Islamic State in Thailand: A Phantom Threat?

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Islamic State in Thailand: A Phantom Threat?

The danger to Thailand is less clear relative to some of its neighbors.

Islamic State in Thailand: A Phantom Threat?
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

As threat perceptions rise of another Islamic State strike in Southeast Asia, similar to the IS-inspired fatal gun and bombing assaults staged in Indonesia in mid-January, Thailand is under scrutiny as a possible next site of attack. While there are clear risks in Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines, both from local radical groups that have declared allegiance to IS and individual fighters returning home from IS wars in Iraq and Syria, the danger to Thailand is less plain.

Local news reports, some more credible than others, have sparked speculation that IS may have Thailand’s many soft Western targets in its sites. In early December, news reports citing a leaked Russian federal security service report claimed that 10 Syrians with alleged links to IS had entered Thailand with the intent of staging attacks on Russian targets. Those claims, based on apparently intentionally flawed intelligence provided by the United States to Russia, proved unfounded after a clutch of the identified suspects were located and interrogated by police, according to Bangkok-based diplomats familiar with the episode.

In February, local papers reported that police had upped security at shopping malls, public transport systems, and tourist areas in response to a supposed U.S. embassy warning sent to Thai police claiming IS may be planning an attack in Bangkok. A Thai security adviser who spoke on condition of anonymity said the U.S. warning referred broadly to the entire region, not Thailand in particular, and was part of a routine monthly briefing the United States provides to its security counterparts. Western envoys, including those with access to U.S.-led “Five Eyes” intelligence sharing, also said they sensed no signs of an imminent IS attack.

Days later, former army commander and prime minister Chavalit Yongchaiyudh claimed that a hitherto unheard of IS-affiliated group he referred to as “Black Swan” had established a cell in southern Thailand, where a local Muslim insurgency has long fought for autonomy against the Thai state. The retired general’s assessments of the Deep South traditionally carry weight among security analysts due to his long-standing ties to political groups with insurgent links in the region. Chavalit’s politicized comment was made in the wider context of criticizing the ruling junta’s controversial draft charter and election roadmap.

Western diplomats and a Thai security adviser who spoke on condition of anonymity doubted the group’s existence, based partly on skepticism that an IS-linked group would adopt such a non-threatening, English language moniker. They speculated instead that the 83-year-old ex-premier may have meant that Thailand was at risk of a terrorism-related “black swan” occurrence — an academic term for an unpredictable event that has extreme consequences — because local intelligence agencies had failed to grasp the region’s supposedly shifting conflict dynamics. Chavalit could not be reached to clarify for this story.

Thailand arguably had a black swan moment last August with the Erawan shrine bombing that killed 20 and injured over 100 people in the capital. Thai officials, keen to maintain confidence in the crucial tourism industry, played down the significance of what was Thailand’s largest ever terror attack against foreigners. Initially thought to have IS hallmarks, the pipe-bomb blast has since been blamed on ethnic Uyghurs supposedly aggrieved by Bangkok’s earlier deportation of their compatriots to China. Thai officials say they have since increased their vigilance against all terror threats. “We have no reason to believe we are a [IS] target,” said Panitan Wattanayagorn, security adviser to the defense minister.

Analysts and envoys agree that IS would be hard-pressed to penetrate Thailand’s Malay Muslim southern insurgency, a shadowy anti-state movement led by the Barisan Revolusi Nasional-Coordinate group. Through strict avoidance of Western targets, BRN-C and other ethnic Malay insurgent groups have maintained a modicum of international sympathy as an oppressed minority fighting for cultural and religious rights. Thai insurgent leaders have also over the years kept the al-Qaeda linked, Indonesia-based Jemaah Islamiyah terror group, once angling to establish a regional caliphate, at arm’s length to avoid any conflation of their local grievances with anti-Western jihadist ideology.

IS also includes Thailand’s southernmost provinces in maps of its envisioned Southeast Asian caliphate. To date, though, the group has made uneven regional inroads. Indonesia has identified nearly 400 of its nationals as bent on joining IS; 215 of them have been deported before reaching Syria, according to a diplomatic source tracking regional terror trends. Around 60 Malaysian nationals are known to have joined IS, ten of whom have died in combat, six in suicide bombing attacks, the same source says. There is no evidence, however, that any Thais have joined IS in Iraq or Syria, according to Thai officials and foreign diplomats.

The security adviser says intelligence officials are monitoring the activities of Thai students in Egypt, Libya, and Pakistan, but have so far found no signs of IS recruitment or sympathies. Surveillance of local Thais, on the other hand, has identified a handful of “keyboard warriors”, who regularly access IS propaganda materials online, some of which have been translated into the Thai language, the same source says. Interrogations of the young men have not uncovered any terror plots or operations, apart from the printing and sales of a smattering of pro-IS T-shirts in the region. “They want to elevate their status, or increase their fame, or make some money, not commit terrorism,” the adviser said.

While homegrown risks for now seem remote, Thai security agencies are cognizant of and preparing for possible IS spillover effects from Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines, the security adviser says. That’s entailed updating data bases, forging stronger coordination among historically competitive intelligence and security agencies, and the first fundamental upgrade of national counter-terrorism policy since the fateful 2002 Bali bombing attack in Indonesia. The same adviser said relaxed immigration procedures to promote the new ASEAN Economic Community has already given rise to new security challenges.

IS fighters returning from the Middle East have recently passed through Bangkok in transit to their home countries in the region, diplomats and officials say. The Western diplomat who tracks regional terror trends says that, unlike al-Qaeda, IS is not known to use Bangkok as a safe haven or planning point because it already controls large swathes of territory in Iraq and Syria. He said there is no precedent for an IS attack in transit and that there was to date no intelligence to indicate that IS aims to operate in Thailand, either in the capital or Deep South, with other regional countries more receptive to their presence.

“Thailand may have an official policy of denial,” said the envoy. “But Thailand has no program to deal with returning IS fighters exactly because it has no returning fighters.”