JAKARTA, Indonesia – Leaders of a regional terrorist network with links to Al Qaeda met in Thailand earlier this year and agreed to target tourist venues like the Bali nightclubs where nearly 200 were killed, two security experts said Friday.
Zachary Abuza, a security analyst who has written extensively on Al Qaeda, said the meeting was convened by Riduan Isamudin — also known as Hambali — who is said to be the operations chief of Jemaah Islamiyah, the alleged terrorist group that is the prime suspect in the Oct. 12 bomb attacks.
"One Jemaah Islamiyah member I interviewed said that Hambali was very angry about the arrest of Jemaah Islamiyah members in Singapore and Malaysia," he said. "Instead of going after symbolic hard targets like U.S. embassies, he authorized members to go after soft targets such as tourist spots."
Rohan Gunaratna, who has written book on Al Qaeda and is based in Singapore, also said he had intelligence sources who said there was a meeting in Thailand and it was agreed the group would target "bars, cafes and nightclubs."
But in Thailand, Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra said there was no evidence that Al Qaeda operatives, including Hambali, met in southern Thailand to plot the Bali attack. The meeting alleged meeting was first reported Thursday by The Wall Street Journal.
Defense Minister Thammarak Issarangkura na Ayuthaya, who supervises intelligence agencies, went further, saying suggestions of a meeting are part of a conspiracy to destroy the region's tourist industry.
"The reports are based on groundless information and are irresponsible," Thammarak told The Associated Press.
Intelligence officials contacted in the region Friday would not confirm the reports about a Thailand meeting. However, a Philippines military report from July portrayed Thailand as a transit point for terrorists moving across Southeast Asia.
"It appears that Al Qaeda is using Thailand mainly as a transit point for militants on their way to Southeast Asia as it is fairly easy to obtain forged passports in the country," the report said.
"For its part, Thailand has been less forthcoming in responding to the U.S. call for a global war on terrorism," it said. "Thaksin initially showed reluctance, declaring that Bangkok would remain neutral."
Several Western nations have issued travel warnings for Thailand, afraid that it could be targeted by terrorists. Malaysia has warned that eight Al Qaeda-linked operatives may be trying to sneak into southern Thailand.
Malaysia's Deputy Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi said Thursday he was concerned about increasing militant activity in Thailand, and said his country would try to arrest suspects who flee across the two countries' border.
Badawai's comments follow a recent series of bombings and arson attacks on schools in southern Thailand, a mostly Muslim region that borders part of Malaysia, which is also predominantly Islamic.