The possibility that Malaysia Airlines Flight 370’s disappearance was “done intentionally” has prompted a closer look at potential terrorist ties to the Southeast Asian nation – or the almost surprising lack thereof.
U.S. officials have said that as of yet there is no evidence to suggest Flight 370 is linked to any terrorist activity – and in fact top intelligence officials say a lack of “chatter” about the plane by extremists under surveillance suggests any number of other answers to the tragic mystery.
Unlike its regional neighbors, U.S. officials and experts say Malaysia is not historically known as a home to major terrorist groups and in recent years has itself been relatively free of the terrorist threat.
“Malaysia never suffered anywhere near the level of violence or concern that was evident Indonesia in that period around Sept. 11 and the run up to and the period after,” former U.S. Ambassador to Malaysia James Keith told ABC News, referring to devastating bombings in Bali nightclubs in 2002 that killed more than 200 people and a 2003 bombing of a Marriot Hotel in Jakarta that killed 12 more.
Keith, who was posted to Malaysia from 2007 to 2010, said that when it comes to the terrorist threat in Malaysia, it almost all comes from other “regional actors.”
“These would be people roughly connected with the Indonesian efforts, or conceivably connected with broader terrorist activity, but it’s been a long time since that was really active [in Malaysia],” he said.
A Congressional report from 2009 says that Malaysia was once considered a global terrorism “hot spot” because some of the 9/11 plotters reportedly met in Kuala Lumpur prior to the attacks, and just this week a convicted terrorist-turned-government witness told a New York court that he had supplied a shoe bomb to a Malaysian terror group in the weeks after 9/11 -- a plot a senior U.S. intelligence official told ABC News the U.S. was “aware of.”
But the attack by the alleged Malaysian group never materialized, and the Congressional report says that by 2009, “The purported terrorists groups that do remain in Malaysia are generally external in nature, comparatively small and relatively inactive.”
The National Counterterrorism Center lists no major terrorist groups as being based in Malaysia, though some have cells there, and the University of Maryland’s Global Terrorism Database, which tracks terrorist attacks the world over, shows that while there was a small spike in the late 1980s, there have been eight “incidents” in the last decade causing just a single fatality. Compare that to Indonesia to Malaysia’s south -- home to Islamic militant groups Jemmah Islamiya (JI), suspected perpetrators of the Bali and Marriot bombings, and Jemaah Anshorut Tauhid (JAT) – which suffered more than 30 such “incidents” in 2012 alone.
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 Qaeda 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.