEL RAISED TO "SEVERE" AHEAD OF 25th ANNIVERSARY

TERRORISM THREAT LEVEL IN NORTHERN IRELAND RAISED TO "SEVERE" AHEAD OF 25 YEAR ANNIVERSARY OF THE GOOD FRIDAY AGREEMENT


Gabriel Helupka, Dan Flanagan, Jayde Dorland, EUCOM and Counter Threat Strategic Communications Teams

Jennifer Loy, Chief Editor

April 5, 2023


North Belfast Republican Mural[1]


Summary Security forces in Northern Ireland are monitoring potential threats from dissident republican groups. They will likely increase preparations for an attack that targets law enforcement.[2] These groups will very likely attempt to carry out an attack as the 25-year anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement approaches on April 10,[3] and the marching season begins in April lasting through August.[4] Upcoming commemoration events with foreign and domestic dignitaries in attendance will very likely become primary venue attack targets. Dissident republican groups will likely plan for future attacks using a variety of tactics, including bombings, small arms, and physical assaults on law enforcement. Recent developments in Brexit protocols have drawn criticism from citizens who oppose the amendments, likely increasing recruitment for loyalist paramilitaries. Police presence will likely increase during marching season and protests against the tradition will likely turn violent. Alternatively, it is unlikely that these groups will target Good Friday commemorations considering the potential loss of support. Threats and violence will likely persist, likely leading to increased funding for counterterrorism efforts and physical security to mitigate future attacks.

Assessments

Dissident republican groups will very likely attempt to carry out an attack as the Good Friday Agreement anniversary approaches. On March 28, 2023, the Security Service (MI5) raised the terrorism threat level in Northern Ireland from “substantial” to “severe,” indicating that an attack is “highly likely.”[5] These groups will likely surveil soft targets that commemorate the agreement and physical security features of venues, such as cameras or explosive detection devices. Dissident republican groups are organizations that did not sign the Good Friday Agreement, a peace deal to end the 30 years of violence in Northern Ireland known as the Troubles.[6] The signing of the agreement saw a split within the largest group, the Provisional Irish Republican Army (Provisional IRA), after calling for a ceasefire, leading to multiple splinter groups, including the New IRA, which continues to carry out attacks.[7] The anniversary will very likely be a motivating factor in potential attacks, likely because an attack on agreement commemorations will be symbolic and bring attention to their cause.


Dissident republican groups will likely target law enforcement near venues hosting foreign and domestic dignitaries commemorating the Good Friday Agreement. US President Joe Biden, former President Bill Clinton, current British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, and former Prime Minister Tony Blair are expected to attend commemoration events throughout mid-April.[8] Mass media coverage of these events with world leaders in attendance will very likely lead to exploitation by these groups to raise awareness of their cause and disrupt the proceedings. These groups will likely try to provoke a response from the media, very likely attempting to legitimize their message and raise their notoriety. Violent instances have occurred in the past around previous anniversaries. In April of 2022, Saoradh, a political party with suspected New IRA links, helped organize an anti-treaty parade that turned violent.[9]


Lesser known dissident republican groups will very likely use recent attacks against law enforcement by the New IRA as inspiration and guidance for future attack attempts, such as bombing police vehicles and attacking officers. The New IRA, considered the largest of the current dissident republican organizations, claimed responsibility for the shooting of a senior police officer in February 2023, a November 2022 bomb attack on a police vehicle, attacking officers with petrol bombs in April 2022, and several bombings throughout 2019 and 2021.[10] Another group, the Arm na Poblachta (Army of the Republic), stated in early March its intentions to target families of law enforcement.[11] Bombings will very likely continue as the primary attack method to target law enforcement, likely injuring civilians in the blast area as collateral. The prospect of an attack by these groups has consistently been a threat for over a decade, with MI5 setting Northern Ireland’s threat level to severe between 2010 and 2022.[12] This almost certainly highlights unresolved tensions between dissident republican groups and law enforcement. This very likely creates an opportunity for these groups to exploit fears of an attack and alarm the public by undermining institutions meant to protect citizens.


These groups will likely elaborately plan future attacks to increase success. They will likely conduct detailed surveillance of law enforcement and physical security features like cameras, foot traffic patterns, and optimal locations to stage attacks. Their known goals are to undermine the police, gather community support, and cause inconvenient disruptions in response to police-led countermeasures against them.[13] An attack on these locations will very likely cause significant travel disruptions and draw a large emergency services response. This very likely creates an opportunity for dissident republican groups to stage secondary attacks as local enforcement prioritizes a high-profile commemoration event.

In 2020, there were an estimated 12,500 members of loyalist paramilitary groups in Northern Ireland, with an estimated 7,500 people affiliated with the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) and 5,000 with the Ulster Defense Association.[14] Loyalists are pro-British paramilitaries that frequently clash with their republican counterparts.[15] The UVF has continued operations in Northern Ireland despite declaring a ceasefire in 1994. Members are accused of targeting law enforcement who investigated criminal activity, and police have seized guns and bombs from UVF members.[16] It is likely that support for these paramilitary groups has increased after the implementation of the Northern Ireland Protocol following the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement. The establishment of the protocol was to avoid the implementation of a hard border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland in the hopes of settling conflict, but its issuing was opposed by loyalists, sparking protests.[17] It is likely that mass opposition to the protocol was used as a recruitment tactic to boost the number of affiliates.


One of Northern Ireland’s points of contention concerns the annual marching season, which begins in April and continues until August, with celebrations climaxing on July 12.[18] The Orange Order, a Protestant organization, celebrates the defeat of Catholic King James II by marching through areas of Northern Ireland populated by Catholics, who oppose the tradition. Recent years have seen changes to parade routes, while other sensitive routes have an increased police presence.[19] Law enforcement will almost certainly increase patrols before and during July 12. Neighborhoods will likely see an increase in protesting the tradition, and these protests will likely result in violent altercations.


Alternatively, the New IRA and other dissident republicans are unlikely to stage an attack near or on the anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement. These groups have likely assessed the potential reactions of an attack and the loss of support as a repercussion. An attack on prominent heads of state, successful or not, would very likely lead to an increase in law enforcement operations, hindering activities. An anticipated increase in physical security measures near commemoration events will very likely reduce the chances of an attack. Instead, they will likely shift focus on conducting operations after the anniversary and into August. Instigating an attack throughout the marching season is very likely to raise terror levels within the Northern Irish population and has a roughly even chance of increasing support among sympathizers. Loyalist paramilitaries will very likely respond to republican threats and actions, causing further tensions in Northern Ireland.


Future Implications

MI5 will almost certainly maintain the threat level for the coming months, and the government will likely increase funding and training for local counterterrorism efforts. Police will likely use increased funding to leverage new technologies, including drones, to monitor events or survey suspected groups and individuals. Tensions will very likely remain high as loyalists and republican paramilitaries are likely to increase operations against law enforcement. They will almost certainly strengthen the local security posture and increase its presence during commemoration events throughout April. This presence will very likely continue as July approaches, with more officers patrolling on July 12, the day of the parades. An incremental increase in potential violence is very likely as marching season continues through August, with law enforcement remaining the primary target. Paramilitary groups are likely to increase threats of violence and carry out attacks in the coming months. Loyalist paramilitaries will likely increase operations in response to New IRA and other dissident republican activities.

 

[2] Republicans want Northern Ireland united with the Republic of Ireland. Loyalists want Northern Ireland to remain a part of England.

[3] Good Friday Agreement: What is it?, BBC News, December 2022, https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-northern-ireland-61968177

[4] Who are the Orangemen?, BBC News, July 2012, https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-northern-ireland-18769781

[5] Northern Ireland-related Terrorism threat level raised, Northern Ireland Office, March 2023, https://www.gov.uk/government/news/northern-ireland-related-terrorism-threat-level-raised

[6] What is the Good Friday Agreement and when was it signed?, Reuters, March 2023, https://www.reuters.com/world/europe/what-is-good-friday-agreement-when-was-it-signed-2023-02-23/

[7] Timeline of dissident republican activity, BBC News, March 2023, https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-northern-ireland-10866072

[8] President Joe Biden's visit to begin in Belfast on 11 April, BBC News, April 2023, https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-northern-ireland-65119033

[9] Timeline of dissident republican activity, BBC News, March 2023, https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-northern-ireland-10866072

[10] Ibid

[11] Northern Ireland terrorism threat level rises, BBC News, March 2023, https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-northern-ireland-65096493

[12] Threat level to Northern Ireland from Northern Ireland Related Terrorism lowered to SUBSTANTIAL, MI5, March 2022, https://www.mi5.gov.uk/news/threat-level-to-northern-ireland-from-northern-ireland-related-terrorism-lowered-to-substantial

[14] Loyalist paramilitary groups in NI 'have 12,500 members', BBC News, December 2020, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-northern-ireland-55151249

[15] What is the Good Friday Agreement and when was it signed?, Reuters, March 2023, https://www.reuters.com/world/europe/what-is-good-friday-agreement-when-was-it-signed-2023-02-23/

[16] East Belfast UVF: Second man accused over weapons granted bail, BBC News, December 2022, https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-northern-ireland-63839481

[17] Loyalist Shankill protest attracts approximately 3,000, police say, BBC News, June 2021, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-northern-ireland-57436996

[18] Who are the Orangemen?, BBC News, July 2012 https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-northern-ireland-18769781

[19] Ibid

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