"On the one hand, you have people with political differences with the mainstream republican family, who do not support the peace process," says Ben Tonra, director of the Dublin European Institute. "On the other, on a personal and individual level, you have pathological individuals linked to terrorist groups who by nature are not nice people."
Getting Back at Britain
In the long bloody years since "the Troubles" peaked during the 1970s and '80s, both sides of the sectarian divide have fostered an unknown number of highly skilled, well-trained "fighters for the cause."
As Northern Ireland, with its grim images of barbed wire-topped walls and watchtowers glaring over the shattered ruins of bomb attacks became a metaphor for sectarian strife, a generation of young men — and women — found themselves joining the IRA.
At the height of the Troubles, one of the key supporters of the IRA was Libyan President Col. Muammar Qaddafi, who assisted the organization with cash, arms and training in camps across the North African nation.
"It was Qaddafi's way of getting back at Britain," says Eunan O'Halpin, professor of modern history at the Dublin-based Trinity College. "There were, for example, large consignments of Semtex [explosives] shipped from Libya to the U.K. and around 1987, French customs intercepted a hundreds of tons of arms bound for the IRA."
But in the 1990s, in a bid to reach out to the West, Qaddafi handed over to Britain a list of his contacts with IRA leaders and details of the arms supplied by Libya.
Foot Soldiers With Nothing to Do
Beyond the Libyan connection, O'Halpin says the IRA's links in the Middle East were extensive during the '70s and '80s, with IRA fighters training with militants of myriad groups in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley.
They formed the basis, experts say, of links between the IRA and several Middle East-based groups, including Palestinian militant organizations.
Although the mid-1990s saw attempts by republicans and loyalists to come to the peace table, experts say paramilitary groups on both sides of the sectarian divide have had a spotty record of abandoning bullets for the ballots.
"There are strong suggestions that what the IRA is doing is selling its expertise to other groups," says O'Halpin. "It's not simply a matter of fraternal ties with groups. They've got a lot of expertise and you've got a situation where there are a lot of semi-retired foot soldiers and technicians with nothing to do."
Personal Favors to Repay
Transitioning from "freedom fighters" to ordinary citizens with regular jobs has proved difficult for many.
"It takes as long to build peace as to fight a war," says Avila Kilmurray, director of the Community Foundation for Northern Ireland, a Belfast-based organization aimed at building sectarian peace. "It can't be left to the politicians. To build peace you have to build the rest of society. Peace-building does not take place without risks. There's always a risk that groups will fall back into violence."
With links to several militant groups across the world, including the Spanish ETA — Euzkadi Ta Askatasuna in the Basque language — and Sri Lanka's Tamil Tigers, experts says exchanges of expertise in return for arms and cash — including narco-dollars — continue on an individual basis.