Dissident republican groups in Northern Ireland are attempting to develop new weapons that can pierce armoured vehicles and inflict multiple casualties.
Several "explosively formed penetrator devices", (EFPs), horizontal mortars similar to those used by the Taliban and others in Afghanistan and Iraq, have been discovered, the most recent in Derry last month.The finds have coincided with six weeks of simmering tensions and outbreaks of violence between loyalists and republicans over the restricted flying of the Union flag at Belfast City Hall.
In one of the worst clashes so far, 16 police officers were yesterday injured as a protest over the flag descended into rioting. Water cannon were fired into a crowd of around 1,000 and police discharged plastic bullets as they were pelted with bricks and fireworks in the east of the city. Ulster Unionist Party leaderMike Nesbitt, said: "It is high time those involved realised they are destroying the very cause they hope to promote."
The high-powered explosive in Derry was the fourth EFP found in Northern Ireland, with other devices unearthed in north Belfast and South Armagh in recent months. The weapons are designed to penetrate the armour on battle tanks, and are made with a metal plate that moulds into a rod shape as the charge behind it detonates, sending it towards its target.
The head of MI5, Jonathan Evans, said in a speech in September 2010 that the assumption three years previously was that "the residual threat from terrorism in Northern Ireland was low and likely to decline further as time went on". He added: "Sadly, that has not proved to be the case."
Last July, a new IRA coalition was formed, made up of groups including the Real IRA and Republican Action Against Drugs. Northern Ireland remains on severe alert, with a terrorist attack "highly likely".
Successful intelligence operations have thwarted the dissidents to date, thanks in part to the extra £200m that the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) chief constable Matt Baggott helped to secure from the Government to fight terrorism.
Brian Rowan, former BBC security editor in Belfast and author of How the Peace Was Won, thinks it will take time for the PSNI and MI5 to assess the capabilities of the new IRA coalition, responsible for the murder two months ago of prison officer David Black. "Recent intelligence briefings point to dissident organisations involved in relentless background activity with the aim of achieving massive casualty attacks," he said. "It is a constant battle to stay one step ahead of the dissidents."
It is understood that the weapons being modified are part of the arms cache dating back to the Libyan supply of weaponry to the Provisional IRA in the late 1980s.