Bangkok bomb: ‘Network of at least 10 people, including foreigners, planned attack for a month’
Thailand circulates description of “foreign” chief suspect to Interpol for manhunt but says that attack not believed to be linked to international terrorist group.
by Philip Sherwell, Bangkok
A sketch of the Bangkok bombing suspect has been released by Thai police. Photo: Thai Police
Several foreigners were believed to be among a network of at least 10 people involved in the Bangkok shrine bombing, according to Thailand’s police chief.
Somyot Poompanmuang said the worst terrorist attack in Bangkok’s history had been planned for at least a month. But the country’s junta said that no link was “likely” between the attack and international terrorism.
Thai police said they would circulate a description to Interpol of the chief suspect, an unidentified “foreign man” who is believed to be “Caucasian, Arab or mixed race”.
In this image provided by Mongkol Nunthalikitkun flames burn after the explosion in Bangkok. Photo: AP
Officers are unsure if the suspect in the bombing that killed at least 20 people at the Erawan shrine on Monday evening has already fled the country.
In a televised address to the nation, the junta spokesman said that while questioning of witnesses and survivors led to the arrest warrant for the “foreign man”, there was not believed to be a link to an international terrorist group.
The assertion by the Thai authorities that the bomber was a foreigner and part of a network, but not linked to a global terrorist faction, seemed to throw no further light on the motives for the attack or who committed it.
Amid fraying nerves, officials read assurances about security in English and Chinese and said that Chinese tourists were “not the direct target” of the perpetrators as the government tries to avoid an economically disastrous collapse in foreign visitor numbers.
Gen Somyot, the national police chief, earlier described a “big network” believed to have been involved in the attack.
“There was preparation using many people,” he told reporters, according to Reuters, adding that police believed that more than half were foreigners.
Thai rescue workers carry an injured person to safety after the explosion. Photo: PORNCHAI KITTIWONGSAKUL/AFP/Getty Images
“This includes those who looked out on the streets, prepared the bomb and those at the site and those who knew the escape route,” he said. “There must have been at least 10 people involved.”
The chief suspect spoke on his mobile phone in a language that was neither Thai nor English as he left the scene, according to a motorcycle taxi driver who believes that he picked up the man.
The driver’s testimony and description of his passenger has played a key role in the investigation as police released a sketch and issued an arrest warrant for an unidentified “foreign man”.
Police also expanded on their description of the chief suspect who is believed to have planted the ballbearing-laden pipe-bomb that killed at least nine Thais and 11 ethnic Chinese visitors from other Asian nations.
The suspected bomber appeared to be “Caucasian, Arab or mixed race”, aged 20 to 30 and about 170cm (5ft 7in) tall, officials said.
The investigators’ belief that the man was a foreigner seemed to throw no further light on the motives for the attack or who committed it.
Police had earlier focused on two other “persons of interest” seen in security video footage close to the suspect as he apparently planted the bomb.
In the released footage, one man stood up from the bench to leave a space for the suspect to sit down. He then stood with another man in front of the suspect, possibly shielding him as he took off his bag and left it under the bench a few minutes before the blast.
The two men left together at the same time as the suspect separately walked away.
A Thai soldier ropes off the scene after a bomb exploded. Photo: AFP
Kasem Puksuwan believes that he then picked up the suspect at a motorcycle taxi stand a short walk from the shrine just after the explosion.
“He had a conversation on the phone,” Mr Kasem told Thai Channel 3. “I don’t know what the language is. I don’t know, but it is surely not Thai nor English language.”
The driver said that the man did not speak to him to give directions for his ride but instead handed him a piece of paper with the words “Lumpini Park” written in English.
The park is the Bangkok equivalent of London’s Hyde Park or New York’s Central Park and sits in the middle of a busy commercial area in the centre of the city, a short drive from the Erawan shrine.
Mr Kasem said that he did not know the man’s movements after he dropped him off there. “I didn’t see anyone at where I left him,” he said. “It was dark. There are some trees and it’s hard to see.
The latest developments on the suspected terror network seemed to throw no further light on the reasons for the attacks.
The country is ruled by a junta that staged a coup last year as political protests paralysed the country. But if the bomber was indeed not Thai, that would appear to indicate that the attack was not the result of the domestic political turmoil that convulsed the country for nearly a decade.
The country has also faced a long-running Islamic insurgency in the south but the description and sketch do not seem to match the appearance of the predominantly ethnically Malay rebels.
However, an attack by an international Islamic terror group would normally be accompanied by a claim of responsibility and no such claim has been made. Further, the shrine is well-known as a popular destination for Thais and Asian Buddhist visitors rather than for Western tourists who would be the expected targets for such an atrocity.
In the absence of another explanation, some Thai media have suggested that there might be a connection with the Muslim Uighurs of western China. For Thailand recently deported more than 100 Uighur men back to China, despite protests that they faced persecution there.
The theory went that Uighur extremists might have targeted the shrine in the knowledge that they would kill both Thais and the ethnic Chinese foreign visitors who flock to the site.
But there has been no evidence of a Uighur connection and Prayuth Chan-o-cha, the prime minister and junta leader, strongly played down that theory when asked by reporters.
Nor have police ruled out the possibility that the suspect was a Thai man disguised in a wig and fake nose.
History of Thai bombings
31 December 2006
In the year of a military coup, eight bombs exploded around Bangkok during New Year celebrations, and another targeted Chiang Mai mosque the next day. Three people were killed and 38 injured. The perpetrators were never found.
14 February 2012
Five Iranian intelligence officers accidentally blew up a safe house in Bangkok where they were making bombs, probably for use against Israeli diplomats. All five were wounded. Three of the spies were jailed in Thailand, the rest managed to flee the country.
31 March 2012
A series of car bomb attacks in two southern provinces – the scene of an Islamist insurgency – killed 16 people and injured hundreds.
6 May 2014
Three bombs in the southern city of Hat Yai, where an Islamist insurgency is taking place, wounded eight people.
1 February 2015
Two small pipe bombs exploded outside Bangkok’s Siam Paragon shopping mall, injuring two people.
17 August 2015
A bomb blast exploded in Erawan Shrine in Bangkok, killing at least 20 people and injuring over 120.
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