Violence sparks fears of terror ties in south Thailand
The coordinated attacks in southern Thailand on January 4, 2004 touched off a two month wave of violence, leaving nearly 50 people dead. The Muslim community, which makes up 85 percent of the population of the three southern provinces of Narathiwat, Pattani, and Yala, has more in common with nearby Malaysia, including religion and language, than with the majority Buddhist Thais. This remote region has been known for black markets, gangs, drug and arms trafficking, smuggling, and corruption as well as a separatist movement that was quelled in 1987, but which reemerged in 2001. Due to its proximity to Malaysia and the limited economic opportunity for Muslims of the region, it is not surprising that significant numbers have traveled to neighboring countries for education ? sometimes at militantly religious schools ? with a few even training in al Qaeda camps in Afghanistan. Yet, early government reactions to the January 4 attacks blamed local domestic gangs. However, officials quickly shifted position by claiming the coordinated attacks appeared to be linked to al Qaeda agents, thereby eliciting international sympathy and public support for an oppressive military response. The arrest this past week of nine suspects resulted in the seizure of ammunition, a machete, a Malaysian flag, and some separatist literature reveals that the threat posed by the captured cell was limited to a local separatist insurgency. It was clearly lacking significant international militant Islamic inspiration or support by al Qaeda or Jemaah Islamiya . Nonetheless, since none of the weapons stolen from the armory in January were found, Thai authorities must explore the possibilities that the separatist movement is significantly larger, or that this small cell had forged an alliance with criminal, black-market, arms-trafficking elements in the region.