from Asia Unbound

Bombings in Bangkok

February 14, 2012

Police and forensic experts investigate the site where a man was injured when a bomb he was carrying exploded, in central Bangkok February 14, 2012.
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Terrorism and Counterterrorism

On Tuesday (Thailand time), several explosions were detonated in one of the most heavily crowded areas of Bangkok. According to current news reports, there were at least three explosions, and following the explosions police found an Iranian man trying to flee; when he tossed a grenade at them, it exploded on him, severely wounding his legs. Israel has already blamed Iran for the explosions, linking them to apparent attempted attacks on Israelis in Georgia and India, and it has claimed Iran was going to target Israeli interests in the Thai capital.

The explosions seemed to surprise the Thai police and government. But they should not have.  Despite an enormous security presence in the Thai capital and at its airports, Thailand remains extraordinarily vulnerable to terrorist attacks, and one of the favored places for terrorists —and criminals of all stripes —to set up shop.  Multiple infamous militants have allegedly passed through Thailand, only to slip through the hands of police; two decades ago, World Trade Center (1993) bomber Ramzi Yousef was spotted in the Thai capital, on the street adjacent to where I used to work. He had planned to bomb the Israeli embassy. But it was not the police who tracked him down; he was only found out after the truck he had masterminded, carrying a massive bomb, had an accident with a motorcycle taxi. Still, Yousef managed to escape the country. The Thai seaside resort of Pattaya, once known for its beaches, has become infamous as a hub for the Russian mob and other organized crime.

Why is Thailand so vulnerable?  For years, Thai authorities took a notably relaxed attitude toward militants passing through the country. Tourism is a major source of income in the kingdom, so travel warnings are crushing; and the Thai security forces were hoping that, as several Thai officials privately told me, bad guys enjoyed their time in the kingdom so much that they would not ruin it by launching attacks inside the country — even if they used Thailand as a base for plots elsewhere, as prominent Al Qaeda member Hambali apparently did (some Thai intelligence figures discarded this theory long ago, but it remained central to government thinking for years).  After all, despite lax security, Thailand has an excellent financial infrastructure, including many discreet money-sending shops, and air connections all over the world.

On multiple occasions, Thai security forces had to be pushed by foreign intelligence to crack down on militants.  Even if the Thai theory of Thailand’s immunity from attacks was once true, it is obviously no longer the case; just last month, an alleged militant linked to Hezbollah was detained in Bangkok, though the Thai government quickly assured all visitors that the capital was perfectly safe.

And, because of continuously rocky relations with neighbors like Malaysia and Cambodia, Thai intelligence and neighboring intelligence agencies often communicate poorly, and rely on the U.S. or other interlocutors to help share information. As a result, porous borders with Cambodia, Malaysia, and Laos are easy to slip across.

Add to these weaknesses the fact that Thailand is a huge tourist destination for young Israelis, who crowd into the backpacker area of Khao San Road, and the Sukhumwit Road area, where the explosions on Tuesday went off. Some of these areas, like Khao San, are so densely packed with shops and hotels and people wandering around, that any type of explosion would cause massive casualties.  So far, Thailand, and foreigners, have been relatively lucky — as they were on Tuesday. But luck can run out.