This period has seen a series of explosive packages sent to armed forces recruitment offices across the South of England. The campaign began on 11 February when devices were received at Armed Forces Careers Offices (AFCOs) in Reading and Chatham, prompting bomb disposal units to be called. A third package was received in the AFCO in Aldershot on 12 February, and four further packages were received in AFCO offices in Oxford, Canterbury, Brighton, and Slough on 13 February. Although the location of the Slough AFCO, within the Queensmere Shopping Centre, led to particular disruption, none of the devices detonated. Dissident Republican involvement was suspected when one of the packages was discovered carrying a Republic of Ireland postmark. This suspicion was confirmed on 15 February, when a group referring to itself as ‘the IRA’ – thought to be the New IRA – claimed responsibility for the series of devices in a message to a Northern Irish media outlet.
The devices were contained in A5-size padded jiffy envelopes and have been described by the security services as “crude but viable”. The design of the detonator and small amount of black explosive powder contained within the package would only likely have caused superficial injuries, such as minor flash burns, to the intended recipient. Despite the crude and even amateurish nature of the campaign, which may have been launched by a single individual or small cell using publicly available addresses, it was able to cause significant disruption in the form of building evacuations and office closures. Considering this and the already slim chances of postal devices detonating successfully – albeit improved when packages are sent to office addresses such as these rather than high profile individuals – these incidents appear to be designed to garner publicity for the dissident republican cause rather than cause serious damage or injury. The choice of explicitly English targets of only tangential relevance, rather than those based in Northern Ireland, would also appear to support this analysis, considering the greatly enhanced level of publicity afforded to incidents occurring on the British mainland.
These latest incidents follow a series of comparable, albeit marginally more sophisticated devices that were intercepted after being sent to Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers, the Public Prosecution Service, and two senior PSNI officers in October 2013. The New IRA – formed from the Real IRA, the Londonderry vigilante group Republican Action Against Drugs, and several other smaller republican units – were also assessed to be behind that campaign. The group’s apparent appeal for publicity seems to be borne out of a position of weakness, rather than strength – as recently assessed in the 23 January Monitor. However, the group’s stated desire to launch further attacks “when and where the IRA see fit” mean further such incidents are likely. Although these remain likely to be specifically targeted against vestiges of the British state rather than commercial or civilian targets, the potential for disruption associated with such incidents remains significant, so we shall continue to monitor developments of this nature.
In a further development related to dissident Republican activity, two members of the Defence Forces of the Republic of Ireland have been arrested following the discovery of a pipe bomb in County Donegal. The incident saw bomb disposal experts called to deactivate a viable device in the village of Burnfoot, close to the border with Northern Ireland. The device is thought to be similar to one involved in a previous attack on a police station, while the men are reportedly being questioned about links to republican groups in Londonderry. Though not particularly significant in itself, this incident again highlights the cross-border nature of support networks and illustrates the persistent challenges faced by the PSNI in tackling the dissident republican threat.