The nature of terrorism is shifting. As a strategy favored by Islamic militants and separatists this nasty and virulent type of civilian-focused warfare had dominated the security landscape across Southeast Asia for much of the last decade. But as jihad groups likes Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) and Jamaah Ansharut Tauhid (JAT) are routed, and the likes of the Abu Sayyaf are contained, other outfits with foreign agendas are stepping into the breach.
Their differences were highlighted in two capitals over the last fortnight; in Jakarta where the last of the Bali Bombers has gone on trial, and in Bangkok where a trail of tragic errors had unwittingly led Thai police to an alleged Iranian plot to assassinate Israeli diplomats on Thai territory.
Speculation has firmed that the motive behind the botched plot – dubbed the Valentine’s Day Bombings – is linked to Israel’s well-publicized alleged assassinations of Iranian nuclear scientists.
Two people have been held in Bangkok in connection with the Bangkok blasts, a third is expected to be extradited from Malaysia and a fourth, a woman who rented the house, is believed to be in Tehran and is also wanted. Two more – one spotted leaving the house shortly before the blast – are also wanted.
All are linked to Hezbollah, the Lebanese-based Shiite paramilitary group whose benefactors include Iran and Syria, and are largely regarded as a terrorist outfit by the West.
Israel was quick to blame Iran for targeting its diplomatic staff in Thailand, as well as India and Georgia, after a series of bombs was detonated in the three countries over a 24 hour period.
The Bangkok plot was initially uncovered after a bomb was mistakenly detonated – blowing up part of the roof of a house the bombers had rented. According to some accounts, the pair fled, one attempting to hail a taxi that refused to stop. A grenade was tossed amid terrified onlookers.They fled and were eventually cornered by police. A bag of grenades was thrown, but it missed and bounced off a tree, exploded and blew the leg off one of the bombers. In all, five people, including the Iranian, were injured in three explosions.
Their fate was dictated solely because Thailand remains an open country and prides itself on ease of access for foreigners of all backgrounds – the Iranians simply found this an easy place to operate.
That style of planning contrasts sharply with the ideology and methods deployed by the likes of JI acolyte Omar Patek, who appeared before a Jakarta court amid claims he was a key strategist behind the Bali Bombings of 2002 that left more than 200 dead, and a string of church bombings in Indonesia on Christmas Eve nearly two years earlier.
However, Patek can’t be charged under terrorism laws introduced in 2003 because they aren’t retrospective. Instead, he has been charged with harboring terrorists and possessing ammunition for the purposes of launching a training camp in Aceh in 2010.
He has also been charged in connection with the church bombings in Jakarta, but his lawyers are arguing Patek isn’t the strategic mastermind behind JI that the prosecution alleges.
A verdict isn’t expected until June.
International counter-terrorism strategies have largely succeeded in taking out established terrorist leaders like Patek, particularly in Southeast Asia, Jakarta-based Keith Loveard, a regional security analyst with Concord Consulting, says.
He says this created a leadership vacuum. On the Thai bombings, he adds: “Those that learn from the experience of attacks like these ones, and remain free, will most likely develop a following and over time establish the capacity to make larger and more efficient attacks.''
The Iranian profile in Southeast Asia has risen significantly in recent years, and the country remains an international pariah due to its nuclear program, which Israel and the West claim, amid an abundance of evidence, is for military purposes.
Sanction busting companies like the Islamic Republic of Iran Shipping Line (IRISL) have ignored maritime authorities by plying the waterways, while Iranians have also been linked to gun-running out of North Korea. Indeed, they have emerged as significant players in a booming regional drug trade, in particular methamphetamines.
“The Iranians are also big into the drug smuggling scene in the region now…and there’s a huge influx of Iranians coming into the region now doing illegal activities,” says John Boyd, Chief Executive Officer for regional security group Independent Protective Services.
The bungled Bangkok bombing, which sounds almost as if it deserves comparisons with the incompetent Keystone Cops of the silent film era or Inspector Jacques Clouseau of the Pink Panther films, will only increase Iran’s isolation despite denials and protests from Tehran.
Boyd says the botched Bangkok bombing would have proved disappointing, but argues that the Iranians had also proved they had access to C4 from either military sources or a supplier with supplies of stolen C4 and “with those type of resources an experienced member could do a lot of damage.”
He says the Delhi and Tbilisi bombs were useless in terms of hitting their objective, but had confirmed widespread views in the West that Iran is a sponsor of terrorism, justifying further actions against Iran either through further sanctions or direct military action.
That in itself is a tragedy for the vast majority of Iranians who are as educated and as erudite as any, are neither terrorists nor state-employed and opposed to their government’s policies, which have ensured their country will continue to languish near the bottom of the heap in terms of international standing.
In Thailand, and for much of Southeast Asia, terrorism is being redefined from the JI and al-Qaeda dictates of hard-line Islamic designs over sovereign interests that underpinned attacks around the world alongside separatist rebellions like those in the Southern Philippines and Indonesia.
These were complex but comprehensible – if horribly immoral – strategies.
Loveard says the low casualty count of the Valentine’s Day blasts reflected the fact that current levels of expertise were low, and as a result much of East Asia was likely experiencing a lull in terrorist activities but by no means did this signal “the end of radical Islamist terrorism in Southeast Asia.''
By accident or design, the parameters are evolving.
Of course, Israel has rarely flinched when leaping over sovereign borders to pursue its own security interests and Hezbollah may have now signaled it will follow suit. That attitude will increasingly put innocent civilians and nations, like Thailand, in the firing line.
Ultimately, analysts see more strikes aimed at civilians, not unlike the 2008 Mumbai attack that left 257 dead and another 700 wounded. However, such strikes will be increasingly based around far-flung reasons with little local relevance, such as with Iran’s nuclear program and its ties with Hezbollah.
Boyd predicts more Mumbai-style attacks in Asia, and says Sabah in Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia are obvious staging grounds.
“The future trend is Asia,” he says. “This is becoming the global economic power and the United States and other coalition forces are winding down in the Middle East. Asia will start to see foreign insurgents from the Middle East come in to conduct their operations.”
“Now the fight will start to creep into this part of the world.”