Terrorists are raiding old IRA weapons dumps amid rising fears they plan to turn Brexit chaos into carnage.
Police have identified dissident Republicans at the sites of suspected caches on Northern Ireland’s border.
They are believed to contain Semtex explosives and machine guns hidden during the Troubles.
It comes after the New IRA was blamed for a car bomb which exploded outside a Derry courthouse a week ago.
One former Republican commander warned that violence will increase if the pro-Irish Nationalist community feel betrayed by a hard Brexit.
A well-placed police source in the Irish Republic said: “For years these people have been essentially a minor threat – dangerous but out of touch with the world and their community.
“But since 2010 and again since Brexit, they’ve become better organised.
“We’ve been watching them, so has MI5 and the Police Service of Northern Ireland. Their organisation is riddled with intelligence officers but it doesn’t stop them.
“They have some people with some expertise and other people who never shed blood in the Troubles but have been essentially radicalised by Brexit.
“Most dangerously they are going out to hunt the old dissident weapons dumps, here in Ireland and in the UK.
“There are around a dozen dumps around and along the border.
“They are in a mixed state, some are totally empty now, others we left undisturbed and monitor remotely.
“The type of arsenal they are looking for are the vaults of Semtex, other explosives and light machine guns which were left behind.
“We know where most of those are and can watch them do it. But despite this, they could become a bigger threat to the UK and Ireland than ISIS.”
More than 3,500 people were killed in the Troubles between 1969 and 1998.
Pro-Irish paramilitary groups like the IRA were locked in a civil war with the British security forces and Loyalist militia, devoted to remaining in the UK.
The source added: “The fear is that last Saturday’s attack was the start of a longer campaign but we’re working together to try and make sure that they won’t succeed.”
The Provisional IRA declared a ceasefire in 1994 and officially finished decommissioning weapons in 2005.
Since then police have seized 12 assault rifles linked to the group and 17kg of Semtex supplied by Libya in the 1980s.
It is feared that more Provisional IRA weapons could be hidden.
A Republican source said the New IRA was also trying to find decades-old Official IRA dumps.
Former paramilitaries from the smaller Official IRA – nicknamed the Stickies – are believed to have hidden “Doomsday” dumps of weapons, including assault rifles allegedly supplied by the Soviet Union and North Korea during the 1980s.
A senior former Republican paramilitary said: “The New IRA is well funded for buying explosives and weapons.
“They have the equipment, manpower and community support to wage a campaign that could cause widespread disruption and fear, and tie up overstretched police and the security services for some time. They are trying to track down dumps of vintage guns hidden by Stickies.
“These weapons were oiled, properly packed and hidden by trusted men who kept the locations secret. But some have died taking their knowledge to their graves.
“One of the dumps is believed to be somewhere in the Markets district of central Belfast.
“Dissidents believe that because of the quality of the old arms and the careful way they were stored and hidden, they will still be usable.”
He added that because Northern Ireland voted to remain in the EU referendum in 2016 by 56 per cent to 44 per cent, they believe they are fighting for the will of the people.
Many fear that the decision of the rest of the UK to leave the EU could once again tear the province apart.
Prime Minister Theresa May ’s withdrawal agreement with the EU includes the so-called Irish backstop, designed to avoid a hard border.
But hardline Tory Brexiters want it removed, fearing it could keep the UK tied to the EU for years.
This stalemate threatens the two decades of relative peace that have followed the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.
There are signs of the violence returning. Out of 205 terrorist attacks recorded in the EU in 2017, 88 of them took place in Northern Ireland.
After last Saturday’s explosion in Derry, masked men carried out a string of vehicle hijackings.
Revulsion at the mayhem was almost universal. Derry’s mayor John Boyle said: “It achieves nothing, it didn’t achieve anything in the past, it didn’t achieve anything right now.”
But a council motion condemning it won by just a single vote after Sinn Fein, traditionally the political wing of the Provisional IRA, and independent Republicans refused to back it.
Police believe the New IRA, who reject the peace process in favour of violence to try to unite Ireland, planted the bomb.
It was reported last month that 1,000 police officers from Scotland and England are being trained for deployment along the border in the event of a no-deal Brexit.
The former Republican commander – who was involved in hundreds of attacks during the Troubles – said: “Nothing will alter the mindset of those committed to changing the status of the North by violence.
"Another betrayal over the backstop will reinforce their belief that Westminster can’t be trusted and the only way forward will be violence.
“There is major discontent within the Nationalist community at large, and that is even more prevalent within Sinn Fein itself because the peace process effectively stalled with the election of the Tories under David Cameron.
“Brexit has opened people’s eyes to the fact that the UK Government doesn’t care about us here in the North.
“The Brits seem to have conveniently forgotten that the Good Friday Agreement is an international agreement with four signatories – the US, the EU, Dublin and the UK.
“If we abandon the backstop, there will be violence.”
But some say the New IRA is not the threat that the Provisional IRA once was because it lacks community support.
Terrorism expert Prof Richard English, of Queen’s University Belfast, said: “The dissident Republicans at present have nowhere near the support base to allow them to challenge Sinn Fein within Republican communities.
“Brexit has deepened nationalist disaffection. It reintroduces the prospect of a harder border in Ireland and threatens to drag Irish nationalists out of the EU on the basis mainly of English votes.
“So many nationalists are now more sympathetic to pursuing a united Ireland than they were before Brexit.
“But most do not favour violence or believe that it will achieve progress. Brexit is not going to restart the Troubles.”
Yesterday it was reported MI5 has more than 700 spies in Belfast to counter the New IRA threat.
A counterterrorism source said: “There is a reason MI5 has about 20 per cent of its total strength in Belfast and last weekend was a timely reminder of that reason.”
Locals in Derry tell how they want to keep violence a thing of the past
Shoppers in Derry spoke of their fears that Brexit could end a generation of relative peace and stability.
The Good Friday Agreement removed the visible border between the North and South of Ireland.
Caileigh Duddy, 25, said she fears her five-year-old daughter growing up in a divided community.
She said: “It is unthinkable anyone would want to go back to how it was.
"I was terrified when that bomb when off – you think things like that are in the past and they should be.
"My brother crosses the border every day for work and I cross it every week to see my nephew.
"I don’t think politicians have given it any thought.”
Irish Teacher Terrance O’Grady said: “Pupils in my class came this week really shaken by what they had seen and heard.
"We’ve moved on and we don’t need anything that could expose a new generation to that kind of violence.
“I remember the border and Army posts. I can’t imagine anything as horrible as that coming back.”
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