The likelihood of terrorist involvement in the sudden catastrophic loss of a Malaysia Airlines B777-200 over the South China Sea at the weekend has increased with the discovery that at least two, and possibly more, of the passengers were not who they claimed to be and were travelling on stolen passports.
The mystery deepened with Malaysia’s air force chief saying that military radar indicated the plane turned back shortly before vanishing – yet no distress call was made, as is customary in such circumstances. Maybe the flight crew were too busy to make a call, their first duty being to fly the plane.
The Beijing-bound Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 lost contact with Subang Air Traffic Control at 5.40am (AEST). It was carrying 239 people including six Australians: two couples from Queensland and one couple from New South Wales. Two New Zealanders were also aboard.
Investigators discovered yesterday that two passengers initially listed as being on the downed jet, an Austrian and an Italian, weren’t on the flight. Both men are safe and well – and both had their passports stolen in separate incidents in Thailand over the past two years.
Conjecture is mounting that whoever flew using their stolen passports may have been involved in a plot to bring the plane down. Two people travelling on the same flight using stolen passports is unusual. MAS has CCTV footage of the passengers checking in. Some reports said four passengers were using stolen passports but that has not been confirmed.
The FBI is sending agents and technical experts to assist the investigation, which is focusing on how people on stolen passports could have boarded the flight. Interpol cannot understand why airport authorities do not make more use of its vast database of more than 40 million lost and stolen travel documents. Such concerns can be expected to lead to security being stepped up at airports, with the usual headaches for passengers and security personnel.
If the crash was an act of terrorism, it carries the chilling inference that terrorists may have discovered a way to board a flight under false identities and possibly to smuggle explosives or weaponry aboard without being detected. Their co-conspirators on the ground will know.
Vietnamese air force planes sighted two large oil slicks in the Gulf of Thailand off the southern tip of Vietnam yesterday, close to the last radar trace of flight MH370. Eight nations are now involved in the search and are this morning using 34 aircraft and 40 ships. Two Orion planes from the Royal Australian Air Force are helping look for debris.
The plane’s “black box” flight recorders are being sought and experts are confident they should be relatively easy to locate, given the depth of the water.
Over half the passengers aboard flight MH370 were Chinese and others came from 13 different countries.
Other points currently under discussion:
- The B777 is a very safe aircraft. The only previous loss of life involving a B777 was three people killed in the crash of an Asiana B777 aircraft on landing at San Francisco International Airport last year – but that is likely to have been pilot error rather than anything to do with the plane.
- The MAS plane disappeared very suddenly, without the pilots or automatic signalling indicating anything was wrong. That could indicate “explosive decompression” – massive catastrophic failure of the sort caused by a door coming off in mid flight, or a bomb. Reports that the plane turned back, however, don’t square with that and add another layer of mystery.
- The incident happened at cruising altitude, 35,000ft, which is statistically the safest period of the flight when a plane is least likely to experience any problem.
- Weather was fine, pilots were highly experienced and the plane would probably have been on autopilot at that stage of the flight.
- Other possibilities include sudden engine disintegration or (less likely) pilot error. In 2009, Air France Flight AF447 crashed into the Atlantic on a flight from Rio de Janeiro to Paris after a combination of instrument failure due to ice compounded by crew mistakes. The “black boxes” took two years to locate but the Atlantic is much deeper than where the MAS plane is thought to have gone down.
- An outside option is that the plane was shot down by a missile. An even less likely possibility is that it was hit by a meteorite.
- It has also been noted that the plane went down a week after a group of black-clad, knife-wielding assassins attacked travellers at random at China’s Kunming railway station, killing at least 33 people and wounding over 130. The Kunming attack was a major, pre-planned, coordinated terrorist operation that Chinese authorities blame on fanatical Islamist militants from the restive, far-western region of Xinjiang. They travelled across China to conduct the assault.
- Computer firm Freescale Semiconductor has confirmed that 20 of its employees were confirmed passengers on the doomed flight. Twelve are from Malaysia and eight are from China. A talented group of Chinese artists and calligraphers, on a group visit to Malaysia, were also aboard the flight.
Written by Peter Needham