Alternate Futures for Thailand’s Insurgency

Publication: Terrorism Focus Volume: 3 Issue: 3

The Thai insurgency has formally entered its third straight year. Between January 2004 and January 2006, more than 1,200 people were killed. In January 2004, violent incidents averaged 30 per month; by December 2004, violent incidents averaged 120 per month. By June 2005, bombings averaged more than one per day. More than 300 were killed and more than 300 wounded in the six months following the introduction of the Emergency Decree in July 2005 (The Bangkok Post, October 24, 2005). In 2006 alone, 19 people have been killed, seven in one day—five of whom were policemen. The presence of over 40,000 security forces has done little to stop the insurgency.

While the majority of victims are killed in drive by shootings and assassinations, the technical capacity of the bombs has increased dramatically. Thai Muslim bomb-makers now assemble 10kg bombs composed of a variety of components, including powergel, TNT, potassium chlorate, and ammonium nitrate. The detonators have become sophisticated to the point that the government had to block all un-registered pre-paid cell phones in the three southernmost provinces. Authorities also have evidence that the militants are now experimenting with infrared devices as detonators, although they have not consistently deployed these bombs (The Nation, November 29, 2005). The Thai militants are also learning techniques from abroad. According to a senior intelligence official, “They have stolen cement kilometer road markers to make bombs, for which we have seen instructions posted on some web sites in the Middle East” (Reuters, October 6, 2005).

The insurgents have become more sophisticated in a number of other ways. Not only are attacks becoming more clinically precise, but there was an increase in coordinated attacks in 2005. For example, October 26, 2005 saw 34 coordinated night-time attacks that left six people dead in raids (Associated Press, October 27, 2005). In another incident, 18 locations in six different districts were hit in one night. In another, militants hit two dozen outposts in one night, killing five and seizing 42 firearms (The Nation, October 27, 2005). More than 100 government weapons were stolen by militants between November and December 2005. On January 18, militants launched 101 coordinated arson attacks across three provinces.

What was also notable about attacks in 2005 was that they became more shocking and more brutal with the purpose of inciting revulsion and fear. There have now been 24 beheadings, one of which was done before a crowded tea house. In October 2005, 15 militants stormed a Buddhist temple and hacked to death a monk, killed a novice monk, torched their bodies, and set the living quarters on fire. The incident gripped the country (The Nation, October 17, 2005).

While the government claims it has arrested 190 insurgents responsible for conducting or planning operations, there are still glaring shortages of information. Very few if any of the leaders of the insurgency have been arrested. There are still some 247 “red zones,” villages controlled by insurgents. There is little reason to share the government’s optimism. Indeed, on January 19, Deputy Prime Minister Chidchai Wannasathit, who claimed credit for the 190 arrests, recently lashed out at the state’s intelligence services for their inability to stop the bloodletting.

The intelligence failure has been so great because Thai officials have rounded up the usual suspects: the old ethno-nationalist groups, such as the Pattani United Liberation Organization (PULO), that were active through the mid-1990s but are now defunct. The current insurgency is being led by two Islamist organizations that the Thai government has always considered peripheral: the Gerakan Mujiheddin Islami Pattan (GMIP) and the Barisan Revolusi Nasional-Coordinate (BRN-C). Their leaders are younger, Middle-Eastern-trained ustadz who have never appeared on the government’s radar screen.

There is also a misunderstanding about the nature of the insurgency. This is not an insurgency about physical space, but an insurgency about mental space. Moreover, it is an intra-Muslim conflict. Since March 2005, militants have killed more of their co-religionists than they have Buddhists. Put simply, the militants are ideologically and religiously motivated; they are trying to impose a very austere and intolerant form of Islam on their society and they countenance no opposition to this. The militants are going after not just collaborators, or individuals who receive a government salary, but also Muslim clerics who perform funeral rites for murtad, or apostates, as well as teachers who work in schools that have mixed curriculums.

The militants have issued a number of threats to their own community. Such threats include forcing businesses closed on Fridays, with the failure to obey resulting in death or the amputation of ears; militants also warn imams not to conduct funeral rites for Muslim security forces, guards at state-schools, government employees, or “anyone who receive salaries from the state,” and warn people not to send their children to state-run schools. These threats are made from a perceived position of strength. The militants have introduced the Wahhabi culture of takfiri—condemning fellow Muslims for their lax interpretation of Islam. They seem undeterred that the threats are broadly unpopular among the Muslim population. The militants are not trying to create a mass-based movement, but rather to impose a strict interpretation of Islam on society. They believe that this outcome will strengthen the Muslim community. It appears that their strategy is working since the stream of intelligence from the villages has dried up.

Three Potential Possibilities for the Future of Thailand’s Insurgency

The least likely possibility for the future of Thailand’s insurgency is the development of a broader insurgency. This development is unlikely because the insurgents do not have enough personnel, guns or a steady supply of ammunition. The insurgents would also face a more hostile external environment from the Malaysians. Additionally, it is likely that the insurgents understand that a broadened insurgency is one that the Royal Thai Army is the best equipped to counter. An emboldened insurgency would require 1,000 to 2,000 men and significantly more material resources. Moreover, the training and quality of the insurgency to date has wavered. Some groups have improved their hit and run tactics and have begun using a road-side IED with a small arms assault. Yet these improved tactics have not occurred on a regular basis. Indeed, attacks seem disjointed because the cell structure is so compartmentalized and autonomous from the leadership.

The second possibility is for the insurgency to move to the next level by launching attacks on Bangkok or Phuket. This is obviously the nightmare scenario for the government, although one that it vehemently denies is a possibility. To date, the militants have shown an unwillingness to engage in this type of operation. They clearly have the technical capability to undertake such attacks, but are obviously alarmed at the government’s reaction to such an operation. There are insurgent leaders, however, who precisely want to provoke a harsh government response that will legitimize them in the eyes of their constituents. Moreover, if the current rate of arrests remains steady, they may engage in terrorism out of desperation. Indeed, there have been a number of arrests—including three individuals scouting targets in Bangkok in November 2005—suggesting that an attack on an out-of-area soft target is being considered as an option. Such an attack would also attract greater attention and international support for their cause, which, to date, has been negligible.

The third and most plausible possibility is that the conflict remains at the status quo: a low-level insurgency coupled with intensified dakwah (religious propagation activities). It appears that this is the path upon which the insurgents have settled. First, in their eyes it has been very successful. The insurgency is much further along than was expected a year ago. Second, it is within their current range of material and human resources and technical know-how. Third, they need this type of violence within their community to enforce their values.

Yet, this strategy also makes the insurgents vulnerable in a number of ways. First, if they cannot raise the violence to the next level, then it becomes a menace in the region, but one that can be contained and that people learn to live with. Second, it gives the government time to really improve their intelligence operations. For instance, already there is more actionable intelligence that has led to more arrests. Moreover, it gives the government ways to come up with additional counter-insurgent plans, such as the mobile phone registration.

In the face of a government counter-insurgency, the militants can easily retreat back to the mosques and pondoks in which they can recruit and proselytize anew. In such a scenario, the government would declare victory while the insurgency would simply incubate as it did over the past decade.