Monday, February 13, 2012

Is Thailand a new terrorism playground?

Sixteen hours prior to the US government issued a warning of terrorism attack in Bangkok on Friday, the 13th January, at 4.00 pm., Hussein Atris, 47, a Lebanese-Swedish passport holder, was apprehended at Suvarnaphoumi Airport near midnight on Thursday. What came after the following days showed the huge perception gap of Thai policy makers and their counter terrorism measures with the international community. Worsen still was the unpreparedness of Thai security apparatus to face up with the perceived threats of highly mobile and sophisticated terrorism networks. No wonder, they are still in denial.

Atris was under the watch list since Dec 10, 2011 when the Thai intelligence was alerted that a group of Hezbollah operatives, who were in and are coming to Thailand, could plan terrorist attacks in Bangkok, targeting foreigners, in particular Israeli citizens and assets. On the list are places they frequently visit or stay such as Khaosan Road (cheap hotels and a Chabad), Samui and Pangan Islands (for Full-moon parties) and Sukhumvit Soi 22. Although the Special Branch Police have been on the lookout, they did not have any lead as bits and pieces of intelligence were not case specific.

It was a stroke of luck that Atris was not aware that his name was on the wanted list. Had he chose to exit through land check-points, say, at Nongkai on the Thai-Lao border, he could slip out without notice—indeed not all computers at land border check-points are linked to the immigration's headquarters. After hours of intense interrogation, Atris disclosed the location of a three-story building in Mahachai, Samutsakon on the outskirt of Bangkok where he has accumulated explosive materials—urea-based fertilizer and ammonium nitrate. The Thai authorities believed that they were destined for the third countries not for local targets.

Thailand is no stranger to such terrorist plots targeting Israeli assets and citizens. In March 1994, a Hezbollah-linked group planned a car bomb attack at the Israel Embassy, which was situated in Langsuan. Again, by sheer lucks, the mission was aborted as the car-bomb miraculously broke down. The incident, known among the Thai intelligence, as "Lung Chum (Uncle Chum)" affairs--referring to the hijacked Thai driver who was killed and tied up to the bomb hidden inside the car—serves as a fresh reminder that changes have been for too little and slow in the ways and methods the Thai security apparatus and policy makers reacted including the public's benign attitude on the perceived terrorist threats. According to a latest ABAC poll released last weekend, 55.9 per cent of Thais do not believe that terrorist attacks would happen in Bangkok while 58.1 per cent thought it could occur elsewhere.

No wonder, all the top echelons of Yingluck government were furious, if not over reacted, to the US alert on terrorism warning on its website. They complained the short notice given to them by the Bangkok-based US embassy. Foreign Minister Surapong Tohvichakchaikul criticized the US and expressed disappointment for not closely consult with the Thai side before the warning was flagged. Judging from the knee-jerked responses by several government leaders, it showed that the Pheu Thai ruling party was hyper sensitive as the warning came a few days before the Lunar New Year celebration last weekend. They feared that tourists would cancel flights and trips as well as damage the post-flood business environment. They demanded the US to withdraw it as soon as possible but the US refused. Further adding salts to the wounds, additional 17 countries have followed the US terrorist alert. Last week ahead of the Lunar New Year, China withdrew the travel advisory altogether in responding to Yingluck's request. Foreign concerns are for the safety of their citizens but somehow, the Thai government failed to comprehend that any mass-casualty terrorist attack over here would put the Thai lives in jeopardy as well.

The alert, while it was credible, has not impacted very much on foreign visitors which included US lawmakers--crowding the Suvarnaphoumi airport over the past week. In reality, with specific and accurate information on locations of possible terrorist attacks, visitors would choose safer places to visit. As such, it also boosts the country's counter-terrorism creditability. So the Thai authorities have to be open-minded because the arrest of Atris could represent a harbinger of the future on terrorist threats on Thai soils. With his remaining accomplices are still on the run, the foreign embassies chose to adopt the same precaution. In the case of Thailand, for instance, inaccurate information and naïve official comments on floods management and controls caused not only confusions but also economic damages and scared off foreigners.

It is an open secret that Thailand is a haven for terrorists as well as transnational criminal groups. For decades, they have been using the country as a center to procure illegal materials (arms, drugs or banned chemical and explosive substances), laundry money, forging foreign currencies and travelling documents. Given its centrality in the continental Southeast Asia with nearly one-thousand flights daily in operation, Thailand remains "the" ideal logistic hub for terrorist operations elsewhere. Still, the concerned Thai authorities are not up to the task. For instance, the Immigration Bureau and Special Branch Police are still under staff and lack counter-terrorism training. They have not yet tightened immigration regulations, improved surveillance or set up a viable IT system to anti-terrorism global networks.

While terrorists have changed their strategies but the Thais have not changed their mindset. They naively think that Thailand is a friendly country and has no enemy. Their mantra is still the same: we can turn blind eyes on activities if they do not harm the Thai people. Otherwise, there would be better diplomatic cooperation and communication as well as the display of more humility from the Thai side.

The immigration bureau is notorious for being unprofessional and corrupted without thinking of broader security implications. Under the command of the Royal Thai Police Headquarter, the immigration procedure is also subjected to police bureaucracy and culture. To cope with future challenges related to terrorism and massive cross-border movement, the bureau needs to be detached from the police headquarters and has its autonomy and staff. After the car registration department spin off as an independent bureau away from the police orbit, it has been rated as one of the most efficient government agencies and thriving.

During the 1994 car bomb investigation, the Thai police missed all the important clues and many forensic evidences left inside the car including names of culprits in Arabic languages were overlooked. In retrospect, the episode also revealed the benign attitude of society at large that they did not have any idea about the danger of international terrorism. For instance, the Hezbollah group could procure assets and explosive materials without producing any identification and documents. To be fair, today some of these procedures have improved, due to the insurgent activities in southern Thailand, but not the public awareness as a whole.

The warning is a crude wake-up call for the security officials in charge and public in general. Luckily, this time the only casualties were limited to the diplomatic rows between Thailand and key allies. In the future, if the Thai vulnerabilities continue, terrorists will continue to exploit gaps and the casualties might not be just words. The Nation, Bangkok

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