One week after the Erawan Shrine bombing in Bangkok, the Thai authorities continue their hunt for the perpetrators, offering mixed signals as to whether they believe the terrorist act was homegrown or carried out by foreign terrorists.
One plausible theory is that the perpetrators were militant members of a right-wing Turkish organization infuriated by the Thai government’s forcible repatriation of Uighur refugees back to China.
Anthony Davis, a veteran security analyst with IHS-Jane’s Information Group, made a persuasive case for the Grey Wolves on a panel discussing the bombing at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand Monday evening, an event that attracted a large number of journalists.
Davis said he did not rule out the possibility that other foreign militant Muslim organizations could be responsible for August 18 bomb at the Erawan Shrine that killed 20 people and injured 126. However, he found it extremely unlikely that the bombing was the work of Thai dissident political groups or even of the Muslim insurgents in southern Thailand who have waged a separatist war in three border provinces for the past decade.
Some of the strongest evidence in favour of the ultra-nationalist Grey Wolves was the fury throughout Turkey that followed the Thai repatriaton on July 9 of 109 Uighurs and the Grey Wolves’ visibility during the attacks on the Thai Embassy in Istanbul. A violent wing of the loosely organized pan-Turkic organization in recent years has taken up the cause of the Uighurs. The Uighurs are persecuted fellow Muslims in China’s western Xinjiang province, which Uighurs call “East Turkestan.”
The planners behind the bombing probably chose the popular central Hindu-Buddhist shrine knowing it would claim some Chinese tourists as victims, Davis believes. Besides two mainlanders, nine of the dead were Chinese from Indonesia, Malaysia, Hong Kong and Singapore. (The remainder were all Thai.)
The youth wing or para-military division of the Nationalist Movement Party, the Grey Wolves, were founded in the late 1960s. During the 1970s, Grey Wolves killed Kurds, left-wing intellectuals, students, and Christians. Mehmet Ali Agca, who attempted to assassinate Pope John Paul II in 1981, was a member of Grey Wolves. Another member attempted to assassinate Prime Minister Turgut Özal in 1988. In recent decades the party has moderated its platform but adopted a more Islamic stance. After the fall of the Soviet Union, soldiers fought under the Grey Wolves banner in both Chechnya wars as well as in the Nagorno-Karabakh War on the side of the Azerbaijanis against the Armenians. The organization was banned in Azerbaijan in 1995 after an attempted coup and in Kazakhstan in 2005. There are Grey Wolves groups in Germany, Netherlands, France and Belgium.
Davis dismissed the possibility of Uighurs themselves organizing the bombing, given that back home in Xinjiang province their attacks on the Chinese state have been very small scale. Everyone, including Thai authorities, seems to agree that the nature of the bomb and the size of the explosion were of a different order than anything seen in Bangkok before, despite the the past decade of violent acts (such as grenade attacks) by domestic political groups. “I have never seen anything of this level of carnage or this way foreigners being targeted. Thai political groups wouldn’t target foreigners,” Davis said. “To me, it’s very simple. Such an event was not driven by any Thai political factor.”
Southern Insurgents Moving North?
The Erawan pipe bomb, employing industrial pipe and packed with TNT and ball bearings, was much more sophisticated than anything used so far by domestic groups. Davis said the devices used by southern insurgent groups, often incorporating two or three gas canisters with a booster charge, have become bigger over the past few years but the Erawan device did not resemble them. Southern Islamic insurgents, associated with the Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN) and Pattani United Liberation Organization (PULO), also have been moving far from their their three home provinces in the past few years.
Southern insurgents are believed to have planted the car bomb that exploded in an underground garage in Koh Samui in April, injuring seven. Back in December 2013, a similar car bomb was set to go off behind the police station in Phuket but not detonated, as if the insurgents were displaying their capability as a warning to Thai authorities. In Davis’s view, both incidents point to the reluctance of insurgents to target large numbers of foreign tourists.
What about a splinter group that had broken off from the main southern rebel organizations? “BRN has no interest in splinter groups taking the war into their own hands,” Davis said.
Canal Bomb Planted Within 30 Minutes of Erawan Explosion
The second bomb that exploded in a riverside canal August 19, the day after the Erawan bomb–fortunately injuring no one—“was of the same type” as the Erawan bomb, Davis said. But original reports that this bomb was dropped from the Taksin Bridge on the same day have been proven wrong. CCTV video, as seen here, has now revealed that the bomb, enclosed in a plastic bag, was intentionally pushed into the canal from the footbridge by a man the previous evening—less than a half hour after the Erawan explosion.
As was the case with the Erawan bomber before and after the explosion, this video footage shows a man looking at a smartphone screen before dropping his package into canal. Davis speculated that this might have been a “back-up” bomb in case the Erawan one had failed. Or perhaps a potential target, like a river boat full of tourists, had failed to materialize. “I don’t believe he lost his nerve,” Davis said.
Regardless, the entire operation “was carefully organized and well planned,” Davis said. Although some motorcycle taxi drivers near Sathorn Road believe that they had the Erawan bomber as a customer several times back in Feburary, none of the nearby hotels recognize the man—suggesting that he stayed in the homes of accomplices. (The motorbike taxi drivers are certain the man was a foreigner, possibly from the Middle East. Two drivers that picked up the suspect before and after the Erawan bombing are also sure he was not Thai.)
And who might the accomplices be? Well, the Grey Wolves do have ties with organized crime syndicates “all over the world” and Thailand has representatives of quite a few of those.
IS or Al Qaeda?
Even if domestic forces can be eliminated as suspects, what about other foreign terrorist groups such as IS and Al Qaeda?
“Undoubtedly IS has the capability and it hinges on local franchises, local organizations,” Davis said. And Muslim Thais could well be members of a brigade composed of volunteers from the Malay peninisula now fighting in Syria since hundreds of Malaysians, as well as some Indonesians and Flipinos are already known to be among these fighters. Morever, these Malaysian fighters there are being encouraged to bring jihad back to Malaysia, so why not Thailand?
Meanwhile, Al Qaeda shares a revenge motive similar to that of Grey Wolves. An Al Qaeda affliate, the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), has a battalion comprised of Uighurs that has been fighting since 2012 in northwest Syria alongside the Al Nusra Front, the original army battling President Bashar al-Assad.
Those Uighur soldiers might have the capability to organize an attack like the Erawan bombing “but they want to export the fight back to Xinjiang. They have never expressed interest in taking the fight to Thailand,” Davis said.
Both IS and Al Qaeda have also favoured suicide attacks. Yet there’s another, stronger argument against either IS or Al Qaeda as the perpetrator, Davis pointed out: “IS and Al Qaeda live and breathe publicity.” And so far, no one has claimed responsibility for the Erawan Shrine bombing.
A slightly different version of this article appeared in Forbes.com