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Asia: Thai Attacks Raise Specter That Terrorists Are Broadening Their Reach In Region

Thai officials acknowledged today that the country faces a terrorist threat, following a series of coordinated attacks on 4 January against schools and an army camp in the south of the country. After years of denying terrorism existed in the country, this admission by Thai authorities has raised concerns that Muslim extremists may be broadening their reach in Southeast Asia.

Prague, 8 January 2003 (RFE/RL) -- It was, according to senior officials, the worst raid by Islamic guerrillas in Thailand's recent history.

On 4 January, in a well-coordinated attack, a group of armed rebels set fire simultaneously to 21 schools within a 10-kilometer radius of a Thai army camp. Using the arson as a diversion, the group then shot their way onto the base, stealing more than 100 guns and killing four soldiers before vanishing into the jungle.

After years of insisting that periodic violence in southern Thailand -- home to the only majority-Muslim provinces in the country -- was simple "banditry" caused by a handful of rebels, Thailand's leaders had to admit they may now be facing a more serious terror threat.

Retired General Kitti Rattanachaya, the government's new security adviser, told journalists that the sophistication of the attack and the choice of targets indicates the violence was the work of newly emboldened Islamist separatists. Kitti said many of the separatists operating in southern Thailand are known to have acquired battle experience in Afghanistan. He said their ambitious raid and subsequent disappearance indicated they must have links with other extremist groups operating out of nearby Malaysia.

Does this mean, as some terrorism experts have already speculated, that Jemaah Islamiyah, the Al-Qaeda-connected regional terror network, has now established itself in yet another country in Southeast Asia?

Caroline Bain, area specialist at the London-based Economist Intelligence Unit, tells RFE/RL that the raiders' main objective appears to have been to steal weapons. This does support the theory of a foreign link, although the connection to Islamic extremist group Jemaah Islamiyah remains highly speculative.

"The most likely theory at the moment is that these arms could be making their way to the separatist Aceh [region of Indonesia] -- that the rebels there could be buying them from this group operating in southern Thailand," Bain says. "And in the last six months, the Indonesian authorities have repeatedly requested that the Thai authorities help them control the flow of arms to the rebels in Aceh, because it's been widely suspected for a while that arms could be coming through southern Thailand to the rebels. That seems more likely at the moment than any link to the regional terror group Jemaah Islamiyah."

On the other hand, Bain notes that parts of southern Thailand do have the potential to offer Islamic militants sanctuary and to act as a recruiting ground for future terrorists -- a definite cause for concern: "The sympathy is probably growing. The southern part of Thailand is one of the poorest parts of the country. It's for a long time felt quite alienated from the authorities in Bangkok. There's a different religion, different culture, very high unemployment. It depends on the rubber industry. It's also traditionally voted for the Democrat Party in Thailand, which is currently in opposition and is losing favor elsewhere in the country. So, it's quite an isolated part of the country and thus is quite ripe for recruiting."

The deadly bombings in Bali in October 2002 brought the existence of a loose Southeast Asian terrorist network to public attention. Jemaah Islamiyah, which planned the lethal blasts and has links to Osama bin Laden's Al-Qaeda, has been linked to further attacks in Indonesia. Al-Qaeda has also been tied to Philippine-based terrorists.

When Thai authorities arrested alleged Bali mastermind Riduan Isamuddin -- better known as Hambali -- in the country last summer and handed him over to U.S. authorities for questioning, a terror link to Thailand seemed to have been drawn. The government in Bangkok took measures to tighten security but said any terrorists caught in the country had merely been transiting, and it continued to deny any problem with terrorism.

Last weekend's attacks have now made the government change its public stance. And at a meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in Bangkok today to discuss transnational crime, Malaysia's deputy minister for home affairs, Chor Chee Heung, stressed the importance of regional cooperation in stamping out terrorism. While not directly addressing allegations that terrorist groups operating from Malaysia could have taken part in the Thai attacks, Chor said his government will show no tolerance toward militant groups -- be they Muslim radicals or anyone else.

"We are dead against terrorism and want all terrorists being brought to book, irrespective of them being of whatever religious organization or whatever. It doesn't matter to us."

Since 2002, analysts say regional cooperation among governments in Southeast Asia has noticeably improved, as has police work, evidenced by the arrests of key terror suspects. But with many countries heavily dependent on foreign investment and especially the tourist industry, no one is keen to say much about the issue, for fear of scaring off foreigners.

As for the long-term risk that Southeast Asia could soon become the world's main terrorist flashpoint, Bain says the risk exists but should not be overstated.

"There's definitely a risk there," he says. "[But] I think the risk can be overdone. Indonesia's the largest Muslim country in the world, but historically and traditionally it's a very moderate type of Islam that's been practiced there. I think it can be easy to look at a few rebels or a few extremists and daub the whole nation with the same brush. I don't think necessarily it's going to explode into a sort of Islamic warrior country in the near future. Economic factors could have an impact -- if the economy fails to recover, if unemployment continues to rise with poverty. That could lead to perhaps a greater return to Islamic fundamentalism. But at the moment, it doesn't seem like a huge risk. What is likely is that we'll see more isolated incidents."

Thailand, in the meantime, has ordered the creation of five task forces, each composed of 600 men, to hunt down the perpetrators of the 4 January attacks and prevent future raids.