Thursday, January 19, 2012

A Hezbollah Threat in Thailand?

Via STRATFOR (Security Weekly) -

On Jan. 12, Thai authorities arrested a man they say was a member of the Lebanon-based Shiite militant group Hezbollah who was plotting an attack in Bangkok. In uncovering the plot, Thai police cite cooperation with the United States and Israel going back to December 2011. Bangkok is indeed a target-rich environment with a history of terrorist attacks, but today Hezbollah and other militant and criminal groups rely on the city as more of a business hub than anything else. If Hezbollah or some other transnational militant group were to carry out an attack in the city, it would have to be for a compelling reason that outweighed the costs.


While there are certainly plenty of U.S., Jewish and Israeli targets in Thailand in general and Bangkok in particular, other officials have given different accounts of the alleged plot that add more nuance. According to National Police Chief Priewpan Damapong, Hussein insisted that the materials seized were not intended for attacks in Thailand but were going to be transported to a yet-to-be-named third country (a Stratfor source has cited the Philippines as a logical destination). He also allegedly told authorities that, although he was a member of Hezbollah, he was not a member of the group's militant arm. A Hezbollah official in Beirut, Ghaleb Abu Zainab, told the Lebanese Broadcasting Corp. that Hussein was not a Hezbollah member, while Stratfor sources have told us that he was. Our sources also have confirmed Hussein's reported confession to police that he was on the business side of things -- likely involved in procurement and logistics -- rather than the militant side, which involves such things as bombmaking or operational planning. As a Swedish passport holder, Hussein would have much more access to business connections, so it makes sense that Hezbollah would want to compartmentalize his skills.


Thus, Hezbollah's profile and set of interests support Hussein's reported claims that the bombmaking materials that police found were being moved out of the country and were not intended for use in Bangkok or other tourist locations in Thailand.


Just as Bangkok is an attractive business hub in Southeast Asia for legitimate businessmen, it is also an attractive hub for illicit businessmen. In 2008, Thai police arrested Russian arms smuggler Viktor Bout after agents from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, posing as members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia guerrilla group trying to negotiate a deal to buy weapons, incriminated Bout during a meeting in Bangkok. It appears that Hussein's role in this case would have been an administrative one similar to Bout's: sourcing the fertilizer, finding a place to stockpile it and concealing it in innocent-looking fan boxes. This would not make him any less guilty of assisting a militant group, but it would deflate the theory that Hezbollah was plotting to use this material in an immediate attack in Bangkok.

This is not to say that Hezbollah or some other militant group will not conduct an attack in Bangkok in the future. But it would take a lot to convince group leaders that the financial pain of an attack in the city would be worth the ideological gain. And the recent alleged plot should remind investigators and policymakers to remember the financial bottom line as well as the ideological bottom line when assessing future terrorist threats.

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