Signs of Islamic State influence are emerging in Thailand, according to Southeast Asia security experts, amid reports that 10 Syrians linked to the group had entered the kingdom.
“There is a lot of concern about ISIL's presence in Southern Thailand, including by many Thai security officials,” Zachary Abuza, a professor at the National War College in Washington D.C. told BenarNews, using another acronym for IS.
While there was no hard evidence that IS has a presence in the country’s Muslim majority Deep South, “What I and some colleagues have been seeing, however, is a lot more sharing in social media amongst the Malay of southern Thailand of ISIL propaganda and videos,” he added.
Versions of slick IS propaganda videos with Thai subtitles began cropping up on social media earlier this week, and a senior Thai security official confirmed to BenarNews that IS videos with Thai subtitles were unprecedented – and likely had been produced in Thailand.
“By subtitling an IS propaganda video with Thai subtitles, the IS strategy is to influence the Malay community in Thailand, especially in the south of Thailand,” said Rohan Gunaratna, who directs the International Center for Political Violence and Terrorism Research at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.
“A tiny minority of Muslims in the south has built an ideological relationship with IS,” he added.
According to Thai officials, there is no evidence of Thais having gone to Syria or Iraq to join IS’s combat ranks, and there have been no arrests of local supporters of IS.
Threat against Russians in Thailand?
On Friday, however, Thai police confirmed that Russia had warned Thailand that 10 Syrians with links to IS had infiltrated the kingdom sometime between Oct. 15 and 31.
A leaked top secret Thai police document said the 10 named by Russia had traveled to Bangkok or the resort towns of Pattaya and Phuket, according to news reports.
“The document that everyone is asking about is real,” Royal Thai Police Gen. Chakthip Chaijinda told reporters, adding that it was routine to submit a follow-up document after receiving a warning.
According to news reports, the Syrians were plotting attacks on Russian interests in Thailand. Russia weeks ago launched an aerial campaign bombing IS targets and rebel forces in Syria.
But police seemed uncertain about whether the IS-linked foreign suspects were still in the country.
“We have no proof if they are here or not,” Deputy National Police spokesman Songpol Wattanachai said Friday, according to Agence France-Presse.
Nonetheless, the police department’s special branch was to increase security around the embassies of Russia, the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Belgium, Germany, Sweden and Australia.
Security specialist: jihadist attack not likely
Late Thursday, at a panel discussion in Bangkok on IS in Southeast Asia, IHS Jane’s Defense Weekly security specialist Anthony Davis said the possibility of a jihadist attack in Bangkok was “extremely low” in the foreseeable future.
But, he said, Thailand’s standing as a top international destination had transformed it into a “target-rich” magnet for terrorism.
“Basically, the world is here. Tourists from the west, from Russia, from China, from Japan –everybody is here, along with foreign businesses and international organizations,” Davis told the gathering at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand (FCCT).
“Terrorism in Thailand is no longer an abstract issue.”
On Aug. 17, 20 people were killed and another 120 wounded in the bombing of the Erawan Shrine – a Bangkok landmark and popular tourist destination – in Thailand’s deadliest terrorist act to date.
Security specialists have long watched to see whether a long-simmering insurgency in the Muslim-majority Deep South might be exploited by international terrorist networks.
For years, the Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN) – the main separatist group fighting the Thai government in the Deep South – has blocked the spread of transnational jihadist ideology in the region, experts said.
“It is more in the nature of BRN as acting as a bulwark,” Davis told the FCCT event.
“BRN, paradoxically, when it comes to jihadist terrorism, is on exactly the same side as the Thai state. Jihadists, for BRN, represent a serious threat to their whole agenda – everything they have been fighting for for decades,” he added.
The BRN, according to Abuza, is “the strongest antidote against ISIL.”
But he described its aggressive and sophisticated use of social media as a threat to BRN.
“The insurgents are very shadowy and have no social media or public information campaign. Indeed, when they speak to the press or issue a video statement … they are wooden and dour,” he said.
IS propaganda, by contrast, is “incredibly slick, well produced and tailored to the target audience,” he said.
“The government thinks it can have it both ways: it can keep out ISIL without making any political concessions to the BRN,” he added, alluding to recent efforts by Thailand’s junta to reopen formal peace talks with various southern rebel groups and factions.
Gunaratna agreed that IS’s appeal in the Deep South is limited because the southern insurgency is rooted in a nationalist cause.
But a growing ideological attraction to the group “may grow into an operational relationship” unless Thailand acts decisively to engage and integrate Malay Muslims into Thailand, he warned.