Why dissident groups will fail in Northern Ireland

The ideology of terror is a fading force.

An innocuous photo emerged after the Omagh bomb of 1998, showing a Spanish tourist posing with his daughter atop his shoulders on Market Street, Omagh. The picture was taken just minutes before the maroon Vauxhall Cavalier shown parked behind them exploded, leaving a three-metre-wide crater in the road and killing 29 people.

Ronan Kerr was 12 years old at the time of the tragedy, but 14 years later, on 2 April 2011, he became the victim of another bomb in Omagh, planted by an anonymous paramilitary group. Kerr was from a Catholic family and a newly qualified officer in the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI), which many Catholics would never have considered joining until just recently.

Since the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, the peace process in Northern Ireland has suffered several attempts at violent destabilisation, but these acts have never found popular legitimacy. After decades of civil conflict and more than 3,500 deaths, the people of Northern Ireland no longer want violence, but instead support peaceful, diplomatic resolutions to any further conflict between Catholics and Protestants.

The attack has been denounced throughout Ireland and beyond, including by all four of Northern Ireland's main unionist and republican parties, the Gaelic Athletic Association, the Presbyterian Moderator and the Irish Methodist Church, along with the US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, and David Cameron.

The disgust at the bombing expressed across Northern Ireland's religious divides indicates that the country is embracing power-sharing, and is almost completely detached from the influence of any sort of subversive political group. The ideology of terror and nationalism on either side of the Catholic-Protestant divide is a swiftly fading force in Northern Ireland, and despite disturbing attempts by groups such as the Real IRA to reignite tensions, the country has stood firm and proved its commitment to peace.

Nevertheless, active dissident groups clearly remain in Northern Ireland and continue to oppose the peace process, despite appeals on both sides of the religious divide and the efforts of security forces in both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Among the most dangerous are Oglaigh na hEireann, or the Continuity IRA, and the aforementioned Real IRA. Oglaigh na hEireann claimed responsibility for a car bombing in January 2010 that left another Catholic police officer, Peadar Heffron, severely injured.

The Continuity IRA were found to be the perpetrators of the fatal March 2009 shooting of a PSNI constable, Stephen Carroll, in Craigavon, County Armagh. The incident occurred just two days after the Real IRA shot dead two British soldiers at the Massereene army base in County Antrim.

Despite this, the Northern Ireland Assembly completed its first full mandate last month, and the Kerr murder has united the country, which will further strengthen the peace process. This was exemplified poignantly by the fact that Kerr's funeral was attended by Martin McGuinness, deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland, the Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams, the new Irish prime minister, Enda Kenny, and the First Minister of Northern Ireland, Peter Robinson.

It is clear that a cross-section of Irish society is horrified by the events of last weekend, Consider the following quotes:

Robinson said:

The murder of this young Catholic policeman newly recruited to the PSNI is shocking and deplorable . . . The people of Northern Ireland have rejected violence and this act will not further the cause of dissidents one iota.

The SDLP chairman, Joe Byrne, stated:

Those responsible have no support in the town of Omagh. Nobody wants them . . . Omagh is a mixed town and we're proud of our Catholic police officers. The amount of anger and stunned sadness from across every section of the community shows that.

Tom Elliott, leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, said:

I totally condemn the evil and cowardly attack which took place in Omagh this afternoon. The people responsible for the attack have one aim and one aim alone – to take Northern Ireland back to the dark days of the past. All of us have a duty to ensure they do not succeed.

Martin McGuinness stated:

Nothing these people will do will break Peter Robinson's, or mine, indeed, or the other political leaders in our society north and south['s] . . . determination to ensure that this peace process continues to go from strength to strength. Our position is one of defiance. We stand here united, there is nothing can be done which will break that. And ultimately we are the people who will prevail.

Liam McLaughlin is a freelance journalist who has also written for Prospect and the Huffington Post. He tweets irregularly @LiamMc108.

Getty
Show Hide image

The Taliban's succession crisis will not diminish its resilience

Haibatullah Akhunzada's appointment as leader of the Taliban may put stress on the movement, but is unlikely to dampen its insurgency. 

After 19 years under the guidance of the Taliban’s supreme leader Mullah Omar, the group has now faced two succession crises in under a year. But although Haibatullah Akhunzada’s appointment as leader of the Taliban will likely put stress on the movement, it shows few signals of diminishing its renewed insurgency.

The news pretty much ends speculation about former leader Mullah Akhtar Mansour’s death in a US airstrike in Pakistan’s south-western Baluchistan province, which was criticised by Islamabad as a violation of its sovereignty.

The Taliban would have prepared extensively for this eventuality. The fast appointment, following days of intense council, appears to be a conspicuous act of decisiveness. It stands in contrast to the two-year delay the movement faced in announcing the death of the Mullah Omar. It will be not be lost on the Taliban that it was subterfuge around the death of Mullah Omar that caused the fracture within the movement which in turn led to the establishment of an ISIS presence in the country.

The appointment is a victory for the Taliban old guard. As former head of the Taliban's judiciary and Mullah Mansour’s deputy, in many ways, Haibatullah is a natural successor. Haibatullah, described by Afghanistan expert Sami Yousafzai as a “stone age Mullah,” demonstrates the Taliban’s inherent tendency to resort to tradition rather than innovation during times of internal crisis.

The decision taken by the Taliban to have an elder statesman of the group at the helm highlights the increasing marginalisation of the Haqqani network, a powerful subset within the Taliban that has been waging an offensive against the government and coalition forces in northwest Pakistan.

Sirajuddin Haqqani, the leader of the Haqqani network who already has a bounty of 5 million dollars on his head, was touted in some Taliban circles as a potential successor, however the decision to overlook him is a conservative move from the Taliban. 

The Taliban’s leadership of the jihad against the Afghan government is hinged on their claims to religious legitimacy, something the group will hope to affirm through the Haibatullah’s jurisprudential credentials. This assertion of authority has particular significance given the rise of ISIS elements in the country. The last two Taliban chiefs have both declared themselves to be amir ul-momineen or ‘leader of the faithful,’ providing a challenge to the parallel claims of ISIS’ Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

Any suggestions that Mansour’s death will lead to the unravelling of the Taliban are premature. The military targeting of prominent jihadi leaders within group structures has been seen in operations against the leadership of ISIS, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, and other groups.

In recent research for the Centre on Religion & Geopolitics, we found that it is often less prominent jihadis that play an integral role in keeping the movement alive. Targeted killings do create a void, but this often comes at the expense of addressing the wider support base and ideological draw of militant outfits. This is particularly relevant with a relatively decentralised movement like the Taliban.

Such operations can spur activity. If the example of the Taliban’s previous leadership succession is to be heeded, we might expect renewed attacks across Afghanistan, beyond the group’s strongholds near the eastern border with Pakistan. The brief capture of Kunduz, Afghanistan's fifth-largest city, at the end of September 2015, was a show of strength to answer the numerous internal critics of Mullah Mansour’s new leadership of the movement.

In a news cycle dominated by reports of ISIS, and to a diminishing extent al-Qaeda, atrocities, it is important to comprehend the renewed brutality of the Afghan insurgency.  Data from the Centre on Religion and Geopolitics Global Extremism Monitor found a seventeen per cent rise in fatalities from March to April, marking the start of the Taliban’s spring fighting season. A suicide attack in central Kabul on the headquarters of an elite military unit that killed 64 people was the single most deadly act of terror around the world in the month of April, and the group’s bloodiest attack in the Afghan capital for years. Reports this morning of a suicide attack on a bus killing 10 staff from an appeal court west of Kabul, suggests that the violence shows no sign of diminishing under the new leadership.

All these developments come during a period of renewed impetus behind international peace talks. Last week representatives from Pakistan were joined by delegates from Afghanistan, the United States, and China in an attempt to restart the stalled negotiation process with the Taliban.

Haibatullah Akhunzada’s early leadership moves will be watched closely by these countries, as well as dissonant voices within the movement, to ascertain what the Taliban does next, in a period of unprecedented challenge for the infamously resilient movement. 

Milo Comerford is a South and Central Asia Analyst for the Centre on Religion and Geopolitics