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Thailand's southern insurgency turns up the heat

By JEFF M. MOORE, UPI Outside View Commentator   |   Jan. 9, 2014 at 12:03 AM   |   Comments

ARLINGTON, Va., Jan. 9 (UPI) -- While all eyes are on Bangkok's intense, domestic political contest, two shocking Thai insurgent attacks in mid-December slipped through the news causing little alarm.

The bombing of southern Songkhla province and the attempted bombing of Thailand's most popular island resort, Phuket. These operations foreshadow ominous times ahead unless Thai security forces step up their game.

The culprits aim to separate Thailand's three southern border provinces -- Pattani, Narathiwat, and Yala -- from Thailand and establish a strict Islamist state. They sometimes include Songkhla province in their separatist rhetoric. The insurgents are ethnically Malay and driven by their own, unique brand of jihad and Pattani-Malay nationalism. Failing peace talks with Bangkok have embittered them as of late.

The southern Songkhla bombings happened Dec. 22. Three devices exploded and police defused two others. These blasts are significant because in 10 years of war, the insurgents have never struck in southern Songkhla.

Two of the bombs were hidden in motorcycles. They exploded at two police stations, one in Padang Besar, and another in Sadao, both border towns. These injured no one.

Then at about 10 a.m. in Danok, another nearby border town, police found and defused two bombs, one outside a McDonald's and the other outside a Lotus Express, the European version of a U.S. CVS store.

About two hours later in the same town, a bomb hidden in a pickup truck blew up at the Oliver Hotel, wounding 27 people, four seriously. The explosion shattered 20 nearby shops, burned nine cars and caused $2 million in damages to the hotel.

At the time of the bombings, Danok was in the midst of Christmas celebrations, packed with Malaysian tourists visiting the festive restaurants, shops and clubs. The bombs were meant to cause maximum civilian casualties.

The same day, police 160 miles due northwest in Phuket searched an abandoned pickup truck at their main police station and discovered a bomb big enough to destroy a 10-story building.

A check on the truck revealed it belonged to a Pattani man killed by insurgents months before. They had stolen his vehicle and used it to deliver the device.

When authorities saw that the faulty timer on the bomb was set to go off months earlier on Aug. 1, they realized that a different bomb that had indeed gone off Aug. 1 at Phuket's Provincial Administrative Organization hadn't been due to a criminal dispute after all. It had been an insurgent attack.

This was significant because, like southern Songkhla, they'd never struck there before.

What's it all mean?

First, southern Police Chief Lt. Gen. Pisit Pisuthsak said these attacks indicate the insurgents have expanded their target zone. And he's right. The rest of Thailand is no longer off limits, including its famed, moneymaking beach resorts and its more popular cities. Phuket alone services about 3 million tourists a year and generates billions in revenue, annually. The Thais have since scrambled to increase security to protect these treasured places.

Second, regarding capabilities, it proves that insurgents can attack well outside their standard area of operations and beyond their interior lines. Their network -- intelligence agents, safe houses, bombers, etc. -- extends into the rest of Thailand. How robust this network is remains to be seen but the scores of pundits that have continually asserted that the insurgents couldn't operate outside their ethnic Malay comfort zone have just been proven wrong.

Third, insurgent failure at the negotiating table hasn't deterred them from violence in the slightest. Bangkok has rejected their more extreme demands since February 2013 and, because of poor progress, peace talks are on hold.

But instead of backing off, the rebels are turning up the heat in attempts to take this conflict to a new level. If the government doesn't blunt this new trajectory, the insurgency will get out of control.

As Bangkok's politicians are distracted by an extremely tense domestic political melee, it's up to Thailand's security services to act. But while these forces truly harbor some world-class counterinsurgency capabilities, they, too, are indirectly embroiled in Bangkok's political contest.

The writing is on the wall, however. The insurgents mean business. If vigilance suffers, the insurgency might continue its new targeting scheme with disastrous results.

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(Jeff Moore, Ph.D., is the chief executive officer of Muir Analytics, which assesses threats from insurgent and terror groups against corporations.)

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(United Press International's "Outside View" commentaries are written by outside contributors who specialize in a variety of important issues. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of United Press International. In the interests of creating an open forum, original submissions are invited.)

© 2014 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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