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Richard S. Ehrlich: U.S. Counter-Terrorism in Thailand

U.S. Counter-Terrorism in Thailand

by Richard S. Ehrlich

BANGKOK, Thailand -- A U.S. State Department agent who escaped after being kidnapped and beaten for two weeks by Iraqis, and who interrogated an Islamist involved in beheading Daniel Pearl in Pakistan, is now advising Thailand's police, palace guards and prime minister.

Randall D. Bennett, Senior Regional Security Officer at the U.S. Embassy in Bangkok, said he also helped identify American "Dirty Bomber" Jose Padilla in 2002, and was later targeted by a car bomb at his own State Department office in Karachi, Pakistan which killed 14 people.

"I've been lucky to have survived probably a dozen assassination attempts, just in my Karachi tour," he said.

"Two weeks before Benazir was assassinated, I told her she was going to be killed, unless she changed her security," Mr. Bennett said, describing former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, who was killed in 2007 by a suicide bomber.

Mrs. Bhutto's security staff had "no training whatsoever," Mr. Bennett said.

"Her comment was: 'I'm OK. My people love me. And besides, the Koran prohibits the killing of women and children'."

To help majority-Buddhist Thailand crush a vicious southern, ethnic Malay-Thai, Islamist separatist war -- where more than 4,000 people on all sides have died since 2004 -- Mr. Bennett is training Thai police.

"We have a guidance in the embassy: 'No boots on the ground in the south.' That means no military people down there," Mr. Bennett said.

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"And if we go, we go down without profile. We go down from point A to point B. We don't wander around. It's kind of an invisible presence."

Thailand's police invited him into the southern war zone, along the border with Muslim-majority Malaysia, shortly after Mr. Bennett began working at the U.S. Embassy in Bangkok two years ago.

"So I went straight to Hat Yai, they flew me into the Yala base, and I met with the senior command, and we had a lot of good discussions about terrorism and ways that you can win people over."

Mr. Bennett also trains Thais in Bangkok.

"We have a program called the Anti-Terrorism Assistance Program, where we provide about 12 courses, every year, to royal Thai police and royal Thai government officials in a wide range of topics that typically are somehow anti-terrorism related.

"Since I've been here, I think we've had about 30 courses. So we bring a lot of the southern force people up here, the leaders, the commanders, and we train them here, and then they go back.

"We are very concerned, we are very interested, but this is an internal insurgency."

Mr. Bennett recently made the remarks while addressing the Foreign Correspondents' Club of Thailand.

"I've been a diplomatic security agent for about 23 years. My specialty is counter-terrorism."

He is also currently telling King Bhumibol Adulyadej's palace security how to do their job.

"Actually what I'm working with is their [the palace's] protection detail.

"And I'm telling them the same things that I tell anybody, and that is how to properly do a V.I.P. protection: watching the crowd, they need unified leadership, they need additional training, everybody needs to be using the same weapons, the same equipment, the same tactics, the same methodology -- really the basics," he said.

"Right now, I'm working with the prime minister," he said, referring to Thailand's controversial Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva.

On May 19, the military smashed an insurrection in Bangkok's barricaded streets, after pro-democracy Red Shirts protested the military's 2006 coup and demanded Mr. Abhisit resign, so fresh polls could reverse the coup's destruction of Thailand's popularly elected government.

During nine weeks of clashes between the Reds and the military, 91 people died, mostly civilians, and more than 1,000 were injured.

"The Army is now trying to get the city back open, and it has involved responding to violence instigated by the Red Shirts," Mr. Bennett said on May 18 in an online Virtual Town Hall Meeting for American Citizens.

The meeting on Internet was arranged by the U.S. Embassy, and also included U.S. Ambassador Eric John, an American Citizen Services Chief, and a Regional Psychiatrist answering questions about how to survive Bangkok's insurrection.

In 2002, after Islamists in Pakistan kidnapped and killed The Wall Street Journal's foreign correspondent Daniel Pearl, Mr. Bennett joined "the interrogation of the man who held Danny's arms, when they cut his throat."

Mr. Bennett said he participated in pre-dawn raids with Pakistani security forces, busting down doors and seizing suspects amid gunfire in Karachi's streets, for immediate interrogation.

"I personally do not believe that torture was being utilized" during those interrogations, Mr. Bennett told the press club.

"I didn't see slicing, cutting off fingers, drawing blood, I didn't see water boarding. I did see strong threats, strong psychological intimidation, so that the person believed that they were going to possibly be harmed," he said.

"When you get psychopaths who are taking your people and killing them and torturing them, if you had the chance to get one of your people back -- if you had the chance to get Danny [Pearl] back -- by being a little strong-handed with a guy who is a known psychopathic killer for al Qaeda, that's a tough call. Hmmmm. What do you do?

"And yeah, maybe you do push it to the limit that you can -- in here, and in here -- can deal with, after the fact," Mr. Bennett said, gesturing to his head and heart.

"But if you don't, are you giving up on that person that they're holding hostage? Are you just tossing them away? Are you not really going to make a full effort to get back that good-hearted wonderful guy because you don't want to intimidate the psychopathic killer? It's a tough call."

While interrogating a Pakistani criminal who apparently did not know Mr. Pearl's kidnappers, "he did confess to killing a couple of people, but he didn't seem to be very bothered by that, and when he told me the circumstances, honestly I wasn't either.

"A man had raped the two daughters next door, so he killed the guy. How can you argue with that?" Mr. Bennett said. "We let him go."

Months later, "I excavated Danny's body, which had been cut into ten different pieces."

He said al Qaeda and other Islamists distort the Muslim holy book, the Koran.

"The world of Islam is a beautiful world. The Koran is a beautiful book. The words in the holy Koran, if you've ever read it, are absolute peace, equality, happiness, brotherhood, everybody's equal."

In the film, "A Mighty Heart" about Mr. Pearl's slaying, actor Will Patton portrays Mr. Bennett, while Angelina Jolie stars as Mr. Pearl's widow.

Mr. Bennett was also posted to Baghdad, Iraq, during the war.

"I took over the third-largest command in Iraq, about 3,000 armed people, which included all of the Blackwater, DynCorp, and Triple Canopy contractors," he said.

His kidnapping was traumatic.

"It wasn't in Iraq, but it was by Iraqis. I was taken for two weeks before I escaped. It was somewhat brutal. I learned a lot about myself. I was beat badly," he said.

"I think that we're in World War Three...against terrorism."

The State Department's Bureau of Diplomatic Security has "more than 480 special agents assigned to diplomatic missions in 157 countries, [and] is the most widely represented American security and law enforcement organization around the world," the State Department's website said.

"We have been able to identify, arrest, and prosecute potential terrorist suspects before they reach American shores," the department said.

The bureau evolved from 1916, when the State Department created a Secret Intelligence Bureau to investigate "fraud, propaganda, sabotage, and espionage in the United States during the First World War."


Richard S Ehrlich is a Bangkok-based journalist who has reported news from Asia since 1978. He is co-author of "Hello My Big Big Honey!", a non-fiction book of investigative journalism. His web page is http://www.asia-correspondent.110mb.com


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