Looking in the mirror

Canadians remember the 1988 Seoul Olympics when “our” sprinter Ben Johnson won gold in the 100-metre dash.  Celebrations turned to sorrow quickly, however, when accusations began to surface that Ben doped up before the race (it turned out he had been doping up for years).  A hero became a pariah.

What was interesting, however, about the incident was the immediate speculation by Johnson’s team that someone had “spiked” his water bottle just before he ran, thus tainting his urine sample.  It turned out to be a ludicrous claim, but was illustrative nonetheless about the human reaction to disaster. We blame someone else rather than turn the gaze onto ourselves.

Plus ca change – let’s look at the aftermath of the bombing in Bangkok.

In the wake of the attack, the immediate suspicion was cast on “foreigners” (you can always rely on dictatorial governments to blame outsiders for any violence in their country – and Thailand is currently run by a military junta).   Then the attention shifted to the Uighurs, a persecuted Muslim minority in China: Thailand had recently deported more than 100 back to China (see story here).  But what if it is none of the above?

There was an interesting article in the Singapore Straits Times outlining the cast of possible perpetrators (see it here).  As it turns out, there is no end of potential here, from disgruntled military to frustrated supporters of the ousted PM to even IS-inspired terrorists.

The one group listed that caught my eye was the Malay insurgency of southern Thailand.  Far from the international news cycle, a low-level war has been simmering for decades in the four southernmost provinces in Thailand between the military and a heterogeneous group of ethnic Malay Muslim militants.  Thousand have been killed and scarcely a day goes by without a bombing or a shooting here and there.  Fatalities have included everyone from teachers to police officers.  And despite peace talks, there does not appear to be an end in sight.  True, the Bangkok bombing does not bear the hallmarks of a typical southern insurgent attack, but groups do adapt their methodology over time.  And the conflict is a festering sore.

It will probably take some time before we learn – if indeed we ever do – who or which group carried out the bombing.  To my mind, all the above characters are still in the running for responsibility.  I found it interesting that a Hindu temple was struck (leading me to put my money on IS since those guys hate all religions), but the fact that the site was a tourist draw means anyone seeking mass casualties could have done it.

The incident also reminded me of the 2003 bombing in the Madrid metro (Spain’s “9/11”).  The then government immediately singled out Basque separatists, despite a complete lack of evidence and the inconvenient fact that the MO was not one ever seen before in the long history of Basque terrorism.  It ended up of course that the attack was AQ-led or inspired and the government went down to defeat a few days later in the general election.  Hmm, is there a lesson here for Thailand?

Piecing together the clues after an attack is not easy and I empathise with Thai authorities.  And yet these same authorities might want to look in the mirror and consider all possibilities rather than settle on the Other, as is often the case.

By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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