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3 More Terror Suspects Held in Thailand

A fourth was arrested last month. All are accused of plotting attacks on high-profile targets. Others are being sought, officials say.

June 11, 2003|Richard C. Paddock | Times Staff Writer

CHIANG MAI, Thailand -- A plot to blow up tourist sites and five diplomatic missions in Thailand -- allegedly including the U.S. Embassy in Bangkok -- was foiled with the arrest of four suspected terrorists, authorities said Tuesday.

It is unclear how far the plot had progressed, but all four suspects allegedly are members of the Jemaah Islamiah terrorist network, which is blamed for last year's nightclub bombing in Bali, Indonesia, that killed 202 people.

Three of the suspects were arrested Tuesday in early morning raids in southern Thailand. The other was arrested last month in Bangkok, the Thai capital, and taken to his native Singapore, where he apparently implicated his three comrades during questioning.

Although Jemaah Islamiah has reportedly used Thailand as a meeting place to plan some operations, including the Bali bombing, the arrests marked the first time that members of the network had been held here on suspicion of plotting an attack.

Thai authorities said they were continuing to search for other members of the group believed to be involved in the plan.

Among the alleged targets were tourist sites in the popular resorts of Phuket and Pattaya as well as the Singaporean Embassy, officials said.

Until recently, Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra had denied that terrorists were operating in Thailand and pledged that authorities would prevent any terrorist attacks here. Thaksin is in Washington this week and met with President Bush on Tuesday; the two reportedly discussed Thailand's anti-terrorism efforts and other subjects.

Although Jemaah Islamiah has suffered significant setbacks over the last two years with the arrests of leading members in Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia and the Philippines, Tuesday's arrests indicate that the regional terrorist network still had the resources to plan another attack.

Authorities in the southern Thai province of Narathiwat said Tuesday that they had arrested three people in the alleged plot: the owner of a religious school, his son and a doctor.

Narathiwat Police Chief Lt. Gen. Paisal Tangchaitrong told the Thai newspaper the Nation that the father and son had confessed to involvement in Jemaah Islamiah.

Jemaah Islamiah, also known as JI, seeks to establish an Islamic state in Southeast Asia. Although Thailand is largely Buddhist, there are several million Muslims among its 61 million people. Most live in the south, near the border with Malaysia.

Perhaps the most dangerous suspect among those detained in the plot revealed Tuesday is Arifin bin Ali, who was arrested May 16 after Singaporean authorities alerted Thai officials to his whereabouts.

Singaporean authorities identified Ali as a "senior member" of Jemaah Islamiah in the island state who received instruction in handling weapons and explosives in 1999 at a radical Islamic training camp in the Philippines.

Most of the Singapore network was smashed in late 2001 when authorities uncovered its plot to blow up seven Western embassies using suicide truck bombs with help from the Al Qaeda terrorist network. Ali, also known as John Wong Ah Hung, 42, fled at that time to Malaysia.

"Arifin has disclosed to [investigators] that he is involved with a group of like-minded individuals in planning terrorist attacks against certain targets in Thailand," the Singaporean Home Affairs Ministry said Tuesday in a statement disclosing his arrest. "The Thai and Singapore authorities are working closely in the ongoing investigations."

The extent of the plot makes it likely that far more people were involved than the handful now under suspicion.

More than 30 Jemaah Islamiah members were arrested in Singapore for their part in the foiled embassy bomb plot. Three dozen people have been arrested in the Bali nightclub bombing, and more are being sought.

"Whenever JI has been targeted in one country, its operatives and assets have moved to a neighboring country," writes Rohan Gunaratna in a new book "Terrorism in the Asia-Pacific: Threat and Response." "The nature of the JI organization is such that no one single country can successfully fight and dismantle JI."

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