Britain raises terror threat from Irish militants, says attack is a strong possibility

Friday, September 24, 2010

UK raises terror alert due to Irish dissidents

LONDON — Britain raised the terror threat level from groups in Northern Ireland on Friday, the first such change since a wave of new attacks in the territory and fresh threats from groups who say they plan to attack England.

The level has changed from “moderate” to “substantial” — the middle rung on the five-point threat scale, which means the threat has risen to a point where an attack is a strong possibility. The threat from international terrorism, which is ranked on a separate scale, stands at severe, meaning an attack is considered highly likely.

The highest level is “critical” — meaning an attack is imminent.

The government has never before released the threat assessment to mainland Britain from groups in Northern Ireland — either dissident republicans or unionists.

Northern Ireland’s main Catholic and Protestant paramilitary groups have disarmed since a 1998 peace accord that brought a power-sharing government and ended almost 30 years of violence. But Irish Republican Army splinter groups have recently stepped up attacks inside the province. Several people have been injured.

“We’re putting more resources on this because of the increased activity,” said a British government official who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of his work. “There is certainly the perception that the threat has escalated.”

The threat level change comes shortly before two political party conferences — the Labour Party’s conference in Manchester on Saturday, and the Conservative Party’s October conference in Birmingham.

In 1984, then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher escaped an attempt on her life when an Irish Republican Army bomb exploded at her hotel during that year’s Conservative Party conference. Five people were killed, and more than 30 injured.

Last week the head of the MI5 spy agency warned that dissidents who reject Northern Ireland’s peace process could strike mainland British cities for the first time since 2001.

Jonathan Evans said Irish republican splinter groups, who favor separation from Britain in favor of joining the Republic of Ireland, have access to weapons, including Semtex explosives, and funds from smuggling and drug trafficking.

Earlier this month, The Guardian newspaper quoted the dissident Real IRA group as saying it planned attacks in England and would focus on banks.

Republican dissidents last made a successful attack in England in August 2001, exploding a car bomb near a shopping center in west London, injuring 11 people.

In March 2009, IRA dissidents shot to death two off-duty British soldiers collecting pizzas and a policeman sitting in his car.

Dissidents also committed the deadliest attack of the entire Northern Ireland conflict, the August 1998 car-bomb attack on the town of Omagh that killed 29 people, mostly women and children.

Evans said dissidents had mounted or attempted 30 attacks this year in Northern Ireland — including a car bombing at MI5’s base in the region, which caused no serious injuries — an increase from 20 attacks last year.

Home Secretary Theresa May said announcing the threat level change was “in the interests of transparency and to encourage people to remain vigilant.”

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