The attack on Tuesday, July 23, 2019, at a military site in southern Thailand, according to an official statement by Thai authorities, underscores the growing violence from the volatile region.
The attack came four days after an unconscious man, aged 34, entered the hospital, suspected of belonging to Islamist rebels, after being interrogated at Incheon Military Camp in Bataan province.
Thailand – a country with a Buddhist majority – has been a religious separatist insurgency for decades, waged by Malay Muslim rebels in the south of the country.
The epicenter of the conflict
The southern region – particularly the southern provinces of Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat – was part of the Malay Muslim state until Thailand (then called Siam), was annexed in 1909.
The dispute can be traced back to the Anglo-Saxon Treaty of 1909, which defined the border between Thailand and Malaysia. As part of the treaty, Thailand included the independent Batani state, which now forms Thailand’s predominantly Muslim south. The Thai government spent much of this century trying to absorb Malay Muslims into Thai Buddhist culture which aroused resentment among Malaysian Muslim society.
Insurgents calling for independence cite political, economic and cultural injustices, and many insurgents claim to wage jihad, calling for the establishment of an Islamic sultanate in the south of the country.
Over the past five years since the rebellion broke out in 2004, separatist groups have carried out a number of violent attacks, although they lack central command, and militant Islamists are believed to form the majority of the rebels as of January 2019.
The separatist insurgency killed about 7,000 people and wounded at least 12,000 others in the conflict, according to the latest estimate in September 2016.
The unorganized insurgency, lacking a leader, has made the region a valuable haven for terrorist groups, including al Qaeda, the Islamic Group and Hezbollah, which have begun operating inside Thailand as a transit point and as a base for planning attacks on neighboring areas of Malaysia and Indonesia.
JI is believed to have planned the 2002 bombings in Bali, Indonesia, from safe houses in Thailand’s capital Bangkok. In addition, Iranian agents sought to attack Israeli diplomats on Thai territory.
According to the Global Terrorism Report 2017, ethnic Malay rebels have carried out hundreds of attacks in the far south of the provinces of Pattani, Yala, Narathiwat and parts of Songkhla, known as the depth of southern Thailand.
According to the report, methods of carrying out attacks included shooting, arson, explosives, improvised explosive devices and remote explosions.
The Tripartite: Daesh, Al Qaeda and Hezbollah
According to a study of the anti-extremism program, in recent years, a number of Thai citizens have become aware of online propaganda, adopted their ideas, and started calling them, although the Thai authorities believe they are not a target.
The Thai authorities have monitored a number of Thai nationals who regularly accessed Daesh’s propaganda materials online – some of them available in Thai, but the authorities confirm that there is no clear evidence that Thai citizens have joined the Daesh group overseas.
However, in November 2016, the government confirmed that it was investigating with Thais who had expressed their support for Daesh group in Southeast Asia via the Internet, including through social media.
Suspicion of travel by Thai citizens to support Daesh is growing, given the relatively large number of fighters traveling from neighboring Indonesia and Malaysia. According to government data, 671 Indonesians have left the country to become foreign fighters in Iraq, Syria and 95 Malaysia have traveled abroad for the same reason.
According to media reports, international terrorist groups – such as al-Qaeda, the Islamic Group and Hezbollah – are using Thailand as a transit point and as a base for planning attacks, although there is little information on al-Qaeda activities in the country.
Bangkok’s resident analyst Sean Crispin says in early 2016 that Thai insurgents have kept global terrorist groups “out of reach to avoid any confusion of their local grievances with anti-Western jihadist ideology. Yet, Thai rebels may be inspired by or sympathetic to jihadist methods.
Challenges to developing a counter-terrorism strategy
Political unrest in Thailand has made it difficult for Bangkok to formulate a coherent strategy to combat extremism, according to a study of the anti-extremism program.
Since the end of the absolute monarchy in 1932, the Thai army has staged 11 coups including the recent coup in May 2014, and at the beginning of the mandate of the military junta led by Baryut Chan Osha who indicated his opposition to a political settlement with the rebels that would give up southern provinces.
But the situation changed. In September 2016, the military junta began peace talks with Mara Pattani, an organization representing the rebels, after successive Thai governments were widely accused of using excessive force against insurgents while failing to address the root causes of Muslim resentment, including political grievances.
In the fight against international terrorism, Thailand provided assistance to foreign powers in preventing or punishing extremist activity. After the September 11, 2001 attacks, Thailand allowed the United States to use Thai territory to interrogate suspected terrorists in its war against terrorism.