Thailand tussle over terror plot By Richard Ehrlich
BANGKOK - When the
United States Embassy issued a travel advisory
about "foreign terrorists" in Bangkok last
weekend, the warning may have prevented a massive
car bombing in an area popular with Western
tourists. But in a surprising diplomatic rebuke,
Thailand complained about the impact of
Washington's counter-terrorism strategy on its
economically crucial tourism industry.
Hussein Atris, an alleged Lebanese-born,
Swedish passport-holding member of Hezbollah, led
police on Monday to a rented
building packed with potential
bomb-making ingredients after he was arrested in
Bangkok on January 13. Hezbollah, a Shi'ite Muslim
organization represented in Lebanon's government
and supported by Iran and Syria, is listed by
Washington as a terrorist organization.
The building held 9,656 pounds (4,380
kilograms) of urea fertilizer and 10 gallons (37.8
liters) of liquid ammonium nitrate, police told
reporters. Those chemicals can be used in
agriculture, rock quarries and elsewhere, but also
to make a bomb.
"The suspect told us the
bomb-making materials were not for terrorist
attacks in Thailand, but were intended to be
smuggled out of the country," national police
chief Priewpan Damapong told reporters on Monday.
Police charged Atris, 47, with illegal
possession of restricted chemicals but said he may
face additional charges. The terror suspect wore
handcuffs with his face hidden by a black
balaclava while being accompanied by more than 100
police and security officials armed with assault
rifles during the raid on the outskirts of Bangkok
in Samut Sakhon province.
Atris holds a
Swedish passport issued in 2005, according to a
scan of the document published by Ynet, an online
news website of Israel's Yedioth Ahronoth daily
newspaper. Atris married a Swedish woman in 1996
and reportedly owned a hair salon in Gothenburg,
Sweden, before he returned to live in Lebanon,
according to media reports.
a sketch of a second clean-shaven man who appeared
to be in his 30s or 40s and was described as a
terrorist suspect who was traveling with Atris.
The hand-drawn portrait "bears great resemblance
to Hezbollah operative Naim Haris", reported Ynet.
"The latter's photo was unusually
published last year by the Shin Bet [Israel's
internal security agency], which at the time
identified him as an operative in charge of
recruiting Hezbollah agents worldwide," Ynet
reported on Sunday.
"Iran and Hezbollah
may have now chosen Thailand as the target for a
terror attack against Israel, possibly to avenge
the recent killings and blasts in Iran, or to take
revenge for the assassination of Hezbollah's
military chief Imad Mugniyah some four years ago,"
Lebanese media reports
quoting Hezbollah members contested that
assessment, however. The arrested man "is not one
of Hezbollah's members", said Ghaleb Abu Zeinab, a
Hezbollah political bureau member, according to
the Lebanese Broadcasting Corp.
was increased at several sites in the Thai capital
after the suspect was arrested while attempting to
depart from Bangkok's international airport on
January 13. Thai officials said possible bomb
targets included Bangkok's tourist-packed Khao San
Road where inexpensive entertainment venues are
popular late into the night during the warm
On a narrow street
parallel to Khao San Road is Bangkok's Jewish
Chabad House, permanently guarded by Israeli and
Thai security. Upstairs is a Jewish-only floor
with a small orthodox synagogue segregated
according to gender, plus free telephone lines
from Bangkok to Israel, Internet terminals and
other travelers' facilities.
is also visited by hundreds of mostly Israeli
travelers every Saturday night for religious
services and a free dinner. Directly across from
Chabad House is the multi-story Viengtai Hotel
frequented by Israeli tourists who want to be near
Chabad House and dine at its downstairs public
Thai officials said a
second possible target was Bangkok’s Sukhumvit Soi
22, which is crowded with tourist venues and the
site of Beth Elisheva Synagogue, Thailand's main
center for Jewish services. One street away, on
Sukhumvit Soi 20, is a Hebrew school.
Thailand is a favorite destination for
thousands of Israeli tourists each year. An
additional 300 mostly foreign Jews reside in
Thailand and are mostly involved in import-export
businesses and jewelry production.
Diplomatic fallout Amid the
investigation, arrest and continuing manhunt,
however, Thailand publicly lashed out at the
American Embassy for warning its citizens of the
possible danger. Thailand's economy depends on a
massive tourism industry and feared that travelers
might cancel their visits because of the US alert.
"As for what the US has done, I have
already expressed my disappointment through the
media and this was a diplomatic way of telling the
US off for not consulting with Thailand first,"
Foreign Minister Surapong Tovichakchaikul said on
January 15, condemning the embassy's unilateral
decision to alert its citizens.
foreign minister said the day before that he was
"disappointed that embassies have not consulted
the Foreign Ministry, according to diplomatic
convention, before issuing the warnings."
Following the US warning - issued hours before
Atris was arrested - a dozen other countries
issued similar public alerts.
instructed the Defense Ministry's Policy and
Planning Office to contact the US military
attache," Defense Minister Yuthasak Sasiprapa said
on January 15. "I want to ask the US to be more
careful when a situation like this happens in the
future ... The matter has affected not only
security, but also the economy," the defense
minister said after warning of a possible car
On December 18, Israel reportedly
told the US and Thailand about the presence of at
least two Hezbollah members in Bangkok. The three
countries then began a secret, three-week-long
hunt of the terror suspects. The US Embassy
published the alert on January 13 on its Facebook
and Twitter pages, and in an e-mail to registered
American citizens in Thailand.
message alerts US citizens in Thailand that
foreign terrorists may be currently looking to
conduct attacks against tourist areas in Bangkok
in the near future," the US Embassy mass e-mail
"We have alerted US citizens about a
potential threat in BKK fm foreign terrorists.
Based on serious, credible info," US ambassador
Kristie Kenney tweeted on Sunday. "It is Bangkok
specific. Which is why USEmb BKK issued it, not a
global warning from WashDC," the ambassador
tweeted on Friday.
Washington has provided
military and counter-terrorism support - including
weapons, training and money - to successive Thai
governments. The two countries are non-North
Atlantic Treaty Organization allies and
traditionally enjoy very close diplomatic
Some US and international
security officials assume foreign terrorists
occasionally use Thailand as a "safe house" to get
medical treatment, counterfeit documents, and
arrange clandestine meetings - while not launching
attacks because they do not want a security
The only successful major
Middle Eastern assault in Bangkok occurred on
December 28, 1972 when Arab gunmen invaded the
Israeli Embassy and seized hostages while
simultaneously, across town, Prince Vajiralongkorn
was being crowned, making him the Crown Prince and
heir to the throne.
The four Arabs
identified themselves as the "Black September Ali
Taha Group", linked to an event in 1970 when
Jordan kicked out its Palestinian refugees,
killing or wounding 4,000 Palestinians.
The Arabs arrived at the Israeli Embassy
in a taxi, brandished assault rifles, gained entry
and threatened to kill six hostages, including an
Israeli ambassador. The siege ended peacefully
when the rebels were given safe passage to Egypt
and departed on a Thai International flight.
In 1994, police belatedly stumbled upon a
one-ton bomb in a rented six-wheel truck near the
Israeli Embassy after seizing the vehicle because
of a minor traffic accident.
S Ehrlich is a Bangkok-based journalist from
San Francisco, California. He has reported news
from Asia since 1978 and is co-author of the
non-fiction book of investigative journalism,
Hello My Big Big Honey! Love Letters to Bangkok
Bar Girls and Their Revealing Interviews. His
website is www.asia-correspondent.110mb.com.