As Jihadwatch has noted in the past, Thailand is rapidly becoming one of the main fronts in the worldwide struggle against jihadism. Aided by Al-Qaeda linked groups based in Southeast Asia, along with Thais trained in camps in Pakistan and Afghanistan, the local Islamic insurgency is beginning to threaten the very stability of the overall Thai state. As an article in today’s Taipei Times notes, the capability and scope of the jihadist insurgency in Thailand stands to increase considerably over the coming months:
Involved in the violence are Thai Muslims trained in Libya and Syria, who fought beside Indonesian, Filipino and other Asian militants against Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s. The veterans maintain ties with their comrades-in-arms and may be getting updates on terrorist technology, said Police General Jumpol Manmai, who heads the National Intelligence Agency.
Malaysia has repeatedly denied rebel training camps exist on its soil. However, it has long served as a sanctuary for Thai Muslim dissidents and a source of funds provided by sympathetic Muslims. Most recently, 131 villagers fled into Malaysia reportedly out of fear of the military, but the Thai government said the exodus was instigated by insurgents to make Thailand look bad.
Perhaps most important are connections to Jemaah Islamiyah, the Southeast Asian terrorist network linked to al-Qaeda. Captured in Thailand in 2003 and now in US custody, the group’s operational chief, Riduan Isamuddin — an Indonesian better known as Hambali — met with Thai militants who gave him and other JI operatives shelter and logistics support. In the end, Jemaah Islamiyah didn’t go along with local militant plans to bomb Western embassies in Bangkok and tourist sites frequented by foreigners, according to Thai intelligence officials.
After 20 months of attacks, Thai authorities haven’t pounced on a single major safe house, weapons cache or bomb laboratory and haven’t captured more than a handful of possible suspects.
“Why? Because the insurgents operate inside the Muslim community which won’t point a finger at them, and the military is out there in the cold on its own,” said Worawit, who teaches Malay studies at Prince of Songkhla University in Pattani. Muslims comprise only about 5 percent, or 3.1 million, of Thailand’s population of 62 million — nearly all of them in Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat.
Zachary Abuza, an expert on terrorism in Southeast Asia who recently visited the region, said he believes the militants have a broad agenda: “This is much more than an insurgency. This is much more of an attempt to transform society,” he said. He noted that the rebels have targeted moderate Muslims and through their leaflets have warned clergy not to perform funeral rites for those they kill and threatened people who do business on Friday, the Muslim holy day.
While other experts disagree, Abuza links the violence to the growth of Salafism, which preaches a puritanical interpretation of Islam in a society where moderation and tolerance of Buddhist neighbors prevailed in the past.