"Is the IRA back?" is a question I've been asked several times in recent months. And it is not really surprising, given recent headlines such as "'IRA' claims responsibility for Londonderry car bomb," "New IRA claims 5 parcel bombs sent to London and Glasgow," and "Northern Ireland journalist killed by gunman during riot." Certainly, the New Irish Republican Army (NIRA), a group that often refers to itself as simply the Irish Republican Army, has been fairly active, reminding us all that while Republican violence along the Irish border has decreased significantly since the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, it never really ended. However, as we examine the attacks that have generated these headlines, we can see that the New IRA is not nearly as deadly and capable as its Republican predecessors the Provisional IRA (PIRA) and the Real IRA (RIRA) were.
Political violence by both Republicans and Loyalist militants will remain a lingering low-level threat in Northern Ireland. However, militants only conduct a handful of attacks each year and lack the tactical sophistication of their predecessors, who were active during the height of the Irish border conflict. And the new violence is nowhere near what the region experienced prior to the signing of the 1998 Good Friday Peace Agreement.
Car Bomb or Bomb in a Car?
During its most active period, the PIRA conducted a number of high-profile attacks, including the assassination of Lord Mountbatten in 1979 and two sophisticated assassination attempts: Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher at the Brighton Hotel with a bomb in 1984 and Prime Minister John Major and his War Cabinet with an improvised mortar attack on 10 Downing Street in 1991. Many of its other high-profile attacks involved large vehicle bombs, such as the 1990 London Stock Exchange bombing, the 1992 Baltic Exchange bombing, the 1992 Staples Corner bombing and 1996 Canary Wharf bombing.
Because of this, the use of the terms "IRA" and "car bomb" together in a news headline always catches my attention. However, the New IRA's method and capabilities simply do not match those of its predecessors. Though the New IRA has conducted a number of bombing attacks, these have generally involved pipe bombs and smaller devices. Unlike its predecessors, the New IRA has not conducted a true vehicle bombing during its existence so far. One big reason for this is the absence of explosives. As a result of the PIRA's bombing campaigns, the United Kingdom and Ireland both instituted a range of measures that made it much more difficult to obtain commercial explosives and precursor chemicals, such as ammonium nitrate and urea nitrate fertilizers, that can be used to manufacture improvised explosive mixtures. (IRA bombing campaigns of the past were also aided by weapons imported from abroad, including at least a ton of Semtex plastic explosives provided by the Libyans.)
In January, when the New IRA conducted a bombing in front of a courthouse in Londonderry, the press called the incident a "car bomb attack," but it was really just a large pipe bomb placed inside a car. There is an important difference between a vehicle-borne improvised explosive device (VBIED) — aka a car or truck bomb — and a smaller bomb placed inside a car. This distinction is necessary to accurately communicate the destruction capacity of a device and the amount of explosives required to construct it, and to convey the capabilities of a group's logistical network.
Parcel "Bombs" and Low-Level Craftsmanship
In addition to misrepresenting the New IRA's ability to build vehicle bombs, the press has also misidentified the type of attacks the group has carried out using parcels. Believe it or not, it is technically more difficult to construct an effective parcel bomb than a large vehicle bomb — provided you have access to the explosives required to make a large bomb. Crafting a device that will pass through the mail without detonation or detection, which explodes with deadly effect once it is opened, requires a great degree of skill.
But this is not what the New IRA accomplished when it carried out a parcel bomb campaign in March. The group sent four parcel bombs to three major transit hubs in England and a university in Scotland. It claimed to have sent a fifth device, but the fifth device was never recovered, suggesting it was a ploy to confuse security forces and create public panic. While the media called the devices "bombs," it appears that they were really incendiary devices that would have burned instead of detonated if they had functioned as designed. The devices were not effective in causing damage or injury, but they were very effective in generating publicity — as was the New IRA's 2014 parcel bomb campaign that targeted British military recruiting offices and a Northern Irish prison official, which also did not cause damage or injury.
While the media called the devices that the NIRA sent in March "bombs," it appears that they were really incendiary devices that would have burned instead of detonated if they had functioned as designed.
The New IRA has conducted a number of other bombing attacks involving small, crude devices, which the group members sometimes throw or plant under vehicles. But consistently, their bomb-making tradecraft is not very advanced, and the group appears to lack reliable and steady supplies of commercial explosives, military-grade high explosives and precursors for manufacturing high explosives. Instead, their bombmakers appear to be heavily reliant on small quantities of low-explosive mixtures.
Where We Are Today
This brings us to an April 18 shooting during a riot in Londonderry. The rioters were protesting a police operation to seize weapons and explosives from dissident groups in the predominantly Roman Catholic Creggan neighborhood in order to prevent Easter attacks. Dissidents and sympathizers responded by throwing objects including rocks and Molotov cocktails at the police. During the chaos, an apparently young masked man drew a handgun and fired two shots at the police, which missed their target but fatally wounded a reporter standing near them.
Sinn Fein and other high-profile Republicans quickly condemned the incident, and only the radical Saoradh Party — the political wing of the New IRA that was founded in 2016 — tried to rationalize the killing as an accident that occurred while "defending against crown forces." Most members of the general public were outraged, and the incident has turned public opinion — which was never very positive — even further against the New IRA. On March 20, the police reported arresting two men, ages 18 and 19, in connection with the shooting, and the quick arrest may have been a result of a potential shelterer choosing to become an informer.
Why History Won't Repeat Itself With the New IRA
The New IRA has never enjoyed the type of widespread popular support once given to the PIRA, and due to this fact and others, its capabilities are far more limited — as our tradecraft analysis has already suggested. The group originally sprang from the RIRA, a small collection of radicals who split from the PIRA when the latter decided to declare a cease-fire in 1994 and sign the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. Since the Good Friday Agreement, many Catholics and Protestants have desired an end to the carnage, and support for militants from both sides of the Irish border conflict has decreased significantly.
The April 18 shooting is likely to erode public support for the New IRA even further. The group continues to lose the critical human terrain that the PIRA was able to use to good advantage. Mao Zedong famously said that a guerrilla fighter should be able to move among the population like a fish moves in the sea, and the PIRA was able to use the population to hide, raise funds and help meet logistical needs. The New IRA has never enjoyed that degree of public support, so it has limited political influence, is at risk of being sold out by informers and, critically, struggles to raise funds and meet logistical needs.
The New IRA receives far less external support than its PIRA predecessors once did, as well. North Americans supported the PIRA financially and with smuggled guns, and Libya contributed literal tons of military weapons to the group. The PIRA received tradecraft training from the Soviet KGB, the East German Stasi and Palestinian master terrorists such as Abu Ibrahim at training camps in Libya, Lebanon and Yemen. In the late 1980s and early 1990s foreign support enabled the PIRA to conduct hundreds of bombings and armed assaults a year.
But since 1998, the RIRA and the New IRA have only been able to conduct a few attacks per year. Loyalist attacks are also down significantly since the height of the troubles. The New IRA must support itself not from external assistance but primarily through crimes such as extortion, robbery and tiger kidnapping. Its members buy the few guns they have through criminal channels or occasionally from people with access to old PIRA weapons caches. And other than Eastern Ukraine or perhaps Kurdish Syria, there simply are not many places where an Irish Republican militant could go to obtain quality tradecraft training today.
Ultimately, the New IRA is far more like a criminal gang that uses a veil of ideology to justify its continuing criminality than it is a true revolutionary movement. It is possible that the New IRA could improve its capabilities over time if it can survive and learn from its failures. That's why we will be carefully studying future attacks by the New IRA for signs of increasing terrorist tradecraft capability. But as of today, we can confidently say the IRA is not back.