Pacific Rim Bureau (CNSNews.com) - After years of playing down the threat, and following a week of turbulence, authorities in Thailand have acknowledged that violence in the country's predominantly Muslim south is likely linked to foreign terrorist networks.
Terrorism experts say southern Thailand forms part of the region targeted by al-Qaeda-linked, Southeast Asian militants seeking an Islamic super-state also comprising Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and the southern Philippines.
The government this week declared martial law in three southern states near Thailand's border with Malaysia, following orchestrated assaults on military facilities, the torching of more than 20 schools, and bombings.
Gunmen carried out a coordinated attack on an army weapons depot Sunday, killing four soldiers before escaping with 300 firearms.
Since then bombs have killed two police officers and wounded another, and a remote police station has come under automatic gunfire attack.
Thailand's government, highly sensitive about the international image of a country heavily reliant on tourism, has long denied a terrorism problem.
Last year that stance was increasingly called into question by a series of arrests of Thai and foreign terror suspects, including most notably that of Hambali, the Indonesian operations chief of Jemaah Islamiah (JI).
JI, described by security officials as the Southeast Asian proxy or wing of Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda, is blamed for the Oct. 2002 deadly bombing on the Indonesian island of Bali.
A month before Bali, the Singapore government announced that information obtained from captured JI suspects pointed to the existence of a regional terror alliance including JI, a separatist group in the southern Philippines, and an unnamed extremist organization in southern Thailand.
The discovery of Hambali in Thailand last year, coupled with the uncovering of plots to carry out attacks during an Asia-Pacific summit last October attended by President Bush and other world leaders, underscored concerns that Thailand was now on the terrorists' agenda.
Nonetheless, Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra this week maintained that those behind the attacks in the south were mainly criminal "bandits," and had no links to "international terrorist groups like Jemaah Islamiah."
The stance drew strong criticism, with editorials in several newspapers taking the government to task for "wishful thinking."
"Denying that a more serious problem exists appears to be a deliberate strategy of this image-focused administration," said the Bangkok Post. "This is folly of the most perilous sort."
But in a sign that the government may be changing tack, several senior security officials have in a series of interviews now confirmed that authorities were investigating links between the violence in the south and foreign militants.
Bangkok also officially asked Indonesia to closely monitor Thai Muslim students studying at Islamic schools in Indonesia, some of which are considered breeding grounds for JI and other radical groups.
Thailand has also obtained Malaysia's agreement to step up security on its side of the joint border, to prevent militants from crossing either way.
Gen. Kitti Rattanachaya, a former southern military commander recently appointed security advisor to the government, said militants in Thailand, like those in Indonesia, Malaysia and elsewhere in the region, had their origins in the Islamic jihad against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan.
Comprising about 10 percent of the population of the largely Buddhist country, Thailand's six million Muslims mostly speak a dialect of Malay, the language of their co-religionists across the border in Malaysia.
Several decades ago, southern Thailand was caught up in a low-key separatist campaign, which generally dissipated after the radicals involved accepted an amnesty offer.
Of new groups that have emerged in recent time, the one thought most likely responsible for the latest violence is known as Gerakan Mujahideen Islam Pattani (GMIP) or the Pattani Islamic Mujahideen Movement. Pattani is one of the border provinces now under martial law.
Security officials say they are hunting several suspects in connection with Sunday's deadly attack, including a GMIP leader named as Jehbemae Buteh. Two Muslim clerics are among those who have been detained for questioning.
Terrorism specialist Dr. Zachary Abuza of Simmons College, Boston said Friday it was clear that JI had tried to draw militant Thai groups into a regional network, but whether it had succeeded was unclear.
He noted that JI suspects fleeing a clampdown in Malaysia had crossed into southern Thailand, but it was not known whether they did so simply because they had family networks there, or driven by a more devious agenda.
Whatever the case, southern Thailand is definitely part of the Islamic super state envisioned by JI, said Abuza, who spoke by phone from the southern Philippines.
He said it was also worth noting that one of the region's most "fiery" Wahhabist clerics is a Thai named Ismail Lufti, the rector of an Islamic university in southern Thailand.
Regional intelligence officials had told him they suspected Lufti was a senior figure in JI, he said.
"I can't corroborate that, although he does share the JI world view. If you told me he was a talent-scout and that he has contact with JI members, I wouldn't doubt that a bit."
'Sustained operations likely'
The U.S. Embassy in Bangkok has not issued new advice for Americans in the country, a spokesman said Friday, adding that a previous advisory remained relevant.
That advice, issued by the State Department last May, urged U.S. citizens to be careful, especially in places where Westerners gather. It also said Thailand's far south had experienced "criminally and politically motivated violence."
Although armed local extremist groups focused mainly on Thai government interests, it said, Americans traveling in the south should remain vigilant.
Kitti, the Thai security advisor, has warned that the theft of weapons in the south meant the extremists were likely preparing for larger attacks.
A similar assessment came Friday from terrorism researcher Rohan Gunaratna, a visiting fellow at the Institute Of Defense and Strategic Studies in Singapore, and author of a book on al-Qaeda.
"When a group attacks and raids an armory, it's a very clear indication of their intentions, and what is likely to happen in the next few months," he said in a phone interview.
"The purpose is to build a military capability or increase a military capability. That means the group is planning and preparing to mount sustained operations. That's why it's so worrying."
Gunaratna was critical of Bangkok's handling of the threat to date.
"The government has consistently said this is a group of gangsters. In our assessment this is wrong. The group conducting these attacks is politically-motivated," he said, adding that the GMIP was currently thought the most likely perpetrator of the violence.
He also named another Thai-based extremist group, Jemaah Salafiah, which he said had close links to JI. "It's a group that until now has not been targeted by the government."
"These groups have reemerged and are growing steadily because the Thai response has been weak. The government, instead of avoiding the problem, must address it as a significant security threat. If you tolerate these individuals and groups, the threat will grow."
Gunaratna said there was also room for better security cooperation among regional governments, including shared databases and expertise, exchange of personnel, judicial cooperation, and joint training exercises.
He praised the "substantial work" in the region by the U.S. and Australian governments, and said they could play an important role by pushing regional governments to cooperate further.
Last July a regional counter-terrorism center opened in the Malaysian capital, Kuala Lumpur, with the strong backing of the U.S.
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