Saturday, April 7, 2012

Explosive Escalation of Thai Insurgency

BANGKOK - Hard on the heels of international terrorist scares in Bangkok in January and February, coordinated car-bomb attacks in the southern cities of Hat Yai and Yala on March 31 highlighted with lethal clarity the growing capabilities of Thailand's home-grown separatist insurgency and reignited concerns over the potential for Malay-Muslim militants to migrate their attacks northwards from the current theater of three southernmost provinces.

The weekend blitz also appeared to indicate that conventional political and military responses to what is typically seen as a low-intensity conflict confined to the majority Malay-speaking provinces of Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat are failing, and are certainly no longer capable of preventing potentially disastrous blows to the country's lucrative tourism industry.

In three specific respects the bombings came as an unprecedented escalation of the violence which first gathered pace in early 2004. In human terms, the casualty toll of 14 dead and over 400 injured constituted the deadliest single operation in the south to date and appeared to push the conflict into territory ominously similar to Afghanistan or Iraq.

Tactically, the operation marked the first time the insurgents have successfully carried out complex, coordinated attacks using several car-bombs in urban areas where security was supposedly reinforced.

Thirdly and politically, the bombers' return to Hat Yai after an absence of several years and the targeting of a high-rise tourist hotel and shopping complex in the heart of the city was terrorism clearly calculated to raise the threat level in a manner that the government will find difficult to dismiss as "business as usual".

Notwithstanding efforts to track down specific individuals suspected of involvement in the attacks, it would be a mistake to view the bombings as a one-off strike by a small "gang". The attacks emerged from a far more worrying landscape shaped by a broad growth in the

capabilities of an insurgency which over the past 18 months has become better organized, better coordinated and notably harder hitting.

Better bombs

These rising capabilities have been demonstrated at a range of levels. In terms of home-made bombs or improvised explosive devices (IEDs), attacks have not increased appreciably but have become more carefully targeted and generally more effective.

This is particularly the case given a wide and constantly shifting choice of triggering mechanisms now used by separatist militants which today include mobile phones, walkie-talkie radios, radio remote control devices, digital clock timers, command wires, and pressure switches used to detonate improvised mines.

There has also been a slow but steady increase in the number of car bombs and motorcycle bombs. Between the first use of a car bomb in February 2005 and the present, there has been a total of 29 such attacks (although not all have been effective). Last year saw seven car bomb incidents, the highest total of any year to date. The first quarter of this year has already seen six including the latest three in Yala and Hat Yai. Motor-cycle bombs - which can often be equally lethal in confined areas - are now virtually monthly events, with three such attacks in March.

Since early last year, larger attacks on security forces have involved insurgents operating at platoon-strength or in groups of 30 or more. The latest came in Bacho on March 9 in a coordinated attack not on poorly trained local defense volunteers but on bases manned by the Royal Thai Marine Corps. The attack resulted in 12 Marines being injured by small arms fire and grenades. This bolder pattern of attacks has been paralleled in recent months by a renewed emphasis in seizing firearms from the security forces, indicating an obvious interest in building a capacity for more large scale attacks by larger units.

Less obviously but no less dangerously, the changing nature of the insurgency has also been reflected in greater coordination between cells and units in different districts and provinces. While this is hardly new, anecdotal evidence suggests the movement of men, firearms and vehicles used in such operations is increasing.
Finally, in notable distinction to the early period of the conflict between 2004 and 2007 when security forces had little understanding of the dynamics of the insurgency, there is today a far greater stress on operational security driven by far more alert and better informed security forces. It hardly needs to be pointed out that virtually every attack catches the security forces off-guard.

This growth in the effectiveness of the insurgency has been obscured by two factors. The first is the often repeated official mantra that southern policy - defined primarily in terms of reforms to the justice system and accelerated economic development - is "on the right track". In the light of this optimism, ongoing violence is necessarily viewed as a reflection of insurgent desperation driven by dwindling popular support and crackdowns on criminal activities from which the militancy may derive a measure of funding.

This reassuring message has further reinforced the routine nature of the low-level violence which mostly involves targeted killings and small-scale IED attacks against government forces on remote rural roads. What one Western analyst has described as the essential "grubbiness" of a low-intensity conflict has induced an inevitable measure of complacency among security forces on the ground.

There is even greater complacency in political circles in Bangkok and among the national media where serious analysis of the "southern bandit" organization is rare.

Professional hit

Within this framework of denial, the increasing professionalism within insurgent ranks was in evidence on March 31. The attacks marked the first time the separatists conducted a successful coordinated operation using three car bombs in different cities.

An earlier, less ambitious attempt failed in March 2008. In that incident, an obviously less competent team used two car bombs to target two hotels in Pattani and Yala. One vehicle exploded prematurely on an open avenue in Yala city before reaching its target, killing its driver but no one else; the other was detonated as planned outside the CS Pattani Hotel later the same evening, killing two and wounding 13.

In both cases, however, faulty wiring resulted in only one of the two IEDs loaded into each car actually exploding, thus significantly reducing the impact of the blasts.

As the result of improved capabilities and experience, there were no such blunders on March 31. One security source who spoke with Asia Times Online noted the operation would have involved four separate stages spread out over a period of at least two weeks and possibly much longer: planning and choice of targets; reconnaissance and preparation; the execution of the attacks; and finally the withdrawal and escape.

The source added that even granted a degree of multi-tasking with specific individuals doing more than one job, the whole operation would have necessitated the participation of at least 20 and maybe up to 25 individuals.

While downtown Yala has been the scene of repeated IED attacks, including five car bomb incidents, Hat Yai represents a far more difficult target. The distance of some 90 kilometers from Pattani requires either transporting assembled IEDs through road checkpoints or setting up one or more safe-houses in the Hat Yai area to assemble devices with precursor chemicals and prepare the car bombs. Traffic flow and security measures also make it far more difficult to park a car in central Hat Yai, almost certainly one factor behind the choice of an underground car park as the detonation point.

Given their experience with car bombs, it is highly unlikely that the bombers imagined that an explosion in an underground car park would bring down the entire building above, but they were clearly counting on fuel tanks in nearby vehicles to explode in a multiplier effect. Whether they were aware of the proximity of the gas main which reportedly accelerated the upwards spread of the fire is less obvious.

But the cumulative impact of the car bomb was guaranteed to dwarf the three earlier insurgent strikes in the city, none of which would have involved the degree of risk or preparation of the March 31 operation.

The first, on April 3, 2005, involved three medium-sized IEDs used to target the airport and a supermarket - both well away from the city center - as well as a hotel in Songkhla city, 25 kilometers away. Two died and some 70 were injured in attacks which then army chief, General Prawit Wongsuwan, described in an indication of things to come as an act of insurgent desperation that showed "our measures are working in the three southernmost provinces".

The second attack occurred on September 16, 2006, and was more serious in that it moved to the city center and involved three motorcycle bombs and three smaller devices which exploded in the area around the Lee Garden Plaza Hotel. That attack killed four, including one foreigner, and wounded 72.

Finally, on August 2, 2008, seven small devices were detonated outside convenience stores in Songkhla city and Hat Yai. Only two people were injured in Songkhla where five of the IEDs exploded in what appeared to be harassment by local separatist sympathizers rather than a serious attack.

Explosive motivations

Both the unprecedented scale and impact of the recent operation inevitably raise the question of what constituted the drivers behind it. Analysts who spoke to ATol have broadly posited two theories to explain the events.

The first theory focuses largely on general capabilities described above and a natural escalation in the insurgency with harder-hitting IED operations, following the same rising curve as larger attacks on security forces by insurgents using small-arms.

Possibly linked to this is the emergence of a new and more tactically aggressive generation of mid-senior level commanders who appear to enjoy a large degree of tactical autonomy and are willing to experiment with the greater capabilities at their disposal.

In this context, repeated and mostly successful IED attacks in Yala city last year expanded this year into Hat Yai. "Upper management may now be more radical and more inclined to exert real pressure on the government and break the current mould," noted Paul Quaglia, a Thailand-based security consultant and a former American security official. "There may even be an element of macho reputation building at work here."

Possibly significant, the operations in Hat Yai and Yala came at the end of a month that saw a steady escalation in attacks of various kinds. Even before the March 31 blitz, IED incidents had more than doubled when compared to totals in January and February this year.

An essentially different interpretation of events ties the attacks directly to recent political initiatives by former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra and the secretary-general of the Southern Border Provinces Administration Center, Thawee Sodsong. Thawee, a former policeman recently appointed to the position by the Puea Thai administration headed by Thaksin's sister Yingluck Shinawatra, had recently revived the idea of a "Mahanakhorn Pattani" structure that would devolve a measure of self-rule to the insurgency-hit border provinces.

Thaksin has reportedly visited Malaysia several times this year to hold meetings with both Prime Minister Najib Razak and former premier Mahathir Muhammad. According to several well-placed sources, these meetings have resulted in older-generation separatists from various factions resident in Malaysia being strong-armed by Malaysian Special Branch police into attending meetings both with representatives of SBPAC chief Thawee and finally with Thaksin himself to discuss ways of addressing the grievances of Thailand's Malay Muslim community.

Some of these separatist elements reportedly included figures from the Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN) - the party generally understood to be the organizational driving force behind the insurgency. Other BRN elements boycotted the meetings, according to one source in contact with them.

According to this line of argument, the attacks were thus a direct response to an initiative championed by the exiled Thaksin, a figure whose earlier heavy-handed approach to the insurgency continues to excite anger and bitterness in the south.

Beyond the controversial person of Thaksin, the attacks may also have marked a violent rejection by BRN hard-liners of attempts to impose a settlement based on devolution of power without any recognition by the Thai state of the role of the insurgents themselves. As one source noted: "You can't force peace on people."
It is worth noting that these two broad interpretations of events - one essentially operational, the other squarely political - are not entirely mutually exclusive.

There may well be a degree of overlap between the motivations of operational commanders keen to take their war to a higher level and a senior political leadership infuriated by Thaksin's latest demarche.

What is clearer and arguably more disturbing is the changed landscape of the insurgency after the dust has settled on last weekend's bombs. The separatists have proved to their own satisfaction that they can operate successfully in the far more challenging operational environment of Hat Yai and achieve far greater political impact, nationally and internationally, than in the three provinces. The temptation to repeat the deadly exercise will be powerful. By Anthony Davis Bangkok-based security analyst for IHS-Jane's.

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