Thailand: Are Al-Qaeda and Jemaah Islamiyah in Southern Thailand?


Joseph Chinyong Liow

Since warnings that Southeast Asia had become the 'second front' in the war on terror following the American campaign in Afghanistan, terrorism experts have assiduously attempted to trace the regional reach of JI (Jemaah Islamiyah), the Southeast Asian branch of the Al-Qaeda sponsored, international Jihadi terrorist network. Regional states identified as being part of the JI area of operations have included Thailand, where the organisation is suspected to have capitalised on a long-standing, Malay-Muslim based separatist struggle against the central Bangkok government, to establish a foothold in the restive southern provinces that have a predominantly Muslim population. For supporters of this argument, the fact that Riduan Isamuddin, better known as Hambali and a key member of JI and Al-Qaeda, was arrested in Thailand (albeit in Ayuttaya province of central Thailand, which is some distance from the southern provinces) will be seen as substantiating this position.

No doubt the war on terror and Washington's foreign policies towards the Muslim world offer a ready avenue of ideological affiliation between ethno-nationalist Muslim resistance groups, such as those operating in southern Thailand, and trans-national terrorist organisations such as Al-Qaeda and JI. However, this does not necessarily translate into active collaboration between the two. In the case of Thailand, there is telling evidence demonstrating that the JI has yet to establish the sort of foothold in the restive south that terrorism experts purport to exist. This is clear when one investigates the current mode of operations and selection of targets of southern resistance groups.

First, while the co-ordinated attacks on 28 April 2004 may have culminated in the martyrdom of 32 militants at Pattani's historically symbolic Krue Se Mosque, suicide bombing, the mainstay of the Al-Qaeda and JI strategies of asymmetrical warfare, has yet to find its way into the tactics chosen by separatist groups such as the Gerakan Mujahidin Islam Patani, which certain intelligence groups argue have already established relations with Al-Qaeda and JI. Second, violence in the south has primarily targeted police installations and personnel, Buddhist monks, and Thai teachers - all perceived as extensions of the oppressive Thai-Buddhist central government. Despite the opportunistic warning issued by the Patani United Liberation Organisation in the immediate aftermath of 28 April for Westerners to avoid the popular southern tourist islands of Phuket, Krabi and Phang Nga, no Western nationals or interests have been targeted in the most recent cycle of violence that has ensued since 2001. This stands in contrast to the strategy of JI in Southeast Asia, which, if the Bali bombing in October 2002 and intelligence reports on the plans of Singapore JI are anything to go by, has been to explicitly target Westerners. Finally, the arsenal of the perpetrators of attacks in southern Thailand has proven thus far to consist of machetes, pistols, and firebombs. No elaborate bomb-making expertise characteristic of Al-Qaeda and JI attacks have been demonstrated thus far. In other words, even if the violence that has broken out since 2001 appears to be better co-ordinated compared to previous cycles, the nature and character of these attacks perpetrated by militant groups in southern Thailand do not exhibit congruence with Al-Qaeda or JI tactics and strategies.

It appears then, that while there certainly are avenues for co-identification and collaboration between the ethno-nationalist militant groups operating in southern Thailand and the trans-national Jihadi groups such as Al-Qaeda and JI, these links remain undeveloped. Having said that, the onus is upon the Thai security apparatus and regional counter-terrorism mechanisms to ensure that this potential for collaboration is not actualised. To do so, the Thaksin administration will have to seriously reconsider its current strategy towards the violence in the south, which has mistakenly relied heavily on the use of force.

WATCHPOINT: As tension is augmented by an enhanced security presence in the region, will the government be able to counter the sense of marginalization and grievance felt by Thai Muslims and exploited by militants?


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