Hundreds of police officers are being sent to Northern Ireland for other parts of the UK amid fears of a terror attack ahead of the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement and a visit by US President Joe Biden.
Police Service Northern Ireland (PSNI) has requested an extra 330 officers who will be drafted in from forces across the UK to cover shifts next week.
It comes after police took the unusual step of publicly revealing that the force has “very strong” intelligence that dissident republicans are planning a terror attack on Easter Monday.
At a press conference in Belfast, Assistant Chief Constable Bobby Singleton said the threat relates to events in Londonderry and could involve “attempts to draw police into serious public disorder and to use that then as a platform to launch terrorist attacks on police as well.”
MI5 raised the terror threat level in Northern Ireland from “substantial” to “severe” last week.
Ian Acheson, a counter-terrorism expert, told i: “Dissident republican terrorists seem likely, according to the intelligence, to stage what used to be called a ‘come on.’
“That means a confrontation will be engineered, probably around a march commemorating Easter 1916 [the uprising against British rule which led to sixteen republican leaders being executed], that will draw in police officers.
“Isolating police officers to target them for murder is a real possibility.
“That might mean a substantial, but restrained police response to disorder including provocative paramilitary displays by dissident republicans which will inevitably be criticised as ‘appeasement.’
“However from a tactical as well as a moral standpoint a murdered police officer during an iconic moment would be a catastrophe.”
Mr Acheson believes such a terror attack can be avoided but that police in Northern Ireland will have to react to “changing dynamics” as they happen, adding: “There simply aren’t enough of them on the ground to do anything more in any case.”
Easter is always a significant date in the diary for security services in Northern Ireland but the anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, the historic peace deal which brought an end to 30 years of conflict, and the visit of President Biden scheduled has heightened tensions.
The UK, Ireland and US are all preparing to put a ring of steel around events which are expected to last until next Friday. Mr Biden’s four-day visit to Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland will begin on 11 April but other official details have not yet been released.
A fleet of cars that will protect Mr Biden during his travels were spotted arriving at Belfast airport on Tuesday.
They include ‘The Roadrunner’ – a black Ford F-350 Super Duty that has modifications including a six door, bulletproof shell, radio antenna on the roof to enable communication with US nuclear capabilities and impenetrable tyres.
‘The Beast’ – one of the world’s most recognisable vehicles – is essentially a tank with a limousine interior and also expected to be delivered ahead of the visit.
A source told the Irish Mirror that around 250 secret service agents will join Mr Biden for his trip and that they have been issued with firearms visits by Irish authorities.
Several hundreds Irish soldiers will be on standby while the US is also expected to position an aircraft carrier as close as 20 miles from the coast.
A Garda spokesperson told i they could not comment on matters of national or international security.
Chris Todd, Assistant Chief Constable of the PSNI, added: “While we have no confirmed date when President Biden will visit Northern Ireland, the Police Service have contingencies in place and will have an appropriate and proportionate policing operation to mark the 25th Anniversary of the signing of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement.
“We have asked for approximately 330 officers from across the United Kingdom to support the policing operation.
“The mutual aid officers will be used to provide additional search capabilities and a range of other specialist policing functions during this period.
“Mutual Aid officers are a vital part of the vast policing and security operation for these events. They will be provided with the necessary equipment and familiarisation training.
“They are coming to Northern Ireland to assist with the security operation and not every day policing of Northern Ireland.”