IRA Splinter Groups: More Attacks, Better Bombs

PHOTO: A fully assembled and ready-to-fire mortarPlayABC News
WATCH Royal Wedding Terrorist Attack Concerns

Forty significant terror attacks against national security targets, including bomb blasts and shootings. More than 130 attempted bombings and 200 other incidents involving shootings, sectarian violence and threats against the police and the military.

That was Northern Ireland in 2010, not 1970.

That was the work of splinter Irish Revolutionary Army groups. It took place even as Gerry Adams, , leader of the political party associated with the old Provisional IRA, Sinn Fein, held elective office in Northern Ireland. Even as Martin McGuinness, once a military leader of the "Provos," sat as the Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland.

With national and international attention focused on Al Qaeda, little has been written or broadcast in the U.S. about the re-emergence of Irish terror, but IRA splinter groups that reject the peace process are intent on a renewed campaign of violence. Irish Republican violence has reached levels not often seen since the Troubles, a 30-year era of sectarian strife that ended with the "Good Friday" peace agreement of 1998.

British authorities admit they underestimated the Irish. As recently as 2007, they had viewed the terror groups as a violent handful with little to no political support. "At that point," said Jonathan Evans, director general of MI5, Britain's counterintelligence service, in a 2010 report, "our working assumption was that the residual threat from terrorism in Northern Ireland was low and likely to decline further as time went on and as the new constitutional arrangements there took root."

"Sadly, that has not proved to be the case," said Evans. "On the contrary, we have seen a persistent rise in terrorist activity and ambition in Northern Ireland over the last three years."

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Today, multiple British political, intelligence and law enforcement sources tell ABC News, there are about 600 members of the Real Irish Republican Army, the Continuity Irish Republican Army and other emerging splinter groups.

The threat from these newly invigorated groups led British authorities to raise the threat level from Irish-related terrorism in the U.K. from moderate to substantial.

Click Here to See Photos of 30 Years of Irish Republican Violence

Royal Wedding Weeks Away

With the royal wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton just weeks away, and an Olympics in the summer of 2012 that will be attended by hundreds of thousands, British authorities are very concerned.

ABC News has learned that British officials have concrete intelligence that the terrorists want a strike in London in order to show their strength.

While there is no evidence that they seek an attack on the Royal Family, there is evidence that some members of the terror groups are inside England. And while British authorities don't think them capable of a sustained terror campaign, they do rate them capable of attacks.

In Ireland, bomb attacks and shootings attributed to them in the past two years have killed soldiers and police officers.

The newest wave of violence began with the March 2009 attack on a British Army barracks in Northern Ireland that killed two soldiers. The Real IRA claimed credit for the deadliest Irish Republican attack in more than a decade. Just two days later, the Continuity IRA took credit for the shooting death of a police officer in Craigavon.

Earlier this month, authorities blamed Irish Republican dissidents for the assassination by car bomb of a 25-year-old Catholic police officer in Northern Ireland.

The abilities of a few hundred terrorists, however, are a far cry from the estimated 10,000 soldiers that passed through the IRA at the height of the Troubles, and the violence is unlikely ever to rise to pre-1998 levels. With Libya providing arms and explosives, the IRA was a force to be reckoned with, and at least 3,000 people, including police officers, soldiers, militants and civilians, died in the violence.

To give an idea of its former strength, when the Provisional IRA decommissioned its arsenal in 2005, published reports listed its armory as including 1,000 rifles, three tons of Semtex plastic explosive, more than 20 heavy machine guns, flamethrowers, shoulder-fired missiles, rocket-propelled grenade launchers and plain old handguns.

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The British threw heavily armed troops, commandos, and counter-terror teams at the IRA, deploying forces in both Northern Ireland and the rest of the U.K. There were as many as 17 separate explosive ordinance teams operating in the North alone.

British Authorities Respond to Terror Threat

But despite a terrorist operational tempo that has escalated from 22 successful bomb blasts in 2009 and 40 attacks in 2010, the explosives ordnance teams in Northern Ireland are now hard-pressed to keep up. In recent months, there were just two teams operating. In one instance, the British had to send a single technician to defuse a bomb, a heroic gesture not seen since the Blitz.

MI5 assumed responsibility for British national security intelligence efforts in Northern Ireland in 2007, and in the past 18 months has had to quickly redeploy assets from the already thinly stretched teams investigating terror from within the U.K.'s Muslim population, including Al Qaeda-linked cells based in London

The security service and police have executed hundreds of raids in an effort to stymie attacks from the thousands of primarily U.K.-born Islamist terrorists, according to a document leaked to the British press in March 2011.

Now a stepped up pace of raids and investigations is underway against the Irish terrorists. Yet persons familiar with both the current splinter groups and the traditional IRA say that the current groups' capabilities are exaggerated by British counterintelligence and Irish authorities and that the members cannot operate outside of Northern Ireland. "All they are capable of is getting arrested," one official told ABC News.

But the troubling news continues to mount. The bombs are becoming more sophisticated, including a new style of mortar seized recently that can launch an explosive device more than 300 yards.

There is also evidence that all that is old is new again. Youths lured by the romance of terror and too young to recall the violence and long prison sentences of the Troubles may be linking up with the terror groups -- but so, apparently, are some older members of the traditional IRA who remember the Troubles but remain committed to armed revolution.

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In one instance, the charge placed inside a large fertilizer-based bomb had a powder so pure it could only have been derived from Semtex of the kind that came out of Libya in the 1980s. Indications are that it came from a stash that had been put aside by the Provisional IRA before the process of disarmament that was supposed to lead to a lasting peace.

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