NARATHIWAT, Thailand — Toddler cuddling with an assault rifle: 522 likes.
Photo of jihadi holding a soldier’s severed head by the hair: 403 shares.
Death threat against a Thai college student accused of insulting Islam: 150-plus comments, many of them clamoring for her beheading.
Thailand’s jihadis are often compared to ghosts. They’re notoriously mysterious — a network of underground cells that strike suddenly and vanish into the jungle. Unlike the braggarts of al-Qaeda or the Islamic State, these fighters operate under a strict code of silence.
Or at least they used to.
These days, the ghosts are chattering on Facebook. Their Timelines are terrifying, gorier than snuff films. They post photos taken in the aftermath of grisly roadside bomb strikes. They single out Thai soldiers by name and call for their heads.
“Now you’re finished, you dickless pig in a skirt,” writes one self-proclaimed jihadi in a death threat, written in Thai. “Siamese pig” is their go-to insult for Thai troops.
They show off buckets full of 5.56mm bullets. That’s the caliber of ammo used by their weapon of choice: M-16s stolen from slain Thai troops. Under one close-up photo of assault rifle ammo, a jihadi asks, “Any pigs wanna suck on these?”
Their interests appear incongruous at times — hinting at youthful zeal rather than seasoned focus. Images of beheadings mingle with cat photos. The militants’ “likes” include pages devoted to Quranic scripture, Liverpool Football Club, Israel’s demise and Harry Potter. They cheer on the Islamic State and, later that day, declare that their fish curry lunch was delicious.
But these guerrilla fighters are undeniably deadly.
They aim to break off a separate Islamic state in the Thai-Malaysia borderlands. According to the US State Department, they now execute more attacks per year than jihadis in Yemen or Somalia. Their war, which has raged for more than a decade, has racked up 6,200 conflict deaths in the last decade — more than in the Gaza Strip within the same time frame.
Yet almost no one thinks of holy war and roadside bombs when they think of Thailand. They think of wild nightlife, idyllic beaches and luxury resorts.
Thailand consistently ranks among the world’s top ten tourist destinations. It’s also on a less-celebrated list: the US government’s annual “Ten countries with the most terror attacks” report. That list includes Syria, Iraq and other places that, unlike Thailand, do not conjure thoughts of cheap beer and sunbathing.
Unlike Palestine’s Hamas, or even Nigeria’s Boko Haram, the jihadis of Thailand are practically never mentioned on American TV news channels. With the Middle East in turmoil, the West is largely ignoring what has become Southeast Asia’s bloodiest insurgency.
The conflict in Thailand’s deep south is low profile by design. Elders of the separatist campaign typically shun international attention. They prefer mystery to infamy — waging war from the shadows to elude capture. According to their playbook, a jihadi must never run his mouth in public.
But that strategy appears increasingly outdated and hijacked by the Facebook jihadis. Over the course of several months, in rare face-to-face interviews with GlobalPost, the insurgency’s elder statesmen confided that their sway over millennial fighters is fading.
“The young guys say, ‘To hell with you! You’re shit! Stay in your air-conditioned room,’” says Wan Kadir, 73, a now-retired separatist leader. He once headed Bersatu, a coalition of separatist factions that disbanded in the mid-2000s.
The old guard, they say, are being replaced by more brash and extreme of Islamic fighters who brag online about bombings.
“Truthfully, I think they are better than us in many ways,” Wan Kadir says. “They are braver. They are more solid in what they do. And they only have one aim: to fight. They don’t care whether they’re going to die.”
Osama bin Laden, in his 1996 declaration of war against the West, decried military occupation in all the world’s regions “where Muslims have been the victims of atrocious acts of butchery.”
He name checked familiar war zones: Kashmir, Chechnya and Palestine. But bin Laden also cited Patani, a small Islamic sultanate that no longer exists.
Patani once controlled the tropical Thai-Malaysia borderlands. Its rule ended when Siam conquered the region in the early 20th century and turned its inhabitants into subjects of a Buddhist kingdom.
Siam is now the modern nation of Thailand. But even today, the Muslim descendants of Patani have never really assimilated into a country where Buddhists reign supreme.
Ethnic Malay Muslims make up more than 80 percent of the region’s population. Yet almost all significant positions of power are held by Buddhists. Their dominance is enforced through martial law.
The region, roughly the size of Connecticut, is inundated with 60,000 armed security officers — about one for every 30 residents. It’s essentially an occupied state. The roads are choked with military checkpoints. Muslims villages are patrolled by blast-proof armed vehicles. Locals who give off slight whiffs of separatist sentiment are locked up.
Thailand’s officials have vowed to retain every last inch of southern terrain. They have plenty of reasons to hold on tight. Its fertile lands produce lucrative rubber and fruit crops; its boatmen supply Thailand’s huge fishing industry. The ongoing conflict helps justify a $6 billion military budget. And Thailand would be loathe to set free a new, hostile state — and risk cutting off its access to Malaysia, one of Southeast Asia’s top economies.
This police state, however, has proven unable to tame the insurgency.
In the campaign to reestablish Patani, jihadis take on hard targets, such as cops and soldiers, as well as soft targets: monks, Muslim collaborators and even tourists in the area’s raucous red light districts.
“Their eyes are on us constantly,” says Wanit Sriwangkaew, a 52-year-old Thai army colonel stationed in Rueso, one of the region’s deadliest districts. “Every single village has insurgents. They watch our every move.”
Many in the region live under de facto segregation: Buddhists clustered into heavily defended settlements, Muslim villages surrounding them on all sides. Government schools have been transformed into fortresses. Buddhist temples are ringed with razor wire and sandbag bunkers.
None of this will deter the jihadis, says Abu Imad, a rebel leader. The 55-year-old, who lives in hiding, sits on the supreme council of the Patani United Liberation Organization or PULO, a separatist group founded in the late 1960s.
“Using schools as bunkers? Using temples as camps? Soldiers are our targets, you know. Anytime. Anywhere,” Abu Imad says. “So stop sending them to schools.”
The insurgents have earned a nasty reputation for targeting teachers, many of whom are Buddhists teaching Muslim children. They’ve killed more than 170 in the last decade, according to Human Rights Watch.
Abu Imad insists jihadis always try to spare the lives of innocents. But many teachers are not innocent, he says. He alleges they’re spies who collect intel on Muslim families through chatty kids. (The claim is not corroborated by independent rights agencies.)
“You must ask, ‘Why do Thais use teachers as spies?’ and not ask me, ‘Why do they kill teachers?,” Imad says. “Look, I don’t want to kill. Not even police. But we have to because they refuse to listen. They’re deaf and blind.”
These daily attacks have scared many Buddhists into fleeing the region. Many of those who remain are frightened into seclusion. They hunker down inside fortified cities and villages where the rituals of Thai Buddhist life — such as giving alms to monks — are watched over by armed troops.
Meanwhile, millennial jihadis are expanding the fight into social media — a digital front that opens up whenever their targets log onto Facebook.
Take him out
It doesn’t take much to get marked for death by Thailand’s Facebook jihadis.
One young Thai man’s offense: sending online come-ons to Muslim girls. Photos of his face are now posted on one of the most popular jihadi Facebook pages, a profile with nearly 5,000 friends. So is his address.
“Wherever you can find him, take him out,” the post states. “Piggy shithead, never flirt with our girls ... You live at [address redacted] and we’ll be taking care of you real soon.”
Individual cops or soldiers accused of spying or blaspheming Islam are routinely outed — or “doxed” in millennial speak — with threats that include their names, photos, ranks and even former high schools. As one threat against a soldier states: “Let’s make this pig howl. We have lots of pig killing to do!”
Almost all death threats are issued anonymously, often by young men hiding behind masks. Some of these so-called “jihadis” appear to be boys hopped up on a mujahedin fantasy. That flirtatious Thai “piggy,” singled out for murder months ago, appears to be alive and still posting selfies online.
Yet some of the material posted by jihadis is indisputably alarming.
“Even if only a few are active insurgents, without a doubt, many are connected to the militants,” says Zach Abuza, an independent security analyst and author of Conspiracy of Silence: The Insurgency in Southern Thailand.
One fairly typical post reads: “At 5:25 pm today, our freedom fighters stealthily planted this bomb, killing bandit colonizers of Siam.” The message is paired with photos of a charred corpse.
More menacing still is a widely circulated video that depicts jihadis sawing off a Thai soldier’s head while chanting “Freedom! Freedom!”
GlobalPost’s attempts to question self-described militants via Facebook were largely met with terse replies. One jihadi, who routinely posts death threats, simply wrote: “We’ve got one answer for you and it’s short — we want freedom!”
Abuza, the security analyst, says “it’s important to think of these guys as a media arm of a disparate insurgency.” They’re not just reposting, he says. “They have pictures and videos that I’ve never seen in the media — including militants openly brandishing weapons in the (villages), training in the jungle and post-operation photos.”
Many of the self-proclaimed “jihadis” could be mere groupies: guys who know real jihadis, and have access to their attack footage, but never go along on ambushes.
“Some of this content would be very hard to get a hold of if you’re just a sympathizer,” says Virginie Andre, a researcher with Australia’s Deakin University who monitors their propaganda closely. “Based on that, it would be logical to say some of them are part of the insurgency.”
Ten years ago, the insurgents communicated by scattering manifestos around their victims’ corpses. In the mid-2000s, they uploaded badly edited YouTube videos exalting the lost sultanate of Patani.
Today, the nonstop YouTube and Facebook posts are imbued with what Andre calls “extreme neo-jihadist content.” Local grievances are turbo-charged with an ideology urging Muslims worldwide to rise up against their oppressors.
“You see questions like, ‘Is there another Palestine happening in Southeast Asia?’ There are links drawn with Chechnya and Syria,” Andre says. “They draw links between what’s happening in (Thailand) and the greater Muslim world.”
“The older generation had control over the ideology and the type of message being broadcast,” Andre says. “With the new generation, because of social media, no one has ownership of the ideology. And it’s becoming more and more extreme.”
“To hell with Al Qaeda”
When the old guard and new breed of jihadis look to the Middle East, they see a different set of heroes and villains.
Before the Arab Spring, separatists from the Thai-Malaysia borderlands were offered education, financing and even military training by regimes in Libya and Syria.
Grey-bearded insurgency elders still speak fondly of Syria’s ruling Assad clan and Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi. Both offered the Patani mujahedin their patronage.
“But now, we can no longer study in Damascus, no longer study in Libya,” says Abu Imad, the PULO supreme council member. “They have big problems.”
Qaddafi was killed at the end of Libya’s 2011 uprising and much of Syria is now controlled by the Islamic State, a bloodthirsty and hyper-fundamentalist army. If social media posts are any indication, Thailand’s jihadis are exhilarated to see once-powerful leaders routed by Islamic militants.
Under an imagined world map depicting the Islamic State conquering Asia, one self-professed jihadi wrote in Thai: “If this happens, we’ll have independence soon, Allah willing!”
Many elders, Wan Kadir says, are nervously watching the mindset shift from a nationalist struggle with Islamic undertones to wild-eyed jihadi fervor.
Sporadic closed-door talks between the old separatist guard and the Thai state have been disastrous. Every time they try to negotiate a ceasefire, hard-line jihadis set off bombs to prove the old guard cannot contain their wrath.
So Wan Kadir and other elders advocate a solution seldom heard from Islamic militants. They want the United States to mediate peace talks between the separatists and Thailand, one of America’s oldest allies in Asia, before the young jihadis’ ideology grows too extreme.
“But I know America will refuse,” Wan Kadir says. “Why? Because America’s scared Al Qaeda will get involved here.”
He’s right. Though the US advises Thailand in fending off insurgents, American officers are secretive about their involvement. As a senior US State Department security official told GlobalPost in 2011, putting American “boots on the ground” is forbidden because it could invite “global terrorism” into Thailand.
Wan Kadir insists the jihadis would reject the aid of international Islamic terror organizations — especially al-Qaeda. “To hell with al-Qaeda! If we think American involvement is good, we’ll kick al-Qaeda out,” he says.
Many within PULO, one of the longest-running separatist factions, also welcome American mediation. “We hope this can happen,” Abu Imad says. “The Thais don’t respect our black hair. They respect blond hair.”
But at this point, the odds of US mediators wading into this far-flung insurgency are practically nil. As for the Facebook jihadis, posts urging Muslims to “delete America and Israel from the map of the world” suggest many would not respect a US-brokered deal.
Elders like Wan Kadir once subscribed to a strategy he describes as “killing anybody who comes into your way.” Now frail, he regrets that so many Muslim boys and Buddhist army recruits have been ordered to slaughter one another.
These days, when Wan Kadir meets with active fighters, he asks them to consider peaceful resistance. But in millennial jihadi minds, seeking peace is equated with surrender.
“They say, ‘Shut your mouth!,’” Wan Kadir says. “‘You’re the guy who’s running from the war zone! Open the Islamic book ... what kind of punishment comes for those running from the battlefield?’”
“So I guess they’re stronger, really, against the enemy,” he says. “Stronger than we ever were.”
Also in this series: "Sin city on fire: Islamic insurgency in Thailand’s strangest party town," and "Red Light Jihad (VIDEO)."
This article was edited by David Case, @DCaseGP.