Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Exporting Jihad: Is Thailand the New Front in Southeast Asia’s Terror Fight?

The arrest in Malaysia of Jemaah Islamiyah-linked Indonesian terrorist fugitive Fadli Sadama in November has raised concerns that Indonesian jihadists could be expanding their links with other regional militant outfits.

Of particular concern are allegations that Fadli purchased firearms from militants in the restive region of southern Thailand and sought to establish a joint training camp there between Indonesian jihadists and their Thai counterparts.

It is beyond debate that Indonesian militants have had a presence in Thailand and that some even established personal connections with militants there; however, the existence and extent of any cooperation between militants from the two countries is largely unknown.

The separatist conflict in southern Thailand has a history that dates back nearly half a century, but the scale and tempo of unrest there has escalated since 2004 and it is now considered a full-fledged ethno-religious insurgency.

Between January 2004 and 2009, more than 8,000 violent incidents were recorded in southern Thailand, leaving some 3,000 people dead.

Casualties have mostly been civilian but police and military have also suffered significant losses.

For a regional population of only 1.8 million, the figures represent a considerable toll. This significant loss of life and the potential for the violence to spread beyond Thailand’s southern border provinces and the issue of external influences in support of militant groups in the region continue to generate concern both in Thailand and the wider Southeast Asian region.

Since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States, extremist groups linked to Al Qaeda have perpetrated a series of high-profile mass-casualty attacks in Southeast Asia, including those initiated by JI and the Abu Sayyaf group.

In the past, several JI leaders have transited through or sought refuge in Thailand, allegedly making contacts with southern militants, leading to speculation over the years that members of JI have forged personal contacts with Thai militants.

The most high-profile Indonesian terrorist to have spent time in Thailand is Riduan Isamuddin, alias Hambali, who concurrently held senior positions in Al Qaeda and JI. He helped mastermind some of JI’s worst atrocities, including the 2002 Bali bombing and the bombing of the JW Marriott hotel in Jakarta in 2003.

According to some accounts, it was during the period between 2002 and 2003 — when Hambali was on the run from a crackdown in Indonesia — that he made contacts with militants in Thailand’s deep south and offered JI’s support.

Accounts of the extent of the contacts vary, but Hambali’s offer was allegedly rejected, mainly because the Thai militants did not share JI’s vision of a pan-Islamic caliphate and indiscriminate bloodshed.

In the words of one self-professed leader of a southern Thai insurgent group: “We didn’t want anything to do with these guys. They are bad news. I told them we are only interested in looking after our own territory.

“Many of our top [headmasters of Islamic boarding schools] believe that if Indonesians become involved, we will be like Iraq, a place where Muslims kill Muslims.”

Hambali was arrested in Ayutthaya, north of Bangkok, in August 2003 and was handed over to the United States. He is currently being held at Camp X-Ray in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

In its present form, the Thai insurgency does not form part of the wider jihadist struggle being waged by Al Qaeda and JI. However, the greatest threat is the transformation of the locally-based insurgency into a component of global jihad.

The modus operandi of JI and Al Qaeda lends itself well to the Thai conflict in this regards. Both groups are well-known for inserting themselves into communal and sectarian conflicts for ideological, training and recruitment purposes. And there are several precedents for this scenario, which would be most disastrous for Thailand and the Southeast Asian region in general.

While JI was unsuccessful in trying to exploit religious strife in Sulawesi and Maluku early last decade for a wider jihad in Indonesia, Al Qaeda has been successful in this regard.

One of the global terror group’s greatest successes in exploiting local conflicts has occurred in Algeria.

In 1991, the Armed Islamic Group (better known by its French initials, GIA) launched a campaign of violence against the Algerian government after it voided elections won by Islamic opposition parties.

This separatist insurgency continued throughout the 1990s, with GIA eventually petering out due to relentless pressure from the state.

However, a small splinter group of the GIA refused to give up and, in a desperate bid to keep the struggle alive with an infusion of funds and weapons, formed an alliance with Osama bin Laden’s Al Qaeda. This new group emerged in 2006 under the name Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.

Since then, AQIM has been responsible for dozens of suicide bombings, including on UN offices in Algeria, and dozens of kidnappings and killings of foreigners in the region.

While the parallels between the Thai and Algerian conflicts are sketchy, the case of AQIM shows how groups waging local conflicts can be incorporated into a wider jihadi struggle.

While there is little doubt that JI and its splinter groups have attempted to exploit the ongoing unrest in southern Thailand for their own agenda, no concrete evidence exists to suggest it has been transformed into another front for regional jihadists.

However, as the Thai conflict appears set to continue unabated, a possible fundamental transformation that involves closer cooperation between local militants with regional terrorist groups cannot be ruled out.

The willingness to at least sell arms to visiting Indonesian fugitive s such as Fadli raises concerns that, despite the reluctance of southern Thai separatists to let JI and its offshoots play a role in their struggle, the ice may be breaking.

By Todd Elliott Jakarta-based security analyst with Concord Consulting.(Jakarta Globe)

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