Thai insurgents extend their reach
By Anthony Davis
BANGKOK - In retrospect the days before Christmas 2013 marked an ominous turning point in the struggle for the border provinces of southern Thailand. On December 22, attacks involving motorcycle and car bombs struck the border district of Sadao in Songkhla province, wounding 27. They were followed shortly after by the discovery and disarming of a second car bomb on the resort island of Phuket.
To the relief of many Thai security officials, these events were largely overshadowed by political turmoil in Bangkok and received only cursory attention in the local media. But the conclusion to be drawn was plain enough: after 10 years of escalating attacks Malay Muslim separatists are now moving beyond their traditional area of operations.
That this comes against the backdrop of a failed southern peace
process and a fast deteriorating political situation in the rest of Thailand only compounds concerns.
The attacks in Sadao marked the first time any major violence had occurred in the district since the beginning of the insurgency in January 2004. The first motorcycle bomb exploded close to a check-point near the police station of Padang Besar, some 10 kilometers southwest of Sadao district center where the railway from Thailand crosses into Malaysia.
A second similar attack followed 15 minutes later in the compound of the police station in Sadao district center itself. Southern motorcycle bombs - typically consisting of an improvised explosive device (IED) weighing around 7 kilograms (kg) concealed under the vehicle's seat - often cause significant casualties. However, due mainly to the fact that December 22 was a Sunday and a holiday, neither of these explosions resulted in any casualties.
Far more serious was a third explosion which involved a car-bomb or "vehicle-borne IED" (VBIED) in another border settlement at Daan Nork, south-east of the district center where the main motor highway crosses into northern Malaysia at Bukit Kayu Hitam town. The VBIED consisted of two IEDs, both ammonium nitrate - fuel oil (ANFO)-based devices packed into cooking gas tanks.
This package was estimated to weigh close to 100 kilograms and was carried in an Isuzu pick-up truck which two men - caught on CCTV footage - had parked outside a hotel at 6:45 the same morning. Detonated by a mobile phone, it exploded at 12:20, wounding 27 people, four of them critically. The blast also started a major fire, which fire-fighters took one hour to bring under control and which caused major damage to nearby businesses, including the large Paragon entertainment complex and discotheque.
It was probably predictable that in the aftermath of the attacks media reports would surface citing local officials as pointing to organized crime as behind the bombings. In this case, the "usual suspects" were criminals engaged in lucrative cross-border smuggling purportedly retaliating for a police crackdown on their activities - possibly after bribes paid to local police had not secured the agreed cooperation.
Notwithstanding the separatist insurgency that has been raging in the border region for a decade, the instinctive and culturally-rooted proclivity for attributing pecuniary rather than ideological motivations to much of the violence retains a powerful hold over official mindsets.
In this case, however, it fails to explain why a criminal group angered over a double-cross would find it necessary to conduct a complex operation involving three separate attacks on widely separated locations across an entire district rather than one attack aimed directly at the officer or unit responsible for the betrayal. It is also difficult to see how criminals focused on financial gain would benefit from bombings guaranteed to result in tighter security measures that would only complicate their illicit activities.
In fact, both in terms of both tactics and targets the Sadao bombings bore all the hallmarks of an insurgent operation. The pick-up truck used to carry the bombs was later confirmed as having been hijacked on December 9 from Nong Chik district, Pattani, - a well-known focus of insurgent activity - after a lethal assault on a group of local Buddhist civilians.
Moreover, the use of several coordinated blasts involving both car-bombs and motorcycle-bombs is a well-practiced separatist tactic. Indeed, the Daan Nork bombing echoed a major operation in Sungai Kolok on the evening of Friday, September 16, 2011, when a car bomb and two motorcycle bombs exploded in succession, causing mayhem in which seven people were killed and 105 wounded.
Interestingly, in the aftermath of the Sungai Kolok attacks there were also suggestions from local officials that the operation had been financed by drug traffickers purportedly angered by a police "crackdown" a few days earlier.
The Sadao operation also hit two standard separatist targets. One was security forces in the shape of police stations, which have been a regular insurgent target across the border provinces. The other can be summed up in one word: "vice".
The car-bomb outside the Oliver Hotel in Daan Nork exploded in a locality known for its karaoke joints and bars in a town that has grown as an "entertainment" hub catering mainly for a Malaysian clientele. Since early 2004, commercial establishments of ill repute seen by the separatists as offensive to Muslim religious and social sensibilities have been a perennial target, most notably in the Narathiwat border towns of Sungai Kolok and Tak Bai.
On the evening of March 27, 2004, the first motorcycle bomb used in the conflict blew up in a row of bars behind the Marina Hotel in Sungai Kolok, wounding 30, mostly bar-girls and Malaysian tourists.
Beyond the tactics and the targets, however, it is also possible to discern a broader political driver behind the Sadao operation. In June 2013, the dominant separatist faction, Barisan Revolusi Nasional Melayu-Patani (Patani-Malay Revolutionary National Front, or BRN) added Sadao to the four districts in Songkhla province already claimed as part of "Patani territory": Thepa, Chana, Saba Yoi and Nathawee.
A BRN statement issued on June 28 laying down conditions for a proposed cease-fire during the month of Ramadan initially made reference simply to five districts in "Singura" (Songkhla). While many observers assumed the unnamed fifth district was Hat Yai, later clarification from BRN specified Sadao - effectively adding the district to a list of "legitimate" targets.
The foiled car bomb attack in Phuket is arguably of far greater concern than those in Sadao. The resort island is of central importance to Thailand's tourism industry and its distance - over 400 kilometers - from the embattled border provinces has until now insulated it from the conflict. At least 5 million tourists visit Phuket annually, with numbers steadily rising.
The VBIED found on December 22 was carried in an Isuzu pick-up truck which had been left in a parking lot immediately beside the municipal police station in Phuket town. The vehicle - which carried fake registration plates from Nonthaburi province near Bangkok and had been covered with a cloth car-cover - had first been noticed on December 20 during a routine pre-holiday security check of several car parks.
Efforts to find its owner were not successful. Only after an alert prompted by the blasts in Sadao earlier in the day was the truck properly searched on December 22 and found to be carrying IEDs. It was immediately removed to an open area in Chalong district outside the town and safely disarmed by an explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) team.
As in Sadao, the Phuket VBIED carried the indelible finger-prints of a Malay separatist insurgent operation. Again, the vehicle used had been seized in a murder/car-jacking in the conflict-ridden border provinces. In this case, the truck had been stolen on May 9, 2013, in Saiburi district, Pattani, after the killing of its owner, a Buddhist construction contractor from Songkhla. This indicated clearly that the attempted attack originated in the border provinces.
Moreover, the VBIED package consisted of two ANFO-based devices in cooking gas tanks - similar to the Sadao attacks. According to police sources, one of these weighed 65kg and the other 68kg, making for a total payload of 133kg. This constituted the largest single IED package deployed in a conflict which over the last two years has seen IEDs growing notably larger.
(The largest single package recorded prior to this incident consisted of an array of three IEDs in cooking gas tanks each weighing around 30 kg, making for a total of 90kg-100kg. The resultant blast derailed a train on the main north-south rail track in Rueso district, Narathiwat, on November 18, 2012.)
Had the Phuket VBIED exploded, it would have demolished part of the police station and almost certainly resulted in a significant loss of life. The likely impact on the island's tourist industry and economy requires no additional commentary.
The Casio F200 digital wrist-watch timer intended to trigger the device had been set for 14:45 on August 1, 2013, according to police sources. A failure properly to arm the device by the operatives responsible for delivering the VBIED - typically not technical cadres - resulted in its failure to detonate. Not coincidentally, however, 14:45 was exactly half an hour after another IED did explode in Phuket - in a rubbish bin outside the offices of the Provincial Administration Organization (PAO).
The explosion of this far smaller device - probably weighing no more than 5kg - caused no casualties and attracted little attention. Typically, given the location of the blast, it was seen by some observers as probably stemming from political squabbles in the PAO. However, the discovery of the VBIED on December 22 left very little doubt that the IEDs in both locations were the coordinated handiwork of Malay insurgents intended to detonate - as in Sadao - in succession.
In retrospect, there is also little doubt why the date chosen for the attack was Monday, August 1. That day came at the beginning of the most intense wave of IED attacks ever seen in the three border provinces, an offensive intended to mark the religiously auspicious final days of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan. The eight-day period from July 31 to August 7 saw a total of 35 IED incidents in the border region, a dramatic spike from an average of 24 such attacks over the course of an entire month during the first half of 2013.
It appears that the Phuket attacks were intended to mark a high-profile extension of this campaign, in much the same way as the car bomb attack in Hat Yai on March 31, 2012, marked an out-of-area extension of other bombs attacks in Yala and Pattani on the same day. The attacks in Phuket and Sadao were not the only Malay separatist "out of area" attacks in 2013. Despite official attempts to play down the incident - again citing "business disputes" - it is now close to certain that the IED attack in Ramkhamhaeng district of Bangkok on the evening of May 26 which wounded seven was also the work of southern Malay insurgents.
A part-time insurgent operative, Idris Satapo, 24, was subsequently arrested in Narathiwat on June 17. Senior insurgent sources have claimed to ATol that the former army conscript had been recruited by one faction of the Patani United Liberation Organization (PULO) in an effort to underscore demands that the group should be included in any peace negotiations. The relative lack of sophistication of the Ramkhamhaeng IED compared with the handiwork of most devices assembled by BRN-affiliated bomb-makers tends to corroborate this claim.
It is unlikely that the out-of-area attacks in the second half of 2013 reflected a single, clear-cut decision by senior insurgent leadership to shift from restricting operations to the Pattani region to a new strategy of actively extending the struggle northwards into south-central and central Thailand. Had such a strategic decision to expand the war been made, it would almost certainly have been followed through by more numerous "out-of-area" attacks over recent months.
Instead, the attacks appear to reflect a range of event-specific drivers. Last year's Bangkok blast appears, as noted, to have been linked to the peace process. Phuket, meanwhile, was apparently an extension of the BRN's Ramadan offensive. The latest operation in Sadao was arguably intended to lend weight to BRN's earlier political decision officially to include the district in what it claims as "Patani territory".
However, the cumulative impact is a fraying of the broad consensus in insurgent ranks over the past ten years to limit operations to the border region. The staging of attacks in Phuket and Bangkok in particular marks the crossing of an important psychological barrier which is likely to make repeat operations in the same areas easier. The danger is that insurgent commanders may now view both cities in the same light as Hat Yai: as strategic pressure points where periodically severe pain can be inflicted on the Thai state in a manner that commands immediate national - and indeed international - attention.
Significantly, this comes at a time when Thailand faces political challenges as daunting as any it has faced in its modern history. Political turmoil at the center could potentially have three main impacts on the southern conflict. First, it is likely to weaken operations mounted against the southern insurgency as intelligence officers are pulled back to Bangkok - a shift which is already happening - while army and police commanders in the border region are understandably distracted by events in the capital.
Secondly, at a time when the southern 'peace process' has effectively collapsed, confusion and uncertainty in Bangkok are only likely to encourage separatist commanders seeking to ramp up military pressure in the south. Finally, the shifting pattern of separatist activity also opens the door to the use of IEDs under false southern flags by extremist elements in either the anti-government or pro-government camps.
Both Thai and foreign intelligence sources concur that the wave of bombs that struck Bangkok on New Years Eve in 2006, three months after the coup that ousted then-prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, were almost certainly intended to discredit the government installed by the military coup-makers. It is unlikely to have been a coincidence, however, that the IEDs used that evening were remarkably similar to those assembled by southern separatist bombers.
Anthony Davis is a Bangkok-based security analyst for IHS-Jane's.
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