Thailand, to Malaysia’s north, has likewise suffered “Islamist-inspired” violence in its southernmost provinces near Malaysia, as a 2009 RAND Corporation report put it, though that violence was mostly linked to a domestic “ethnoreligious” struggle. The RAND report notes that more than 3,000 people were killed between 2004 and 2008.
The State Department’s 2012 country-by-country report on terrorism relates a possible international dynamic to the threat in Thailand, referring to joint cooperation between Thai and American authorities in investigating activities of Iran and the Iran-backed Lebanese militant group Hezbollah in early 2012. Still, the State Department report said that as of 2012, “there was no direct evidence of operational linkages between southern Thailand insurgent groups and international terrorist networks.”
The Philippines, to Malaysia’s east, is the operational base for the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG), which the National Counterterrorism Center says is the “most violent of the Islamic separatist groups operating in the southern Philippines.” That group has operated in Malaysia in the past, kidnapping 21 people, including 10 Westerners, from a Malaysian resort in 2000. ASG kidnapped another 20 people, including three U.S. citizens in a resort in the Philippines the following year and murdered one of the Americans, the NCTC said. The group is also believed responsible for a string of bombings in the mid-2000s that claimed more than 100 civilian lives.
With such threats in every direction, American intelligence officials are most concerned Malaysia could be used as a transit or logistical base for international terror plots, especially due to its reportedly porous borders.
When asked if al Qaeda had a presence in Malaysia this week, CIA Director John Brennan did not mention Malaysia specifically, but said the terror group has grown into Southeast Asia.
“There’s never been a place on the globe where al Qaeda said that they were not going to seek some type of presence,” Brennan said. “There are a number of areas in Southeast Asia where al Qaead has tried to develop contacts and cells and put in place the infrastructure, whether it be for fundraising activities or logistical support and facilitation.”
Brennan said his agency has not “ruled out” terrorism as a possible cause of Flight 370's disappearance, but he echoed other top American officials and analysts when he said it will be hard to tell anything until the plane is found.