Thailand: Terrorism Reaches Thailand?


Dr John Funston

The recent arrests of alleged Thai Jemaah Islamiah (JI) associates in Thailand and Cambodia, together with that of a Thai trying to sell radioactive material for a ‘dirty’ bomb, have dramatically raised perceptions of a terrorist threat in Thailand. JI members were reportedly planning Bali-style truck bomb attacks on major centres for foreign tourists, and against five embassies (Israel, the US, Britain, Australia and Singapore).

Terrorism experts have long-maintained that the al-Qaeda linked JI, and al-Qaeda itself, are active in Thailand. Media reports have claimed that JI meetings in Thailand early 2001 decided on a major policy shift away from an exclusive focus on 'hard targets' (US embassies, ships etc) to include also 'soft targets' such as tourist centres, bars and nightclubs – leading directly to the Bali bombing.

Thai leaders dismissed such reports, Prime Minister Thaksin labelling them 'crazy'. Officials later acknowledged that JI leaders had passed through, but denied any meeting had taken place.

Then suddenly, Thaksin changed track. First he said that evidence of JI links against two Thais arrested late May in Cambodia was compelling. Then, on the eve of travel to the US he asserted that US intelligence on JI activities in Thailand was correct. Three alleged JI associates were arrested just hours before Thaksin met with President Bush on 10 June. Three days later the alleged dirty bomb salesman was detained.

Thai actions were warmly welcomed by the US and others; and widely accepted by the international media as evidence that concerns about terrorism in Thailand had been correct all along. But can this be accepted at face value? Was it mere coincidence that arrests in Thailand came just before and after Thaksin met with President Bush – a meeting that included a focus on Thailand’s assistance for the war on terror?

The circumstances of the arrests leave many unanswered questions. The dirty bomb suspect was detained in a sting operation that involved US officials, and a recent ABC 7.30 Report disclosed that the radioactive content of the materials was negligible (the type used in hospitals), while an alleged vial of uranium contained only sand. None of the JI suspects have yet been charged, and the press has reported much scepticism among Muslims that such individuals – community leaders – would be involved. Contrary to early reports, none has admitted an association with JI, and none had maps or other incriminatory material in their possession.

In an age of global terrorism one would expect Thailand to be a target of JI/al-Qaeda activity. It would not be surprising if JI/al-Qaeda have made some headway in Southern Thailand, as Muslims there have a long history of contacts with co-religionists in Southeast Asia and the Middle East. Thailand’s location, and the presence of a large Muslim minority (around four million), make it attractive for transit or even hiding out. There are many convenient targets in Thailand associated with the US and its allies. And indeed Thai detainees admit to some contact with a Singapore JI member detained in Bangkok in mid-May (though they say it was without being aware of his identity).

Still, Thai authorities will need to provide compelling evidence for recent arrests. Otherwise they will provoke opposition from human rights activists – concerned not only by the recent arrests but with plans to introduce new, repressive anti-terror legislation. Also Thai authorities run the risk of complicating sensitive relations with a Muslim minority upset by a recent escalation of killings in the South, and radicalised by US actions in Afghanistan and Iraq.

WATCHPOINT: Charges must be laid against the detainees within 84 days of arrest. The details of these charges, and the evidence produced to support them, will be crucial in lending credibility to the government case.


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