Updated at 7:10 a.m. ET on 2017-02-03
Six men arrested in Northeast Malaysia last month on suspicion of possessing bomb-making materials were involved in a bomb-plot targeting Thailand’s insurgency-wracked Deep South, Thai security officials said Thursday.
Three of the six who were arrested on Jan. 15 in Pasir Mas in Kelantan state – just across the border from the Deep South – were Thai citizens who included a member of the Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN), one of the region’s rebel groups, two Thai security officials told BenarNews on condition of anonymity.
But none were linked to the Islamic State as originally suspected by authorities in Kelantan, a Malaysian police source told BenarNews separately.
“We believe they were planning a plot to attack targets in Thailand’s Deep South. Malaysia caught them with bomb-making materials,” one Thai official told BenarNews, citing Malaysian police reports about materials that were seized from the suspects and information gathered by Thai intelligence.
The suspected BRN fighter is a leader of the armed separatist group based in Yala, one of the provinces in Thailand’s predominantly Muslim and Malay-speaking southern border region, the source said, citing a file of information compiled on the man.
“The man is Uzman Jeh-umong, 40 years of age. He has a record being the leading militant under the cell of Deng Aweji,” said the official, referring to a BRN commander in Yala.
‘From my children’s broken toys’
The New Straits Times (NST) newspaper in Malaysia reported that the six suspects were living close to one another in Kelantan, and were picked up in police raids.
The suspects, who were in their 30s and 40s, possessed parts and materials that could be used to build bombs, including wires and batteries, state police chief Ab Rahman Ismail told NST.
The wife of one of the six suspects told NST that her husband, who worked as a carpenter, was not a militant or insurgent.
“He is not involved in any group and has not done anything wrong,” said the woman, who was identified as “Yah.”
“The battery unit and wires found in our house came from my children’s broken toys. My husband wanted to repair them.”
Both the chief of police in Kelantan and Malaysia’s police chief, Khalid Abu Bakar, did not respond to requests for comment from BenarNews.
But a police official in Kelantan, who also declined to be identified, told BenarNews that investigators no longer believed that the suspects were connected to IS activities.
“Most probably all six were part of an insurgency group in Thailand close to the border,” the official said.
Shortly after the arrests, Malaysian officials said they were investigating the suspects for possible links to the Middle East-based extremist group.
The arrests on Jan. 15 were carried out by the special branch of the Royal Malaysia Police, and the suspects are in custody at national police headquarters in Kuala Lumpur, the Kelantan police official said.
Many residents in the state hold dual Malaysian-Thai citizenship. Kelantan is where top leaders of the BRN and other Deep South rebel groups are believed to be hiding out from Thailand’s military.
BRN is the largest and most heavily armed of the rebel groups in Thailand’s Deep South. Nearly 7,000 people have been killed in violence associated with the insurgency since 2004, according to Deep South Watch, a local think-tank.
“The insurgents operate across the border, going back and forth,” Maj. Gen. Nakrob Boonbuathong, the former secretary of Thailand’s delegation in exploratory peace talks with southern rebel groups, told BenarNews in 2015.