Like ink stains, blots of extremist Islamic terror are spreading across Southeast Asia, with southern Thailand as the latest target and with spurs reaching out to Australia and South Korea.
The rise of an Islamic insurgency in Thailand's Kra Isthmus, where a Muslim separatist movement has been simmering for 20 years, has the marks of a classic maneuver by al-Qaeda, the Islamic terrorist network led by Osama bin Laden. He is still at large and broadcast a vitriolic message to Americans just before the US presidential election on Nov. 2.
Al-Qaeda did not start the Muslim insurgency in Thailand, which is overwhelmingly Buddhist, but waited until it was well underway and then may have injected training, weapons, and funds into the movement through its Southeast Asian affiliate, Jemaah Islamiya. "We're watching it closely," said a US official with access to intelligence reports, "and we're hoping to learn more."
Within the last two months, Muslims extremists have repeatedly attacked Thai government offices, police stations, security forces, homes of local officials and village chiefs, and markets. Since the beginning of the year, the insurgents are reported that have killed 360 people.
In response, the Thai police have cracked down, killing 85 rioters in a raid that drew protests from the king of Thailand and the US government for being excessive. That crackdown led, in turn, to revenge bombings by the insurgents and the beheading of a Buddhist village leader.
Further escalation in the violence is expected and no end is in sight even though Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra has vowed to stamp out the insurgency.
The insurgency in southern Thailand has strained relations between Thailand and Malaysia next door. The Thai government has alleged that Malaysia has provided a haven across the border for the Muslim insurgents, who are ethnic Malays. Malaysia has denied that and accused the Thai government of oppressing the Muslims in southern Thailand.
Analysts have noted that Al-Jazeera, the Islamic radio and TV network based in the Persian Gulf state of Qatar, has played up the Thai insurgency, suggesting growing links with other Islamic terrorist networks.
Meanwhile, Australian intelligence agencies have identified Muslims who were trained by al-Qaeda in Afghanistan before assaults on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington on Sept. 11, 2001. Australia is home to about 340,000 Muslims, a third native-born, who comprise 4 percent of the population.
Far to the north, al-Qaeda has threatened terrorist actions in South Korea in response to the dispatch of 3,600 South Korean soldiers to Iraq alongside US and other coalition troops there. At least two such threats have been posted in recent weeks and a potential target would be US forces stationed there. About 500,000 Muslims live in South Korea.
Islamic extremist networks in the Middle East, Southeast Asia, and wherever else they operate are said not to be aligned in a tightly-knit, hierarchical organization but rather to be loosely affiliated with one another as they draw financial and logistic support from al-Qaeda.
In Southeast Asia, the leading unit within this network is Jemaah Islamiya, which numbers anywhere from several hundred activists to five thousand members. Formed in the late 1990s, its avowed goal is to establish an Islamic state that would include Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, southern Thailand and the southern Philippines.