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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.


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 publicise security threats lest terrorist attacks materialise and their failure to warn of such attacks undermine the image of their agencies.

On 21 January 2016, Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha told reporters that authorities were investigating reports that three foreigners with ISIS links had visited a religious school in Sungai Kolok district, Narathiwat province, late in 2015. Media reports, citing anonymous security officials, stated that the ISIS-linked individuals met with imams, donated money and asked that students be taught about ISIS. The school owner told army officers that an Indonesian and Malaysian who had visited the school in December 2015 were former students and there was no discussion of ISIS. Prayuth and the 4th Army Region commander, responsible for the southern provinces, also knocked back rumours that ISIS suspects had been arrested in Narathiwat. A local army commander said that security forces had not detected any ISIS-linked activities.

On 22 November 2016, Police General Srivara Ransibhramanakul, deputy national police chief, told reporters that a number of Thais, including some in the deep south, had visited Syria and provided financial support to ISIS, and that more than 100,000 Thais had visited ISIS-related websites, citing a report from the Australian Federal Police. Officials quickly walked back Srivara’s claims. The following day, a deputy prime minister said there was no evidence of funding flowing from Thais to ISIS, and a police spokesman said an initial enquiry found no links between Thai internet users and ISIS. Srivara explained: “It was [the Australians’] information, not ours”. Australian officials said the information in the report had been misconstrued.

In early February 2017, media reports claimed that one of seven people arrested in Malaysia’s Kelantan state, bordering Narathiwat province, was a Thai national suspected of supporting ISIS. The suspects were accused of preparing improvised explosive devices. Thailand’s army chief said: “Links to ISIS could be at many levels. It might be at the level of receiving ideas through propaganda from social media”. Again, the early identification of an ISIS connection turned out to be erroneous. The suspects are all Thai citizens and suspected members of BRN.

In early May, Malaysian authorities reported that counter-terrorism police earlier had arrested six people with alleged links to ISIS in the states of Johor, Kelantan, Malacca, Pahang and Penang. A seventh suspect, Muhammad Muzaffa Arieff Junaidi from Kelantan, reportedly fled to Thailand on 22 March. Malaysian police said Junaidi was part of a ring that had been smuggling small arms from southern Thailand for roughly a year in preparation for attacks in Malaysia. On 3 May, Prime Minister Prayuth urged reporters not to “play up” the story, which could cause fear and panic.Thai authorities said immigration records showed Junaidi left Thailand at the Sungai Kolok checkpoint in Narathiwat on 21 April. Junaidi turned himself in to Malaysian police on 23 May. The 4th Army Region commander said there was no evidence to prove Malaysian claims that Junaidi had smuggled weapons from Thailand.

Online developments have contributed to perceptions of an ISIS threat to Thailand. In late November 2015, two ISIS propaganda videos were posted online carrying Thai-language subtitles. That the subtitles were Thai rather than Malay suggests that Malay-Muslims were probably not the primary intended audience. On 28 November, a four-minute video titled “No Respite” from al-Hayat, the ISIS media wing, appeared on the Millah Ibrahim YouTube account, with Thai-language subtitles. Authorities blocked the video the following day, but it appeared on Pulse of the Islamic World, a Thai-language Facebook page, on 30 November, along with “From Inside Halab,” another video with Thai subtitles. In April 2016, an image posted to the Pulse of the Islamic World Facebook page showed a black ISIS flag superimposed on a map of southernmost Thailand. This image, of unknown origin, became a point of departure for an analysis suggesting that ISIS could exploit the insurgency.

D.The View from Bangkok

The Thai government’s overriding concern is to protect the economy from the damage that international terrorism could inflict on the tourism industry, which indirectly contributes more than 20 per cent to Gross Domestic Product (GDP). This means not only preventing attacks, but also publicly downplaying threats and keeping terrorism out of the headlines. Thailand is not a member of the U.S.-backed coalition to defeat ISIS, in part to avoid becoming an ISIS target.

Thailand’s immediate problem is jihadist operatives’ use of the country for transit, refuge and logistics. An open-door visa policy to encourage tourism and an active market in fraudulent identification documents make Thailand a useful destination. Analysts have said Thailand’s role as a convenient place for non-state actors to lay low and transact business serves the country’s security interests, reasoning that these groups would not wish to disrupt their access by targeting Thailand.

Fighters from Asia and Australia have transited Thailand on their way to and from Syria, some embarking for Turkey directly from Bangkok, others first proceeding to third countries. ISIS reportedly has rewarded fighters with trips to Thailand for rest and recreation. Four ethnic Uighurs arrested in Poso, Indonesia, in 2014 as part of the ISIS-linked Santoso Group had fake passports acquired in Thailand. Operatives with direct links to ISIS members in Indonesia, the Philippines and Turkey reportedly attempted to assist a Uighur who escaped from a detention facility in North East Thailand in September 2016. Al-Qaeda and ISIS seek to exploit the plight of the Rohingya, which has inflamed Muslim sentiment throughout South East Asia, and have called for retribution against Myanmar. Given Thailand’s role as a logistics hub and its proximity to Myanmar, jihadist activity in Thailand could increase.

Officials and security officers emphasise that the insurgency in the deep south is unrelated to transnational jihadism, but they are concerned about ISIS influence in the region and the threat it may pose to Thailand. A senior government advisor said: “The south has some sort of immunity against radical ideas. The question is, how long can it remain that way?”. Thai officials pay special attention to roughly 7,500 Thai-Muslim students overseas. Thai embassies in the Muslim world maintain close links with Thai-Muslim student associations seeking, authorities say, to ensure the students’ welfare. There is a program to match them with jobs when they return.

Rivalry between the police and military, coupled with politicisation of the police force, have hindered the flow of intelligence, a situation not improved by three years of military rule. The military government dedicates resources to monitoring the regime’s domestic political opponents that could otherwise be used for counter-terrorism. Despite this, Western diplomats suggest that Thai counter-terrorism capabilities are good, provided potential threats are brought to the attention of authorities. Thai officials maintain that they would benefit from international assistance, particularly training on countering transnational crime and screening international arrivals. But Thailand has not yet accepted technology offered by the U.S. as part of its Aviation and Border Security Program that would give immigration officers at international airports access to INTERPOL’s foreign terrorist and Stolen and Lost Travel Documents databases.

Thailand is party to nine of fourteen international conventions related to suppressing terrorism and amended its Criminal Code (Section 135/2) in 2003 to comply with UN Security Council Resolution 1373, which allows for charges on preparatory offences. It has not drafted laws specifically aimed at offences related to foreign terrorist fighters, including financing or facilitating travel or recruitment of foreign fighters, at least in part due to concerns about a possible adverse impact on tourism.

III.Factors Militating against Jihadist Influence

To date, there has been no confirmed case of a Thai citizen joining ISIS.Nor have any Patani-Malay militant groups shown interest in affiliating with ISIS, al-Qaeda or jihadist networks in South East Asia. On the contrary, the militant fronts are anxious to avoid association with such groups. Several factors have hindered the influence of transnational jihadism within Thailand’s Malay-Muslim society and militant fronts.

A.Freedom of Religion

Muslim religious leaders and academics believe that Salafi-jihadist ideology currently has poor prospects in Thailand, in part because the state protects freedom of religion and does not interfere with Muslims’ religious practices – despite support in some quarters for making Buddhism the state religion. As a result, any narrative centred on religious repression of Muslims is, for now, unlikely to find purchase. While the 2016 constitution mandates that the king be a Buddhist, he is also the defender of all faiths. The Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, in which Thailand has had observer status since 1997, has not condemned Thailand’s handling of the insurgency or declared that Malay Muslims in the country are systematically persecuted. In short, no credible argument exists that the Thai state seeks to suppress the practice of Islam in the southernmost provinces or elsewhere in the country.

B.Islam in Southernmost Thailand

Islamic practice in Thailand’s Malay-majority region may be classified into three categories: traditionalist, reformist (or modernist) and revivalist.These categories correspond to the local form of Sunni Islam, Salafism and missionary movements such as Tablighi Jamaat, respectively. A small number of Shia also live in the region.

The distinction between traditionalist and reformist does not always do justice to complexities on the ground as the substance and meaning of these terms has shifted over time. Local people employ these categories, however, and they remain useful for analytical purposes. Reformist influence has been so widely felt over the past thirty years that many Malay Muslims identify themselves on a traditionalist-reformist spectrum.


The great majority of Malay Muslims in Thailand follow what is commonly called traditional or “old school” Islam. As in the rest of South East Asia, Sunni Islam of the Shafii school of jurisprudence is dominant. Old school Islam in Patani incorporates folk beliefs, some pre-Islamic, known as adat, or custom. These practices include making merit for the dead (accruing benefits for oneself and one’s deceased relatives by performing good deeds), maintaining shrines and consulting village shamans, or bomoh. Traditional Islamic practice “was ritualistic, mystic, and for the most part, undertaken as an expression of personal piety”.

Malay identity is central to the practice of customary Islam in Patani; the ethnic and religious elements are intertwined, if not inextricable. The extent of the identification of ethnicity with religion is expressed in the local term for conversion to Islam, masok nayu, “to be become Malay”. Certainly, the meaning of “Malayness” is elusive; only in the mid-20th century did “Patani-Malay” begin to describe a political identity. In practice, local Malay Muslims maintain multiple identities conditioned by circumstances: Thai citizen; Malay (Patani Malay: nayu); Muslim; etc. The amorphousness of Malay identity has not prevented the militant organisations from using it as a core tenet of their ideology. The insurgency has heightened the salience of Patani-Malay Muslim and Thai-Buddhist identities.

Many local Muslim religious leaders, academics, activists and militants see traditionalist Islam and Patani identity as bulwarks against jihadist ideology. A Salafi university lecturer argued that a Patani native would have to spend decades abroad and, in essence, abandon Patani-Malay culture before they could be influenced by the likes of ISIS. Some see local Islamic education as another obstacle to jihadist influence; the depth of knowledge and understanding of Islam imparted in local religious schools means that even if students are exposed to jihadist ideas, they will not be swayed. A senior Patani United Liberation Organisation (PULO) member said that Shafii teachings handed down in local Islamic schools offered an “immune system” to local people: “Their faith is the firewall against extremists’ influence”.

Some Malay Muslims, including militant leaders, perceive ISIS as un-Islamic due to its intolerance and brutality. They believe the cruelty with which ISIS has treated prisoners and carried out attacks on civilians transgress Islamic principles and the bounds of jihad, and damages Islam’s image. A religious teacher noted that while prayers in local mosques are regularly extended to mujahidin in Palestine and Afghanistan, and to the Rohingya, “the name of ISIS has never been mentioned”.


While the majority of rural Malays follow traditional Islam, many well-educated, urban Malay Muslims are adherents of reformist, or “new school”, Islam. Salafi reformism in Thailand dates to the 1920s, and succeeding waves of reformism have transformed Islam in the deep south. Reformists constitute a small but influential minority, representing roughly 10 per cent of Muslims in the region.

Many prominent Salafis are associated with Fatoni University, formerly the Yala Islamic College, founded in 1998. They are politically quietist and broadly aligned with the state. The best-known reformist is the university’s founder and rector, Dr. Ismail Lutfi Japakiya. Lutfi was educated in Saudi Arabia and became the foremost exponent of Salafism in Thailand. He has publicly shunned the insurgency and cooperated with the Thai state.Salafis tend not to align with the militant movement, which emphasises Malay identity (see Section III. C.1 below). In Salafi forums, participants mainly use Thai rather than Malay. Locals recognise Salafis for their work on education and social and economic development.

Salafis seek to cleanse local Islamic practices of parochial and mystical traditions they deem heretical innovations (bidaa). The reformist project in Patani gained ground in the 1980s and 1990s, reflected, for example, in Arabisation of the religious lexicon and adoption of hijab and even niqab (full-face veil) by some women. The spread of reformist, conservative Islamic thought in the region over the past 30 years generated acrimonious debates between Salafis and traditionalist leaders. Traditionalists refer to Salafis as “Wahhabis”, which Salafis regard as pejorative. Conversely, the perceived self-righteousness of reformists did not sit well with many local people.This led to rifts within communities, and the proliferation of new mosques to serve reformist congregations. It also led to some uncertainty about religious authority and Malay identity, as reformers disputed the propriety of cultural practices and challenged traditional religious leaders.

Faced with resistance from traditionalists, who saw reformism as a threat to Malay ethnic identity, Salafis began to attenuate their approach, emphasising wasatiyyah, the middle way. One scholar described a process of “localization of Wahhabism”. Thus, certain practices once prohibited by Salafis as bidaa, such as veneration of shrines, were later condoned under certain circumstances. For example, although strict Salafis reject mawlid, celebration of the Prophet Mohammed’s birthday, Lutfi has contributed to an annual volume published by the Islamic Center of Thailand that commemorates the occasion.

Some locals, including many Salafis, see ISIS as a creation of the West, particularly the U.S., the product of international machinations that have nothing to do with protecting Islam or enhancing the welfare of Sunni Muslims. In this regard, some liken ISIS to al-Qaeda, which they also see as a creature that turned on its creator. A book on ISIS published by Fatoni University advances this argument. A Salafi academic explained, “I find the ISIS ideology is incompatible with the local people’s culture. It doesn’t reflect anything Islamic, but rather the original Arab barbarian culture before the advent of Islam”.

C.Patani-Malay Militant Organisations

Patani militants eschew jihadism for ideological and practical reasons.The militant groups purport to fight for an independent Islamic, Patani state and have declared their opposition to jihadist ideology. BRN and other Patani militant groups have significant ideological, political and religious differences with ISIS and al-Qaeda. Contrary to ISIS, Patani militants do not reject the existing international system but instead seek a state within it. The main militant fronts were founded in the 1960s, long before al-Qaeda, ISIS or the Abu Sayyaf Group, and their leaders are not inclined to subordinate their struggle to the interests of outsiders. Many militants see the Patani nationalist movement as a bulwark against jihadism.

1.Ethnic nationalism

Cultural identity and ethnic nationalism are at the core of militant ideology. BRN and PULO embrace ideologies based on religion, ethnicity and territory, expressed in Malay as agama (religion), bangsa (nation) and tanah air (motherland). The perception that the state does not recognise or respect Malay identity is a grievance widely felt in Patani-Malay society.

The militants are fighting for what they see as self-determination over a geographically delimited area and restoration of their rights. They are, in their view, anti-colonial fighters. For militant leaders, the identity of the colonisers is incidental. Their fight is not based on antipathy toward a particular religious or ethnic group. Some have articulated the aim of a multi-ethnic state that protects the rights of non-Muslims: “We regard those Buddhists who were born in Patani, who live in Patani and who are ready to accept Islamic governance as our people”. Support for such pluralism does not always extend to the rank-and-file, but it is another indication of fundamental differences with transnational jihadists.

Militant parochialism can at times verge on Patani chauvinism, such that non-Patani natives, even Malay speakers, are excluded from their ranks. One BRN member, for example, struggled to gain the trust of the organisation, despite having been born in Pattani, because his parents had moved to the region from central Thailand. He spoke Malay, was descended from Patani war captives transported to Bangkok at the end of the 18th century, and his father had founded an Islamic school, but the fact that his family spoke Thai at home meant he was suspect. A religious teacher observed, “The door of BRN is not open to foreign influence”.

Malay-Muslim militants are engaged in a geographically bounded struggle for territory on the Malay Peninsula that now constitutes Thailand’s southernmost provinces. BRN indoctrination emphasises Bangkok’s efforts to promote a Thai national identity at the expense of Patani-Malay identity and involves a process of linking historical, nationalist and religious factors to Patani territory. BRN’s constitution reportedly identifies “the area of struggle [as] the entire region of Malay Muslims under Siamese colonization”. Other militant groups also maintain that their fight is for a delimited space that, by right, belongs to the Patani people. Many Malay-Muslims outside the movement share this conception of a struggle defined by history, geography and ethno-nationalist aims. A religious leader said: “Even if ISIS is trying to infiltrate into this region, and recruit the local people, it must be extremely difficult, because we already have the existing organisations. What the local people need and what ISIS needs are different. The struggles are in different contexts”.

Militants’ rejection of ISIS is part of a tradition of Patani separatist suspicion of outsiders, stemming in part from a desire to maintain security and avoid entanglements. According to a senior PULO member:

There’s no need to steal ideologies from others, and we have no need to resort to radicalism … . Our own problems have never been solved. There’s no reason for us to be involved in others’ struggles. ISIS is fighting for a course different from ours, whereas we are fighting for the good governance of Patani based on justice and humanity.

The militant fronts have not articulated detailed plans for the government of an independent Patani state. This vagueness serves to minimise potential rifts and preserve the putative unity of the Malay-Muslim community.


Islam is a marker of Malay identity and a constituent part of the self-determination struggle. Traditionalist religious leaders and separatists have long employed appeals to Islam and jihad to validate the Patani nationalist struggle. A PULO member, interviewed in 1971, said: “[The people] must be taught Islam first, and when they are strong in Islam we teach the history of our region and the needs for the future”. Late-1970s PULO leaflets cited the Quran to assert Muslims’ obligation to fight against kafir (unbeliever) rulers and to designate Muslims who refuse to fight as munafik, or “hypocrites”.

The self-determination struggle is cast as a religious obligation. According to a senior PULO member: “If we run away from this struggle, we shall be asked questions on the Day of Judgement”. He also said that Islam prohibits waging war against another religion and that the fight is for survival of Patani-Malay people. A religious scholar noted that “fighting for Malay nationalism automatically means a struggle for Islam” because Malay ethnicity and Islam are “two sides of one coin”. Contemporary insurgents do not rely on renowned clerics to provide exegesis of the Quran or written theological justifications for jihad. Rather, the impetus comes directly from local religious teachers to their students. The aim of the insurgency remains Patani self-determination.

3.Costs of affiliation or emulation

The Patani militant fronts recognise that affiliation with ISIS or al-Qaeda would be damaging, even self-defeating, and likely cost them popular support at home and legitimacy abroad. This is one reason militants are hostile to the idea of foreign jihadist intervention in southern Thailand.

A decision to affiliate with global jihadists would invite international efforts against the militants and deprive them of any chance of gaining the recognition and support from the international community necessary to achieve their aim of self-rule. It would also cost the movement access to its de facto safe haven in northern Malaysia, which is unlikely to tolerate ISIS or al-Qaeda activity within its borders. A Malay-Muslim academic noted: “If Malaysia closed its door to the movement, would they still be able to operate as they do now? For this reason, it’s very important for them not to be seen as extremists”.

Affiliation with ISIS or al-Qaeda would also lead to a loss of popular support for the movement. Any boost to capabilities would be more than offset by a loss of legitimacy. A civil-society activist said, “When [the militants] are seen as ISIS, they will immediately lose the legitimacy of their struggle”.

For similar reasons, the Malay-Muslim fronts are also unlikely to adopt signature tactics of foreign jihadists, such as suicide bombings and attacks aimed at mass casualties. Militants, officials and locals alike assert that indiscriminate mass-casualty attacks would cost the movement popular support and a claim to international legitimacy. BRN representatives said that they would not employ indiscriminate mass-casualty attacks because the group requires cooperation from the local Muslim population. A PULO leader said that their struggle shielded Patani from jihadism, because “as soon as our operations show the smallest indication of influence from ISIS, the superpower will intervene … . [M]ass destruction is not beneficial for our struggle, but rather devastating to it”.

This is not to say that militants are always scrupulous in their targeting or hesitant to kill civilians, including Muslims. While BRN does not issue claims of responsibility for attacks, and thus attribution is difficult, the conflict has been marked by atrocities, including murders of civilians, beheadings (post-mortem), burning of bodies and indiscriminate bombings against official or Buddhist civilian targets. A daytime bomb attack on the Big C hyper-mart in Pattani on 9 May 2017, which wounded 80 people, including Muslim women and children, appeared to demonstrate a greater willingness to risk indiscriminate Muslim civilian casualties. Still, as several Malay-Muslims noted, BRN appears to weigh popular perceptions of insurgent violence in its planning. Popular disapproval and religious edicts have resulted in militants reducing or ceasing controversial forms of violence such as beheadings and attacking Buddhist monks.

IV.“Hell in South East Asia”? Risks of Jihadist Influence

In spite of the factors militating against jihadist influence expounded above, there is a persistent fear that jihadist ideology could gain currency in the region under certain circumstances. Asked about this possibility, a BRN member quoted Tengku Mahmud Mahyiddin, son of the last Patani sultan, circa 1945: “‘If the Patani issue is not resolved soon, it will become a hell in South East Asia’”. The BRN member continued:

In the past, these words seemed far removed from reality. But today, the situation has changed. External elements are trying to push hard to enter the conflict, and these are elements that no one wants, like terrorist ideologies, global terrorism. What I’m trying to say is that it could be a hell in South East Asia. It’s not impossible that this could happen. BRN is not able to hold off these terrorist elements on its own.

This warning reflects two concerns about jihadism most commonly expressed by local people, militants, Thai officials and foreign observers. First, that young Muslims, particularly those not belonging to the established militant organisations, could be radicalised by online propaganda. Second, that a protracted insurgency could open the door to transnational jihadist extremism, particularly if some militants perceive the current model of insurgency as inadequate.


Some Malay Muslims in the deep south appear ambivalent about ISIS, likely a function in part of ignorance. Indeed, several interlocutors said that they lacked sufficient knowledge of ISIS. A Malay-Muslim activist faulted local intellectuals and academics for failing to discuss ISIS publicly, but she acknowledged that their reticence likely stems from fear: “They might think that just talking about ISIS, they will be regarded as ISIS [by the authorities]”. Some imams tend to minimise the issue of jihadism; young people with questions about it may not know where to turn for answers. A student in Indonesia said that Thai students there have greater access to information about ISIS, all of it negative: “The situation in Patani is more dangerous because information on ISIS is so limited”. These interlocutors believe that greater public discussion of jihadism would help inform local people and dispel misperceptions.

Thai authorities and some militants caution that young people could fall prey to jihadist ideology propagated via social media. There is particular concern about young Malay Muslims who have come of age amid an apparently unending conflict. A Malay-Muslim activist observed: “Some people can be motivated only by hearing the word ‘Islam’, and become supportive of all Muslim struggles. This is a risk factor that might open up a way for extremism”. The fear that exposure to online propaganda will result in “radicalisation” among young Muslims is widespread but largely unsupported. Moreover, so few Muslims turn to violence that it is difficult to accurately draw linkages that help identify social groups vulnerable to radicalisation; indeed attempting to do so would likely prove counterproductive, by unfairly stigmatising those groups.

There is little to indicate that ISIS has won support or sympathy for its cause in southernmost Thailand through social media. In 2014-2015, some Patani-Malay youths posted ISIS symbols, especially its black flag, on their Facebook pages and other social-media platforms. There are no reliable estimates of how widespread this practice was, but local interlocutors noted two qualifying factors. First, the use of ISIS imagery was most widespread following ISIS’s 2014 battlefield victories, and the appeal appears to have been primarily that of proclaiming solidarity with conquering Muslim underdogs. The practice waned as ISIS atrocities gained wider media coverage and might well wane further as ISIS faces defeat in Iraq and Syria. Secondly, the ISIS flag is emblazoned with words familiar to Muslims that are neither radical nor objectionable: “There is no god but Allah”, and “Allah, Mohammed, Messenger”.

Representatives of BRN’s Information Department have expressed concern that young people in the region, especially those affected by the conflict, could be influenced by online jihadist propaganda:

In terms of appeal, ISIS propaganda is very clever in how they portray links between the enemy and suffering. Because every day, young people in Patani witness Siamese oppression. So, this propaganda resonates. The risk for young people outside the Party [BRN] is that they are not mature from a religious or political standpoint, so they may be drawn to it.

BRN believes the problem can be contained, but expressed interest in working with the international community to build bulwarks against jihadism in the region. The BRN representatives were not specific about what they envision, but said that with greater political space for dialogue and international cooperation, BRN would be in a better position to defend Patani from these external influences.

In the absence of specifics, and with BRN representatives only recently and hesitantly emerging from the shadows, this appeal for international cooperation is open to interpretation. The concern about foreign jihadist influence may be genuine. But it is also possible that BRN sees the international community’s focus on ISIS – and thus its own efforts to highlight the threat – as an opportunity to build advantageous external relations and bolter its argument that, should its demand go unmet, the Thai state might soon be facing a far more ominous foe.

B.Protracted Conflict

The insurgency’s protraction and intractability are dynamics that arguably could spur shifts within the militant movement or create opportunities for foreign jihadists to exploit. This is a catch-all concern, covering, for example, a sense of hopelessness among Malay Muslims, a splintering among militant groups, or a resort by the state to iron-fisted tactics that could provoke an extremist backlash. More broadly, protracted conflict means more weapons, more specialists in violence and hardening of sectarian and ethnic boundaries.

Lack of an inclusive peace dialogue process, or failure to generate momentum in talks, likewise could increase the likelihood that militants resort to more spectacular violence to put pressure on Bangkok. There are indications that inhibitions within the militant movement on attacks outside the four southernmost provinces and causing civilian casualties may be breaking down. Some argue that if BRN is marginalised by the peace process – one that it currently shuns but has not rejected in principle – or otherwise driven to desperation, it could turn to outside actors to achieve its aims.

More plausible, though still unlikely, is the emergence of splinter groups, perhaps along generational lines, that may see advantages in aligning with jihadists. Stasis in the insurgent campaign or dialogue process could strain the militant fronts. A former inmate of Pattani Central Prison said that several imprisoned insurgents expressed a sense of comradeship with ISIS, as fellow Muslim fighters: “But asked if they wanted to join ISIS, they answered that it was impossible because the struggle for their own people and motherland wasn’t over yet: ‘Why should we go to their place, when the struggle in our place isn’t finished?’”. A veteran security analyst noted that any Malay-Muslim splinter groups adopting terrorist tactics are likely to espouse Patani-nationalist, rather than jihadist ideology.

Another speculative concern is that increased violence or repeated attacks on civilians outside the deep south could fuel anti-Muslim sentiment and militant Buddhist nationalism, creating distrust and enmity between Muslim and Buddhist communities throughout the country. In turn, moves by the state to reintroduce policies perceived as unfair to Muslims would generate feelings of religious persecution; several interlocutors mentioned a return of the hijab ban, which was lifted in the 1980s, though such a policy has not been mooted. Ill-conceived proposals, such as one to build a Buddhist park in Pattani, risk deepening alienation and perceptions of discrimination among Malay Muslims, sentiments that in other places have sometimes driven increased sympathy for transnational jihadist movements that claim to defend Muslims.

Finally, there is the risk of spillover from ISIS supporters in Malaysia. Southernmost Thailand could serve as a haven for Malaysian jihadists, given the porous border and abundance of weapons in the region. According to Malaysian Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, ISIS supporters have crossed from Thailand into Malaysia and from Malaysia into Thailand in transit to third countries. Thai Prime Minister Prayuth has acknowledged the need to resolve the problems in the deep south so as to deny violent outside groups an opportunity to intervene in the conflict.

Despite these concerns, southernmost Thailand for now remains an unfriendly environment for groups like ISIS or al-Qaeda. But while the insurgency persists, so too does the risk that splinter groups or others come to see benefits in aligning with transnational jihadists. Ending the conflict should be a priority for both the government and militants; primarily to end the human suffering and disruption it already causes, but also to mitigate against such a threat. Direct talks between Bangkok and BRN and readiness to compromise on both sides are priorities in this respect.

For BRN, this means reconciling with an end state that preserves Thailand’s territorial integrity. For Bangkok, it means recognising that the political status quo is unlikely to lead to an end to violence. A decentralised political order that respects Malay-Muslim identity and affords the opportunity to realise local aspirations while protecting the rights of local Buddhists remains the best hope for a resolution of the conflict. The international community can help by encouraging both sides to talk, providing good offices when appropriate, and assisting militants to build the capacity to engage in constructive dialogue. They must certainly avoid casting the insurgency as a problem of “violent extremism”. Conflict resolution should be the overriding imperative.


The insurgency waged by members of a Malay-Muslim minority against the Thai state appears to some observers as a possible opening for transnational jihadists to expand their influence. There undoubtedly are cases in which militants with local agendas see advantages in affiliating with transnational jihadist groups. But, so far at least, in southernmost Thailand local nationalism remains fundamentally at odds with such groups’ methods and aspirations. Thailand lacks a tradition of jihadist movements and networks that, elsewhere in South East Asia, have pledged allegiance to ISIS and al-Qaeda. The leaders of existing militant fronts are antagonistic to these groups and their South East Asian affiliates because they see association with international terrorists as a threat to their goal of Patani self-determination. Adopting tactics associated with jihadist groups would also cost local support and international legitimacy, while inviting international hostility.

All of which means that, for now, jihadist expansion in southernmost Thailand is at most a potentiality. Still, it would be a mistake to dismiss categorically the possibility that jihadists could sway individuals or small groups or even disaffected factions of existing militant groups. There are no clear signs of this happening, and a host of factors militate against it, but motivations for participation in jihadist violence are diverse and often divorced from religious or ideological convictions.

Malay-Muslim militants and the Thai state have a common interest in keeping out ISIS and other jihadist groups. While for now, the conflict has not led to the pervasive disorder that jihadists have exploited elsewhere, it could evolve in ways that generate more promising conditions for jihadist intervention. Stalemate or miscalculation could lead some militants to employ more spectacular violence, which in turn could lead to a rise in anti-Muslim sentiment in Thailand, and a broader sectarian conflict. To avert this, and to fulfil their obligations to the people of southernmost Thailand, Bangkok and the militant fronts should seek compromise and a negotiated end to the conflict.


(c) 2017 International Crisis Group

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