By Boonradom Chitradon, AFP
Islamic separatists in the deep South are increasingly adopting al-Qaeda's Islamic extremist tactics, including gruesome beheadings and seemingly random attacks on civilians.
The increasingly bloody violence shows the growing Islamic influence on the separatists, Gen Watanachai Chaimuanwong told the French news agency AFP in an interview at his office in the prime minister's Government House compound.
The Muslim-majority region along Thailand's southern border with Malaysia has suffered outbreaks of separatist violence ever since Bangkok annexed the area a century ago.
But Watanachai, the top security adviser to army-installed Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont, said that while previous generations of rebels were mainly motivated by nationalism, today's militants showed a greater tendency toward religious extremism.
"This is a group of young turk militants who want to challenge the old groups. Their operations are more gruesome and more violent because they have imported those techniques from Al-Qaeda and the Taliban, with the goal of creating a pure Islamic state," he said.
"They want to create a state called Pattani Darusalam" which would include Thailand's Muslim-majority south and two northern states in Malaysia, he said.
Attacks in the region have become more frequent, and the violence more gratuitous, since the military seized power in Bangkok six months ago.
An ice cream vendor was beheaded in broad daylight last month, his body left slumping on his cart. Militants beheaded another Buddhist man two weeks ago, setting his body ablaze on a roadside and leaving his head in the middle of the road a kilometre away.
As a former deputy chief of the army - who now wears dark business suits instead of military uniforms - 63-year-old Watanachai has dealt with the insurgency since the latest unrest erupted in January 2004.
The militants have never claimed responsibility for any of their attacks, and have never made any demands of the government.
Watanachai said security forces believed the militants had formed a new group called Rundi Kumpulan Kecil (RKK), which translates roughly as "Small Guerrilla Group," recruiting students from Islamic boarding schools as well as unemployed youths.
"There are up to 20,000 of these militants active in the three southern provinces, but their recruitment is slower now because the government has imposed strict controls on the boarding schools," he said.
Watanachai said the government expected a surge in violence after Thailand and Malaysia agreed last month to step up cooperation to end unrest that has left more than 2,000 dead in the past three years.
The rebels have also struggled to recruit new members from outside of the provinces of Narathiwat, Pattani and Yala, the former army chief added.
As a result, he said, the rebels had a hard time staging attacks outside the region.
However, he cautioned that authorities were now linking the insurgents - but not their cause - to deadly bombings in Bangkok on New Year's Eve which killed three people and wounded more than 40.
He insisted the attacks were not linked to the southern unrest, saying someone connected to the political turmoil in Bangkok had hired the militants to stage the attacks to further their own interests.
"The explosive devices were the kind commonly used in the south, and the people who made the bombs were militants who worked in the south, but they were hired to mount the attacks for another purpose," Watanachai said.
Militants in the south operate through a loose structure in which the actual attackers never see or interact with their commanders, he said.
"They would be asked by telephone to kill or behead someone. When they leave their house, they are empty-handed, but they go to pick up weapons at a pre-arranged drop point, without knowing who their commander is," he said.
In some cases, the young fighters are provided with drugs or cash for conducting attacks, Watanachai added.
New recruits spend up to 30 days in training in the deep jungle along the border, in caves, or even in abandoned buildings in towns, he said.
Watanachai warned the militants may be planning more spectacular attacks, including an assassination plot against a "prominent person" to draw attention to their cause.