Published April 16, 2012
BELFAST, Northern Ireland – When the flame of peace comes to Northern Ireland this summer, police will face an Olympic task to ensure that IRA die-hards don't try to blow it out.
The Olympic Torch will spend five June days traveling through 67 cities, towns and villages throughout this long-divided corner of the United Kingdom. The flame's ambitious course into predominantly British Protestant and Irish Catholic turf should offer a poignant measure of how far Northern Ireland has traveled down its own road to reconciliation.
Irish Republican Army dissidents are committed to shattering that image and, experts agree, are bound to see the Olympics as an unprecedented opportunity to advertise their defiant existence.
"I'd be very surprised if the dissidents don't try something during the Olympics. Putting a small bomb anywhere near an Olympic venue would put them on every front page in the world," said Richard English, director of the Center for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.
English said leaders of today's three main IRA splinter groups are desperate to be taken seriously in an age when Northern Ireland peacemaking is seen worldwide as a triumph following the 2005 demise of the long-dominant IRA faction, the Provisionals. He said the Olympic torch will present the first, easiest target.
"Anything in Ireland is easier for the dissidents to hit. And the torch is a target that just carries on and on and on, its course choreographed far in advance. So it's a nightmare logistically for the police," he said.
A security think tank offering advice to British companies for the Olympics, the SIRS Consultancy, says the Olympic flame's June 3-7 procession through Northern Ireland has been recklessly timed.
The Northern Ireland leg will coincide with celebrations marking the Diamond Jubilee, the 60th anniversary of Queen Elizabeth II's ascent to the throne. The U.K. has made that weekend a four-day holiday capped by the queen's June 4 birthday. Northern Ireland police expect heightened tensions between the Protestant majority, which will celebrate the jubilee, and the Catholic minority, which won't.
SIRS noted that the flame will spend parts of two days in Londonderry, a focal point for recent dissident attacks, and visit several Irish republican districts from Belfast to the border town of Newry. It also will travel through Omagh, scene of the Real IRA's 1998 car-bomb slaughter, which killed 29 people, mostly women and children.
"Whilst it is of course essential to involve Northern Ireland in the U.K.'s Olympic Games," SIRS said in a statement, "routing the torch procession though the most insecure areas of the country during the queen's Diamond Jubilee presents a needless security risk."
IRA experts say disrupting the torch's Irish travels could well be an opening act. They say police must be braced for the dissidents to attempt to plant at least one bomb in England — where no IRA faction has exploded a device since before the 9/11 attacks — at some point during the July 27-Aug. 12 London Olympics, chiefly because tens of thousands of foreign journalists will be there.
"Most of the world has forgotten these new IRAs even exist, so it would be in their publicity interests to use the Olympics as a platform," English said.
Dissidents from the Real IRA faction last attacked the British capital in August 2001, when a midnight car bomb in a West London nightspot wounded 11 people. Over the previous year the Real IRA had car-bombed a BBC building, bombed a bridge spanning the River Thames and fired a Russian anti-tank rocket at the headquarters of Britain's foreign spy agency, MI6.
Experts say the IRA dissidents' failure to attack London since then reflects the British security forces' heightened powers and resources following al-Qaida's 9/11 attacks on the United States in 2001 and on the London transport system in 2005.
Britain's domestic spy agency MI5 in 2007 took charge of anti-IRA surveillance in Northern Ireland, operating from a British Army base east of Belfast with a reported staff of 300.
"I suspect there are more members of MI5 in Northern Ireland today than there are members of dissident republican movements," said Kevin Toolis, author of "Rebel Hearts," a study of the Provisional IRA.
Toolis doubted whether today's three principal factions — the Continuity IRA, Real IRA and Oglaigh na hEireann, Gaelic for "warriors of Ireland" — can attack England, given British surveillance and infiltration of their relatively puny ranks.
"It's clear that British Army intelligence and MI5 were very successful in penetrating the upper echelons of the (Provisional) IRA, and they've cracked the dissident groups too," Toolis said. "If there's three men in a room trying to organize an attack, they can't be confident one of them won't phone up their MI5 handlers five minutes later."
Tom Clonan, a security analyst and former Irish army captain, said IRA dissidents would see an Olympics-linked attack as a powerful way to embarrass Britain.
"The dissidents have already demonstrated they're mad and bad enough to want to target Britain," Clonan said. "If they end up doing nothing during the Olympics, or just phoning in threats with nothing real behind them, it would show that they're being surveilled within an inch of their life."
The U.K.'s Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre in London currently rates the likelihood of an attack in Britain by IRA splinter groups or al-Qaida both as "substantial," meaning an attack from either source is a strong possibility. It puts the risk of dissident IRA attacks in Northern Ireland at the higher level of "severe," meaning highly likely.
At an April 9 ceremony in a Londonderry cemetery, a masked Real IRA member told supporters the group would keep attacking police and British soldiers and "their installations, as well as British interests and infrastructure." The person didn't specify any threat to the Olympics.
An Irish anti-terrorist officer said two Oglaigh na hEireann operatives were trailed from the Irish border to London in early 2011, where they met supporters and saw several Olympics-connected sites as tourists.
The officer, who spoke to the AP on condition he not be identified because he wasn't authorized to speak to the media, said it was not clear if the dissidents were scouting Olympics sites, because their trip also preceded the April 2011 royal wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton. The officer said the two men remain under surveillance back home.
The experts are unanimous on one key point: If any dissident IRA group does plant a bomb near the torch route or an Olympic facility, it will be to generate panic and headlines, not civilian deaths.
That means the use of telephoned warnings using recognized code words. The Provisional IRA already has demonstrated how much chaos can be caused by this tactic.
In 1997, the group used bomb threats to force 70,000 to evacuate Britain's biggest horseracing and gambling event, the Grand National. Extensive, fruitless searches for a bomb meant it took two days to relaunch the race.
But bitter experience shows that phone calls don't always work. Too often, the telephoned warnings are vague or delivered in thick rural Irish accents. Both problems meant that in Omagh, police unwittingly evacuated crowds into the bomb's path.
The homemade bombs by dissident IRA groups also are often flawed. Many are duds and some explode sooner than intended.
"The dissidents aren't in the business of planting no-warning bombs against civilian targets," said English, contrasting their behavior with that of al-Qaida militants. "But the worrying fact is, they are not as technically able as the Provisionals were. And that incompetence can make you more lethal."
Editor's note: Shawn Pogatchnik has covered Northern Ireland for The Associated Press since 1991.