Bangkok, a target for extremists?

Originally published on 20th August 2015 at

The bombing in the centre of Bangkok which killed 20 and injured 125 people on Monday evening shook the country and took Thai authorities completely unawares. The following day, and despite a heightened state of alert, a second bomb exploded at a busy pier by the Chao Phraya River, again catching security forces off guard. The police have since released pictures of a suspect but as yet there have been only theories and speculation about who exactly is behind these attacks.

Initially, authorities were quick to rule out links with the long running southern insurgency and equally as quick to imply that factions opposed to the military government were high on the list of suspects. However, given Thailand’s recent treatment of Rohingya and Uighur refugees, it might be worth considering if Thailand is now considered ‘fair game’ to Muslim extremists and whether these attacks could have been the work of regional jihadists.

Thailand’s role in the trafficking of the Muslim minority Rohingya is well documented. Before a recent crackdown by Thailand’s military government an estimated 10 percent of Burma’s Rohingya population had fled the country by boat in the hope of starting a new life in Malaysia or Indonesia. Many of these were taken to camps along the Thai-Malaysian boarder before being ransomed or sold into slavery. During the crackdown mass graves at slave camps were discovered and as investigations continued local community officials were arrested for their involvement in human trafficking.

Further investigations by NGOs and the international media revealed that many of the male Rohyingas were being sold into slavery on Thai owned fishing boats. The crackdown by Thai authorities left thousands of Rohingya floating helplessly as their crews abandoned them at sea. Thai authorities were criticized for their unwillingness to help these individuals after giving them survival rations and then sending them back to sea.

More recently, Thailand has been criticized for its treatment of Chinese Uighur Muslims. In July, Thai authorities separated family members and forcefully sent more than 100 Uighurs back to China, while a further 170 were sent on to Turkey. The former move angered Muslim communities and was heavily criticized by human rights organisations and the UN Refugee Agency, UNHCR. The repatriation of the Uighurs was made at the request of Chinese authorities who claimed the refugees were Muslim extremists.

Pictures of the Uighurs returning to China in handcuffs with black cloth hoods covering their faces reinforced concerns that these individuals could face serious abuses once back on Chinese soil. In retaliation to Thailand’s role in this, the Thai consulate in Ankara, Turkey, was attacked by pro-Uighur protestors.

Thailand’s treatment of both the Rohingya and Uighur Muslims has made global headlines and been criticized internationally. During a period in which Muslim extremism is on the rise and jihadists are looking to broaden their reach, there remains a strong possibility that a local cell responding to ISIS’s recent call to arms carried out the Bangkok bombing in response to Thailand’s recent treatment of displaced Muslim minorities.

Muslim extremists in Southeast Asia have received limited attention in the international media but there is intelligence to suggest the region is home to growing numbers of jihadists. Hezbollah terror suspects have been caught in Thailand on two previous occasions, once in 2012 and once in 2014, on both occasions authorities believe the suspects had been planning an attack there. However, a more worrying threat is from extremists groups linked to ISIS. Their presence is a concern for governments across Southeast Asia. In March this year Malaysian authorities successfully arrested members of a terror cell which they believed was linked to ISIS.

Singapore has been taking the threat of an attack on the city state with increasing seriousness. Speaking earlier this year Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong warned that “Southeast Asia is a key recruitment center for ISIS,” and explained theatSingapore was concerned about a ISIS inspired attack because, “The threat is no longer over there, it is over here.”

Of particular concern to Southeast Asian nations is Katibah Nusantara, a military unit of ISIS which consists of over 500 Southeast Asians. According to a recent report by Jasminder Singh , Malaysian and Indonesian members of Katibah Nusantara have been working to connect local extremist networks and launch attacks in Southeast Asia.

The theory that the recent attacks are linked to the global terror movement were reinforced by Dr Zachary Abuza, an independent expert on Southeast Asian security issues. He explained the bombing “was a moderately sophisticated operation. There was obviously a lot of thought behind the choice of target.” In answer to the question of who may be behind the attacks, Dr Abuza suggested, “There may be a whole different category that we have not considered. Though ISIS has grown in Malaysia and Indonesia out of the ashes of Jemaah Islamiah, we just don’t know (to what extent).”

It remains to be seen if Thai authorities will successfully capture the suspect they are hunting and whether the organization behind these bombs will be identified. However one thing is certain, with the expanding reach of global terrorism Thailand can no longer presume it sits safely on the sidelines. Over the coming years Thailand will need to more vigilantly tackle the threat of attacks by regional jihadists and start engaging in higher levels of intelligence cooperation with its ASEAN neighbours.

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