War of Shadows

Yesterday "suspected Muslim militants beheaded a 58-year-old rubber-plantation worker Wednesday in Yala, part of Thailand's deep South... Police found the burned body of Sathit Tongin, a Thai Buddhist, near an Islamic religious school on the outskirts of Yala City, 760 kilometers south of Bangkok." It was only the latest in a round of escalating attacks and atrocities.

On February 19, as thousands of Thais celebrated the Lunar New Year, dozens of bombings and shooting attacks struck across four provinces of southern Thailand. The attack killed 8 people and wounded dozens of others. These provinces are the center of an insurgency by largely Muslim ethnic Malays against Bangkok which has claimed a 1,200 lives in the past decade -- one thousand of them since 2004. Largely ignored by, and hence unknown to the West, it is the most lethal insurgency in Southeast Asia. In the wake of the most recent attacks an army spokesman believed that unidentified insurgent forces were trying to intimidate ethnic Chinese -- who celebrate the New Year holiday -- into fleeing the predominantly Muslim region. Even so, no organization has claimed responsibility for the direction of the insurgency. Reuters continues the story:

Thailand's army-appointed government admitted it had no idea who in particular was behind a wave of bombs and shootings in which eight people were killed in the Muslim-majority far south as the Lunar New Year began. The attacks hit a variety of targets. Shortly before a special security meeting in Bangkok, an army major was killed outside his house in Yala, one of the four southern provinces hit by around 30 bombs on Sunday night, after he picked up a bag containing a bomb, police said. ... "The problem now is that we don't know who's responsible and where they are," army chief of staff General Montri Sangkhasap told reporters after Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont met security chiefs to discuss the violence.

The recent wave of unattributed attacks followed the attack last month in Bangkok which forced the cancellation of New Year's Eve celebrations in the capital. The attacks were calculated to both disrupt and intimidate. "The first bomb exploded at the Victory Monument, an area crowded with food stalls ... subsequent bombings were at ... Klong Toey and in the parking lot of Bangkok's largest mall ... in the movie theater in Bangkok's newest and glitziest malls, the Siam Paragon ... two more bombs were detonated just after midnight, this time in more heavily tourist areas." The New Year's Day attacks signaled that the insurgency had left the periphery and truly come to the capital. The Lunar New Year attacks showed the capability to launch multiple simultaneous attacks was no fluke. A number of insurgent groups were the usual suspects, but in the absence of a clear set of demands, the question remained: who was leading it?

The International Crisis Group argued that the unrest in southern Thailand was predominantly an insurgency based on the "historical grievances stemming from discrimination against the ethnic Malay Muslim population and attempts at forced assimilation by successive ethnic Thai Buddhist governments in Bangkok for almost a century."  In their view, it was not a jihad. A number of insurgent groups were known to be active, but the International Crisis Group was unwilling to conclude that it was fundamentally directed from overseas.

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Armed separatist groups have been active there since the late 1960s, with particularly virulent violence in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The largest and most effective group of several operating then was PULO (Patani United Liberation Organisation), which called for an independent Islamic state but whose thrust was more ethno-nationalist than Islamist. ... But new strains then appeared, with four particularly significant groups emerging or re-emerging, and major violence erupting in early 2004. The major groups active today include: BRN-C (Barisan Revolusi Nasional-Coordinate, National Revolutionary Front-Coordinate); Pemuda, a separatist youth movement; GMIP (Gerakan Mujahidin Islam Patani, Patani Islamic Mujahidin Group), established by Afghanistan veterans in 1995, committed to an independent Islamic state; and New PULO, established in 1995 as an offshoot of PULO and the smallest of the active armed groups, is fighting for an independent state.

The South Asia Analysis Group (SAAG) had a somewhat different view. SAAG believed that while the unrest in southern Thailand had not yet become a Jihad, it is certainly influenced and led by radical Islamic groups. Whether the entire insurgent impetus would eventually be captured by radical Islamists was the issue Bangkok had to face. Though some sources claim the main liaison with the international Jihad is through the Jemaah Islamiyah, SAAG thinks "the external inspiration has so far been mainly from Bangladesh and Pakistan ... Their present tactical objectives seem to be to radicalize the local Muslim population, to promote feelings of Islamic solidarity and Islamic consciousness, to create a mental and emotional divide between the Muslims and the non-Muslims, mainly the Buddhists, and to prepare the ground for a sustained jihad." Media reports following up the involvement of Britons of Pakistani origin in the London bombings uncovered the fact that nearly a thousand Muslims of Thai nationality (Pattani) were studying in madrasas in Pakistan. Despite promises by the Pakistani government to end the practice, and fear of American monitoring, many of these Pattanis simply transferred their enrolment to "madrasas of the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) and Balochistan, which are the hotbed of the activities of the Taliban and the Wahabi-Deobandi organisations of Pakistan." Recent news reports have suggested that al-Qaeda has re-established itself in the NWFP provinces of Pakistan, making the potential connection between the Jihad and the insurgency in southern Thailand as potentially direct as possible.

Senior leaders of al-Qaeda operating from Pakistan have re-established significant control over their once-battered worldwide terror network and over the past year have set up a band of training camps in the tribal regions near the Afghan border, according to American intelligence and counterterrorism officials. American officials said there is mounting evidence that Osama bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahri, had been steadily building an operations hub in the mountainous Pakistani tribal area of North Waziristan. Until recently, the Bush administration had described bin Laden and Zawahiri as detached from their followers and cut off from operational control of al-Qaeda. The United States has also identified several new al-Qaeda compounds in North Waziristan, including one that officials said might be training operatives for strikes against targets beyond Afghanistan.

In the meantime, Thailand's counterinsurgency efforts have been hampered by police corruption, the substitution of brutal tactics for operations based on sound intelligence preparation and the lack of a political counterprogram. These deficiencies have been recognized, but recent attempts to attract the Malay Muslims of the south into the Thai mainstream have so far failed.  "Hopes that the fact that the coup of September 19, 2006, was carried out by General Sonthi Boonyaratkalin, the first-ever Muslim head of the Thai army, would make the jihadi terrorists of the South amenable to government moves for a reconciliation have been belied so far. In fact, since the army seized power, the terrorists have further stepped up their acts of terrorism in the South, targeting not only schools and Buddhist monks, but also Muslims perceived as cooperating with the government. Those familiar with the mentality of the jihadi terrorists as seen in other parts of the world would not have been surprised by the way the jihadis have failed to respond to the General's offer of talks. Jihadi terrorists look askance at a Muslim public servant, whom they perceive as a collaborator of infidels." In the meantime, the insurgents appear to be improving in tactical sophistication. The Counterterrorism Blog describes how an intensifying campaign of IED attacks nearly killed a Thai royal as her helicopter landed and attacks by 30 pound warheads on Thai military vehicles now occur several times a week. Sniping is now being encountered.

the number of large (10-15kg) bombs has increased. They are occurring several times a week, rather than once or twice a month. ... Insurgents have also demonstrated greater proficiency with small arms. In mid-January several bombers engaged soldiers in a five-minute firefight after detonating an IED. The insurgents are more confident and are standing their ground longer. On January 31, a sniper shot a police colonel in the head, severely wounding him. The colonel was part of an advance team that was securing a village in preparation for the Prime Minister and Crown Prince's visit. ...

the majority of the targets, especially of drive by shootings, remain fellow Muslims, deemed to be collaborators ... 2007 has also seen an escalation in the number of civil disobedience cases, in particular those of women and children who surround police stations demanding the release of suspects. There have been three high profile cases in 2007. For example, some 50 veiled women surrounded a police station in Pattani's Nong Chik district to demand the release of Mayadee Samah, a suspected insurgent arrested the day before. Also in Pattani, some 200 villagers sieged and vandalized a police station to protest the arrest of a suspected militant.? Most recently, more than 70 Muslim women and children staged protest. ... Teachers, who have been routinely targeted by insurgents announced that they had no confidence in the government's security plans to protect them. The region is bracing for another wave of school closures.

Defense Minister Boonrod Somthat has publicly stated that the security situation should improve dramatically by June. Yet, he conceded that the Barisan Revolusi Nasional-Coordinasi (BRN-C), who did not participate in any of the peace talks with the government in 2006, but who are responsible for much of the violence "has refused negotiations so far as it is gaining the upper hand and winning greater support from local residents."

Meanwhile, the Thai Royal Army is attempting to create the basics of a counterterrorist infrastructure. Thirty local paramilitary companies are being organized. The Defense budget is being increased. A fingerprinting and "Smart ID" card system is being established. Things are starting, perhaps not from Square One, but from the basics. It is not clear whether the Jihad is now wholly in charge of the Thai Insurgency in the south. But it is clear that leading it is their goal.


Richard Fernandez is the Sydney editor of Pajamas Media. His writing can also be found at The Belmont Club.