Abstract: Although the Thai government claims it has solved the August 17 Bangkok bombing, many questions remain. Two Chinese Uighurs have been arrested and charged, but some 14 other suspects remain at large, while Malaysian authorities hold another eight suspects. Thai authorities claim the attack is retribution for their crackdown on human trafficking, specifically the forced rendition of 109 Uighurs to China in July 2015. The culprits appear to be a transnational network with a strong presence in Turkey. With the wider network still at large there remains the possibility of further attacks, including against Chinese interests around the world.

On September 28, Thailand’s Chief of Police Somyot Poompunmuang announced that the August 17 bombing in central Bangkok had been solved[1] and that the police were ready to prosecute two suspects in custody. It was an unconvincing end to an investigation that critics alleged was riddled with incompetence, conflicting press statements, lack of follow through, and political meddling.

On August 17, a 5-kilogram bomb packed with high explosives ripped through the Erawan shrine in Bangkok that is popular with Chinese tourists, killing 20 and wounding more than 120. The next day a similar bomb thrown onto a water taxi pier wounded no one.[2]

To date, two suspects have been arrested, both ethnic Uighurs from China. Mohammed Bilal, carrying a forged Turkish passport in the name of Adem Karadag, was arrested on August 29 with a large cache of explosive materials in his apartment,[3] but Thai authorities did not conclude that he was the bomber until September 25.[4] On September 1, the Thai army arrested a second suspect, Mieraili Yusufu, carrying a legal Chinese passport.[5] [a] Thai police allege Bilal planted the bomb at the shrine and Mieraili detonated the device after Bilal left the area. Neither has yet been charged.[6]

Thai authorities have issued warrants for more than ten other suspects believed to be overseas, including several Uighurs from China, Thai citizens, and Turkish nationals. One of the warrants was for a Thai woman of Malay descent who had left for Turkey with her Turkish husband, himself a suspect. Thai authorities stated eight of the ten bank accounts related to the attack belonged to her. They said a total 1.4 million Thai baht (about $40,000) was transferred by Chinese and Turkish nationals between February 2014 and March 2015 to the suspects and others connected to the attack in Thailand.[7] Thai authorities identified the cell leader, Abudusataer Abudureheman, a 27-year-old ethnic Uighur from China’s Xinjiang province, who they claim left Thailand for Turkey via Bangladesh, India, and Abu Dhabi the day before the bombings, but have revealed few other details about him.[b]

Despite growing evidence that Chinese Uighurs and Turkish nationals orchestrated the attack, it was not until September 15 that the government officially attributed the bombing to them.[8] Thai authorities continued to insist that the attack was not an act of international terrorism, but instead an act of vengeance by a group of human traffickers, who had been moving Uighurs through Thailand en route to Turkey before a government crackdown.[c] In a case that sparked international condemnation, in July 2015 Thailand acquiesced to Beijing’s demand that it render 109 ethnic Uighurs who had fled China and were en route to Turkey. The returned Uighurs were shown hooded, bound, with guards on either side of each during their return to China—ostensibly to “prevent a hijacking.”[9] Since their return they have been detained without charge for “re-education.”[10]

The targeting of a Hindu shrine popular with Chinese tourists suggested the attackers saw both China and Thailand as their targets. The strongest evidence suggesting a link between the so-called traffickers and the attack was the alleged recovery of 200 false Turkish passports in Bilal’s Bangkok safe house.[11] Some security analysts have suggested, however, that the sophistication of the devices and triggering mechanisms used in the shrine and water taxi pier attacks, as well as the alleged recovery of a large cache of explosives at Bilal’s residence could point to the involvement of an established terrorist outfit that was planning a string of attacks.[12]

Thai officials have simply described the suspects as part of a trafficking network, and have not divulged any further information about what kind of group the two Uighurs arrested in Thailand belonged to, nor what other kind of groups they might have had links to.

China has been grappling with rising Islamist militancy in Xinjiang province in recent years and officials have become increasingly concerned by the security threat posed by the Turkistan Islamist Party (TIP), which has had a strong presence in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region, and a small but growing one in Syria.[d]

Many leads in the investigation were traced back to Turkey and some security analysts have suggested a terrorist group in that country may have played a role in the Bangkok attack.[13] Turkish ultra-nationalists have started to take up the defense of Chinese Uighurs because of shared pan-Turkic bonds. One group known as the Grey Wolves attacked the Thai consulate in Istanbul after the rendition of the Uighurs.[e]

Thai authorities have resisted suggestions of any connection to international terrorism. Their reluctance may be partly from fear of hurting tourism and partly to avoid greater international scrutiny of the tightening relationship with China since the Thai coup. The initial reaction of the military junta was to deny the bombing was the work of international terrorists[14] and to try to pin the attack on radical Red Shirts—supporters of the governments of Thaksin Shinawatra and his sister Yingluck, who both led contested governments that were ousted in coups in 2006 and 2014, respectively. But these initials claims were met with significant skepticism as the attack was well beyond the known technical capacity of dissident political groups, who, to date, have launched only grenade attacks or small pipe bombs symbolically targeting the government.

The two suspects have confessed, but with most suspects still at large, there are many outstanding questions. Malaysia detained three suspects in the case, including two Malays[f] and a Pakistani, but senior Thai police officials stated that there was no need to interview them.[15] In all, Malaysia has arrested eight potential suspects, but without providing evidence of whether they were part of the cell or simply involved in human trafficking; and the government has failed to provide updates on their cases.[16] Thailand’s deputy police chief traveled to Malaysia without the approval of his superiors to follow up, but there have been no moves to have them extradited.[17]

It is unlikely that much more information about the cell or perpetrators will be brought to light. The two suspects arrested in Thailand will soon be tried, but little new intelligence is likely to emerge because the pair will be subject to an expedited trial in a military court. On October 19, Thai police stated the duo would be charged with murder rather than terrorism, and that the trail of the other suspects had gone cold.[g] It is unlikely that Thailand will receive the necessary international cooperation or have the remaining suspects extradited, most importantly from Turkey, which was both critical of the rendition of Uighurs and China’s counterterrorism tactics that fueled the violence. To date Turkey, has appeared unwilling to track down suspects and at the same time they have not received a formal extradition request. With Thai authorities apparently reluctant to pursue leads overseas, the worry now is that the wider network still at large may be plotting their next attack.

Zachary Abuza is a professor at the National War College, where he specializes in Southeast Asian politics and security issues. Follow @zachabuza. 

Substantive Notes
[a] Authorities detained an ethnic Malay days later in connection with the bombing, but no further details were disclosed about him and no charges have been filed. The man was allegedly involved in trafficking illegal migrants, including Uighurs from Thailand into Malaysia. Five other suspects, including two Indians and three Thais, were detained for questioning but released. See “Narathiwat Man Held over Erawan Bomb,” Bangkok Post, September 2, 2015; Anthony Davis, “Truth behind Bangkok bombing may never be known,” Nikkei Asian Review, September 10, 2015.

[b] In September, Thai authorities said Abudureheman traveled on August 31 to Istanbul, but Turkish authorities denied he had entered the country. “Bangkok Bombing Mastermind ‘Fled to Bangladesh’,” Khaosod English, September 10, 2015; “Key Bangkok Erawan shrine bomb suspect ‘fled to Turkey,’” BBC, September 14, 2015.

[c] While the Uighur and Turkish group were allegedly assisting in the movement of many hundreds of Uighurs to Turkey, the Thai depiction of their activity as “trafficking” is questionable as most had legitimate fears of persecution from China and were trying to get to Turkey.

[d] In September 2014, Indonesian counterterrorism officials arrested four Uighurs in the restive region of Poso, who were trying to link up with Mujiheddin Indonesia Timur (MIT), a splinter of the former al-Qa`ida-affiliate Jemaah Islamiyah. In mid-2014, its leader Sentoso pledged bay`a to the Islamic State. It is currently the most active and lethal terrorist splinter in Indonesia. The four Uighurs were tried and convicted of terrorism in September, though they had never perpetrated any violence in Indonesia. China is currently trying to negotiate their extradition. Zahara Tiba, “Indonesian Court Convicts Three Uyghurs on Terrorism-Related Charges,” Benar News, July 13, 2015; Arie Firdaus, “Indonesia Convicts Fourth Uyghur Man in Terror Trial,” Benar News, July 29, 2015.

[e] Bangkok-based security consultant Anthony Davis has suggested the Grey Wolves, an ultra-nationalist Turkish organization formed in the 1960s and implicated in the assassinations of left wing and liberal activists in Turkey and a plot to kill Pope John Paul, may have had a role in the Bangkok bombings because of the attack on the Thai Consulate in Istanbul. See Philip Sherwell, “Bangkok Bombing: Was it The Grey Wolves of Turkey?” Daily Telegraph (U.K.), August 29, 2015; Anthony Davis, “Truth behind Bangkok bombing may never be known; “Istanbul protesters attack Thai Consulate over Bangkok’s deportation of Uighurs to China,” Japan Times, July 10, 2015.

[f] The detention of two ethnic Malays does not indicate that southern insurgents had anything to do with the attack, but it should give the government pause that outside groups are able to recruit Malays. Southern insurgents have occasionally gone “out of area,” such as the April 2015 attack on the Koh Samui, but that attack—in an underground parking lot of a shopping mall at 11pm—was meant to send a signal, not cause a loss of life. Insurgents believe they can go out of area while remaining in the deep south, by targeting tourist venues frequented by Malaysians, not Westerners. Most insurgents view hitting Bangkok as their nuclear option, and something that would ultimately be counterproductive. “Bangkok Bombers Rumored to be in Malaysian Custody,” Khaosod English, September 22, 2015.

[g] “Authorities Weigh Military Trial for Bombing Suspect,” Khaosod English, September 9, 2015; Teeranai Charuvastra, “Bangkok Bombing Suspects Won’t be Tried for Terrorism,” Khaosod English, October 19, 2015.

[1] “Police Link Bomb Attack to Uighurs, Deep South and Thai Politics,” Khaosod English, September 28, 2015.

[2] Kocha Olarn, Jethro Mullen and Laura Smith-Spark, “Taxi Driver: Suspect in Bangkok Shrine Attack was Calm, Didn’t Seem Thai,” CNN, August 19, 2015.

[3] “Police nab prime bomb suspect,” Bangkok Post, September 2, 2015.

[4] Oliver Holmes, “Thai police say first arrested suspect is the Bangkok bomber,” Guardian (U.K.), September 26, 2015.

[5] “Bangkok bomb: Second foreign suspect arrested,” BBC, September 2, 2015.

[6] Teeranai Charuvastra, “Bangkok Bombing Suspects Won’t be Tried for Terrorism,” Khaosod English, October 19, 2015

[7] “Money transfer trail leads to Bangkok bombing suspects,” Bangkok Post, September 11, 2015; “Bangkok Blast: Thai authority finds money trail,” Nation, September 12, 2015.

[8] Thomas Fuller and Edward Wong, “Thailand Blames Uighur Militants for Bombing at Bangkok Temple,” New York Times, September 15, 2015.

[9] “Government defends Uighur rendition security,” Bangkok Post, July 13, 2015.

[10] Thanyarat Doksone, “Thai official: Uighurs sent back to China being treated well,” Associated Press, July 20, 2015.

[11] Anthony Davis, “Truth behind Bangkok bombing may never be known.”

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Amy Sawitta LeFevre and Aukkarapon Niyomyat, “Bangkok bombing ‘unlikely’ the work of international terrorists,” Reuters, August 20, 2015.

[15] Ibid.

[16] “No evidence yet to link suspects in Malaysia to Bangkok bomb attack: Thai police,” New Straits Times, October 2, 2015.

[17] Bangkok Bombers Not in Malaysian Custody, Deputy Police Chief Rules, Khaosod English, September 23, 2015.

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