BANGKOK (Reuters) - Militants in Thailand's deep south are using Islamic schools to recruit fighters for an armed ethno-nationalist struggle against the Thai state, according to a report released on Monday.
In a 20-page study, the International Crisis Group (ICG) said the near-daily attacks in Narathiwat, Yala and Pattani provinces were part of a separatist struggle that had no links to radical Islamist groups or a global jihadi movement.
Nearly 3,500 people have been killed since 2004 in the region bordering Malaysia, which was an independent Malay Muslim sultanate until annexed by Buddhist Thailand a century ago.
"The classroom is the point of first contact," the report said.
"Recruiters invite those who seem promising devout Muslims of good character who are moved by a history of oppression, mistreatment and the idea of armed jihad to join extracurricular indoctrination programmes in mosques or disguised as football training."
The ICG study was compiled over 16 months and its release comes after an escalation of violence that has seen 38 people killed and more than 60 wounded in the past two weeks, among them soldiers, police, Buddhist monks and praying Muslims.
The report said the rebel movement was a fight to protect the identity of the region's ethnic Malay Muslims, and human rights abuses by security forces had "fuelled secessionist fervour."
"(Islamic schools) are central to the maintenance of Malay Muslim identity and many students are receptive to the call to take up arms against the state," ICG said.
"This is not a struggle in solidarity with global jihad, rather an ethno-nationalist insurgency ... aimed at reclaiming what was once the independent sultanate of Patani."
The report said rebel movements relied heavily on teachers to recruit young fighters, who would swear an oath of commitment and secrecy before joining a clandestine, multi-cell network whose leadership has never been revealed.
It said the central government's reluctance to work towards a solution at the local level was exacerbating the problem and it should avoid "quick fixes to what is a highly complex conflict."
"Changing these policies is essential as the government tries to respond to the insurgents' grievances in order to bring long-lasting peace to the region," ICG said.
Reporting by Martin Petty; Editing by Alan Raybould and Dean Yates