29 April 2014

BANGKOK, Thailand -- When the United States Embassy issued a travel advisory about "foreign terrorists" in Bangkok last weekend, the warning may have prevented a massive car bombing in an area popular with Western tourists.



But in a surprising diplomatic rebuke, Thailand complained about the impact of Washington's counter-terrorism strategy on its economically crucial tourism industry.



Hussein Atris, an alleged Lebanese-born Hezbollah member traveling on a Swedish passport, led police on Monday (January 16) to a rented building packed with potential bomb-making ingredients after he was arrested in Bangkok on Friday (January 13).



"The suspect told us the bomb-making materials were not for terrorist attacks in Thailand, but were intended to be smuggled out of the country," National Police Chief Priewpan Damapong on Monday (January 16).



Police charged Mr. Atris, 47, with illegal possession of restricted chemicals, but said he may face additional charges.



The building held 9,656 pounds (4,380 kilograms) of urea fertilizer and 10 gallons (37.8 liters) of liquid ammonium nitrate, police told reporters.



Those chemicals can be used in agriculture, rock quarries and elsewhere, but also to make a bomb.



Mr. Atris, 47, wore handcuffs with his face hidden by a black balaclava while he accompanied by more than 100 police and security officials, armed with assault rifles, during the raid on the outskirts of Bangkok, in Samut Sakhon province.



Born on November 11, 1964 in Lebanon, he holds a Swedish passport issued in 2005, according to a scan of the document (http://www.ynetnews.com/articles/0,7340,L-4175513,00.html) published by Ynet, an online news website of Israel's biggest daily newspaper, Yedioth Ahronoth.



Mr. Atris married a Swedish woman in 1996 and reportedly owned a hair salon in Gothenburg, Sweden, before he returned to Lebanon to live, according to media reports.



Police issued a sketch of a second clean-shaven man, who appeared in his 30s or 40s, describing him as a terrorist suspect who traveled with Mr. Atris.



The hand-drawn portrait "bears great resemblance to Hezbollah operative Naim Haris," reported Ynet.



"The latter's photo was unusually published last year, by the Shin Bet [Israel's internal security agency], which at the time identified him as an operative in charge of recruiting Hezbollah agents worldwide," Ynet reported on Sunday (January 15).



"Iran and Hezbollah may have now chosen Thailand as the target for a terror attack against Israel, possibly to avenge the recent killings and blasts in Iran, or to take revenge for the assassination of Hezbollah's military chief Imad Mugniyah some four years ago," Ynet said.



The arrested man "is not one of Hezbollah's members," said Ghaleb Abu Zeinab, a Hezbollah political bureau member, according to the Lebanese Broadcasting Corp.



Hezbollah is a Shia Muslim organization within Lebanon's government, supported by Iran and Syria, but listed by Washington as terrorists.



Security was increased at several sites in the Thai capital after the suspect was arrested while attempting to depart from Bangkok's international airport on Friday (January 13).



Thai officials said possible bomb targets included Bangkok's tourist-packed Khao San Road where inexpensive entertainment venues are popular late into the night during the warm tropical winter.



On a narrow street parallel to Khao San Road is Bangkok's Jewish Chabad House, permanently guarded by Israeli and Thai security.



Upstairs is a Jewish-only floor with a small Orthodox synagogue segregated according to gender, plus free telephone lines from Bangkok to Israel, Internet terminals, and other travelers' facilities.



Chabad House is also visited by hundreds of mostly Israeli travelers every Saturday night for religious services and a free dinner.



Directly across from Chabad House is the multi-story Viengtai Hotel frequented by Israeli tourists who want to be near Chabad House and dine at its downstairs public Kosher restaurant.



Thai officials said a second possible target was Sukhumvit Soi 22, which is crowded with tourist venues and the site of Beth Elisheva Synagogue, Thailand's main center for Jewish services.



One street away, on Sukhumvit Soi 20, is a Hebrew school.



Thailand is a favorite destination for thousands of Israeli tourists each year.



An additional 300 mostly foreign Jews reside in Thailand and are mostly involved in import-export businesses and jewelry production.



Amid the investigation, arrest and continuing manhunt, however, Thailand has publicly lashed out at the American Embassy for warning its citizens of the possible danger.



This Southeast Asian Buddhist kingdom depends on a massive tourism industry, and feared that travelers might cancel their visits because of the U.S. alert.



"As for what the U.S. has done, I have already expressed my disappointment through the media and this was a diplomatic way of telling the U.S. off for not consulting with Thailand first," Foreign Minister Surapong Tovichakchaikul said on Sunday (January 15), condemning the embassy's unilateral decision to alert its citizens.



The foreign minister said on Saturday (January 14), he was "disappointed that embassies have not consulted the Foreign Ministry, according to diplomatic convention, before issuing the warnings."



Following the U.S. warning -- issued hours before Mr. Atris was arrested -- a dozen other countries issued similar public alerts.



"I have instructed the Defense Ministry's Policy and Planning Office to contact the U.S. military attaché," Defense Minister Yuthasak Sasiprapa said on Sunday (January 15).



"I want to ask the U.S. to be more careful when a situation like this happens in the future.



"The matter has affected not only security, but also the economy," the defense minister said after he warned of a possible car bomb.



Israel apparently told the U.S. and Thailand on Dec. 18 about the presence of at least two Hezbollah members in Bangkok.



The three countries then began a secret, three-week-long hunt.



The U.S. Embassy published the alert on Friday (January 13) on its Facebook and Twitter pages, and in an e-mail to registered American citizens in Thailand.



"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," the U.S. Embassy announced on Friday (January 13) in a mass e-mail to Americans.



"U.S. citizens are urged to exercise caution when visiting public areas where large groups of Western tourists gather in Bangkok," said the embassy's American Citizen Services Unit e-mail.



"We have alerted US citizens about potential threat in BKK fm foreign terrorists. Based on serious, credible info," U.S. Ambassador Kristie Kenney tweeted on Sunday (January 15).



"It is Bangkok specific. Which is why USEmb BKK issued it, not a global warning from WashDC," the ambassador tweeted on Friday (January 13).



Washington has provided military and counter-terrorism support -- including weapons, training and money -- to Bangkok's previous military dictatorships and the current elected government.



The two countries are non-NATO treaty allies and enjoy very close diplomatic relations.



Some U.S. and international security officials assume foreign terrorists occasionally use Thailand as a "safe house" to get medical treatment, counterfeit documents, and arrange clandestine meetings -- while not launching attacks because they do not want a security crackdown.



The only successful major Middle Eastern assault in Bangkok occurred on December 28, 1972 when Arab gunmen invaded the Israeli Embassy and seized hostages while simultaneously, across town, Prince Vajiralongkorn was being crowned.



The four Arabs identified themselves as the "Black September Ali Taha Group," linked to an event in 1970 when Jordon kicked out its Palestinian refugees, killing or wounding 4,000 Palestinians.



The Arabs arrived at the Israeli embassy in a taxi, brandished assault rifles, gained entry and threatened to kill six hostages, including an Israeli ambassador.



The siege ended peacefully when the rebels were given safe passage to Egypt and departed on a Thai International flight.



In 1994, police belatedly stumbled upon a one-ton bomb in a rented six-wheel truck near the Israeli Embassy, after seizing the vehicle because of a minor traffic accident.



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Richard S Ehrlich is a Bangkok-based journalist from San Francisco, California, reporting news from Asia since 1978, and recipient of Columbia University's Foreign Correspondent's Award. He is a co-author of four non-fiction books about Thailand, including Hello My Big Big Honey!" Love Letters to Bangkok Bar Girls and Their Revealing Interviews; 60 Stories of Royal Lineage; Chronicle of Thailand: Headline News Since 1946; and King Bhumibol Adulyadej, A Life's Work: Thailand's Monarchy in Perspective.


His website is


Asia Correspondent



(Copyright 2012 Richard S Ehrlich)