TALIBAN-INSPIRED technology is boosting the capacity of dissident republicans to wage war against the security services, with the discovery of advanced weaponry never seen before in Northern Ireland, The Independent on Sunday can reveal.
The degree of technical sophistication is "unprecedented", and experts are warning that it is part of a worsening picture that could include a sustained bombing campaign.
Police managed to foil an attack which had been planned in South Armagh using what the Police Service for Northern Ireland (PSNI) described as two "mortar type" devices. Dissident republicans had planned to bring down a helicopter using the rocket launchers, which took army bomb disposal experts three days to examine.
In the wake of the discovery, security sources approached Democratic Unionist MP Jim Shannon with their concerns. The weaponry, found in August, was unlike anything seen in Northern Ireland before. It is understood that it could be detonated remotely using an infrared laser – a tactic used by the Taliban in Afghanistan.
"This is a different level of terrorism. When it comes to the sophistication, when it comes to the technological detail, these are things that have never been seen in Northern Ireland," said Mr Shannon.
He said the "deeply worrying" discovery confirmed that there are links between people in Afghanistan and Pakistan and those that made the bomb and mortar attack weapon in Cullyhanna.
The Northern Ireland Office, PSNI and Ministry of Defence declined to comment. But one security expert, who would not be named, said: "There is information to suggest it had an infrared detonator. There is a genuine anxiety about this."
Independent MP Patrick Mercer, a former army officer who has served in Northern Ireland, speculated last night that another possibility was that military personnel who have served in Afghanistan and Iraq may be responsible for passing on details about the technology. "I have heard about this. This is all to do with light-sensitive devices," he said. "But of course it's no more or less than the fact that they've got people coming back from Afghanistan who have served over there who are able to pass on this expertise. There are many Irishmen serving in all branches of the services. It's not unknown for loyalties to be split."
Speaking under condition of anonymity, a senior military figure who commanded troops in Northern Ireland, admitted: "It is almost inevitable that 'leakage' of military skills from 'us' to 'them' happens over time and is disturbing and definitely of concern to the hierarchy."
But it is possible that "information exchange" between dissidents and the Taliban is taking place, according to Colonel Richard Kemp, former commander of British forces in Afghanistan. "We did see in the past co-operation between Islamist extremists in the Middle East and the Provisional IRA."
Earlier this year The IoS revealed how dissidents are using armour-piercing horizontal mortars similar to those used by the Taliban.
There is a "growing sophistication in terms of capability" and the ranks of the dissidents are being swelled by former Provisional IRA members who have lost patience with the peace process, according to Professor Richard English, a terrorism expert at the University of St Andrews. He said: "Given the capacity which seems to be emerging from the dissident republicans, it would be surprising if there were not more fatalities in the near future in Northern Ireland. The conditions are there for a sustained, occasionally very lethal, republican bombing campaign."
There have been big advances in the skills of dissidents in the past few years, and they are winning support due to a strategy of low-level vigilante attacks, according to Professor Andrew Silke, director for terrorism studies at the University of East London. The threat is being "downplayed" in Britain, and "as a result people are unaware how bad it's getting and the direction it's going", he added.
Recent activity by dissidents includes an attempt to blow up a 150lb bomb in Belfast city centre last Sunday. Earlier this month, a former police officer and his 12-year-old daughter were targeted when a booby-trap bomb was placed below his car in County Down. It was one of more than a dozen attempted bombings across the province in recent weeks.
Jonathan Owen, Independent.co.uk