A 47-year-old Lebanese man was arrested in Bangkok on January 12 for allegedly plotting a bomb attack in Thailand’s capital reminiscent of the 2008 Mumbai attacks. The suspect, Hussein Atris, a Lebanese Shia businessman with Swedish citizenship, was arrested on immigration charges at Bangkok’s international airport and was charged with terrorism a few hours later. It was enough for Thailand, a country with a history of dealing with bomb plots due to an insurgency in its southern regions, to issue a terrorism scare and boost its security. When Hezbollah was mentioned in the affair, the news travelled across the globe.
The Thai police were tipped off by the United States Embassy in Bangkok, after the Israeli Embassy warned of a possible terrorist attack being planned in tourist locations in Thailand. After interrogating Atris, Thai police seized over four tons of fertilizer hidden in cat litter bags and stored in one of the buildings operated by the Lebanese-Swedish businessman. A second Lebanese citizen identified as Atris’ business associate, James Sammy Paolo, 40, is also wanted by the police and is believed to have already left Thailand. Authorities linked the two men with Hezbollah, although there is no actual proof they were acting in the Lebanese party’s interests.
Hezbollah politburo member Ghaleb Abu Zainab also denied that Atris had any connection with the Party of God.
The incident created panic among scores of Israeli tourists in Thailand. The United States Embassy also warned its citizens of the potential terrorist threat in the country, and other countries, including the United Kingdom, Australia and Canada followed suit.
But, as Western intelligence experts have been talking about Hezbollah’s threat to Israeli centers across the world, in Lebanon the Thai incident hardly made a dent in the news cycle. Analysts say the whole scenario doesn’t sound like Hezbollah’s type of operation. Moreover, they argue bombing tourist areas in Thailand would bring greater business losses to the party’s financial empire than ideological gains.
An-Nahar commentator Ibrahim Bayram believes the story is part of an Israeli campaign to incriminate Hezbollah in terrorism, money laundering, as well as drugs and weapons trafficking. “But it is clear that through these incidents, whether true or not, there are efforts from Hezbollah’s opponents to corner it, in places where there might be a presence for Hezbollah supporters, or in places where Hezbollah has economic interest as Latin America, Africa and Southeast Asia.
Lebanese analyst Ali al-Amine agrees. The Party of God, he says, has no interest in losing Thailand as a business ground for the sake of a military operation that would probably lead to the expelling of scores of Shia businessmen from the region.
“Expelling Shia from several countries played a role in the curbing of any real effort to strike locations associated with Israel abroad. It curbed the efforts that Hezbollah made to avenge the assassination of [former Hezbollah military commander] Imad Mugniyah, but felt that it might lead to the expelling of the party’s supporters. The losses are greater than the gains in such operations,” Amine told NOW Lebanon.
Atris, who was interviewed by Swedish newspaper Aftonbladet says he was set up by the Mossad. “I am 100 percent innocent of the terror crimes I am accused of. Much of the materials police found in my storage had been placed there, probably by the Israeli secret service Mossad," he said. "I am a Shia Muslim, but not part of the Hezbollah. However, I live in an area outside Beirut where they are strong,” he added. He also said that he was taken out of his cell after being arrested by the Thai police and was interrogated by three Israeli officials in Bangkok.
“Sometimes the aim of this news is just intimidation, part of a psychological war against the party to remind it of the presence of the other,” Bayram said. “Hezbollah outside Lebanon does not have military activity, it was never proven that the party is trying to set up military bases or locations.”
“The party aims at concentrating its efforts in Lebanon,” Bayram continued. “Therefore, I rule out that the party has anything to do with such people as those involved in the Thailand incident, or even be part of activities such as making a bomb. Hezbollah will not implicate itself in anything that is highly likely to be caught.”
Nadine Elali contributed with reporting to this article