Thai agents were investigating possible domestic JI operations as early as January 2002, when one of the country's most senior intelligence officials was alerted by his counterparts in Singapore to the presence of suspected JI operatives in southern Thailand. Acting on the scoop, the official dispatched field agents to the porous southern border town of Sungai Kolok to check assertions that four JI members had fled through Malaysia and into southern Thailand, a Muslim stronghold in a predominantly Buddhist country. He didn't expect the agents to find much. But when they combed through embarkation cards of individuals who had passed through immigration in Sungai Kolok, agents turned up the name of Mas Selamat Kastari, an alleged JI operations chief in Singapore and the suspected mastermind behind a foiled plan in 2001 to hijack a plane and crash it into Singapore's Changi Airport.
According to the intelligence official, Mas Selamat's immigration papers showed that he had been inside Thailand for four days and then re-entered Malaysia, possibly with several traveling companions. "We had no [immigration] records for [those companions]," he said. "And we have to admit we don't know what they were doing here."
He does now. Mas Selamat was captured in Indonesia in February. Information gleaned from his subsequent interrogation in Singapore triggered the recent arrest of the three Thais. The network exposed by Thai authorities now reveals that, despite Thaksin's initial assurances to the contrary, Thailand has played unwitting host to JI regional operatives.
Thaksin said last week that Selamat and his colleagues were planning the bombings to coincide with the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit, when the heads of state, including U.S. President George W. Bush, were supposed to gather in Thailand. But the plan was aborted, police say, following the May 16 arrest in Bangkok of the cell's suspected chief planner, Singaporean Arifin bin Ali, who also goes by the alias John Wong Ah Hung. Arifin, it is now known, was one of the accomplices who entered southern Thailand with Mas Selamat in December 2001.
According to Thailand's deputy police commissioner, General Sunthorn Saikwan, Arifin had links to a terror cell busted in Cambodia's capital, Phnom Penh, in May. During that sweep, police arrested two Thais—both from the south—and an Egyptian, and followed that up on June 11 with the capture of a Cambodian believed to be a member of the same cell. The Thai and Egyptian men were teachers at an Islamic school funded by the Saudi charity Om al-Qura. The charity is believed to have been used by al-Qaeda to fund its own activities and those of JI. "We're talking about huge inflows of cash here," says a senior diplomat in Phnom Penh, "perhaps even millions of dollars, amounts so large that they set alarm bells ringing all over the place." Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen claimed that the men had been planning to attack a regional summit of foreign ministers, including U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, scheduled to take place in the capital this week.
Flushed from cover, they may now be on the move again. Thaksin previously had appeared reluctant to officially join the U.S.-led war on terror. But the war in Iraq forced him to rethink his position, says Prapat Thepchatree, a foreign-policy specialist at Bangkok's Thammasat University. "Iraq showed him that the U.S. carried a big stick and anyone not falling into line would be punished," he says. "He knew he had to do something to mend ties with the U.S."
Thaksin's change of heart was fortuitously timed. Last week's arrest of the three Thai nationals—medical doctor Waemahadi Wae-dao, 41, Islamic teacher Maisuri Haji Abdullah, 50, and his son Muyahi Haji Doloh, 21—took place on the eve of Thaksin's meeting with Bush in Washington. During the meeting Thaksin promised Bush full cooperation in the war against terrorism. "There is no longer any ambiguity in our policy," says Prapat. "We are now involved."
And deeply so. Details of the Thai national Narong, who was caught selling radioactive material, are still emerging.
He claimed to be a mere middleman with no clear idea of what he was peddling. But a U.S. embassy official present during an interview with the suspect said Narong admitted that he intended to sell the material to an unspecified terror group in Thailand, according to the Bangkok Post. Narong was hawking, for $240,000, an alarmingly large amount of cesium 137, experts said. His arrest marked the second such incident in Asia recently. On May 30, Bangladeshi police busted four suspected members of a militant Islamic group with a package of radioactive uranium suitable for use in a dirty bomb.
Thailand's terror crackdown hasn't been well received in some quarters, however. Critics in the country claim that the arrest of the three Thais, announced just hours before the Thaksin-Bush meeting, had the whiff of a publicity stunt. In the Muslim south, an area already weighed down by corruption, poverty and violence, the arrest of three prominent citizens has been met with suspicion. "People down here are shocked and angry," says Chid-chanok Rahimula, a political scientist at the Prince of Songkhla University in Pattani in southern Thailand and an acquaintance of one of the accused, Dr. Waemahadi. "The three are all well-known and well-respected in the south. No one here believes they were members of JI." The accused have denied being involved with JI, but police claim they have strong evidence, including documents found at the Islamic school run by Maisuri, which outline bomb plots, and Arifin's testimony, which names them as conspirators.
The net hasn't fully closed yet. Police continue to hunt for at least two other Thai suspected members of the cell, including Samarn Wae-kaji, believed by police to be an expert bomb builder who honed his skills under Arifin, who is a graduate of a terror training camp in the Philippines. "Don't worry, we'll catch him," says Major General Chumpon Manmai, Thailand's special branch police commissioner. The notion that there are terrorists in Thailand for him to catch is not so ridiculous anymore.