Leaked message about Sikh terrorist exposes Thai security flaws

The recent news of India seeking Thailand's assistance to hunt for Jaktar Singh Tara, a Sikh terrorist convicted of assassinating Punjab Chief Minister Beant Singh with a car bomb in 1995, has received much public attention and also brought into focus Thailand's lack of preparedness to handle terrorism.

Despite India discreetly reaching out to Thailand for help in locating the terrorist, the news still leaked to the public, reportedly because the alert message was circulated among security officers in the far South via "Line" chat application.

The alert message mentioned the ISI of Pakistan, which further excited people as they mistook it for the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), which is being hunted down by the US and its allies, when actually it meant Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence.

The initial information about Tara given out by Thai authorities also was confusing and contradicting.

While the Thai public had heard that Tara, who reportedly tunnelled out of an Indian maximum-security jail in 2004, might be lying low in the far South to cross over into Malaysia and travel to Pakistan, the Internal Security Operations Command (Isoc) Region 4 front command - the alleged source of the news leak - as well as the Royal Thai Army insisted this was old news.

They said India had contacted Thailand as well as other countries in the region quite a while ago and that there was no evidence to show the wanted man was in Thailand or was involved with the restive situation in the far South, which also saw some car-bomb attacks.

But Immigration Police then confirmed that Tara had sneaked into Thailand on September 7, using a fake name, and that the Indian government had confirmed that it was him.

Tara, who gave a false address in Bangkok's Lat Krabang area, was suspected to have stayed behind in Thailand while the persons who brought him in had left the country, police said, adding he had been in and out of Thailand five times, using a fake name on a Pakistani passport.

The fuzziness of this case prompted Thai national security agencies to integrate information.

They drew up the following conclusions about Tara; the man who escaped India and travelled to Thailand was the same person involved in the assassination of the Punjab chief minister in 1995; this wanted man had travelled in and out of Thailand using a Pakistani passport; he had entered Thailand on September 7 and had not left the country; and the Thai court's arrest warrant for this man was as per the agreement with the Interpol.

Despite clarity finally, many people were concerned about Thailand's handling of this case.

What if Thai police had arrested the man but the Pakistani government had claimed he was its citizen because he owned a real Pakistani passport? Would this lead to a problem in the man's extradition? Would the alert message quoting Pakistan's ISI cause a problem between Thailand and Pakistan?

And, another key concern was it has been frequent that the alerts via "Line" chat application in the southern border provinces were leaked because of the group chats that sometimes also included others who were not national security officers.

The leak of the alert message prompted the Thai central authority to look for a change because such leaks would yield more bad results than good ones - particularly the impact on public confidence about security, the impact on tourism and the impact on ties with other countries.

The confusing information given at first by security agencies also reflected Thailand's lack of preparedness, as well as the lack of information integration, unity among related agencies and a "clear-cut", responsible host agency in handling terrorist movements.

As Southeast Asia is at greater risk because of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) campaign to create a network of warriors in Muslim-majority areas like Indonesia, Malaysia, Brunei, southern Philippines and southern Thailand, this can be worrisome.

The ASEAN intelligence agencies' meeting in September in Philippines heard delegates expressing concerns about the ISIS campaign.

Although Thailand has not yet seen its citizens joining the ISIS like Malaysia, Indonesia, Philippines and Australia, the Kingdom remains vulnerable because it is an open country where people can enter or leave easily even as the unrest in the deep South continues.

As ISIS also uses social media to propagate its ideology and recruit fighters, which is difficult to block, the Southeast Asia Regional Workshop on Countering Online Extremist Narratives, therefore, will be organised from November 4-6 in Malaysia to help the region's countries, including Thailand, tackle the issue.