The decades-old conflict between the Royal Thai Armed Forces and the National Revolutionary Front, or BRN, an umbrella organization of Thai Malay secessionists, has long flown below the international community’s radar. For Malaysian authorities, however, the festering insurgency on their northern border represents a growing threat to the national security of Malaysia itself.
The BRN’s need for weapons has led to a flood of firearms hitting southern Thailand’s black market. Many of those guns find their way to Malaysians aligned with the Islamic State, or ISIS.
In May 2017, the Royal Malaysia Police arrested part of an ISIS cell smuggling weapons from southern Thailand to conduct attacks on Malaysian targets. Later that year, a gunrunner told The Straits Times that some of his Malaysian clients who purchased weapons sourced from southern Thailand likely belonged to ISIS. Those suspected militants had bought assault rifles and semi-automatic rifles.
Despite the recency of these developments, Malaysian authorities have recognized the threat presented by ISIS for some time. In September 2015, Malaysia began lending its support to the American-led coalition targeting Islamic State’s strongholds in Iraq and Syria.
In retaliation, ISIS attacked a Kuala Lumpur nightclub on June 22, 2016, injuring eight civilians in the Western-labeled terrorist organization’s only successful operation in Malaysia to date. Malaysia then focused on countering homegrown ISIS sympathizers. In August 2017 alone, Malaysian security forces launched three successive anti-ISIS raids, capturing several hundred suspected militants.
The Southeast Asian country’s gun laws have complemented this strategy.
“It is very hard to get weapons in Malaysia,” said Dr. Zachary Abuza, a professor at the National War College and author of Militant Islam in Southeast Asia: Crucible of Terror. “They are highly regulated, and, as years have passed since an armed rebellion took place within Malaysia’s borders, there is no black market for weapons. So southern Thailand is an important source of weapons for Malaysian militants, and logistically it is far easier for them to get them than from Mindanao [in the Philippines].”
Malaysia limits gun ownership through the Arms Act, one of Southeast Asia’s strictest examples of gun control. In the aftermath of October 2017 Las Vegas shooting in the United States, one Malaysian lawmaker called for further restricting gun ownership out of fear that a similar attack could happen in Malaysia.
Gun control and arms trafficking remain more significant challenges for Thailand. Gunrunners in the Thai Armed Forces, the most powerful military actor in southern Thailand, have even tried to smuggle stolen weapons as far as the once-restive Indonesian province of Aceh.
While southern Thailand’s status as a hotspot for arms trafficking has proved a boon for Islamic State’s Malaysian cells, the militants have little in common with their fellow Muslims in the BRN.
“The main Thai insurgent groups are not transnational in their ideology,” said Abuza. “They are ethnonational — committed to the establishment of a homeland, not a caliphate.”
Despite the BRN’s anti-Buddhist rhetoric and involvement in beheadings, the Thai Malay secessionists’ primary objective remains waging a war of independence for the Islamic historical region of Patani. ISIS has thus struggled to replicate in southern Thailand the success that the Western-labeled terrorist organization has enjoyed in Mindanao, where ISIS loyalists held a city for five months.
“The insurgents in southern Thailand are not Salafis or Wahhabis,” noted Abuza, referring to the Saudi-style brand of Islamic fundamentalism popular with ISIS recruits. “They are very conservative Shafiis. Indeed, the Wahhabis in southern Thailand are very condescending towards the Shafiis.”
The Shafii intellectual tradition, one of Sunni Islam’s four primary legal schools of thought, predominates in southern Thailand. ISIS sympathizers, meanwhile, prefer the Hanbali doctrine.
Though most Malaysian Muslims, like their Thai Malay counterparts, follow the Shafii legal school, ISIS has had better luck finding like-minded Muslims in Malaysia. One of Malaysia’s most prominent Hanbalis made headlines across Southeast Asia just a little over a month ago.
On August 29, Malaysian authorities announced plans to release homegrown militant Yazid Sufaat in mid-2019. A former captain in the Malaysian Army with a degree in biochemistry from California State University, Sacramento, Sufaat oversaw al-Qaeda’s efforts to develop bioweapons in the 1990s. Between 2010 and 2013, he tried to recruit Malaysians for ISIS.
Saudi Arabia’s attempts to absorb Malaysia into the Saudi sphere of influence have sparked fears that the Hanbali doctrine will spread further in the country, inspiring more militants like Sufaat. Observers also worry that, just as weapons are flowing from southern Thailand into Malaysia, Malaysian ISIS sympathizers’ ultraconservative ideology will radicalize Thai Malay insurgents.
“My real concern is that a younger generation of Malay militants in southern Thailand is going to ‘take it up a notch’ and reach out to pro-ISIS groups for support,” Abuza told The Diplomat, echoing this worry. “I have a real concern that they believe the current rate and scope of violence is insufficient to achieve their goals and will thus start looking beyond the current leadership.”
To some extent, that fear has already become a reality. In April, an unnamed Malaysian official told Channel NewsAsia that a former BRN member sought to establish a Thai ISIS cell.
“Unstable areas with simmering insurgencies have the potential to become safe havens for other militant groups,” said Dr. Vanda Felbab-Brown, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and author of Militants, Criminals, and Warlords: The Challenge of Local Governance in an Age of Disorder. “That could also happen at the Thai–Malay border. The chance has increased in recent years as more hardcore religious elements have risen to prominence in the Thai insurgency.”
In the November 2017 report Jihadism in Southern Thailand: A Phantom Menace, the International Crisis Group warned that ISIS could exploit the BRN’s decade-long failure to win a decisive victory as an opportunity to bill Islamism as an alternative to Thai Malay ethnonationalism.
The interplay between the insurgency in southern Thailand and Islamic State’s Malaysian cells speaks to the lack of Malaysian–Thai cooperation on counterinsurgency and counterterrorism.
“The Malaysian government has gone to the Thai government and demanded help in curbing the illicit trade in weapons,” said Abuza. “Thai authorities denied that it was happening. This led the Malaysians to cut back in counterterrorism operations against BRN rebels in Malaysian territory. That resulted in the Thai military believing the Malaysian government is complicit in the insurgency.”
Malaysia has had more success coordinating its anti-ISIS campaign with its other neighbors. In July 2017, the Indonesian and Malaysian militaries pledged to increase their cooperation on counterterrorism. That same month, Malaysia announced that it would boost military aid to Philippine security forces fighting ISIS militants in the Battle of Marawi. If Malaysia reapplies this model to its relationship with Thailand, the security of both countries will likely improve.
“The most useful thing authorities on both sides of the border can do is not to overreact and not increase military crackdowns and prevent abuses of official force,” Felbab-Brown told The Diplomat. “Instead, they should enhance intelligence cooperation. Thai authorities should adopt selective surgical operations that avoid extensive violence and collateral damage and persevere with hearts-and-minds efforts, while exploring negotiations about some political accommodation.”
Gun control can only take Malaysia’s anti-ISIS campaign so far. Multilateralism offers the best guarantee of lasting success against militants on the Malaysian–Thai border.
Austin Bodetti is a freelance journalist focusing on conflict in the Muslim world. His writing has appeared in AskMen, The Daily Beast, The Daily Dot, Vox, and Wired UK.