Overview: There were no terrorist attacks in Malaysia in 2020, but the country remained a transit point and, to a lesser extent, a destination country for members of terrorist groups including ISIS, Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG), al-Qa’ida, and Jemaah Islamiyah. Individuals linked to ISIS or ASG planning travel to the southern Philippines or the Middle East used Malaysia as a transit point. Malaysia monitored, arrested, deported, and tried suspected supporters of terrorist groups. Malaysia also cooperated with the United States and others to increase border security at airports and in the Sulu Sea, to counter terrorist recruitment, and to improve prosecution of terrorism-related crimes.
2020 Terrorist Incidents: While no terrorist attacks were carried out in 2020, Malaysia remained a transit point for terrorist group members and a hub for kidnap-for-ransom activities perpetrated by terrorist networks. On January 16, five Indonesian fishermen were kidnapped off the coast of Lahad Datu in Sabah state by ASG militants, according to media reports.
Legislation, Law Enforcement, and Border Security: The Malaysian government did not make any changes to its security-related laws, including the Security Offense Special Measures Act, the Prevention Against Terrorism Act, and the Sedition Act, which were under government review in 2019. Human rights organizations again advocated for a repeal of the laws, citing concerns that provisions of the law that allow detention without trial were not in line with international law. The Eastern Sabah Security Command reinstated a “heightened alert” status for the East Sabah area, increased maritime patrols, and extended curfew to safeguard against kidnappings. Authorities reported 40 foiled kidnapping attempts within the Eastern Sabah Security Zone between 2018 and 2020.
The Royal Malaysia Police (RMP) Special Branch Counterterrorism Unit has the lead counterterrorism law enforcement role. RMP officials reported a significant decline in terrorist-related arrests, noting seven arrests in 2020 compared with 72 in 2019. Authorities noted that border closures and restricted in-country movements during the COVID-19 pandemic limited transit of terrorist networks and were a contributing factor to the decline but shared that terrorist recruitment through online platforms remained a concerning trend. In February, authorities reported the arrest of a group of Malaysian citizens for attempting to establish an ISIS-affiliated cell, Ansarullah At-Tauhid, and to recruit through online chat groups.
The Ministry of Home Affairs reported the return of 16 Malaysian citizens (12 adults and 4 children) to Malaysia from Syria and Iraq, with 8 of the adults serving criminal sentences. Those released were admitted to a rehabilitation program administered by the government. The Malaysian government has allowed its citizens to return, provided they comply with checks, enforcement, and a government-run rehabilitation program. Malaysia has reportedly worked with other countries to facilitate repatriations and estimates that 56 terrorist fighters and their families remain in the Middle East. Malaysia has 10 ports of entry connected to INTERPOL SLTD and nominal databases, which have greatly enhanced passenger-screening measures of incoming and transiting international travelers. Additionally, Malaysia actively contributed SLTD records to the INTERPOL global database through automation.
Countering the Financing of Terrorism: Malaysia is a member of FATF and APG. Malaysia’s FIU is a member of the Egmont Group. In January, Malaysia enacted a policy document for its central bank (Bank Negara Malaysia, or BNM), the Anti-Money Laundering, Countering Financing of Terrorism and Targeted Financial Sanctions for Designated Non-Financial Businesses and Professions and Non-Bank Financial Institutions. The policy document supersedes previous guidance last issued in 2013. In September, BNM published further guidelines on the Verification of Customer Identity for Customer Due Diligence and Beneficial Ownership as a supplement to the Policy Document. Taken together, the updated guidance revises reporting institutions with respect to AML/CTF requirements with the objective of “ensuring areas of higher risk are subject to enhanced controls,” according to BNM.
Countering Violent Extremism: In 2020 the Southeast Asia Regional Center for Counter-Terrorism (SEARCCT) of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs hosted webinars and virtual trainings focused on CT and CVE. These efforts included a series of webinars in collaboration with Deakin University in Australia and the National University of Singapore on terrorism trends in the COVID-19 era and separate discussions to address the rising trend of hate speech through online platforms. SEARCCT also organized a roundtable discussion with civil society organizations in East Malaysia to understand the drivers of violent extremism in Sabah. SEARCCT partnered with the United Nations Office of Counterterrorism to facilitate a training program on open-source investigation techniques for law enforcement officials.
International and Regional Cooperation: Malaysia continued to support counterterrorism efforts in regional and multilateral organizations, including the United Nations, the Global Counterterrorism Forum, ASEAN, ARF, ADMM, and APEC. The Government of Malaysia hosted the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Counterterrorism Working Group meetings in February and October.