Last Saturday, a member of the public spotted a suspicious device perched on top of a wall directly opposite a number of family homes on Church View, Strabane in Tyrone.
The PSNI declared it to be a ‘viable device’ which “failed to deploy”. On examination by technical officers, the device was described as a mortar with a command wire electrical initiation system. According to the PSNI, the intention was to target the PSNI station in Strabane.
The PSNI later released images of the device. It appears to be a relatively small mortar, consisting of three tubes – most likely commonly available copper, or steel pipes – with electrical firing mechanisms arranged around the base of each pipe. The device resembles a modified ‘Mark 16’ mortar – of a type designed and used by the Provisional IRA during the Troubles.
Such mortars are designed to carry a payload of up to 1kg of high explosives, in a highly penetrative, high temperature shaped-charge. They are also light, highly portable and do not require the base plate to be anchored – the Strabane device was simply weighted down with a sandbag.
Such mortars – there would appear to have been three in this instance – would have a range of approximately 100 metres.
The device was carefully placed on top of the wall on Church View, on high ground, overlooking the PSNI station in Strabane. A cursory look on Google Maps reveals the device to have been a short distance from the rear of the station through open ground in Courtrai Park.
From the images released by the PSNI, the mortar is placed on a simple bearing or direction to the target, at an angle, designed to achieve the trajectory necessary for the mortars to launch over the high perimeter walls of the station onto the buildings below.
If the mortars had successfully fired, on detonation they would have likely caused death and serious injury among PSNI officers working in the station. This would have brought us straight back to the height of the Troubles in terms of the operational effectiveness of whatever dissident republican group launched the attack – most likely the New IRA – who would have termed such an attack a propaganda spectacular.
A similar Mark 16 Mortar was discovered in Derry by PSNI officers during a planned search in October 2002. However, as far as I am aware, this is the first time such a direct fire weapon has been deployed in Northern Ireland since the ceasefires and the implementation of the Good Friday Agreement.
The Provisional IRA launched thousands of such mortar attacks on police, military and government targets during the Troubles. The improvised mortars that the PIRA used – a series of weapon variants from the Mark 1 Mortar to the Mark 17 Mortar – increased in sophistication, accuracy and lethal effect from 1972 to 1996.
On 28 February 1985, the PIRA fired a number of mortars at Newry Royal Ulster Constabulary station from a range of 250 metres. Nine police officers were killed in this attack which became known as ‘Bloody Thursday’.
On 7 February 1991, the PIRA launched a Mark 10 Mortar attack on Prime Minister John Major and his cabinet who were meeting in 10 Downing Street to discuss the Gulf War.
The PIRA parked a van on the corner of Horseguards Avenue and Whitehall . The mortar tubes and bombs contained within the van – with a false roof – were fired at a range of 300 metres from the target.
One struck a tree just 13 metres from the prime minister’s cabinet office. Had the mortar not struck the tree, it could have killed or seriously injured the British prime minister and most of his cabinet. These devices, whilst relatively sophisticated, are simple to construct and deploy.
The PIRA carried out three similar mortar attacks on Heathrow Airport in March 1994. In the first attack on 9 March, a Mark Six Mortar with a 1kg Semtex warhead was launched from a stolen Nissan car, which flew over Heathrow Police Station, landing on the North Runway – where it failed to detonate.
Despite a massive security operation the PIRA carried out two more mortar attacks on Heathrow on 12 and 13 March. These attacks show the ease with which mortar attacks can be launched – within even the highest levels of security – capable of inflicting massive loss of life and disruption to major capital infrastructure.
According to the PSNI, this is the ninth ‘serious’ terrorist attack in Northern Ireland this year. It follows the massive car bomb device left outside Derry Courthouse in January and the murder of Lyra McKee in April.
It also follows two decades of slowly, but steadily increasing car-bomb attacks and shootings from dissident republicans that have claimed the lives of police officers, prison officers and civilians.
These attacks are connected – from the 140kg car bomb that killed 29 people in Omagh in August 1998 – to the attempted attack on Strabane PSNI station in the last week.
However, Saturday’s incident represents a worrying escalation in that it is the first time a viable mortar has been deployed by dissidents in a deliberate attack designed to kill a large number of police men and women.
It comes just weeks after another sinister attack at Wattlebridge on 19 August. In this attack, the New IRA used a tactic employed by the PIRA during the Troubles – most notably in the killing of 18 British soldiers at the Warrenpoint Massacre at Narrow Water in South Armagh forty years earlier on the 27 August 1979.
In that Wattlebridge attack there was a ‘come on device’ deployed to attract security forces and first responders into the secondary bomb site. When the area was flooded with military and police – the second device was detonated. This was precisely the tactic used at Wattlebridge, on the border between Clones and Newtownbutler.
Miraculously, no one was injured or killed in that premeditated, pre-planned and carefully orchestrated attack.
Dissident Republicans have planted car bombs in the past. On some occasions they have given coded warnings to the security forces in order to create weapons of mass disruption – with major propaganda and financial impacts.
In recent weeks however, dissident republicans have stepped up the nature of their attacks in an echo of PIRA tactics during the Troubles. If any of these attacks succeed – and at the current rate and frequency of attack – there will inevitably be a mass casualty incident, it could prompt a response from Loyalist groups in the classic ‘Tit for Tat’ cycle of violence that we witnessed in the Troubles.
Such violence – in the context of Brexit with its fraught and polarising rhetoric – could spiral out of control very quickly.
Dr Tom Clonan is a former Captain in the Irish armed forces. He is a security analyst and academic, lecturing in the School of Media in DIT.
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