January 25, 2019

IntelBrief: Blast from the Past: The Challenge of Splinter Groups and Generational Terror

Police investigate the remains a a car bomb at the General Francisco de Paula Santander Police Academy after an attack, in Bogota, Colombia, Friday, Jan. 18, 2019. Colombia blames the National Liberation Army, ELN, rebels for the deadly attack that left more than 20 dead and wounded many others. (AP Photo/John Wilson Vizcaino) 
  • On January 19, a car bomb exploded in Londonderry, Northern Ireland, believed to be the work of the New IRA.
  • On January 17, the National Liberation Army (ELN) killed 20 police cadets after exploding a car bomb at a training center in Bogotá, Colombia.
  • Colombia and Northern Ireland have long engaged in peace talks with terrorist groups, but the recent bombings demonstrate the persistence of the threat.
  • The Islamic State presents a long-term challenge to the Middle East, especially given the enduring nature of splinter groups in unstable regions.


Despite recent statements by U.S. President Donald Trump, no serious terrorism experts believe that the so-called Islamic State has been defeated. And while the group has suffered serious setbacks on the battlefield, it remains well-armed and highly capable of perpetrating spectacular attacks. Additionally, the notion of ‘defeating' a local terrorist or insurgent group with long-established local ties requires more than two years of military achievements. Recent bombings in Northern Ireland and Colombia highlight this all too well.

Both countries have made remarkable progress against their primary terrorist threats, but only after generations of sustained high-levels of violence and fear. In 2016, Colombia signed a peace deal with its chief foe, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC)following several years of intense negotiations. The conflict in Colombia lasted for more than 50 years and resulted in the deaths of over 220,000 people. Then-President Juan Manuel Santos won the Nobel Prize in 2016 for his efforts to bring about a negotiated peace settlement. The peace agreement is a significant achievement, and current levels of violence in Colombia are nowhere near the apex during the height of the conflict.

Yet, the threat of terrorism persists in Colombia and will continue to for the foreseeable future. On January 17, a car bomb at a police training academy in the capital, Bogotá, killed 20 cadets and injured 68 people. The National Liberation Army (ELN) claimed credit for the attack, saying it was a legitimate target under the ‘rules of war.’ The ELN is now Colombia’s largest armed insurgency and is considered a terrorist group by the United States. Even though the ELN is supported by Cuba and Venezuela, both countries condemned the car bombing –the worst terrorist attack in Colombia since 2004. Unlike FARC, the ELN never signed a peace agreement with the government; more attacks are likely.

In Northern Ireland, a January 19 car bombing in Londonderry revived fears of a return to the internecine violence that had plagued the country since the 1920s, and especially since 1969 when the British government first stationed troops in Northern Ireland following clashes between Catholics and Protestants. Signed in 1998 after three decades of violence, the Good Friday Agreement was a remarkable achievement and helped quell most of the violence, especially from the conflict’s main protagonist, the Provisional IRA. The agreement was the start of an ongoing process of post-conflict resolution, but violence has not been wholly extirpated, as evidenced by the persistence of several IRA splinter groups. The recent bombing in Londonderry, which fortunately neither killed nor injured anyone, came as a shock at a time of already high tensions over the Brexit debacle roiling the United Kingdom. Police believe that the New IRA, one of several active splinter groups in Northern Ireland, was responsible for the bombing.

Both Colombia and Northern Ireland provide sobering case studies in the enduring nature of insurgency and terrorism. These challenges mirror in some important ways the situations in Iraq and Syria. The governments in Colombia and the U.K. had far more resources and stability than what Baghdad and Damascus currently have. It still took decades for Bogota and London to reach a stage where negotiations were feasible—then years more before those negotiations produced tangible results and a cessation of violence. The Islamic State will not negotiate, and while it will continue to suffer military defeats, the group itself will not be defeated for years—likely generations—to come.


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