AYUTTHAYA, Thailand – Thai Muslims in this ancient former capital expressed shock Friday at the arrest of terror chief Hambali in their midst, and said they were not interested in his radical form of Islam.
The historic city in Thailand’s central region is home to some 50,000 Muslims, one of the biggest communities in the country outside the five Muslim-majority provinces which border Malaysia in the south.
The imam of one of the 58 mosques in the province, Manoon Miiphonlakij, said the stunning capture of Hambali, a top member of the regional terror network Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), did not reflect militancy in the local community.
"Muslims here are all Thai people and we have lived here for a long time," he said at his home on the scenic Chao Phraya river before Friday prayers. "Most people are just getting on with their lives and are busy working."
"They are not like the southern Muslims who are more strict than us — they watch the news a lot and are the ones who are doing things, taking action. Here they are more passive."
Manoon said he was sure that Asia’s most wanted man had not prayed with the rest of the community here during his time on the run.
"We would know. Every Friday we have people who are new but they are Thai," he said, adding that foreigners visit only rarely.
A community elder Samaan Puttan, said that militants should not expect a warm welcome here.
"Terrorists would get no support from Muslims here because they have to follow the law and the king the same as other Thai people. No Muslim should support terrorism," he said.
Piti Chaitharii, another worshipper at the mosque, voiced dismay at the news that Thailand had been tainted with the brush of international terrorism.
"I heard about it from the press and was a little shocked. If Hambali was really here other people are probably here," he said, adding that he was worried about the effects on the community.
There was anger however at the United States, which is widely perceived to be arrogant and aggressive even among Thailand’s moderate Muslims, who make up five percent of the population.
"We are just following our religion. Now I admit we have radical Islam, but they have been pushed by powerful countries to become radical," said Samaan.
Another worshipper, university lecturer Sanit Thipthada, was one of many to say that they doubted Hambali was guilty of planning terrorist attacks including last October’s Bali bombing which left 202 people dead.
"If we think deeply about it, Muslims are not terrorists… The real terrorists are America because Americans only focus on attacking Muslims," he said.
"I do not believe Hambali is a terrorist," he said. "I do not believe he is a bad man because he is fighting for good things in the world."
A Muslim rebellion plagued Thailand’s southern provinces for decades, but in recent years as conditions improved there the movement has crumbled to the point where it is now considered incapable of mounting major attacks.
Thailand played down the terror threat in the kingdom until recently, but in May it was forced to change its tune when Cambodian authorities smashed a radical Islamic network and charged two Thais with membership of JI.
On June 10 police arrested three Thai Muslims accused of belonging to JI over a bomb plot against embassies and tourist spots in the kingdom timed for the APEC meet. A fourth suspect subsequently turned himself in to police.
Thailand admitted last December that Hambali, al-Qaeda’s point man in the region, entered the kingdom briefly at an undisclosed date and that authorities had missed him by less than one day.
Then last month a senior national security official said Hambali was believed to be hiding in Bangkok where he had planned last year’s Bali attacks.