Faint ISIS footprint in Thailand’s deep south

As Islamic State spreads its franchise into Southeast Asia, it is not clear yet the terror group has made inroads into Thailand’s southern conflict

Pattani, March 8, 2017 3:47 PM (UTC+8)
An Islamic State flag is seen in this picture illustration taken February 18, 2016. Photo: Reuters / Dado Ruvic / Illustration
An Islamic State flag is seen in this picture illustration taken February 18, 2016. Photo: Reuters / Dado Ruvic / Illustration

Since Southeast Asian Muslims began to join Islamic State (ISIS) in 2014, there have been no credible reports that ethnic Malay Muslims from the insurgency prone region of southernmost Thailand have joined forces with the global jihadist group.

That appeared to change when Malaysian police said on February 7 that one of six alleged ISIS members arrested for possessing bomb-making materials in Malaysia’s northern Kelantan state bordering on southern Thailand in late January was a member of the separatist group Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN), the main insurgent group fighting Thai security forces in the region.

Malay Muslims from Thailand’s southernmost provinces of Pattani, Narathiwat and Yala, known as the “deep south,” share an ethno-religious connection with the majority of Southeast Asia’s ISIS-linked jihadists, who hail mainly from Malaysia and Indonesia. But BRN is known to shun ISIS’ brand of Salifi jihadism, including its ambition to establish a global Islamic caliphate, and is driven instead by a desire for self-determination and liberation from Thai rule.

According to two security sources familiar with the situation, Thai authorities alerted their Malaysian counterparts over a year ago that the ISIS suspect, 40-year-old Uzman Jeh-umong, a Thai national, was hiding in Malaysia’s Kelantan state. Since his capture in February, Malaysia has so far refused Thailand’s request for his extradition, Thai authorities say. Sources close to the separatist movement, meanwhile, claim the ISIS suspect has been released.

Thai and Malaysian security officials have a long conflicted history over the handling of Malay Muslim separatists who use Malaysia as a sanctuary and operational planning ground. Thai authorities often gripe that their Malaysian counterparts, especially those across the border in Kelantan, where Malays speak a dialect nearly identical to the one spoken on the Thai side, consistently ignore Thai calls to crack down on separatists in their territory.

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Malaysian authorities have been tight-lipped on the recent alleged ISIS-related arrests. Nor have they revealed details to the media about Uzman or the other five detainees, who Thai authorities believe are all BRN insurgents, but not tied with ISIS.

They claim instead that Uzman is a leader of Runda Kumpulan Kecil (RKK), BRN’s commando units, in the southern town of Yala and four districts of adjacent Songkhla province. At the same time several sources suggested that with the rising number of ISIS recruits in predominantly Muslim Malaysia it is possible that some ethnic Malay separatists from Thailand may have communicated with Malaysian ISIS members.

Malaysia has intensified counter-terrorism efforts to stop ISIS from making deeper inroads in the country. On March 5, Malaysian authorities revealed that seven men, including an Indonesian, were arrested in late February for being involved in ISIS-inspired terrorist activities.

Thai sources suggest that certain Malaysian authorities may be prone to play up ISIS’ threat to divert public attention from the corruption scandal that has rocked Prime Minister Najib Razak’s government. Najib has been accused of siphoning more than US$1 billion from a state-run development company into his personal bank accounts. Najib has denied any wrongdoing.

Malaysia's Prime Minister Najib Razak speaks about the threat of terrorism during the opening ceremony of the 26th ASEAN Summit in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, April 27, 2015. Malaysia is hosting the summit from April 26 to 27, 2015 in Kuala Lumpur and Langkawi. REUTERS/Olivia Harris - RTX1AE77
Malaysia’s Prime Minister Najib Razak speaks about the threat of terrorism in Kuala Lumpur. Photo: Reuters/Olivia Harris

While some BRN members are known to have personal ties to pan-Islamist groups, the insurgent movement has blocked outside terror groups, including the Indonesia-based Jemaah Islamiyah, from establishing bases or launching attacks from their controlled areas. JI was responsible for the 2002 Bali bombings in Indonesia that claimed more than 200 victims, mostly Western tourists, and bombing attacks on international hotels in Jakarta.

That’s partly why security sources believe BRN, which to date has avoided the anti-Western ideology and rhetoric of other radical Islamic regional groups, would still likely rebuff any ISIS requests to establish a presence and recruit from the restive region. “It’s their conflict,” said one retired Thai general with experience in the region. “They don’t want other groups involved.”

Still, there have been rumors circulating among some locals that a handful of Malay Muslims from Thailand’s southernmost region have traveled to Syria to fight for ISIS and that Malaysian ISIS members have used Thailand as a transit point on their way to Syria or Iraq.

Thai deputy police chief Sriwara Rangsipramanakul publicly confirmed in November an Australian intelligence report that claimed Thais had provided financial support to ISIS and that over 100,000 Thailand-based Facebook users had visited ISIS-related online communities last year. A day later, Sriwara retracted his statement, saying the information came from Australian, not Thai, sources and that there was no ISIS movement in Thailand.

Separatist graffiti is seen on a road near Pattani June 6, 2014, one of three southernmost provinces of Thailand where government troops have fought Muslim insurgents since 2004. The war has killed more than 6,000 people. The Thai military closed Media Selatan and thousands of other radio stations when it seized power in a May 22 coup. Many journalists and activists in southern Thailand fear the military will use the coup to roll back on their hard-won freedoms. Graffiti reads "Hey Siamese - bring back our rights" Picture taken June 6, 2014. REUTERS/Andrew RC Marshall (THAILAND - Tags: POLITICS CIVIL UNREST) - RTR3UBRU
Separatist graffiti on a road near Pattani says: “Hey Siamese – bring back our rights,” referring to Thailand’s former name Siam. Photo: Reuters/Andrew RC Marshall

Other Thai authorities acknowledge that monitoring of social media traffic shows some ideological support for ISIS in the conflict-ridden minority region, where some 7,000 people have been killed in violent incidents since 2004. However, they say there is still no evidence to indicate that Malay Muslims from Thailand have joined or collaborated with ISIS.

Videos and photographs found on the computers and phones of suspected BRN separatists since the conflict escalated in 2004 have shown that some draw inspiration from pan-Islamist groups.

There are also concerns that passport forgery networks active in Thailand have produced fake travel documents for Southeast Asian jihadis headed to fight in Syria and Iraq, according to one Thai official who requested anonymity.

Thai authorities would clearly prefer that BRN has no association whatsoever with ISIS. That’s because any proven links would bring unwanted Western government scrutiny of the Thai military’s handling of the southern conflict.

Wayward authorities in the region have long been accused of rights abuses against insurgent suspects and using the conflict as cover for illicit activities like fuel and human smuggling.

A cage made of barbed wire and bamboo sticks that Malaysian police said was used to hold migrants is seen at the abandoned human trafficking camp in the jungle close the Thailand border at Bukit Wang Burma in northern Malaysia May 26, 2015. Malaysian police forensic teams, digging with hoes and shovels, began the grim task on Tuesday of exhuming the bodies of dozens of suspected victims of human traffickers found buried around jungle camps near the Thai border. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY - RTX1EKMD
A cage made of barbed wire and bamboo used to hold migrants in the jungle close to Thailand’s border at Bukit Wang Burma in Malaysia. Photo: Reuters/Damir Sagolj

Analysts and diplomats believe that if Bangkok continues to balk at a formal negotiation process that works toward autonomy for the region, then a younger generation of separatist hardliners could be tempted to join or work with ISIS, raising the risk of large-scale terror attacks on Thai tourist areas. Although BRN insurgents carried out bombings in areas popular with foreign tourists in 2015 and 2016, the attacks did not cause mass casualties.

Allying with ISIS at this point in the conflict would represent a strategic blunder for BRN or any future separatist splinter group. Rather than turn a blind eye to separatists using Malaysia as sanctuary, as Kuala Lumpur has done in the past, Malaysian security forces would be expected to crack down hard on Malay Muslims with clear ISIS links.

That is likely to help explain why analysts have found little or no connections between Thailand’s Malay Muslim separatists and pan-Islamist terrorist groups over the years and why the recent terror-related arrests of BRN suspects in Malaysia will if honestly pursued show that trend still holds.

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