WASHINGTON, Feb. 15 (UPI) -- Islamic separatists in violence-wracked southern Thailand have begun to employ weapons and tactics that appear to be imported from the insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to analysts and experts.
One technique in particular, the use of a cement casing around a homemade bomb which both disguises it to look like a roadside marker and increases its lethality by creating razor sharp shards of concrete shrapnel, seems to have been imported directly from Iraq.
"That comes straight from Iraq -- or at least from the same training manuals they're using in Iraq," said Zachary Abuza, author of "Crucible of Terror" -- widely considered the definitive study of Islamic extremism in Southeast Asia. "Certainly, those kinds of tactics were never used in Thailand before."
Over the past year, the separatists have undergone "a remarkable transformation. It's unique ... I've never seen anything like it before in an insurgency," said defense analyst Jeff Moore who has written about the issue for Jane's Terrorism and Insurgency Centre.
Moore told United Press International that during 2004 there were a half dozen raids and ambushes against Thai security forces and other targets, but in 2005, there were nearly 90.
"Almost overnight they went from a gang of saboteurs and assassins to a small army. A guerilla army, but an army nonetheless," he said.
During the same time frame, Thai security forces also noted "an increasing sophistication in the construction and use" of improvised explosive devices by the insurgents, Panitan Wattanayagorn told UPI.
Panitan, a visiting scholar at the School of Advanced International Studies, John Hopkins University, is a Thai academic and former security adviser in the prime minister's office. According to his biography, he continues to advise a number of Thai security agencies, including the country's army.
Panitan said the greater sophistication was notable in "more elaborate components" of some devices, and in the way they were deployed, including the increasing use of tactics such as chains of bombs blown up sequentially.
Abuza -- who is completing a book on the separatist insurgency, the latest phase of which has raged for nearly five years -- said there had also been an increase in the size of bombs.
"In the early stages of the insurgency, you would typically see 4-5 lb pipe-bomb devices. Last year we saw three or four 100 lb car bombs."
The number of attacks has also been increasing. Figures compiled by Jane's show that the number of bomb attacks last year -- nearly 20 a month, on average -- was more than three times that in 2004.
Jane's also noted a "clear diversification and advance in triggering techniques." Traditionally, the insurgents relied almost exclusively on timers made from cheap alarm clocks or "Walkman"-style tape recorders.
Time-bombs "are still occasionally used," says Jane's, but last year, "the weight of the (bombing) campaign has shifted decisively towards the use of mobile phones," which now account for as many as 95 per cent of bombings or attempted bombings.
"The ease with which explosions can be detonated, often in the line of sight to ensure they strike a specific target at a specific moment, has been a key factor in the growing number of casualties suffered by the security forces," says the publication.
Another factor driving the increasingly high casualty rate, says Moore, is the increasing sophistication of the tactics the separatists employ. One raid he analyzed, on the town of Yala in July 2005, involved more than 60 attackers in a sophisticated series of five simultaneous or sequential operations, including blowing up power lines; pinning down military units deployed there and covering their retreat with road spikes and fake bombs.
"It was a well-planned and executed military operation led by professionals, so it is likely that they rehearsed for it beforehand," Moore said.
Insurgents typically increase their capacity as they gain experience, but the speed of the Thai transformation -- especially their rapid adoption of infantry tactics -- is remarkable, Moore said.
Moore and Panitan both pointed to the Internet and the proliferation of Jihadi Web sites on it, as a possible source for some of this knowledge, especially about the construction of home-made bombs. Last year, Thai security forces raided a separatist safe house and found CDs and other training materials downloaded from the Web.
Moore said some of the jihadi sites are "virtual libraries" where would-be Jihadis can download everything they need from propaganda materials to bomb-making manuals.
"It's a starter kit," he said, "Almost a 'jihad in a box' if you like," but he added that the skills required for sophisticated ambush tactics cannot be effectively transferred in this fashion. "You cannot learn this stuff from the Internet ... Experienced or trained fighters taught them how to do this."
Moore, employing a college sporting metaphor, says the separatists seem to have "a bunch of ringers," a number of individuals who have clearly received training -- probably at camps in Afghanistan.
Thai intelligence believes that about 120 Islamic militants from Thailand passed through terrorist training camps run by al-Qaida and other extremist groups in Afghanistan prior to the United States toppling the Taliban regime there in late 2001.
"Some intelligence reports also suggest that there are individuals who provide (current) connectivity to foreign groups or training facilities," Panitan said, but added that there was no consensus on the question among the various security agencies operating in the south, where the insurgency has claimed more than a thousand lives.
Abuza and Panitan said that it is almost certain that at least some of the militants now active in the separatist insurgency have received training more recently, probably at camps in Indonesia or the Philippines.
"There are some individuals the authorities believe" have attended training camps in the region, said Panitan, adding that the porous southern border with Malaysia, and the existence of well-established smuggling and illegal migration routes to Indonesia makes it nearly impossible to track the movements of militants with any certainty.
"When they come back (from the camps), they change their names" he said of the militants, which adds to the difficulties that security forces have in assessing the levels of connectivity with overseas networks.
Some believe that militants may also have received training in Pakistan, through the network of madrassas or Islamic religious schools associated with the Kashmir-based jihadi networks, or with the Taliban.
"There are clear links with other regional extremist networks," Al Santoli, president of the Asia America Initiative, and a long-time observer of the region, told UPI.
But others are less certain. "It's too early to say for sure" what external links the various groups active in the insurgency might currently have, said Panitan.
That caution is echoed by a U.S. official at the embassy in Bangkok. The United States sees the insurgency as an "internal" issue, said the official, who asked for anonymity. "There is no clear evidence of direct foreign terrorist involvement."
The separatist insurgency in southern Thailand has deep and complex roots among the population there, which has strong ethnic and linguistic ties across the border into Malaysia, and which -- unlike the rest of the Thai population -- is majority Muslim.
Although the three-decade long struggle for independence was traditionally led by secular nationalists, analysts say that, since 2001, Islamic militants -- led in some cases by veterans of the Afghan jihad against the Soviets -- have played an increasingly important role in the conflict.