Waking Up to the Terror Threat in Southern Thailand

An insurgent movement within the Thai Muslim community has led to over 200 deaths in southern Thailand this year. The presence of the expensive, brand-new Yala Islamic College, primarily funded by Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Kuwait, is not unrelated to this violence, says this article in Singapore’s Straits Times. The 1,500-some students there dress in traditional Arab garb and are taught a strict version of sharia Islamic law in Arabic. Professors there come from further west, products of universities and schools in the Middle East and North Africa. With them, these teachers, including the president of the institution – a graduate of a hardline Wahhabi university in Saudi Arabia – bring a wave of radical Islamism that poses a threat to the mainly peaceful, moderate version practiced by most Thai Muslims. The Thai government, slow to recognize the security threat, now sees the college along with smaller “pondok” Islamic schools in the country as “breeding grounds for radical separatists.” More Thai Muslims are studying abroad, mainly in Saudi Arabia and Egypt, and the fear that they will return to their country inundated with terror training has officials in Bangkok increasingly concerned. – YaleGlobal

Waking Up to the Terror Threat in Southern Thailand

John R. Bradley
Thursday, May 27, 2004

HIDDEN a few kilometres down a remote country lane in the heart of Thailand's troubled deep south, where a Muslim separatist uprising has so far this year left more than 200 dead, is the brand new, multimillion-dollar new campus of Yala Islamic College. With more than a dozen Arab teachers from across the Middle East and a seemingly endless flow of funds from Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Kuwait, the college has become the most obvious manifestation of a non-violent Arab threat to the traditionally moderate and tolerant Islamic traditions of southern Thailand (and the wider South-east Asian region).

The violent aspect of that threat was first brought home in the south in 2002, when two dozen Middle Eastern suspects were arrested for forging travel documents, visas and passports for Al-Qaeda operatives.

When you enter the college's reception, you feel like you have suddenly been transported to the Gulf. The 1,500 students there dress in Arab-style clothes and are taught a strict interpretation of syariah law in the Arabic language.

The receptionist introduces himself, in perfect classical Arabic, as a graduate of Al-Azhar University in Cairo. The president, Dr Ismail Lutfi, is himself a graduate of a hardline Wahhabi institution, Riyadh's Imam Muhammad bin Saud Islamic University.

Dr Lutfi, who says he is against violence, has thousands of followers installed in key Islamic posts throughout the south.

The south's largely unregistered pondoks (Islamic schools) - which offer religious education, a regular curriculum and training in Arabic and the local Yawi dialect - are meanwhile now recognised by the Thai government as breeding grounds for radical separatists.

A number of the Muslim separatists killed on April 28 - when more than 100 Muslims were gunned down on their motorcycles by soldiers acting on a tip-off about a planned series of raids on army posts across the south - taught at or were students in these local Islamic schools.

If the teachers were bent on jihad, then what kind of ideas, you might logically ask, were they feeding to their students before they took the final plunge together into martyrdom?

A Bangkok court has issued an arrest warrant for a Muslim teacher accused of organising the worst separatist attacks - proof that Bangkok has finally woken up to the fact that many Muslim Thai teachers who went overseas to Islamic schools must have come under the influence of hardliners.

More than 160 Thai Muslim students are presently enrolled in Islamic institutions in Saudi Arabia and 1,500 are studying in Egypt. Thailand's Deputy Prime Minister Thamarak Isarangura has said the Thai government believes there are military training sites in Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Egypt where Thai Muslim separatists are trained to execute terror attacks back at home.

Mr Vairoj Phiphitpakdee, a Muslim member of parliament for Pattani, has said that some Thai Muslims mistakenly believe Islam is just about adopting Arab customs. 'They're taken to the Middle East and they're brainwashed,' he recently told reporters.

The Saudi Arabia-based International Islamic Relief Organisation (IIRO) remains the largest donor to Islamic causes in southern Thailand. According to The Nation newspaper, during the last 10 years hardly any educational or religious project has been untouched by the IIRO, which is part of the wahhabi-inspired Muslim World League. After Sept 11, 2001, the United States Treasury froze IIRO funds in the US because of its alleged links to Al-Qaeda.

Why did it take Bangkok so long to confront the pondok threat, when Jakarta, Manila, Singapore and Kuala Lumpur have long recognised Saudi-based, wahhabi charities funnelling funds to regional terror organisations as a major security threat?

It's clear to me, after spending the earlier part of this month travelling through all of the Muslim-majority provinces of southern Thailand, that the situation there is much worse than Bangkok is willing to admit publicly, even as plans for talks between the government and a Muslim separatist umbrella group blamed for violence take shape. The Thai Buddhist minority in the south are increasingly besieged, and circulating inflammatory pamphlets that detail alleged local Muslim extremism that poses, in their view, an unprecedented threat both to their religion and the state.

One senior Thai government official in Pattani, clearly shaken by recent events, told me he was aware of the first signs of 'ethnic cleansing' (his words) in Narathiwat, one of the south's Muslim-majority provinces. Some Thai Buddhist families have been told to leave under the threat of violence, he added.

This month's attacks on three Buddhist temples in the south certainly have an extremely worrying historic precedent: The two giant Buddhas of Bamiyan demolished by Taleban explosives experts in February 2001. Add to this analogy the fact that many Thai Muslims who fought with the Taleban against the Soviet occupation in the 1980s have since returned to become teachers in the local Islamic schools.

Why is such information not being publicised?

The most obvious answer, often given by 'terrorism experts', is that Thailand fears for its tourism industry. But the upsurge in violence is also proving difficult to understand and control because it comes after Bangkok effectively dismantled its intelligence apparatus in the area and scaled down its military presence, thinking it had all but crushed the separatist movement in the late 1990s.

The simple, stark fact, as admitted to me by a retired Thai general last week, is that neither the military nor the police now have a clue what is going on in the south. In the absence of crucial intelligence information, Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra has predictably taken refuge in dismissing the separatists bent on jihad as 'crazy' and 'bad boys' - as the uprising in southern Thailand opens up a dangerous new front in South-east Asia's war on terror and becomes Bangkok's biggest domestic security challenge since it saw off a 15-year, pro-Beijing communist insurgency in the early 1980s.

It is also a powder keg, which threatens to blow up in everyone's faces. Thai Muslim complaints of discrimination in jobs and education, along with the economic neglect of the south, have provided fodder for various separatist movements since the provinces - once part of the Muslim kingdom of Pattani - were annexed by Thailand in 1902. Their quest for an autonomous homeland has been rekindled partly because of the Iraq war and Israel's violent suppression of the Palestinian intifada, but locals say that new visa restrictions on Muslims, introduced after Sept 11, 2001, have also had a radicalising effect.

Protesters have emptied bottles of Pepsi into streets as part of a new boycott of American and Israeli goods, and 20,000 Muslims demonstrated peacefully against the Iraq war in Pattani last year.

Local resentments, which radicals from outside are trying to exploit by linking them to a wider Islamic struggle, have become more intense. There is the alleged underlying hand in the recent violence of local military and police officials, each vying with the other (and local separatists, who frequently double as criminals) for control of arms- and drug-smuggling rings. And there are almost continuous reports of false arrests and torture.

After the Muslims killed on April 28 were shown on television wearing green Hamas-style headbands and other clothes with Islamic slogans emblazoned on them, the government at last conceded that, on one level, it was facing a complex separatist threat. One killed militant had stitched into the back of his jacket the letters 'JI' - an assumed reference to Indonesian-based terrorist group Jemaah Islamiah (JI), which seeks to establish a pan-South-east Asian Islamic state from southern Thailand through Malaysia and Singapore and across Indonesia into the southern Philippines. Numerous regional leaders from JI, Al-Qaeda and the Free Aceh Movement are known to have spent time in southern Thailand since the attacks in New York on Sept 11, 2001.

Neighbouring countries, many battling their own Islamic insurgencies, should be extremely concerned that calls for revenge over alleged Thai army heavy-handedness in the ongoing crackdown could provide the excuse JI and other regional terrorist networks need to broaden their ties to local Thai separatist groupings. Independent estimates already put JI membership in southern Thailand as high as 10,000 and the Thai military says it is hunting down at least 5,000 armed separatists.

A spark could unite the violent and non-violent threat, those fighting for dignity in the face of Thai Buddhist chauvinism and those bent on jihad. If beating violence means, as the current cliche has it, winning hearts and minds, then the reverse must also be true - and one shudders to think in that context of what the consequences may be of Dr Lutfi and his Middle East professors teaching the Arab-obsessed Thai Muslim students of Yala Islamic College hardcore wahhabi doctrine.

The writer is with The Straits Times Foreign Desk.

Copyright 2004 Singapore Press Holdings