Quietly, US aids Thai terror fight

BANGKOK, Thailand — U.S. Agent Randall Bennett built his reputation the hard way. He has survived assassination attempts (at least 12, he says) and dragged suspected terrorists through back alleys in Karachi, Pakistan (at 2 a.m. while being shot at).

Those duck-and-run feats eventually led him to the Pakistanis who beheaded Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl in 2002. But the agent’s resume runs deeper still. Bennett also led what he calls “Iraq’s third-largest army,” the assemblage of hired soldiers working for contractors such as Blackwater.

Now, at 59 and nearing retirement, Bennett finds himself in Thailand. As the “senior regional security officer,” his post entails protecting United States interests here while also lending expertise to his host nation.

After narrowly surviving his post in Karachi, this leading anti-terror authority would appear perfectly suited to help Thailand with its own insurgency: an Islamic separatist campaign in the tropical Thai-Malay borderlands.

But in Thailand, the seasoned agent must operate on a leash. Both the U.S. and Thailand agree that inserting Americans into the fight could transform Thailand into the terror war’s next international front. Neither country wants to attract global networks supplying cash, weapons and young ideologues willing to die.

“We’re very concerned and very interested,” Bennett said. “But this is an internal insurgency. The U.S. is not going to step into that. If we step into that, we’re inviting transnational global terrorism to provide support. It’s completely the wrong approach.”

The U.S. can never put “boots on the ground” in the Thai-Malay borderlands, Bennett said. But, he said, agents can assist with “equipment, training and advice.”

Though less conspicuous and less sophisticated, Thailand’s insurgency is no less savage than Pakistan’s. A loose network of militants in the three southernmost provinces is fighting to restore a lost Islamic sultanate known as “Pattani,” annexed by Thailand (then Siam) in the early 1900s. They have torched state-run schools, beheaded monks and targeted civilians with remote bombs.

The century-long insurgency reignited in 2004 when separatists seized assault rifles and grenade launchers from an armory, shot troops and went on an arson spree. Since then, the insurgency has led to 4,100 deaths and 7,100 injuries, according to Human Rights Watch.

Bennett’s subdued role in Thailand’s insurgency indicates the pains America has taken to avoid any visible meddling. As insurgency roils in Thailand, he is largely confined to Bangkok, where he assists local police and tracks American fugitives on the lam.

Bennett’s high profile raises the stakes higher. He was personally targeted after helping solve the Pearl case in Karachi. He was also portrayed as a no-nonsense terrorist chaser in “A Mighty Heart,” a film based on the search for Pearl’s kidnappers. (Angelina Jolie starred as Pearl’s widow.)

Bennett has largely assisted the military through regular “anti-terrorism assistance” training to both military and police units. Some sessions have been held in Washington, D.C.

But he has also worked from military facilities in Songkla Province, just a short drive from the bloodiest conflict zones. Visits are conducted with zero fanfare.

“If we go (to Thailand’s deep south), we go down without profile,” Bennett said. “It’s kind of an invisible presence.”

Ties between the U.S. and Thai militaries are close, particularly for an Asian nation. U.S. jet fighters launched from bases in Thailand’s northeast during the Vietnam War. And today, the two nations hold the world’s largest war games, known as Cobra Gold, along Thailand’s mountainous coastline each year.

Not all U.S. authorities, however, are convinced American troops should stay out of the insurgency. A U.S. Naval War College report from 2007 advocates lending Special Forces soldiers to the fight.

“Bangkok has not a moment to lose,” wrote the report’s author, Marine Corps Maj. Nicholas Vavich. “The United States should do all it can to help its ally come up with a strategy to resolve the conflict.”

But despite near-daily killings, Thai authorities have insisted that the insurgency is growing weaker. In February, Thailand’s foreign minister optimistically predicted it could cease this year.

“I tell my soldiers that if they go into villages and people don’t wave, they’ve failed in their mission,” said Lt. Gen. Pichet Wisaijorn, outgoing commander of Thailand’s fourth army, which oversees counterinsurgency strategy.

“Previously, instead of waving, they’d make a gesture of shooting at the soldiers,” he said late last year. “That doesn’t happen anymore.”

A native of the region, Wisaijorn has attempted a “hearts and minds” approach: modernizing farming practices to boost villager incomes and offering free medical treatment through army medics.

Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and other nongovernmental organizations have accused Thai troops of employing brutal tactics against suspected insurgents. But Wisaijorn said wayward soldiers are given no mercy.

“When I first took my position, there was a low-ranking soldier who slapped a villager. I imprisoned him ... and expelled him,” he said.

Bennett is “philosophically aligned” with this softer approach, he said.

“The world of Islam is a beautiful world,” he said. “The words in the Holy Quran, if you’ve ever read it, are absolute peace and equality and happiness.”

Bennett reserves harsher language for terrorists. He deems them “psychopathic killers” who misinterpret scripture “for personal interests of greed and power.”

“I think we’re currently in World War III,” he said. “And this is not a World War III like we picture in the movies, where there’s 2,000 nuclear missiles going this way and 3,000 missiles going that way.”