Terrorism in Southeast Asia: Thailand Operatives for militant Islamic groups have moved through Thailand in the past decade. Now analysts say foreigners from al Qaeda, Jemaah Islamiyah and similar groups could hijack a separatist insurgency in mainly Muslim southern Thailand.
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Terrorism in Southeast Asia: Thailand

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Terrorism in Southeast Asia: Thailand

Terrorism in Southeast Asia: Thailand

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

Indonesia and the Philippines are Southeast Asia's front-line states in the war on terror; Thailand is not. But that doesn't mean al-Qaeda and its regional allies have ignored this predominantly Buddhist nation. An ongoing insurgency in the Muslim-dominated south has some worried that militant Islam may be gaining ground. In the last of three reports on the terrorist threat in Southeast Asia, NPR's Michael Sullivan reports from Thailand.

MICHAEL SULLIVAN reporting:

For several months in the summer of 2003, the most wanted man in Southeast Asia, the operations chief of the group Jemaah Islamiah, who doubled as al-Qaeda's point man in the region, lived here, in a small, six-story apartment building about an hour's drive from the capital, Bangkok.

(Soundbite of dog barking)

SULLIVAN: On the night of August 11th, CIA agents and plainclothes Thai police raided the building and took away the Indonesian terrorist known as Hambali. Neighbors like this man, who calls himself Tony, says they were shocked to learn the man who lived on the top floor was a terrorist.

TONY (Neighbor): There is so many foreigner live here I have no idea about, because they're free. Everyone free and can come and can go.

SULLIVAN: Thailand is a place where almost anyone can come and go, a country heavily dependent on the tourist trade. Easy immigration procedures make it a favorite destination not just for tourists but for criminals as well. Panitan Wattanayagorn is a security analyst at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University.

Mr. PANITAN WATTANAYAGORN (Security Analyst, Chulalongkorn University): These organizations, these terrorist movements have used that openness to use Thailand, especially money laundering, smugglings, forgering government documentations, as investigations elsewhere discovered.

SULLIVAN: An alleged forger detained by Thai police last month, for example, is wanted by British authorities in connection with July's terrorist attacks in London. Police say that Jemaah Islamiah operations chief Hambali, now in police custody, came to Thailand frequently for meetings and used the country as a base from which to plan attacks like the 2002 nightclub bombings in Bali.

Ms. FRANCESCA LAWE-DAVIES (Southeast Asian Analyst, International Crisis Group): The rebels' contacts between Thai Muslims and members of Jemaah Islamiah began in Abu Sayyaf training camps in Afghanistan back as far as 1989.

SULLIVAN: Francesca Lawe-Davies, a Southeast Asian analyst at the International Crisis Group, says JI made good use of those contacts when Malaysia and Singapore began cracking down on Muslim militant groups after September 11th.

Ms. LAWE-DAVIES: A number of suspects they were looking for fled often through Malaysia to Thailand, including most famously Hambali. And there were a number of Thais who provided shelter for those fleeing militants.

(Soundbite of vehicle)

SULLIVAN: The southern Thai border town of Sungai Kolok offers a graphic illustration of just how easy it is for people to move back and forth across the border. Ethnic Malays from both sides breeze through immigration formalities with only a cursory examination, and some skip immigration altogether.

(Soundbite of paddling)

SULLIVAN: A hundred yards downstream, men and women in small wooden boats ferry produce, electronic goods and each other across the narrow ribbon of water that separates northern Malaysia from southern Thailand. Twenty-eight-year-old Mariam(ph) lives on the Thai side but works in a restaurant just across the river.

MARIAM (Thai): (Through Translator) Last month, around Malaysia's National Day, they stopped a lot of people from crossing along the river, but most of the time, they're not there, and we can cross with no problem.

SULLIVAN: Thai officials say the porous borders figures in the ongoing insurgency in Thailand's three southernmost provinces, an insurgency that has left more than 900 people dead in less than two years. Officials complain Muslim militants fleeing Thai security forces sometimes slip across the border into Malaysia to avoid capture. And some analysts fear there may be a foreign hand or two guiding the insurgency. The Thai government says that's not the case. Zachary Abuza is the author of a recent book on Southeast Asian terrorism.

Mr. ZACHARY ABUZA (Author): This is definitely homegrown, but to say that there's no connection to outside is naive. Saudi charities that have been implicated everywhere else around the world for supporting terrorism are active in southern Thailand. There are outside connections.

SULLIVAN: But there is a difference, says security analyst Panitan Wattanayagorn, between having connections with foreigners and taking orders from foreigners.

Mr. WATTANAYAGORN: They're here already, monitoring, evaluating and trying to take it under their direction, but they cannot order the local people what to do. They, themselves, have their own leaders. They, themselves, have their own causes. They are not just about to subject themselves to become a follower of some foreign leaders who came here with big money, ordering them what to do. Not yet.

SULLIVAN: And it's not yet clear whether the southern insurgents share the foreigners' Pan-Islamic anti-American ideology. Again, Francesca Lawe-Davies of the International Crisis Group.

Ms. LAWE-DAVIES: The insurgency in southern Thailand has always been ethno-nationalist rather than Islamist. The targets are Thai authorities, Thai Buddhist civilians and increasingly Muslim civilians suspected of cooperating with your authorities. They're not Westerners. They're not United States and its lackeys. We're talking about different groups with different motivations.

SULLIVAN: But those motivations could intersect at a later date if the situation in the south deteriorates. If that happens, Lawe-Davies writes in her group's latest report on the violence, this low-level ethno-nationalist insurgency could turn into something resembling a regional jihad. That's bad news for a country heavily dependent on tourism, an industry already battered by the Southeast Asian tsunami.

(Soundbite of chimes)

SULLIVAN: A regional jihad could also mean that the violence spreads beyond Thailand's southern provinces. The Puninchong Watawihan Temple complex(ph) is in the ancient city of Ayutthaya. It's a popular destination for Thai Buddhists and for Western tourists, too, who come by the busload on day trips from nearby Bangkok.

(Soundbite of chimes)

SULLIVAN: The temple is just a few miles from where the Indonesian terrorist Hambali was captured two years ago as he planned more high-profile attacks, including some in Thailand. Whether the insurgency widens and begins to target Westerners depends on how the Thai government handles the problem. Thai security analyst Panitan Wattanayagorn warns things could go bad in a hurry if the government continues its heavy-handed approach to the insurgency and if it fails to address the long-standing economic and political grievances of the Muslim population in the south.

Mr. WATTANAYAGORN: The local people may have not choice but to cooperate with the people from outside if pressed too hard, if there's no room for them to stay or to exist. All of this may happen if the government's not careful.

SULLIVAN: It might happen anyway, and if it does, Wattanayagorn says, Thailand will join Indonesia and the Philippines as front-line states in Southeast Asia's war on terror. Michael Sullivan, NPR News.

NORRIS: This is NPR, National Public Radio.

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