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.
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.
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.
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.