Bangkok - Above the murmur of prayers, the workmen’s
noisy repairs on the bombed Erawan Shrine are revealing the handicraft
and mindset of a team of assailants. A visual survey of the downtown
street corner indicates that ball bearings from the exploding pipe-bomb
had flown across the tracks of the elevated Skytrain, a distance of
some 40 meters, to crack although not break some windows of an overpass
to the Gaysorn mall.
Inside the grounds of the small Shrine of the 4-headed Brahma, a few
wooden elephants had lost their tusks to steel pellets and a few roof-tiles
were shattered. The major damage was to soft tissue. Human skin and
muscle are vulnerable to even the crudest anti-personnel weapon, like
the homemade device detonated at the evening rush hour on Monday, August
17. The casualty numbers are still rising, already reaching 20 dead
and 120 injured.
Towering above the shrine, the Erawan shopping center connected to the
Hyatt, is disfigured by dark empty rectangles instead of storefront
windows. Those vacant spaces at the Alexander McQueen boutique and a
posh tea room, scream out a question: If the attackers were out to paralyze
Thailand’s capital, why didn’t they use a larger bomb? The only answer
that comes to mind is: This wasn’t the work of real terrorists.
The brutal damage done to Mumbai in November 2008 shows the dimensions
of an actual terror attack: powerful bombs, arson, firefights with automatic
weapons, mass killing, hostage-taking and battle to the death by disciplined
fanatics. Terrorists do not drop a homemade grenade of gunpowder inside
a backpack and then flee in a clown’s costume under a curly wig and
yellow Simpsons T-shirt. It is tragic that victims, mostly ethnic-Chinese
tourists, died in what’s otherwise a black comedy.
First of all, a ball bearing bomb in these latter days is a joke, a
contraption from a CIA manual of 40 years ago. Even in the poorest villages
in the swamps of south Thailand, teenage guerrillas are able to obtain
stolen C4 explosives packing the punch to level a shopping mall. The
Bangkok attacks would be a discredit to their martial skills.
So what is the game plan behind the amateurish game now puzzling this
city, which has seen it all, including bloody street-fighting, volleys
of gunfire and arson of its entire downtown?
Bomb Under My Feet
Just a couple of hours before I started writing this piece, I rode the
Skytrain to the suspected hideout of the evil clown in yellow. A tuk-tuk
driver recalled dropping off the foreigner at Silom Lane 9, a narrow,
filthy gutter lined with the caged windows of tenements. There are a
few tight spaces for cutting across to Soi 7-1/2, an absurd street name
even in this most bizarre of cities. The notorious alley is a warren
of the sleaziest massage parlors in the Nana district sex industry,
as can be presumed from one of the shop signs: Dr. BJ’s Nuru.
The horseshoe pair of alleyways lack sufficient open space for a prayer
carpet, but the next street down is the entertainment quarters for tourists
from Islamic countries, where the kebabs and humus as as tasty as Dubai’s
and the shisha smoke wafts lazily in the humid night. After perusing
a few cheap guesthouses (the clean dorm with good internet connection
is a prime suspect), I ambled back to Silom Avenue, where a policeman
grabbed me by the elbow and pushed me back into the alley.
“Don’t step any further forward, there’s a bomb planted under the Skytrain!
The Bangkok transit system is shut down.” he shouted.
And so the news was delivered, that I had just ridden the last train
over a bomb. A police bomb-defusing squad was tinkering with the device,
the staircases up to the elevated track were taped off, and motorcycle
lights were flashing. A crowd of tourists, shopkeepers, hookers and
johns were peering out at the action, but not one person showed an iota
of fear; all watched in amusement. When I passed on word of a bomb below
the tracks, the crowd oohed and ahhh-ed, thrilled to be a part of this
How different from 2010, when the ground-floor lobby of the posh apartment
building where I resided was transformed into an emergency clinic for
the wounded and dying, its windows shot out by military gunfire and
voices screaming in pain. That was a siege; this is a sitcom.
The bomb squad members clambered down the steps, pulling their helmets
off and smiling. The bomb was a dud, a decoy. The location was too close
to the Muslim quarters, and so the fake device was a just a jab to the
police dragnet in and around Lane 7-1/2.
One Good Turn Deserves Another
The bluff alerted me to the underlying scenario : A foreign intelligence
agency is toying with the government of Thailand. The players in this
spectacle are new hires, just pawns inserted and extracted by diplomats
in dark suits and limousines. “False flag” attack would be too strong
a term for this operation, since the post-Arab Spring world is now a
patchwork of unlikely alliances between partners who have to exchange
Someone is doing a favor for the Grey Wolves, the pan-Turkic militants
who’ve been leading protests in Ankara and Istanbul against Thailand’s
repatriation to China of their Uyghur recruits, who were prevented from
infiltrating into western Syria via Turkey. Which Mediterranean country
is a friend of Turkey that does this type of derring-do? Another hint:
Does anyone recall the wigs and make-up for the assassination in Dubai?
The soft-target bombing of Bangkok tourists runs parallel to the bombing
of a peaceful march by Kurdish activists along Turkey’s border with
Syria and Iraq. These low-level attacks are not followed up with massacres,
since the violence against civilians is only meant to show who’s in
charge and that little people should remain humble before the dark power
of the Deep State.
Other details are becoming obvious:
- Three bombs at the shrine means that three attackers were hired by
a aging operations chief, who’s gotten rusty over the decades, probably
an attache with an embassy and certainly not a tech-savvy private military
- The sequence of threats, first a soft-target attack to show seriousness
of purpose, followed by the tossing a bomb into the Chaopraya River
by a pier (when it is too easy to sink a ferry) and now the decoy on
the Skytrain. One bloodletting, then a few pinpricks to wear down the
nerves of the government.
- The attackers are obviously foreigners lacking an understanding of
the toughness of spirit in this Land of a Million Smiles. Thais are
anything but weak, and at this moment 20 million eyes and ears are watching
for a chance to do some kick-boxing.
For the sake of a fair trial, let’s hope the police catch these criminals
before a mob finds them. Then again, it might be amusing to watch an
evil clown get stomped.
Yoichi Shimatsu is science writer and forensic analyst based in
Hong Kong and Southeast Asia. The photos are taken by him.