Iran Blamed in Bangkok Bombings as Thailand Wrestles With Terrorism Threat

Israeli and Thai officials finger Iran in three Bangkok blasts, but Tehran rejects the charge. Lennox Samuels reports from the Thai capital.

Spokesman Office of National Thai Police / AP Photo

The bombings in Bangkok in which an apparent Iranian citizen hurled C4 explosives that injured four people and blew off his own legs are being blamed on Iran by Israeli and Thai officials, as some Thais fret that their country might become a battleground for foreign terrorists seeking to attack citizens or interests of third-party countries such as the United States.

For now, the Thai government is treating the blasts as an attack by individuals rather than part of any larger plot, and “at the moment there is no evidence linking this incident to terrorism,” Foreign Minister Surapong Tovichakchaikul said at a press conference. He said authorities were investigating four suspects, three men and a woman, and acknowledged that the alleged bomber and another suspect later apprehended at Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport held Iranian passports. The two have been charged with causing an illegal explosion and attempting to kill police officers and citizens.

In nearby Singapore, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said, “The attempted terrorist attack in Bangkok proves once again that Iran and its proxies continue to perpetrate terror." Thai National Police Chief Priewpan Damapong said the bombs were intended for “foreign nationals.” And a senior Thai intelligence official told AFP that the men “are an assassination team and their targets were Israeli diplomats including the ambassador ... Their plan was to attach bombs to diplomats' cars."

The blasts occurred in Bangkok’s Sukhumvit district—a bustling area awash in foreign tourists and businesspeople—where an explosion rocked a two-story house, a man identified as Saeid Moradi, 28, allegedly hurled an explosive device at a taxi when the driver did not stop to pick him up, and the same man later flung a container filled with explosives at police who came after him. In the last incident, the container bounced off a truck and exploded next to Moradi, shattering his legs. The other people injured were Thai bystanders. Hours later authorities seized a second apparent Iranian, Mohammad Kharzei, 42, as he prepared to board a plane to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. And police found four kilos of C4 at the house where they were staying of the same type used in the bombs that exploded—which were magnetic and suitable for attaching to vehicles.

A Thai terrorism specialist told The Daily Beast the bombs appeared to be meant for “foreign targets in Thailand” possibly Israelis, adding that the explosions probably were an accident—and premature.

“It did not go according to plan yesterday; something went wrong,” Surat Horachaikul, an assistant political science professor at prestigious Chulalongkorn University, told The Daily Beast. “Normally they try to maximize the impact, even if the explosion is small … They must have had some target, but probably not a Thai target.”

He added, “It’s not as simple as some people being violent. It’s not easy to become involved in these activities. You need financial resources, a place to base yourself, a network.”

Iran reacted angrily to Israel’s charge that it was behind the Thailand blasts, which came a day after almost simultaneous attacks on Israeli diplomats in India and Georgia—which Israel also blamed on Tehran. ”The Zionist regime is trying to tarnish historic ties between Iran and Thailand,” an Iran Foreign Ministry spokesman said on state television.

Professor Surat told The Daily Beast he recognized the name of one of the three men apparently involved in the incident—whom he did not identify—from a government security list of people whose movements in and out of the country are watched.

The watch list demonstrates the government’s awareness of and concern about the possibility of extremists entering the country, which some experts in the past have suggested may be used as a safe haven by terrorists.

As far back as the 9/11 attacks in the United States, some analysts warned that extremists might use Thailand as a base or transit point. Thai governments have consistently rejected such suggestions, saying any attacks in the kingdom have no links to Islamist groups. There has been a low-grade insurgency in the nation’s three southern provinces—which are predominantly Muslim and where some extremists are agitating for a separate state—that has included sporadic killings. Those activities rarely have affected the rest of the country.

Even so, the government has beefed up security. Authorities have made it harder to acquire permanent residency and reduced the one-time allowance for tourists to remain in the country from three months to one month. At the same time, however, the government acquiesced to lobbying from the hotel and tourism industry by relaxing certain rules, such as requiring that visitors apply for visas in their own countries. Visas are available on arrival—although not to Iranian citizens.

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“If Thailand wants to maintain our position on tourism and security, we have to be very strict about our sovereignty and not allow these kinds of activities in the kingdom,” said Surat, the terrorism expert. “We have to investigate this Tuesday incident thoroughly and present the results to the public with evidence, and stick to Thai law while being compatible with international law. We can’t encourage directly or indirectly these activities in Thailand. We already have the intensification of political polarization with the Reds and the Yellows.”

He was referring to the ongoing conflict between so-called Red Shirts, seen as a populist movement of poor, middle-class, and rural Thais, and Yellow Shirts, a mostly urban group of “oligarchs” comprised of ultraroyalists and the military. The friction has exploded into violence, including a bloody Army crackdown in 2010 on Red Shirt demonstrators who opposed the government of then prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva—since replaced via the ballot box by Yingluck Shinawatra, sister of the fugitive ex-premier, Thaksin Shinawatra. The unrest has damaged the country’s global reputation.

Tuesday’s explosions followed a warning last month from the Israelis and the U.S. that terrorists might have been planning attacks in Bangkok. Thai police arrested a Swedish-Lebanese man, Atris Hussein, who had suspected links to Hizbullah, at Suvarnabhumi Airport on Jan 12.

The U.S. Embassy on Tuesday reissued an advisory warning to American citizens “to maintain a heightened awareness when in public” and be alert for unattended packages. An embassy spokesman declined to say whether U.S. officials believe the Tuesday blasts were terrorism-related or whether they have any concerns about Iranian involvement.