Originally Published 2005-08-17 04:41:06 Published on Aug 17, 2005
The Thai authorities continue to face difficulties in their efforts to bring the activities of the jihadi terrorist elements under control in Southern Thailand. The current wave of jihadi terrorist violence in the three Muslim majority southern provinces, which started in January last year, has already cost over 800 lives of Government servants, innocent civilians and suspected Muslim militants.
Terrorism in Southern Thailand: An Update
The Thai authorities continue to face difficulties in their efforts to bring the activities of the jihadi terrorist elements under control in Southern Thailand. The current wave of jihadi terrorist violence in the three Muslim majority southern provinces, which started in January last year, has already cost over 800 lives of Government servants, innocent civilians and suspected Muslim militants.

Like all jihadi terrorist movements, whether in Afghanistan, Iraq, Chechnya or elsewhere, it has already passed through two stages and is presently in its third stage. The first stage saw attacks on the security forces, including village defence elements, partly to demonstrate their mobilisation power and partly to capture arms and ammunition. The second stage saw targeted attacks on individual government servants and teachers and non-governmental elements with the help of the arms and ammunition secured by them during the first stage. The objective was to spread demoralisation in the ranks of the Government servants and the teachers of the educational institutions. The third stage has been seeing increasingly indiscriminate attacks on innocent civilians through the use of hand-held weapons as well as improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and targeted attacks on alleged agents of the police and the security forces and local Muslims perceived as co-operating with the Government. The idea is to create doubts in the minds of the local population about the ability of the Government to protect them.

The third stage has been marked by instances of Muslims killing Muslims, but such instances are still few and far between and not widespread as in Afghanistan, Iraq or Chechnya. There has been no attempt by the terrorists to establish any territorial control over any part of the South. While they have shown considerable capability in the assembling and use of IEDs, they do not as yet have adequate holdings of hand-held weapons, without which territorial control is not possible. Nor is there any evidence to suggest that they want to establish territorial control.

Their present tactical objectives seem to be to radicalise the local Muslim population, to promote feelings of Islamic solidarity and Islamic consciousness, to create a mental and emotional divide between the Muslims and the non-Muslims, mainly the Buddhists, and to prepare the ground for a sustained jihad. What is their strategic objective--greater autonomy for the Muslim-majority provinces or an independent Muslim homeland to ultimately form part of an Islamic Caliphate for the whole of South-East Asia? The answer is not clear from the reports emanating frm South Thailand, but in the madrasas and mosques of Bangladesh and Pakistan from where the ideological inspiration and material support for the movement are coming, the strategic objective is projected as an independent Pattani homeland. In Bangladesh and Pakistan, the Thai Muslims are referred to as the Pattanis.

It is an internal movement externally inspired and supported, but unrelated to the US-led occupation of Iraq and to Thailand's support to the US. Many of the jihadis presently operating in Southern Thailand have well imbibed the operational teachings of their mentors in Bangladesh and Pakistan, but have not yet been afflicted by their hatred of the West, particularly the US. Till now, they have avoided any attacks on foreign targets in Bangkok or elsewhere. If and when they enter the fourth stage of their jihad, which is likely to involve attacks on economic targets, one could expect attacks on foreign nationals and interests.

The external inspiration has so far been mainly from Bangladesh and Pakistan, the main motivating organisations being the Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami (HUJI), which has a presence both in Bangladesh and Pakistan, and the Lashkar-e-Toiba (LET), which has a presence only in Pakistan and not in Bangladesh. The extensive media reporting in Pakistan on the presence of foreign students in Pakistani madrasas, which followed the reports of the involvement of three British citizens of Pakistani origin in the London explosions of July 7, 2005, has revealed the presence of nearly a thousand Pattanis in the Pakistani madrasas.

This has been a surprisingly large number. Till the Pakistani media gave an estimate of the number of Thai students in their madrasas, one was under the impression that the flow of Thai Muslims to the madrasas in Pakistan had considerably declined after the arrest of the brother of Hambali, the operational chief of the Jemaah Islamiya (JI), and some other Indonesians and Malaysians from madrasas in Karachi controlled by the LET and their deportation to their respective countries in 2003. Instructions had gone to the Thai Muslims after their deportation to go to Bangladesh thereafter for studies in the madrasas there since the Pakistani jihadi organisations, which are members of Osama bin Laden's International Islamic Front (IIF), were afraid that the Americans might be keeping a watch on the madrasas in Pakistan.

One does not know when the flow of the so-called Pattanis to the Pakistani madrasas was resumed. It is also not clear whether this high number includes only Thai Muslims or whether this also includes Muslims from the adjoining provinces of Malaysia. Even the American intelligence agencies, which have a large presence in Pakistan, seem to have missed the enrollment of such a large number of Thai Muslims in the Pakistani madrasas.

Many of these Thai Muslims have enrolled themselves in the madrasas of the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) and Balochistan, which are the hotbed of the activities of the Taliban and the Wahabi-Deobandi organisations of Pakistan. Some of them have also undergone training in the jihadi training centres of the Taliban and Gulbuddin Heckmatyar's Hizbe Islami (HEI) and have been participating in the current Taliban-HEI-Al Qaeda offensive in Afghanistan from sanctuaries in the NWFP and Balochistan. Some of the Thai Muslims were reported to have participated in the widespread anti-American demonstrations in Afghanistan organised by the Hizbut Tehrir in protest against the alleged descecration of the Holy Koran by the American guards at the Guantanamo Bay Detention Centre in Cuba.

The orders issued by Gen.Pervez Musharraf after the London explosions asking his officials to expel all foreign students in the madrasas are not being seriously implemented. There has been opposition to the implementation of these orders not only from the fundamentalist organisations, but also from other political parties, including the ruling Pakistan Muslim League (Qaide Azam), which is a creation of Musharraf. At a conference of the Corps Commanders of the Army held on August 13 under the chairmanship of Musharraf, some of the Corps Commanders are also reported to have expressed their misgivings over the wisdom of his action in ordering the expulsion of the foreign students.

The Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA), the coalition of fundamentalist parties, which is in power in the NWFP and which is a member of the ruling coalition in Balochistan, has advised all foreign students in the madrasas of Sindh and Punjab to shift to the madrasas in the NWFP and Balochistan and assured them that no action would be taken against them. About 200 Thai Muslims studying in the Karachi madrasas have already moved over to the NWFP, Balochistan and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA).

While there are reports of a creeping Arabisation of sections of the Muslim youth of Southern Thailand, similar to what one had seen in Indonesia, there are as yet no trends which could be described as the possible Talibanisation of the youth. Recent developments such as the orders by the Muslim militants to all commercial and other establishments to close down on Fridays and even Thursdays are indicative of a greater radicalisation, but not necessarily of Talibanisation. The two most important characteristics of Talibanisation are attacks on places of entertainment such as movie halls and video parlours, and radio and TV stations and greater restrictions on the personal lives of women. One has not seen reports of any such trends in Southern Thailand so far.

There has been considerable fraternisation of the Thai Muslims in Pakistan with the Taliban, the HEI and the remnants of the Al Qaeda. While this has strengthened their motivation and feelings of Islamic solidarity, this influence has not led to the Thai Muslims doing a copy cat of the mass casualty reprisal terrorism of the Al Qaeda brand in Southern Thailand. The Al Qaeda's main strategic interest in cultivating the Thai Muslims and helping them is in using them for possible acts of maritime terrorism in the Malacca Straits. The importance of the Malacca Straits from the point of view of the global jihad is one of the lessons taught in the madrasas and jihadi training centres of Pakistan.

From the reports available so far from Southern Thailand as well as Bangladesh and Pakistan, it has not been possible to establish the identity of the organisation behind the current jihad in Southern Thailand. Is it the Pattani United Liberation Organisation or is there a new organisation behind it? The prestigious "Daily Times" of Lahore has reported that the decision to launch a jihad in Southern Thailand was taken at a meeting of the jihadi leaders held in Lahore, but it has not indicated when this meeting was held and who attended it.

Two characteristics mark the counter-terrorism operations of the Thai authorities. Firstly, a "kabi garam, kabi naram" (sometimes hard, sometimes soft) approach, which creates confusion in the minds of the counter-terrorism forces as to what exactly is their role and to what extent they can use force in dealing with the terrorists.

Secondly, the continued poor flow of human and technical intelligence. The poor human intelligence is due to the fact that the terrorists, like those in Iraq, are operating in autonomous cells. As a result, even the capture or surrender of any terrorist leads to only intelligence about his cell and not other cells. The poor technical intelligence is due to the fact that the jihadi terrorists in Southern Thailand are avoiding the use of technical means for their communications and seem to be using couriers.

The apparent fact that even the American intelligence has not been able to be of any help in improving the technical intelligence flow is due to the avoidance of technical means of communications by the terrorists. The only way of improving the flow of human intelligence is through better police-Muslim community relations. This has not yet received the required attention. The local Muslim population has definitely been intimidated by the jihadi terrorists into carrying out their directives as seen in the widespread compliance with the directive to close down the business establishments on Fridays and Thursdays, but from this, it does not necessarily follow that the general Muslim population, whatever be their grievances against the Thai Government, shares the objectives of the jihadis and approves their methods of operation.

There is still a window of opportunity for the Thai authorities to dilute the feelings of alienation in the Muslim population so that their support could be enlisted in the counter-terrorism operations. The difficulties for the Thai authorities are likely to multiply when the Thai Muslims presently in Pakistan and Bangladesh start returning. They have to tone up their counter-terrorism set-up and policies without any further delay.

It would be in the interest of the Malaysian authorities to co-operate fully with their Thai counterparts. If the infection is not stopped in Southern Thailand, it is only a question of time before it spreads to Malaysia and the Malacca Straits. Jihadi terrorists recognise no national borders--neither of the non-Muslim countries nor of the Muslim countries.

The writer is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai, and Distinguished Fellow and Convenor, Observer Research Foundation (ORF), Chennai Chapter. E-mail: [email protected].

Source: South Asia Analysis Group, New Delhi, Paper no. 1501, August 15, 2005.

* Views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Observer Research Foundation.
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