Authorities downplay presence of Islamic State here despite dated Russian warning
THAILAND is on high alert following intelligence information from Russia that 10 Syrians connected to Islamic State (IS) entered the Kingdom in October with a possible plan to attack Russian interests here.
Security authorities boosted safety measures in the capital and many provinces although investigation into the information has not unveiled any such threats.
The warning about possible infiltration by IS-affiliated Syrians came as the Russian government began air strikes on the IS stronghold in Syria on September 30. Russia has stepped up the attacks in recent weeks.
An IS affiliate claimed responsibility for downing a Russian airline over Egypt in October, killing all 224 passengers on board.
The Russian information was contained in a leaked document that quoted Russia’s Federal Security Service as saying that 10 Syrians affiliated with the jihadists had entered Thailand between October 15 and 31, possibly to target Russian interests.
They travelled separately – four went to Pattaya, two to Phuket, two to Bangkok and the other two to an unknown location.
“Their purpose is to create bad incidents to affect Russians and Russia’s alliance with Thailand,” the letter said, without naming the suspects.
The document urged police to intensify security around “target areas that Russian authorities are concerned about”, including venues associated with allies that have taken part in attacks on Islamic State in Syria.
PM’s Office Minister Suwaphan Tanyuvardhana said that Russia had exchanged information with Thailand and wanted the Thai side to check the accuracy of the information on whether the Syrians had entered Thailand.
“Thai authorities looked into the information and as of yesterday, we found no clues on Russia’s concerns,” he said. However, he said security measures in Thailand would be strengthened towards the end of the year, as there were many big events including the King’s birthday, the ‘Bike for Dad’ event, as well as Christmas and New Year celebrations.
“Although no threats have been found, we will not be complacent and we’ll continue working on providing safety to the public. The authorities concerned will meet frequently to evaluate the situation,” he said.
Given the fact that Russia conducted strikes on Syria, Russians could be targeted for reprisals and Russia would ask foreign countries to ensure security for its embassies, business interests and tourists.
Immigration police commissioner Pol Maj-General Nattorn Prohsunthorn said that the National Security Council had asked for information from his agency about two weeks ago.
Inspection of immigration data between October 15-31 showed that 231 Syrians had entered the country, Nattorn said. The latest scrutiny of information yesterday morning showed that only 21 of them remained in the country.
“The remaining Syrians’ visas, which allows them to be in Thailand for two months, will start to expire starting from December 15. Six of them work for embassies while 15 others have tourist visas and four of them are women,” he said.
He had already forwarded the information to the National Security Council, which is in charge of the case.
Deputy police spokesman Pol Maj-General Songpon Wattanachai confirmed the authenticity of the leaked document. Russia provided it to the intelligence community to alert authorities and take safety measures. The move is part of measures in the aftermath of the attacks in Paris that killed 130 people.
A senior security source said Russia appeared to be getting the information from its allies, and that it was the only country that issued a warning on this matter. Moreover, the number of 10 suspects appeared to be too big, especially since a smaller number of attackers are used in modern terrorist attacks. “Therefore combining our obtained information, we believe that there is small chance that the Russian information is true. However we will not lower our guard,” the source said.
Although there is still no confirmation on the information, police and security chiefs have boosted security, particularly at foreign embassies and sites where foreigners gather, particularly Russians, he said.
Phuket Governor Chamroen Tippayapongtada, meanwhile, chaired an urgent meeting of security agencies after reports that two Syrians had travelled to the province.
Safety measures in the province have been intact and concerned officials and the military have coordinated with each other on intelligence gathering. They are meeting to evaluate the situation in order to provide security to people and assets in Muang Phuket, Kathu and Thalang districts, the governor said. He urged the public not to panic, saying officials and tourists should be the eyes and ears of the authorities because if terrible incidents happen, all would be affected.
In Ranong province, which is adjacent to Victoria Point of Myanmar, Governor Suriyan Kanjanasin said he had assigned officials to be more cautious following the reports although the province was not one of the areas mentioned in the information from the Russian intelligence agency.
Foreigners whose visas were about to expire usually cross the border to the Victoria Point to renew their entry visa to Thailand.
“Immigration officials have been instructed to conduct more careful screening of foreigners coming into the country via the Ranong checkpoint to prevent terrorists or suspicious people from entering Thailand,” he said.
Ittirit Kinglake, president of Tourism Council of Thailand (TCT), urged authorities to install more close-circuit TV cameras at major tourist locations and other important public areas as a means to ensure better security for tourists.
He also asked the general public to be vigilant in helping to prevent untoward incidents. “Even though the government has said there are no ISIS members in the country, news reports have already scared away some tourists who plan to visit Thailand,” Ittirit said.
“We’re now in the high season when millions of foreigners are coming here so we need to give them confidence about safety and security,” he added.