By Todd Ruiz, Editor
BANGKOK — Motorcycle taxi operators in an upscale, residential neighborhood have identified a man seen numerous times there between December and February as matching a passport photo shown to them by investigators hunting the suspected Bangkok bomber, who might have been using a fake Turkish passport.
Withaya Chaisiriwongsawang, a motorcycle taxi driver who has worked several years on Soi Sathorn 10, told a Khaosod English reporter today that he and his colleagues had on numerous occasions in those months given rides to a man they were confident matched passport and immigration photos shown to them this week by investigators.
“I have seen this man long ago,” Withaya said, indicating the first time was in December. He said the photo shown to him Wednesday by officers from the Bureau of Immigration was much clearer than the sketch released Tuesday, and looked more like the man he remembers.
He said the man spoke English, but could not attest to what ability. Withaya said it was many months ago, but he clearly remembers giving two rides to a man he was relatively confident was that seen in the passport. He verified a media report that his colleague, Nikhom Tantula, was “100 percent sure” it was the same man Nikhom gave upward of 10 rides to during that period. Nikhom was away on a lunch break at the time of the interview, he said.
Outgoing police chief Somyot Pumpanmuang yesterday denied having yet linked a name to their lead suspect in the bombing, but added they would not share that information, even if they did.
The day after Monday’s attack killed at least 20 people – mostly foreign tourists – and injured more than 150 at Bangkok’s Erawan shrine, their investigation has seemed focused on one man seen in CCTV footage leaving a backpack at the scene minutes before the blast.
Withaya said the man he remembers appeared somewhat similar to that shown in grainy CCTV photos, but much more so in the passport photo he was shown.
Investigators also showed a photo taken at an immigration checkpoint of what they said was the same man.
The man Withaya remembers never appeared during the daytime; only at night, he said. Relative to his own height, Withaya said he appeared to be about 175 centimeters tall, but not over 180 centimeters. He had an average build and dressed normally and always appeared with messy, spiky hair, Withaya said. He described him as appearing “khaek khao,” a Thai term for Arab. He said the man had a slight growth of hair on his chin but not a full beard. He estimated his age between 25 and 30.
In February, Withaya was not working due to entering the monkhood for a month. It was after that, in March, that he gave the man two rides, both times toward the Sala Daeng area. While heading across Soi Sala Daeng, the man got off midway between Sathorn and Silom roads. The second time, he dropped him off near the Silom Complex shopping mall. Both times in the evening. They never saw him during the day; he only came at night, he said.
This reporter showed him the name reported shown on the passport with the surname spelled in three different ways, and Withaya immediately pointed to “Mohamad Museyin,” the same name reported in The Times yesterday.
Investigation at a Crossroads
Their motorcycle taxi stand is located between Sathorn and Silom roads, at the three-way intersection of Sathorn 10 and Soi Sueksa Witthaya, a neighborhood that in recent years has transformed from quiet residences into an upscale cluster of European restaurants, art galleries and bars. It’s walking distance from Silom Road, a popular tourist haunt known for the red light Patpong district, and many hotels and entertainment venues frequented by travelers.
Withaya said that he, and to his knowledge his colleagues working the taxi stand, never saw the man emerge from the Niagara Hotel located directly across the street from their stand, as was identified as the focus of police investigators this morning in a report from The Times‘ Richard Lloyd Parry.
The hotel is the type of pay-per-hour establishment known as a “love motel” in Thailand.
A woman at the hotel’s reception desk today said she worked there every day and told investigators she had never seen anyone matching the passport photo or other images of the suspected bomber when they came Wednesday. Neither did the staff members at a corner 7-Eleven who have worked there since at least late 2014.
“Soldiers, police local, and police from central agencies [came Wednesday.],” Suthira Rompirom of the Niagara Hotel said. “They questioned me. I dont know the person in the photo. I have worked here for five years already. I man the daytime desk. If he checked out I would have seen him.”
She said immigration officers identified the passport shown to her as a Turkish passport, and asked her if any of the hotel’s guests had registered as being from Turkey. She told them no, she said.
“They showed me a photocopy of a passport they said it is from Turkey,” Suthira said.
The printed language in the passport only appeared in English, according to her, Whitaya and several other people in the area who said they had been shown the document.
As the roster of suspects in the August bombing attack widens, keep track of who is who with our interactive feature.
However both she and Withaya both independently said there was something funny about the passport. The birth year was listed as 2000. They said the immigration officers who questioned them suggested it was likely fake.
The possibility of a Turkey connection is likely to fan the flames of suspicion the attacker could have been have been acting over anger about Thailand’s forcible return of more than 100 Uighur refugees to China in July. The day after they were deported, an angry mob stormed the Thai consulate in Istanbul, Turkey.
Withaya said he and, to his knowledge, his colleagues had always seen the man walking toward them along Soi Sueksa Witthaya from the west. Several vendors, a condominium and budget hostel along that short stretch of street said they had never seen the man.
The soi bends left to become Soi Sathorn 12, which runs into Sathorn Road, and at the turn, a small footpath runs off to the right through an alley to connect to Silom Road. Soi Sathorn 10 can also be entered from Soi Silom 9, which after Monday’s attacks was rumored to have been the suspected bomber’s destination when he left the scene of the crime on a nearby motorcycle taxi.
Another group of motorcycle taxis at the bend said they were surprised on Tuesday, in the morning after the attack, when “many” police officers arrived asking questions, but said they had not seen the man. They said if he did not take a ride from them, they were unlikely to notice him because foreigners “look the same” to them.
Police Doubt Transnational Terror
Police chief Somyot said yesterday he believes the deadly bombing was not the work of a foreign terrorist organization.
“I can assure you that this is not terrorism or transnational terrorism,” Police Gen. Somyot told reporters. “Because usually, a group or a movement will immediately claim responsibility after the attack, and state their manifesto. The attacks are sometimes related to ideological conflict, and fanatical religious beliefs.”
In many instances attacks directed by groups such as ISIS or Al Qaeda have been quickly taken credit for through the sophisticated communications channels they maintain.
Some analysts have said Monday’s attack doesn’t fit the modus operandi of Thailand’s southern insurgency or its own cyclical, internecine political conflict. Others, such as author Chris Baker said such possibilities cannot be discounted, in a Voice of America report.
Thailand’s military government has dismissed as absurd questions it could have been behind the blast to legitimize its ongoing grip on power since seizing control in May 2014.
Nevertheless, Police Gen. Somyot added that he did not discount the possibility that the perpetrator or perpetrators of Monday’s bombing were foreigners.
“It is not terrorism but the perpetrators may be foreigners,” Pol.Gen. Somyot said. “Our intelligence agencies have names of all terrorist groups. If they surface anywhere, we would issue warnings. We are constantly monitoring their movements all the time.”
He also said, “I believe the perpetrators are still in Thailand.”
Bangkok has been a known transit point for international terror operatives and a possible target in at least two instances. In January, authorities in Bangkok arrested an alleged Swedish-Lebanese member of Hezbollah. one month before several Iranian nationals were arrested in what was believed to be a botched plot to kill Israelis.
A widely quoted security analyst at IHS Jane’s was cited by Channel News Asia yesterday saying it could be a “new group.”
“This could be a new group, come together in the wake of what’s been happening in Xinjiang and specifically in the wake of what’s been happening in Thailand in terms of this deportation, which organised this atrocity and may disperse,” Anthony Davis said.
Uighurs are branded terrorists in China’s far western Xinjiang province, where they say they have been persecuted by ethnic Han Chinese. They have never conducted an attack outside of China, and those within usually involve a single attacker, often armed with only a knife.
There also remains the possibility of a lone wolf attacker, inspired by radical rhetoric internal or external to Thailand, staging a one-off attack.
ISIS, which emerged from the Syrian civil war to declare a caliphate in June 2014 and gain control of large swaths of Syria and Iraq, has called for and inspired many such attacks from the United States and Europe to the Middle East.
Beginning in late 2014, ISIS began calling for attacks around the world. Such lone-wolf attacks often employ low tech means to inflict damage and spread fear.
In places such as Ottawa, Canada; Dallas, Texas; Paris, France, individuals or small groups have launched deadly attacks they later said were inspired by ISIS’ calls to action.
But there’s been little such activity in East Asia, beyond arrests of suspected ISIS recruiters and recruits in Malaysia this past April.