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Al Qaeda’s ‘second front’
Thai security forces engaged in fierce gun battles Wednesday with Islamic militants, killing about 100 suspected youths in a series of fire fights in southern Thailand.
Worried that news of the clashes could negatively affect the country's tourism industry, Thailand's Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra was careful to blame local youth gangs, and not connect the clashes to al Qaeda or its affiliates. This contradicts what "many officials fear," say M.J. Gohel and Sajjan M. Gohel, terrorism analysts at Asia Pacific Foundation.
In a report last Wednesday, the London international policy assessment group said "international militant groups may be behind the attacks and are contributing to increasing tensions" in the area. If confirmed, this comport more with the belief al Qaeda and groups tied to Osama bin Laden's terror operations are increasingly active in Southeast Asia.
Reports from the region have been foggy at best, with police saying groups of youths on motorcycles launched a series of attacks on police stations. But it is clear the fighting, which the Gohel report says is "a serious escalation of the violence that began in early January," seems to indicate the groups involved are seeking automatic weapons.
Last January's attack was on a military arsenal. Tuesday's attempted raids were on police stations. The insurgents were armed only with small guns, machetes and knives, indicating they meant to obtain automatic arms from the police.
Last Tuesday's attacks were in three separate provinces, heavily dominated by Muslims -- Yala, Pattani and Songkhla. However, since the attacks were coordinated, it is very unlikely these were simply the work of errant "youths."
Analysts believe the attacks could be the work of Thai separatists. But security officials, the Gohels say, "have theorized that Jemaah Islamiyah also might have lent support to the local militant groups."
That is not to say Thai secessionist groups do not exist. Many movements such as the New Pattani United Liberation Organization, Barisan Revolusi Nasional, and the Gerakan Mujahideen Islam Pattani are active in various degrees.
Southern Thailand is predominantly Muslim. The area borders on Malaysia, itself a Muslim country. Following the recent clashes, Malaysia closed its border with Thailand.
This move, and a warning from Muslim groups that foreign tourists should avoid Thailand, will further depress tourism-generated revenues. The Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome -- or SARS -- scare in Asia, as well as a series of terrorist attacks, in the last few years have contributed to keeping vacationing foreigners and their dollars away.
Since the deadly September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States, which saw the beginning of the "war on terrorism," bombing campaigns have not spared Asia:
Dec. 11, 2002: A huge explosion in a Bali nightclub killed about 200 people, injuring dozens.
March 4, 2003: 21 people were killed and 150 wounded in Davao, the Philippines.
May 11, 2003: nine killed in Koronadal, the Philippines.
Aug. 5, 2003: 12 killed and 150 injured in an attack on the J.W. Marriott Hotel in Jakarta, Indonesia. The area saw a series of smaller bombings, arsons and raids on police stations.
Al Qaeda and its fundamentalist allies have been far from dormant in the region. A CIA raid there in August of last year captured the man known as Hambali (Riduan Isamuddin). Hambali was chief operations planner for the Jemaah Islamiyah, a close affiliate of al Qaeda.
Intelligence sources believe Hambali planned to attack "soft" tourist sites in Thailand and other countries in the region. Some believe Hambali planned the Bali bombing while in Thailand. However, the Asia Pacific Foundation reports Prime Minister Thaksin "had lashed out at claims that Hambali planned the October 2002 Bali nightclub blast on Thai soil."
The Gohel reports states: "The Thai military is monitoring an al Qaeda-linked group that operates in the southern part of the country. The Guragan Mujaheedin Islam Pattani, a 40-member Muslim militant group, was responsible for a spate of attacks in Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat provinces in the last 1 years.
"It has been said that a key member, Wae Ka Raeh, had trained and fought with al Qaeda in Afghanistan and was now in hiding in Malaysia's Terenganu State."
Having suffered setbacks in Europe, al Qaeda could well be concentrating its efforts in Southeast Asia where support of local Muslim populations offers a more solid base.
"The recent unraveling of involvement of Jemaah Islamiyah and its local allies, point to the growing threat of terrorism in the Southeast Asian Region," claims the Gohel report. "There is a substantial threat in all parts of Thailand," it adds.
As an example, the Gohels cite an event last June 13. Acting on information from U.S. investigators, the Gohel report says Thai authorities "seized a large amount of radioactive material" that originated from Russian stockpiles and was smuggled into Thailand through Laos. The material, Cesium-137, a radioactive derivative of nuclear power plants, was said to be meant for making a "dirty bomb."
Some analysts believe Thailand and Southeast Asia, including parts of northern Australia, have been designated by al Qaeda as a "second front" in the war on terror.
Claude Salhani is international editor for United Press International.
By Tom Fitton
New photos confirm the attack's coordination and its cover-up
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