Asia’s Islamic Extremists Add Beheadings to their Arsenal
NA PRADU, Thailand - It took two days for the young Muslim assassin to calm his nerves before the slaying.
Then, Mohama Waekaji says, he walked one cool morning to a rice mill, carrying a knife and following orders from a guerrilla commander to behead the 72-year-old Buddhist owner.
He asked the elderly man, Juan Kaewtongprakam, for some rice husks. As he turned to collect them, Waekaji says, he slashed the blade through the man’s neck.
‘I didn’t dare to disobey,’ the 23-year-old Waekaji said in an interview with The Associated Press _ the first time a Thai militant accused of a beheading has spoken to the Western media. ‘I knew they would come after me if I did not do what I was told.’
The killing in February was one in a spate of beheadings that has shocked Thailand , a nation with no past history of the practice, and fueled fears that the brutal terrorist tactics of the Middle East are spreading in Asia .
Twenty-five beheadings _ including 10 already this year _ have been reported in southern Thailand since an Islamic-inspired insurgency erupted in 2004, claiming more than 2,200 lives.
Militants in the heavily Muslim region seek independence from mostly Buddhist Thailand.
‘Beheadings are certainly on the rise outside of the Middle East proper,’ said Timothy Furnish, professor of Middle Eastern history at Georgia Perimeter College . ‘These groups do take their cues from ... hardcore Islamic thought coming out of the Arab world. Beheading infidels not only shocks, but also demonstrates Islamic bona fides to other groups.’
Thai authorities say jihad videos from the Middle East , captured from rebel training camps, may be inspiring young men like Waekaji. One clip said to have come from Iraq shows a woman lying on her side on a patch of grass as a man slowly cuts her throat with a long knife.
Blood spurts from the wound, the screaming finally stops and her head is completely severed.
‘The inspiration is clearly coming across the Internet or through DVDs clips,’ said Zachary Abuza, an expert on terrorism in Southeast Asia at Simmons College in Boston .
‘Islamist militants in Southeast Asia are very frustrated that the region is considered the Islamic periphery,’ Abuza added. ‘...
Militants of the region are actively trying to pull the region into the Islamic core. They want people to understand that their jihad is a part of the global jihad.’
Beheadings have been linked to other militants across Asia, including groups in Afghanistan , Pakistan , Indian-held Kashmir and Indonesia , the world’s most populous Muslim nation. In the mostly Roman Catholic Philippines , at least 37 people have been decapitated in the last decade by the al-Qaida-linked Abu Sayyaf.
Beheadings are not solely a tool of guerrillas. Its imposed as punishment under some strict interpretations of Islamic law such as in Saudi Arabia and under the former Taliban regime in Afghanistan .
Waekaji’s account of his journey _ from quiet, average student to a confessed killer _ offers insights into how young Muslims fall under the influence of militant Islamic thinking.
He was attending a private Islamic school in Pattani province when a school buddy persuaded him to join a religious event at a mosque. There ‘ustad,’ or teachers, told him about an organization to liberate southern Thailand, asking him to take an oath to become a servant of Allah, obey the teachers and take the secrets of the organization to his grave.
Although confused and with little knowledge of politics, he took the oath and began secret training at age 19.
His teachers stressed the sufferings of Muslims in Palestine and Afghanistan and also in Thailand , where many Muslims feel they are second-class citizens in a Buddhist-dominated land.
The teachers detailed the Tak Bai tragedy of 2004 when Thai security forces confronted Muslim protesters, resulting in the deaths of 85. The victims died of suffocation when authorities arrested 1,300 people and stacked them on top of each other in trucks.
‘I was shaken when I heard the story. I was revengeful and I did hate them, those who did this to us Muslims,’ Waekaji said at the prison in Na Pradu, about 680 miles south of Bangkok .
His story could not be independently confirmed, but Waekaji has made a formal written confession and the police have filed a case against him in criminal court.
During rigorous training, he learned how to do knuckle push-ups, wield knives, swords and guns and how to take a life by squeezing an opponent’s Adam’s apple with his hands or breaking a victim’s neck.
After two years, he was sent out to burn tires and spread nails on roads to puncture tires and distract police before attacks staged by his comrades.
‘They recruit responsible, tight-lipped and trouble-free teenagers ... people who can carry out orders and who don’t attract attention to themselves,’ said Thai army Col. Shinawat Mandej. ‘They train their minds before training their bodies. They get them at the most vulnerable age when they need something to believe in and turn them into cold-blooded killers.’
When the order came to slay the mill owner _ a person he had seen but didn’t know _ Waekaji said he was frightened, both by the orders and what his leaders would do to him if he failed.
‘It was too late to want out,’ he said, his eyes closed and his head downcast. ‘It was either me or him.’
Police found the man’s headless body at the rice mill and his head in a nearby field that separates Muslim and Buddhist villages. Waekaji was arrested and charged with the killing about two months later.
Leaflets left in mailboxes and motorcycle baskets in Pattani the day of the beheading warned: ‘We will give Thai Buddhists three days to leave our land. Otherwise, we will kill you and burn your houses. ... Thai Buddhists will never live peacefully. You will be killed cruelly.’