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Could IRA splinter groups bring back Northern Ireland's Troubles?

IRA splinter groups like the Continuity IRA have stepped up attacks in Northern Ireland. While they have a hard core and cause some mayhem, they are unlikely to spark a broader conflict.

By Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / October 23, 2009

A police forensic officer examines the scene of a car bomb in east Belfast, Northern Ireland, Oct. 16. Members of an IRA splinter group tried to kill a Belfast police officer by planting a bomb under his car, but the small blast instead slightly injured a relative, authorities said.

Peter Morrison/AP/FILE

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Dublin

This year, Northern Ireland has witnessed a resurgence of militant activity by Irish Republican Army splinter groups like the so-called Real IRA and Continuity IRA, most notably the killing of two British soldiers at Masserene Barracks in County Antrim in March.

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Since then, bomb threats have been occurring on an almost weekly basis and security has been stepped-up in the north as a result. This week, a bomb detonated at an Army reserve base in North Belfast, though there were no injuries. Last week a car bomb went off in Belfast, injuring one.

Though the bombings have generated few casualties so far – and many have been identified and safely handled before they could go off – some in Northern Ireland fear that a bloody campaign is in the offing by militants who felt betrayed by the 2005 decision of the mainline Provisional IRA to give its up guns.

But analysts and police say that while there is clearly a hard core of militants with the ability and motivation to carry out attacks, few Roman Catholics in the north – even ones who would like to be united with the rest of Ireland – will back a new armed campaign,

Authorities say that a fair degree of planning has gone in to some of the recent attacks. The Belfast car bombing was carried out in the constituency of Northern Ireland's first minister Peter Robinson, of the hardline pro-British Democratic Unionist Party, and officials say the attackers had a strong knowledge of the area.

"The Army have confirmed that this device was designed to cause death or serious injury. In fact, had the person possibly been sitting in the passenger side of the car, we probably would be talking about a fatality here," Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) local commander, Chief Superintendent Brian Maguire told the press.

Counterterrorism analyst Andy Oppenheimer, author of "IRA – The Bombs and the Bullets: A History of Deadly Ingenuity," and a former editor for defense publisher Jane's, says republican microgroups are potentially a serious threat.

Capable bombers

"The car bomb used was sophisticated. The explosive device used appears to have been an under-vehicle booby trap that used something like a mercury tilt switch," says Mr. Oppenheimer. "This indicates that they have a lot of technical capability.

"The car was a soft-top, so the explosion dissipated," says Oppenheimer. "Had it been an ordinary car, there may have been deaths – the bomb was apparently heard over a mile away."

Police in Northern Ireland have expressed concern that membership in the dissident groups numbers several hundred, and that they have turned to organized crime to fund their military campaigns.

PSNI Deputy Chief Constable Judith Gillespie says many people formerly involved in attacks were now using old gun-running routes for contraband. She says dissidents were continuing to engage in for-profit crime to fund terrorism, and that joint operations by police on both sides of the Irish border were trying to combat this activity.

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