KUALA LUMPUR: A former member of southern Thailand’s separatist movement, Awae Wae-Eya, 37, is planning to establish an Islamic State (IS) presence in his country with the hope of securing funds from the global terror group to fund his “jihad", a senior Malaysian security source has told Channel NewsAsia.
Southern Thailand’s insurgents have so far eschewed transnational extremist groups, including IS, and its radical teachings as their struggle is for greater autonomy, not global jihad.
“Awae pledged allegiance to Abu Bakar al-Baghdadi (leader of IS) and he has contacts in Syria,” the security source told Channel NewsAsia.
Awae hails from Thailand's Narathiwat province in the south. He is currently wanted by Malaysian police for planning terror plots in Johor state. The police said on Monday (Apr 16) that they were hunting Awae and three other IS-linked suspects involved in a plot to kidnap and murder police officers, as well as attack non-Muslim places of worship.
Awae's ambitions came to light during the Malaysian intelligence gathering operation which led to six other member of an IS cell being arrested by the Johor counter-terrorism unit.
However, while Malaysian intelligence suggests Awae has plans to establish an IS presence in southern Thailand, the authorities there played down the current risk.
Major-General Sompol Pankul, commander of the Narathiwat Task Force told Channel NewsAsia: "I don't think Awae is Islamic State." He did not elaborate.
Isra News Agency of Thailand reported, quoting a security source, that although Awae is not an IS member, he is someone who supports its ideology and way of fighting.
However, while there are differing views about Awae, Panitan Wattanayagorn, principal security advisor to Thailand's Deputy Prime Minister and Defence Minister General Prawit Wongsuwan, told Channel NewsAsia that local security agencies are attempting to track him down.
"We hope to identify him in the next few days' time, perhaps at the end of the week," said Mr Panitan.
"These suspects in the south, including militants, often have dual citizenship and duplicate names, making it difficult to identify them quickly," he added.
"To date there are no signs of IS in southern Thailand or of individuals shifting their affiliation from traditional groups to IS."
According to Professor Zachary Abuza of the National War College in Washington DC, if Awae is indeed looking to establish an IS presence in southern Thailand, this would be a significant move.
"The southern Thai groups do not share IS' transnational ideology," said Prof Abuza, who has studied the insurgency for years.
“There have been signs that this could happen. Thai security forces have found plenty of IS imagery, including flags, videos, and propaganda on insurgent suspects. But that's all it has been, just IS imagery and propaganda,” said Prof Abuza, who specialises in insurgencies and terrorism in Southeast Asia.
The Muslim-majority region in the south of Thailand, covering the provinces of Yala, Narathiwat, Pattani and parts of Songkhla, has been a violence-wracked zone for over a decade as ethnic Malay insurgents battle the Buddhist-majority state for greater autonomy.
Don Pathan, an independent security analyst based in Yala, however, says he has not detected any shift to IS from the insurgents there.
"I would say there is lots of curiosity, not sympathy, thus explaining the high number of clicks on websites on IS activities by the Malays in Patani (Thailand’s southernmost provinces)," said Pathan.
"Keep in mind that ... groups like Jemaah Islamimah have tried to penetrate the conflict ... but they failed to convince the Patani Malay movements to take up their radical ideology and extremist approach.
"The Patani Malay struggle is etho-nationalist by nature and there is no indication that the political context is changing or has changed," Pathan added.
PLANS FOR ATTACKS IN MALAYSIA'S JOHOR STATE
Malaysian police said that Awae was plotting to launch terror attacks against churches, temples and a Freemason building in Johor state.
The Thai Malay led an IS cell in Johor where he recruited a total of nine Malaysian men, via Facebook and Telegram, to carry out the terror attacks, according to the security source.
"After recruiting the men, Awae came to Malaysia to meet with the men to discuss the (terror) plot, technical matters and weapons," he said.
“He (Awae) also wanted to kidnap a police officer and take him back to southern Thailand to be killed,” the source added.
The attacks and kidnapping were foiled when Malaysian police arrested six members of Awae's cell in a sting operation in Johor.
The terror plot was at its final stage, said the source, with the militants waiting for weapons and explosives from southern Thailand to be brought into Johor Bahru.
“We now believe Awae is back in southern Thailand,” he said.
ISLAMIC STATE WILL HELP FUND THAI SEPARATIST CAUSE?
Since 2004, the dispute in southern Thailand has claimed almost 7,000 lives.
The slow progress of the 3-year-old peace talks and a sense that the government in Bangkok lacks a sense of urgency have added to restlesness among separatists and a sense of disillusionment, according to Prof Greg Barton of Deakin University.
He highlighted how they seek greater autonomy and greater freedom to express their Malay identity.
"The government would like to bring an end to the troubles, and some are beginning to recognize that the longer the issues remain unresolved the greater the risk of some younger activists being drawn towards ISIS-style global jihadi extremism," said Prof Barton.
Against that backdrop, and based on Malaysia's intelligence gathering, Awae believes IS will advance the insurgents’ cause in southern Thailand, according to the security source.
Awae needs large sums of money for his jihadi activities and he believes that he could get financial support from IS, the source said.
“Awae believes that he could get funding from Islamic State once he successfully establishes (a branch) of Islamic State in southern Thailand,” he said.
Prof Abuza warned of the dangers of IS establishing a foothold in southern Thailand.
For Malaysia, it could mean that many IS militants or supporters would have a network in southern Thailand to utilize when they need to lie low, or more importantly, procure weapons, said Prof Abuza.
“This has always been the top concern of Malaysian security officials. But Malaysian security officials have always been concerned that actions taken against southern Thai militants - such as arresting leaders or knocking over bomb factories or safe houses - make Malaysia a target in its own right,” Prof Abuza added.
On the part of Thailand, its officials have been obsessed by the possibility of the insurgency morphing into an IS threat, said Prof Abuza.
“This (morphing) is made easier by their (Thai officials) very poor understanding of the different Islamist strains. But they would only have themselves to blame ... They have proven completely unwilling to address the core political grievances of MARA Patani, the umbrella grouping for the insurgent groups,” he added.
Prof Abuza warned of growing radicalism in southern Thailand as a younger generation of militants rise through the ranks.
“Most of the insurgents eschew the transnational ideology and the radicalism of IS,” said Prof Abuza.
“But do not underestimate the potential for growing radicalism as a younger generation of militants steps into leadership positions.”