It’s often said by pundits, politicians and top-level experts, that – when it comes to terrorism – we’re living in times of unprecedented unease. In October 2017, the director general of MI5 issued a worryingly blunt warning, saying the terror threat is “at the highest tempo I have seen in my 34-year career. Today there is more terrorist activity, coming at us more quickly, and it can be harder to detect.”
But people over a certain age will remember that, long before the era of Isis, Britain was repeatedly targeted by very different terrorists: the Provisional IRA. How does the era of IRA attacks, which caused widespread mayhem and misery in the 70s, 80s and 90s, compare to our current predicament?
There are key contrasts in motivation and method. In an interview with Newsweek, academic and terrorism expert Frank Foley said: “If you look at intentions, it seems like we’re under greater threat today because jihadist terrorists are unrestrained. Usually they try to kill as many people as they can, whereas the IRA in the past was more restrained.” But, Foley reminds us, “you have to look at the other side of the equation, which is capability. The IRA had a much greater capability than jihadist terrorists do today in the U.K.”
Unlike today’s breed of terrorists, who, as the MI5 boss says, are “extremists of all ages, gender and backgrounds”, often dreaming up plots in their bedrooms without being part of a wider conspiracy, the IRA were an organised paramilitary organisation, with a clearly defined power structure, working towards a clearly defined goal: kicking the Brits out of Ireland.
To achieve this goal, they were capable of severe brutality, but were generally selective of their targets, specifically focusing on soldiers, police officers and politicians rather than the general public per se. After all, they were well aware it was bad PR for their cause if ordinary people were killed en masse.
Take the Hyde Park and Regent’s Park bombings in July 1982. One bomb was detonated during the Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace, killing four soldiers. The second bomb, which had been placed under a bandstand during an army concert, was engineered differently so it would kill the soldiers standing immediately above the bomb, but would minimise risk for the civilians watching nearby.
The IRA would also often provide warnings to the authorities, so crowds could be evacuated before bombs exploded. This didn’t always work. The Harrods bombing of 1983, when a bomb was planted outside the luxury department store, came with an advance warning, but still killed three police officers and three members of the public. The IRA actually issued a part-apology, expressing regret over the civilian deaths. The statement sounded almost like something issued by a shame-faced corporation, with lines like “We have taken immediate steps to ensure that there will be no repetition of this type of operation again.”
An IRA warning also allowed police to prevent mass casualties when they detonated the infamous Manchester bomb of 1996 – the biggest bomb ever to erupt in Britain in peacetime. Despite its apocalyptic ferocity, which levelled a vast swathe of the city, nobody was killed.
But it’s a misconception to think the IRA always provided warnings. One of their most notorious operations was the Brighton bombing of 1984 – an attempt to wipe out Margaret Thatcher and her entire cabinet while they were staying at a seafront hotel. Thatcher narrowly escaped death, but five others were killed and many more seriously injured.
The IRA’s targeting of specific demographics led to an atmosphere of (justified) paranoia among politicians themselves. A senior civil servant who lived through those dark days recalls how “You had devices that enabled you to make sure there weren’t car bombs attached to your cars, you had protection at your home.”
Now, in the era of extremist Islamist violence, the paranoia has become more generalised. While ordinary civilians were well aware, during the IRA days, that they could easily be caught up and killed in an attack, today the general public is itself a specific target. Lacking a clear, achievable agenda or political goal, contemporary terrorists are focused on creating terror for terror’s sake, and they are willing to die in the process.
Warnings are never given, and – rather than being part of an organised force – today’s terrorists are often remotely radicalised. The rise of social media and smartphone technology has allowed extremist ideologies to go viral in a way that would have been undreamt of in the 80s and 90s. And, of course, it’s all too easy to access documents on building makeshift bombs. A devastating example of the modern terrorist’s willingness to commit indiscriminate slaughter came in May 2017, when a lone attacker calmly blew himself up at an Ariana Grande concert. Twenty-three people died, and hundreds were injured. It was a stark contrast to IRA’s Manchester bomb, which – while far, far larger – was not intended to claim any lives.
Another key difference among today’s attackers is they don’t necessarily rely on traditional weapons like bombs and guns to commit their outrages. These hap-hazard, DIY terrorists are now willing to weaponise cars and trucks. No expertise is required to cause carnage. Take the Westminster attack of 2017, when a terrorist drove his car into people walking along Westminster Bridge, killing four people before he disembarked and stabbed a police officer to death.
Just months later came the London Bridge attack, when three attackers drove into people on the bridge, then got out to rampage through the crowds with knives. It was a stark example of just how much terrorism in the UK has evolved, and how crude and unpredictable it has become. Talking about one of the 7/7 bombers, Baroness Warsi said: “We went to the same schools, the same mosques, had the same friends, had a similar experience. Why does one person end up becoming the first Muslim in the British cabinet and the other becomes Britain’s first suicide bomber?” It’s a question that today’s generation of amateur extremists requires us to answer.