Members of an Irish group arrested on terrorist charges after seeking arms from Hezbollah met with officials at Iran's Dublin Embassy, security sources told The National.
Former members of the Provisional IRA reactivated Hezbollah contacts to obtain finance and weapons for the New IRA (NIRA).
The Irish terrorists have been seeking advanced bomb-making technology developed in Iran and Lebanon that would allow them to penetrate police armoured vehicles in Northern Ireland, intelligence sources said.
Nine members of the NIRA, including two women, were arrested last moth after a long-running undercover operation run by MI5, the British security service.
Among those who appeared in court after the arrests was Dr Issam Hijjawi Bassalat, a Palestinian, who was held on remand by a court and charged with a count of preparatory acts of terrorism. He reportedly travelled to a NIRA meeting, where he was alleged to have briefed the accused about the situation in Palestine.
Security sources said that at least two people now in custody were at a commemoration ceremony in the embassy following the assassination of Iranian general Qassem Suleimani who was killed by a US drone strike in January.
“It appears that they were forging the links between the New IRA, Iran and Hezbollah,” said an intelligence source. “No weapons from Hezbollah had been received although they were on the verge of concluding some form of agreement, but now the whole thing has been shattered.”
It is understood the embassy event also commemorated the death of the IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands, who has a street named after him in Tehran.
Following Suleimani's death, the political wing of NIRA, Saoradh, put out a statement saying they were "outraged at the murder".
There are warnings of a bombing campaign in Europe by Hezbollah after US intelligence disclosed that caches of ammonium nitrate had been hidden in several countries including France, Italy and Spain.
“Going into an Iranian embassy just shows that the links are strong because that's not been done on a whim,” said Doug Beattie, an Ulster Unionist politician. “It’s a deliberate move to show that the New IRA have allegiance to the Iranian regime and Hezbollah and that’s of great concern. It's clear that without a shadow of a doubt that the links between the new IRA and Hezbollah are increasing. They are getting ever more sophisticated in their technologies and passing on their bomb-making technology.
Mr Beattie, a decorated former British soldier who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, said if the political situation in Northern Ireland deteriorated over Brexit or Covid there was a real fear that experienced former Provisional IRA members might join NIRA.
There was also a concern that contacts with Hezbollah might improve NIRA’s ability to detonate bombs by remote control or other methods. “There is higher level of sophistication that NIRA might be looking bring in from Hezbollah and that is a serious danger to police.”
MI5 moved in on the terrorist group after it was established the NIRA was close to securing weapons from Hezbollah following a visit to Lebanon in 2018 by the Irish dissidents.
Much of the information was gathered from covert bugging devices placed behind a private bar set up at a house in Scotland used by the undercover agent after taking the NIRA members to Celtic football matches in Glasgow.
Former police detective superintendent Dr Bill Duff, an intelligence analyst, spoke of shipping containers being used to bring in weapons and explosives from the Middle East. “If Iran or Hezbollah were to load up a container with AK47s and plastic explosives in say, Karachi, bound for Dublin via several other container hubs then it is possible that it will get through."
He added that while the dissident republicans were “mad, desperate and pathetic people” that did not “make them any less dangerous because if they manage to establish links with groups like Hezbollah who will certainly be inclined to support them".
Colin Breen, a former police officer and author, said that it appeared the Hezbollah connection had been made by “old campaigners” of the Provisional IRA.
“They are making connections with Hezbollah for arms and cash but also because Hezbollah has international status as a terrorist group and that's a status the New IRA don't have.”
In the past, the IRA received weapons and other support from the Palestine Liberation Organisation, Libya, the Colombian insurgents FARC and Basque terrorist group ETA.