In the wake of the October Bali bombings, Thailand has played up its image as a safe paradise for nervous tourists. But attention has recently focused on a visit to Thailand earlier this year by an Indonesian militant accused of directing terror attacks across Southeast Asia.
Riduan Isamuddin, also known as Hambali, slipped into southern Thailand in January and spent up to two weeks in the country. Regional intelligence sources say he convened a meeting of operatives of Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), a terror network linked to Al Qaeda that seeks to create an Islamic state in the region, and vowed to strike at soft Western targets. Tipped off, local security forces tried to detain him but were unsuccessful.
For many in Thailand, that's where the story ends. "Lots of outside insurgent groups and militant groups pass through Thailand and have done for decades," says Robert Karniol, Asia-Pacific editor of Jane's Defense Weekly.
Yet earlier this month, reporters were unexpectedly called to the foreign ministry to be told of Hambali's visit. Just prior to that, armed forces chief Gen. Surayud Chulanont told the Associated Press that security forces were tagging several people suspected of having links to Islamic terror groups. "We are quite concerned, and we are trying to [identify] the soft targets that may ... be attacked in the future," he said.
That sober tone may be a sign that Thai attitudes are shifting. Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra initially scorned foreign news reports that Hambali and other JI members took refuge here, and officials have denied that any terrorists are based in Thailand. They have also taken issue with warnings by foreign embassies, something that could harm the tourism that accounts for 6 percent of the country's GDP.
But blanket denials of threats are disappearing, observers say. "It's much better to be seen to be tackling the problem, and that's what I think is happening here," says a Western diplomat. "A knee-jerk reaction is being modified."
Thailand is widely credited as having a solid security apparatus to deal with any terror threats and has a long history of cooperating with Western allies on security matters. Since the Bali bombs that killed more than 180 people, Thailand has put extra police on the beat and beefed up car searches at checkpoints around major resorts.
But Thailand may be underestimating JI's trick of tying local grievances to a larger goal, some observers say. In the case of Thailand, JI could link up with disgruntled locals in Muslim-dominated southern provinces where armed separatists once waged a bloody campaign against Thai rule.
Investigators in Singapore and Malaysia believe that JI tried to recruit some of the remnants of the Thai separatist movement, and other possible sympathizers. One group singled out for attention is the outlawed Pattani United Liberation Organization (PULO).
Thai observers aren't convinced that PULO or other groups in the south are credible partners for JI's goals.
"Their numbers are quite significant, but they have given up their arms and they have nowhere to go," says Chayachoke Chulasiriwongs, associate professor at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok. What Hambali's presence does show is that JI operatives have used southern Thailand as a safe hideout. The attraction is porous borders and a Muslim population who speak Malay, a language similar to Hambali's native Indonesian.
But perhaps a bigger worry is Bangkok. Bangkok is a cosmopolitan hub with a thriving black-market economy that spews out forged documents and dubious money trails.
"That's much more important to Al Qaeda than southern Thailand," says Zachary Abuza, a professor at Simmons College in Boston and author of a forthcoming book on terrorism in Southeast Asia. "If you have money you can get a lot done in Bangkok."