US Embassy warns of a possible terrorist threat to Bangkok UPDATE: Multiple updates added

UPDATE: 7:00 pm. AP reports:

Thai police were on Friday questioning a Lebanese man with alleged links to Hezbollah militants as the U.S. Embassy warned of a “real and credible” threat of a terrorist attack against American citizens in Bangkok.

Deputy Prime Minister Chalerm Yubamrung said Thai authorities received a tip-off before New Year’s of a planned attack, which was said to target Israelis.

“At first we were told the Palestinians were behind it but it turned out to be the Hezbollah,” he told The Associated Press.

He said police detained on Thursday a Lebanese suspect with alleged links to Hezbollah, an avowedly anti-Israel militant group.

Thai authorities had been “following two Lebanese men and called in one of them … for questioning,” Chalerm said. “Technically the two men have not committed any crimes under the Thai law, so we could only use the immigration law to keep this one suspect in custody,” he said.

Chalerm spoke hours after the U.S. Embassy in Bangkok sent an “emergency message” to American citizens earlier Friday warning of a possible terrorist attack.

The message said that “foreign terrorists may be currently looking to conduct attacks against tourist areas in Bangkok in the near future.” It urged Americans to “keep a low profile” in public and to exercise caution in areas where Western tourists gather.

The statement gave no other details.

Ambassador Kristie Kenney told the AP the threat was “real and very credible.” She didn’t give any other information.

It was the first U.S. warning of a foreign terror attack in Bangkok in recent memory.

Chalerm said the danger has passed.

“I want to confirm and I am confident that we have the situation under control. And I can guarantee … no terrorist attacks will be allowed to take place. If they have disagreement, (they should) go fight somewhere else.”

Hezbollah, a Shiite Muslim militant group, is the most potent military force in Lebanon, far stronger than even the national army. It is backed mainly by Iran and Syria.

Friday’s terror warning comes during a period of heightened tension over U.S. and Israeli responses to the prospect that Iran is going forward with developing nuclear weapons.

Iran sees possible U.S. complicity in a series of assassinations of its nuclear experts – the latest Wednesday, when scientist Mostafa Ahmadi Roshan was killed by a bomb attached to his car by a passing bicyclist.

BP: This is a bit clearer and well AP and Reuters are more reliable so for now think we can take it as one person. From the wording of AP – and if you parse the Reuters report you can see it as well – the person was not arrested, he was ‘taken into custody’ (Reuters) or ‘invited for questioning’ (AP).

On whether the danger has passed, the US Ambassador was asked by Terry Fredrickson of the Bangkok Post whether the “US govt advice still holds despite arrest of 2 alleged terrorists” and she answered “yes, our advice to US citizens still holds.”.

To be frank, it is difficult to answer, but governments in Thailand and elsewhere in the region have continually been up in arms whenever such warnings are issued – see for Malaysia (in 2003 and 2010), Indonesia (2007 and 2011), Philippines (2010 and 2012) etc – Thailand is not adverse to dismissing reports or warnings about terrorism – see 2003 and 2010 – and well the reasons are obvious. From a 2002 AP  story:

A tropical beach with nobody on it may be the stuff of travelers’ dreams, but it’s a nightmare for many Asian nations after the Bali bombings stirred fears of more terrorist attacks in paradise.

Tourists fled the idyllic Indonesian resort after the blasts killed nearly 200 people last month, and many are avoiding other regional destinations that have seen troubles, including Philippine islands where foreigners were kidnapped and parts of South Asia hit by bloodshed and political tensions.

Asian countries, which consider tourism a major source of cash and jobs, say wealthy Western nations are making the situation worse by issuing advisories that scare people away from safe destinations. During the weekend, for example, U.S. State Department cautioned its citizens against traveling in Southeast Asia, citing the risks of terrorist actions.

“They issue advisories based on the first information they receive, not on exclusive intelligence, which is causing panic,” Thai Foreign Minister Surakiart Sathirathai said.

BP: So be skeptical of what Chalerm and others are saying to downplay the risk. From a post in 2007 – about a similar warning:

For example, if the government increases security any such attack might be called or delayed by the perpetrators. This is particularly relevant to Thailand as there have been no instances of suicide bombings so the perpetrators will want to flee the scene. This is much more difficult to do when there is an increased security presence. Governments are often in a catch-22 position. If they warn of the threat, increase the security presence, and take other necessary precautions then the likelihood of there being any attack is greatly diminished. It appears that the government has cried wolf and is alarming the population unnecessarily. Then again bureaucracies are risk adverse and to not warn of a terrorist threat well could be politically disastrous. Just because no attacks took place yesterday does not mean that there was no information suggesting an attack might take place and that any future warnings should be ignored. Btw, if you really want to look after your health and safety, don’t take tuk-tuks or hire a motorcycle/take a motorcycle taxi.

BP: That advice still holds…

6:30 pm : US Ambassador tweets “the info is specific and credible, concerns foreign terrorists and tourist areas in BKK”

BBC:

Thai Defence Minister General Yutthasak Sasiprapha said the US had warned Thai authorities that two suspected Muslim “terrorists” had entered the country.

But he told the AFP news agency a general public warning was not needed.

“Our intelligence officials are working closely with the US and following the terrorists’ movements closely,” he said.

I believe we will arrest them tonight. For Thai citizens, there is no need to announce any warning because it will cause panic and will affect our tourism.”

BP: That statement doesn’t fill you with confidence as not wanting to cause panic doesn’t mean keeping people in the dark….

TANN reports:

In response to the U.S. embassy’s issuance of an emergency warning in Bangkok, Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra revealed that authorities have known of the threat for sometime. She added that the National Intelligence Agency and the National Police Office are closely following the developments.

At the same time, National Police Chief Priewpan Damapong confirmed that the U.S. had informed Thailand that two Lebanese nationals linked to the Hezbollah group and suspected of terrorism had entered Thailand and could possibly be staging an attack.

Initial reports indicate that he and Deputy Prime Minister Chalerm Yubumrung both went on to confirm that the two suspects have been arrested. There has not been any confirmation that the two arrested suspects are the reason behind the emergency warning.

Reuters though per AP:

A Lebanese suspect from the Hezbollah group has been taken into custody by Thai officials and police are investigating further,” Chalerm Yumbumrung told Reuters.

Following concern raised by the Israeli embassy about a possible attack by a group of Lebanese terrorists in Bangkok, Thai police officials had been coordinating with Israeli officials since before the new year,” Reuters quoted the politician as saying.

The Nation:

Thai authorities on Friday detained two Lebanese nationals pending investigation in connection with the US’ alert on possible terrorist attack in Bangkok.

Deputy Prime Minister Chalerm Yoobamrung said in cooperation with the US, the Thai side found that the they entered the Thai territory recently and were under watch by the Thai side since.

He said the investigation was underway and declined to speculate why the suspects wanted to do the attack in Bangkok.

Chalerm identified the duo as being members of Hezbollah, a Shi’a Muslim militant group based in Lebanon.

He made the statement a couple of hours after the US Embassy in Bangkok issued an urgent alert for its citizens in Bangkok of poosible terrorist attack.

BP: Thai has no plurals and BP hasn’t seen specific wording of what Chalerm said in Thai to know whether he said one or two. Earlier in Bloomberg:

The threat is “generic” and likely related to U.S. moves to sanction Iran over its nuclear weapons program, according to Anthony Davis, a Bangkok-based analyst at IHS Jane’s.

The U.S. is “looking at pro-Iranian groups that might possibly react to what may very well go down in the Straits of Hormuz and possibly beyond,” Davis said. “It seems unlikely that terrorist attacks would be launched before the situation in the Middle East has escalated significantly.”

Tensions over the ratcheting up of sanctions led Iranian Vice President Mohammad Reza Rahimi to threaten on Dec. 27 that Iran may block the Strait of Hormuz, the transit for about a fifth of the world’s oil, if the European Union bans exports from the Islamic Republic.

Zachary Abuza on Hezbollah operations in Southeast Asia:

What is less known is Hezbollah’s activities in Southeast Asia. While predominantly Sunni, the region does have distinct Shia communities that Hezbollah has penetrated and actively solicits for funds. In some cases, Hezbollah operatives have taken over legitimate charities. Hezbollah operatives have been arrested in Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia, and the Philippines. Hezbollah operatives have long used Thailand as a center for arms procurement and document forging. Most importantly, and not coincidentally, Hezbollah’s activities in Southeast Asia have been in two countries with diplomatic relations and close commercial and or security ties with Israel, Singapore, Thailand and the Philippines.

On 17 March 1994, a Hezbollah operation to bomb the Israeli embassy in Bangkok went awry when the terrorists who were driving the truck bomb got into a traffic accident in Bangkok’s notoriously congested streets. The driver fled the scene and the truck was towed to a police station; the bomb was only discovered days later when the police inspected the car.

• Other Hezbollah operations in Thailand include the surveilling of the El-Al office in Bangkok and counter at Don Muang airport, the only airport in Southeast Asia where the Israeli airline flies.

In regards to the operation, this is a document put on an Israeli government site:

In Southeast Asia, members of the Hezbollah network behind a failed truck-bombing targeting the Israeli embassy in Bangkok in 1994, as well as a series of other terrorist plots in the region throughout the 1990s, were intimately tied to Iranian intelligence agents. Comprised almost entirely of local sunni Muslims, the network was led by Pandu Yudhawitna who was himself recruited by Iranian intelligence officers stationed in Malaysia in the early 1980s. (15)

BP: Hence, what is *speculated* as the link. Interesting that Chalerm mentioned the Israeli Embassy connection…..

Today, the US Embassy issued an alert as follows (emphasis added by BP):

This message alerts U.S. citizens in Thailand that foreign terrorists may be currently looking to conduct attacks against tourist areas in Bangkok in the near future. U.S. citizens are urged to exercise caution when visiting public areas where large groups of Western tourists gather in Bangkok.

U.S. citizens are encouraged to maintain a heightened awareness when out in public; be alert for unattended packages/bags in public/crowded places and report any suspicious behavior to the nearest law enforcement personnel.  We also encourage you to keep a low profile in public areas, particularly areas frequented by foreign tourists.

BP: The key points from the threat of a possible attack is that it is (a) by foreign terrorists (hence ruling out Thai domestic groups whether the Deep South, any colored shirt protest group, or some Thai “third hand”), (b) directed again tourist areas in Bangkok (this is more specific than the usual generic warnings in travel advisories where a location is not specified), and (b) it relates to the “near future”.

To BP, this makes it clear that there is some specific information. More soon.