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Dublin: 11 °C Friday 19 April, 2019
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Tom Clonan: Who is responsible for the incendiary devices posted from Dublin to London this week?

This is precisely the same type of incendiary device used by a dissident republican group in recent years but it could also be a lone wolf, writes Tom Clonan.

Tom Clonan Security specialist and columnist, TheJournal.ie

THE IMPROVISED INCENDIARY devices discovered in London this week raise grave security questions – both in the UK and Ireland. 

Three suspicious mail packages were discovered on Tuesday of this week. 

The first A4 sized package, bearing Irish ‘Love Ireland’ stamps, ignited on opening at 9:55 am at Compass House, near Heathrow Airport.

This postal package, of which pictures have been circulated widely, appears to show evidence of ignition and some burning and charring. 

It has also been reported that the package contained ‘jiffy bags’ containing a ‘gel-like’ substance, which failed to fully ignite. 

Following the alert that this incident generated, a further two suspicious packages were identified.  At 11:40, the staff at Waterloo Station isolated a similar, suspicious package.  No attempt was made to open it. 

Then at 12:10, another similar package was intercepted at City Aviation House in London City Airport.

It is reported that counter-terrorism officers of the London Metropolitan Police have been in contact with an Garda Siochana to discuss the contents and configuration of the ‘viable’ incendiary devices, in order to establish who might have perpetrated the attack. 

Questions have been raised as to whether or not the devices were sent by Islamist terrorists – such as so-called Islamic State, or by a dissident Republican grouping such as the New IRA. There is also some speculation that this might be the work of an individual, or a ‘lone wolf’ attack.

With regard to the question of Islamist extremists, the pattern of yesterday’s incident does not fit with their modus operandi to date. 

Islamic State terrorists in Europe and the UK have tended to use improvised explosive devices known as TATP IEDs – based on Tri-Acetone, Tri-Peroxide bomb-making materials. 

These devices are highly explosive and generate a large, powerful detonation – such as that seen in the Manchester Arena attack in which 22 people, mostly children, were killed in May 2017.

I spoke to a former Defence Forces colleague today – a highly experienced Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) or Bomb Disposal officer – with decades of experience of dealing with improvised explosive devices, both in Ireland during the Troubles and throughout the Middle East. 

Based on descriptions of the manner in which the Heathrow device was ignited – by friction on opening the package – and based on the evidence of the manner in which it burned, he expressed the view that the device most likely consisted of a gel containing potassium or sodium chlorate and some other readily available household ingredients. 

This type of incendiary device is typical of that used by the Provisional IRA during the Troubles, where millions of pounds worth of damage was done to shops and business premises throughout Northern Ireland. 

These devices are viable but crude and unstable.  They are designed to burn easily and very quickly and at a very high temperature in order to do as much damage as possible despite detection by a smoke alarm or other fire alarms and countermeasures. 

They are typically placed among combustible materials in shops and other premises for maximum effect.

This is precisely the same type of incendiary device or fire-bomb as used by the self-styled ‘New IRA’ in recent years. 

Between 2004 and 2006, dissident republicans placed 10 of these firebombs in premises around Newry and in the border area.  Four large commercial premises were completely destroyed – gutted by fire. 

In February 2014, the New IRA sent a large number of these incendiary devices, by mail, to British Army recruitment offices in Oxford, Brighton, Canterbury and Slough. 

The New IRA, as a consequence, are of interest in relation to Tuesday’s incidents.

There are a number of features of the incident that are puzzling and which suggest that perhaps an individual or ‘lone wolf’ may have been involved. 

The pictures, which purport to show the suspicious package, show two Irish ‘Love Ireland’ postage stamps.  If posted in Ireland, this would have been insufficient postage for the London destination. 

If posted in Britain, the Irish stamps would not have been valid for postage.  In both instances, the placing of insufficient or invalid postage stamps on the package would have alerted extra attention – anathema to an experienced terror cell. 

Whoever placed these devices in the postal system – whether a ‘Lone Wolf’ or dissident republican group, placed a large number of innocent people in severe danger. 

According to An Post, over two million items of mail are handled through Irish sorting centres each day.  “Huge volumes of mail” travel between Ireland and the UK using “a variety of means, roads, via ferry or air”. 

An Post added that: “Since images of the packages in question have become available, our sorting staff have been briefed on what to look out for and to be extra vigilant”.

If posted in Ireland therefore, these packages would have been placed among mails and packages on board Irish passenger aircraft bound for London. 

To cause a viable, but crude and unstable incendiary bomb, to be placed on board a flight from Dublin to London is a reckless and evil act – irrespective of who, precisely is responsible. 

If such a device had been disturbed or compressed or otherwise struck whilst among other freight and baggage on a passenger aircraft – it could have triggered a catastrophic fire. 

If this had happened after takeoff or in a pressurised aircraft at 37000 feet over the Irish Sea, the consequences would be unthinkable.

If transported by surface mail, a similar catastrophic fire could have been triggered among combustible freight on board a ferry bound from Dublin Port to Holyhead. 

In either case, the perpetrators recklessly and callously endangered dozens of innocent Irish citizens and staff of an Post to a lethal hazard. 

If posted in the UK, the packages posed a deliberately lethal threat to dozens of innocent Royal Mail postal workers and other innocent civilians going about their business in the targeted areas in London City Airport, Heathrow and Waterloo Station.

Tuesday’s incident, whoever is responsible, is a most unwelcome reminder of the pervasive threat posed by incendiary devices during the troubles.

In addition to the millions of pounds worth of damage inflicted in such attacks, dozens of innocent men, women and children also lost their lives in fire-bomb attacks. 

Those who would carry out such attacks today – as individuals or groups, invoking whatever twisted logic, should desist immediately. 

The consequences of such reckless actions, whether intended or otherwise, are potentially catastrophic. 

The threat should not be downplayed and should be categorically and unequivocally condemned by all Irish citizens.

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. You can follow him on Twitter here.     

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About the author:

Tom Clonan  / Security specialist and columnist, TheJournal.ie

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