Jihadism in Southern Thailand: A Phantom Menace


What’s the issue? Media reports and some observers suggest growing potential for Islamic State (ISIS) activity in Thailand’s southernmost provinces. Crisis Group argues that to date there is no evidence of jihadist inroads, partly because the insurgents are nationalists who aim to create an independent state.

  • Why does it matter? While fears of jihadist activity are not irrational, they are misplaced. But the longer the conflict continues, the greater the chance that the insurgency expands and transnational jihadists exploit the disorder.

  • What should be done?  To prevent jihadist penetration of southern Thailand, there needs to be a negotiated solution between the Thai government and the separatist movement. A decentralised political system could help address the principal grievances in the south while preserving the unitary Thai state.

Executive Summary

The decline of the Islamic State (ISIS) and the advent of ISIS-linked violence in South East Asia evince the possibility of a new era of transnational jihadist terrorism in the region. Recurring albeit unsubstantiated reports about ISIS activity in Thailand have prompted questions about the vulnerability of the country’s Muslim-majority deep south and, in particular, its longstanding Malay-Muslim insurgency to jihadist influence. To date, there is no evidence of jihadists making inroads among the separatist fronts fighting for what they see as liberation of their homeland, Patani. But the conflict and a series of ISIS scares in Thailand are fanning fears of a new terrorist threat. Such fears are not irrational, though are largely misplaced and should not obscure the calamity of the insurgency and the need to end it. Direct talks between insurgent leaders and the government are a priority; a decentralised political system could help address the principal grievances in the south while preserving the unitary Thai state.

Al-Qaeda and ISIS have exploited protracted conflicts across the Muslim world to further their agendas, including in areas that are under the sovereignty of capable states but where central government authority is weak. During the ISIS era, transnational jihadism in South East Asia mostly has been a “bottom-up” phenomenon with pre-existing militant groups (for instance in Indonesia and the Philippines) proclaiming allegiance to ISIS. In these countries, as well as Malaysia and Singapore, individuals and small groups unaffiliated with a militant network have also sought to join ISIS or act in its name.

Yet such patterns of involvement with ISIS or other jihadist groups to date have not manifested themselves in southernmost Thailand. One reason is that Thailand’s Malay-Muslim society is not a sympathetic milieu for transnational jihadism; the country’s Muslim religious leaders, both traditionalists and reformists, overwhelmingly reject the Salafi-jihadist ideology espoused by ISIS and al-Qaeda. To be sure, this diminishes but does not remove the risk of some Malay Muslims turning to jihadism. Motivations for joining jihadist groups vary and frequently are not linked to ideology or religious conviction. Jihadist propaganda could potentially sway some individuals. However, those Malay Muslims motivated by desires for comradeship, identity or devotion to a cause – not to mention grievances against the Thai state – appear more likely to be absorbed by the Patani liberation movement, given its roots in local society, than by transnational jihadist groups.

Indeed, the Malay-Muslim insurgency is distinguished by its parochialism. The militant organisation pursues national self-determination over a specific territory, seeking to join, rather than destroy, the international system. Patani-Malay militant leaders are antagonistic to ISIS and similar groups and see their fronts as bulwarks against jihadist influence. They say that allying with ISIS or al-Qaeda, or emulating signature tactics such as suicide bombings and indiscriminate mass-casualty attacks, would cost them a claim to international legitimacy, erode their local support and invite hostile foreign intervention. Malaysia, contending with a domestic ISIS-inspired threat, is not likely to tolerate such an association among the Patani militant leadership in exile there.

This is not a reason for complacency. Continued stalemate, tactical reversals, impatience with, or opposition to the slow-moving peace dialogue process between Bangkok and some separatist fronts – or even broader frustration with the prevailing strategy – could arguably encourage a splinter group to employ extreme violence in a bid to gain leverage. The example, or support, of jihadists might be attractive to militants disaffected with their leaders.

But it is a reason to question some of the more alarmist voices. The Patani liberation movement has a history of factionalism, and the main militant front, the Barisan Revolusi Nasional Melayu Patani (Patani-Malay National Revolutionary Front, BRN), is highly secretive, yet there are no clear indications of acute generational or ideological divisions. Fears of jihadist influence based primarily on the argument that “things can change” must be weighed against evidence that there is no appetite among the leadership of existing militant groups for affiliation with ISIS or like-minded groups.

The priority for the Thai government and Malay-Muslim militants should be to end the conflict that has cost almost 7,000 lives since 2004, not to act on speculation regarding possible jihadist inroads. The longer the conflict continues, the greater the risk of increased polarisation, intensified insurgency that could spread outside the deep south, as well as miscalculations that transnational jihadists could exploit. The exodus of ISIS fighters from the Middle East, the propaganda victory of pro-ISIS fighters in the Philippine city of Marawi, Mindanao, and calls from ISIS and al-Qaeda to avenge the Rohingya who were forced to flee Myanmar represent a potentially volatile convergence for the region.

To address these multiple risks, Bangkok and the Patani-Malay National Revolutionary Front (BRN) should communicate clearly to constituencies in the deep south that they take seriously both broader social aspirations and concerns and the grievances of various insurgent fronts. Doing so will require Bangkok to re-energise the peace dialogue process and the BRN to engage in it, with the objective of devising a political solution for the deep south based on decentralisation. More generally, the government should return rights to free expression and political assembly so that people are able to articulate local preferences and peacefully effect change.

I.Introduction

There are recurring reports of Islamic State (ISIS) activity and influence in Thailand, particularly in the Malay Muslim-majority southernmost provinces where separatists have waged a renewed insurgency since the early 2000s.The rise and decline of ISIS have stimulated concerns about the prospect of a new era of transnational jihadist terrorism in South East Asia, especially Indonesia, Malaysia and the southern Philippines, where ISIS has inspired, directed and funded violence by local affiliates and sympathisers. To date, there is no evidence of any association between Malay-Muslim insurgents and foreign jihadists, but southernmost Thailand appears on the surface to offer conditions favourable for jihadist expansion: a Sunni minority that constitutes a majority in the conflict zone; a Muslim insurgency with a narrative of dispossession at the hands of non-Muslim colonisers; and a protracted conflict with frequent repression and violence by Thai authorities. Thai officials, analysts, and even some in the militant movement have expressed concerns about prospects for jihadist influence.

The distinction between “jihad” and “jihadism” is central to this report.Malay-Muslim militants have long framed resistance to the Thai state as a jihad, though their aims are primarily nationalist. Theirs may be characterised as an irredentist or “nation-oriented” jihad, ie a fight against non-Muslims for a particular territory. “Jihadist”, by contrast, is used here to refer to movements such as al-Qaeda, ISIS and their affiliates. Most jihadists espouse Salafi-jihadism, a doctrine that rejects the nation-state as an affront to God’s sovereignty, regards the rulers of states across the Muslim world as apostates and seeks, through revolutionary violence, to establish pure Islamic government in the form of a caliphate. Malay-Muslim militants are, as a rule, not Salafis, but rather adhere to traditional forms of Sunni Islam of the Shafii school that is dominant in South East Asia. Malay-Muslims do not often use the term “jihadist” to describe groups like ISIS or al-Qaeda, instead using “terrorists”, “extremists” (ekstremis or pelampau) or the names of particular jihadist groups. Militants refer to themselves as juwae, or fighters, a word that implies the concept of jihad.

ISIS and al-Qaeda have sometimes succeeded in affiliating with nationalist armed groups pursuing local agendas and have exploited conflict for their own ends, even within the peripheries of capable states. This report examines factors that militate against this happening in southernmost Thailand, and assesses the risk of jihadism taking root there. It does not examine the situation of Muslims in other regions of Thailand.

Jihadism’s diverse forms complicate any assessment of its threat. ISIS, for example, has manifested as an insurgency; a quasi-state administering extensive territory; affiliated militant groups; clandestine terrorist cells; far-flung sympathisers; and an idea used to motivate and rationalise terrorism. ISIS could seize territory in Iraq and Syria, and, on a smaller scale, other parts of the Muslim world, largely thanks to its exploitation of war and chaos. But its success in attracting and inspiring followers from Europe and other places that are neither ungoverned nor chaotic rests on very different and locally specific conditions. “Radicalisation” is a problematic concept, but here refers to the turn to participation in jihadism by individuals or groups. This report primarily examines the risk of existing militant groups affiliating with transnational jihadist organisations and, to a lesser extent, prospects for radicalisation.

As jihadism is not presently evident in southernmost Thailand, the report is inevitably partially conjectural. It draws on interviews conducted in Thailand’s deep south and neighbouring countries from mid-2016, with members of BRN and other militant fronts, Muslim religious leaders, academics and professionals, government officials, military and police officers, students, and recent graduates, including several Malay-Muslim women. The interviews reflect a variety of religious, political and social perspectives from the deep south. We also spoke to Bangkok-based diplomats and other analysts.

II.The Spectre of Jihadism in Southern Thailand

A.A Parochial Insurgency

The insurgency in southernmost Thailand is waged primarily by the Barisan Revolusi Nasional Melayu Patani (Patani-Malay National Revolutionary Front, or BRN), a militant front founded in 1960 to seek independence for Patani. Fractured and weak in the 1980s, the BRN began to reorganise in the 1990s, building a clandestine network throughout the southernmost provinces before launching a series of attacks in the early 2000s, marking a new phase in the decades’ long insurgency. BRN commands the overwhelming majority of Malay-Muslim insurgent fighters in Thailand.

The resurgence of violence in the deep south in late 2001 coincided with the advent of the so-called global war on terrorism and raised concerns among terrorism analysts that the region could become a new battleground for al-Qaeda and its Indonesian affiliate Jemaah Islamiyah (JI). Revelations that the 2002 Bali bombing had been planned in Thailand and the capture of Jemaah Islamiyah operative Riduan Isamuddin, aka Hambali, in Ayuthaya province in central Thailand in August 2003 highlighted the country’s role as an unwitting haven for foreign terrorists and intensified speculation about possible ties between Malay-Muslim militants and international jihadist groups. In reality, Malay-Muslim militants, suspicious of foreign operatives, rejected overtures from JI as well as a proposal to attack tourist sites in Thailand. A senior BRN member recalled being approached by three JI members during a sojourn in Indonesia in 2006. He turned down their request to go to Patani and an invitation to meet JI leader Abu Bakar Bashir. He said: “Our field of struggle is different from theirs”.

The Malay-Muslim militant movement’s difference with jihadist groups is clear. It is based on a Malay-nationalist narrative of resistance to Thai colonialism and a struggle for self-determination. Militant rhetoric casts the demand for self-rule as one for independence, a clear goal demanding risk-taking and sacrifice. Bangkok has eschewed assimilationist policies since the 1980s, but BRN continues to harness disaffection with the state arising from the latter’s rigid emphasis on Thai national identity, centralised political control and a sense of second-class status among Malay Muslims. Popular support is difficult to gauge, but the insurgents’ ability to sustain operations over thirteen years in the face of countermeasures is telling.

After the May 2014 coup that brought the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) to power, the military government pledged to continue a dialogue with separatist militants initiated by the previous government in February 2013. The Majlis Syura Patani (Patani Consultative Council, MARA Patani) umbrella body established in 2015 to negotiate with Bangkok brings together representatives of five militant groups. BRN is not part of the dialogue process, although its members hold the top three positions in MARA Patani. BRN has stated that those of its members in MARA are freelancing and do not speak for the organisation. The dialogue remains unofficial, as Thailand has not agreed to Terms of Reference to govern talks. Nor is there much substantive common ground. Bangkok prioritises its national sovereignty and does not entertain any administrative changes to the region. In contrast, MARA Patani maintains sovereignty is its ultimate goal, even if independence is an issue that must be resolved through negotiation.

B.ISIS in South East Asia

To date, the model in South East Asia has been one of existing militant groups and extremist networks seeking to align themselves with ISIS. Many militant groups in Indonesia and the Philippines have sworn allegiance to ISIS and its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi since 2014. Local jihadists have served to “repackage ISIS and make it relevant to local issues”. In both countries and Malaysia existing organisations and longstanding networks have inspired, recruited and funded militants to join ISIS in the Middle East and to stage attacks in their home countries. South East Asians who have joined ISIS in Syria and Iraq have supported – mostly rhetorically but in some cases with funds – affiliates and sympathisers in the region.

ISIS has not recognised a province in South East Asia, but in January 2016 ISIS designated Isnilon Hapilon, leader of an Abu Sayyaf Group splinter, as amir(commander) and urged other groups that had pledged allegiance to ISIS to follow him. In June 2016, an ISIS video featuring an Indonesian, a Malaysian and a Filipino, called on followers to launch attacks in South East Asia and to join fighters in Mindanao. In November 2016, ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi appealed to “soldiers” to initiate attacks outside Iraq and Syria, citing Indonesia, Bangladesh and the Philippines, but not Thailand. Foreign fighters and ISIS funding directly supported the seizure of Marawi in Mindanao by pro-ISIS groups, including Hapilon’s, in May 2017.

With ISIS collapsing in Syria and Iraq, some fighters may try to get to Mindanao. Regional governments are concerned that returning fighters with combat experience and technical expertise will make local militant groups more dangerous.

C.Thailand’s ISIS Scares

Since late 2015, there have been recurring reports about ISIS threats to Thailand and activity in the southernmost provinces. These reports overwhelmingly proved to be without substance. The media record of ISIS scares seems to indicate competing imperatives for Thai officials. On one hand, they wish to minimise terrorist threats in order to project an image of stability. On the other hand, bombings in recent years have led some officials to publici