Since 18 February, both the UK and Australian governments have amended their travel advisories for Malaysia citing the threat of terrorism to Western interests in the country. We have not seen any recent comparable warnings issued by other Western or regional governments, including the US, Singapore and Hong Kong. The Malaysian government has said it does not know the basis for the Australian warning, with the foreign ministry saying there is ‘nothing to be alarmed of [sic]’.
On 21 February, the Australian government amended its advice to warn that ‘terrorists may be planning attacks in and around Kuala Lumpur’. Like the UK warning, it notes that attacks might be indiscriminate and ‘may target Western interests or locations frequented by Westerners’. The new Australian advisory says that citizens ‘should be particularly vigilant at this time’, but does not provide any information about the amendment, or its timing. Nor does it provide details of any specific or imminent threat in Kuala Lumpur or elsewhere in Malaysia.
The Australian amendment came three days after the UK FCO raised its terrorism threat level for Malaysia from ‘general’ to ‘high’, warning that ‘attacks could be indiscriminate, including in places visited by foreigners’. The update does not provide any detail of why the assessment was changed at this time. Nor does it make any changes to the FCO travel restrictions already in place for Malaysia. The only existing restriction advises against all non-essential travel to much of the eastern coast of Sabah and coastal islands.
Neither the Malaysian authorities nor foreign governments have publicly provided intelligence of a specific threat. In the past, Australia and the US have both issued candid security warnings when they have assessed there to be a credible imminent threat in Malaysia. Most recently, on 24 September, the US Embassy warned of a ‘possible terrorism threat’ to Jalan Alor in Kuala Lumpur.
Following the Jakarta attack on 14 January and several arrests of purported Islamic State (IS)-linked terrorists in Malaysia in the days after that attack, the Malaysian government announced heightened security measures, which appeared to be largely precautionary. Despite the current measures, a Malaysian foreign ministry spokesman commenting on the Australian warning said that such foreign assessments ‘may not be accurate or give a true reflection of the situation’.
Despite this absence of specific detail about the latest warning, and an apparent lack of capability among the militants detained by Malaysian police, current indicators point to an increasingly credible threat of attacks in Malaysia either incited, inspired or even directed by IS.
Image: Bukit Bintang from the Monorail; Sham Hardy/Flickr/Creative Commons