By the sixth day of the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370, a Boeing Airlines 777-200ER with 239 people aboard, nothing was certain, except that no international airline or intelligence official knew what had caused the flight to vanish without a trace shortly after its takeoff from Kuala Lumpur en route for Beijing.
It was generally acknowledged, although not publicly by Malaysian or Chinese officials, that the international airports of Asia had, by their lax security, become fair game for all kinds of miscreants.
DEBKA Weekly’s counterterrorism experts note that, whereas Palestinian air hijacks and explosions date back 45 years to the 1970s, this bane is a relative newcomer to the Far East.
The 1995 Bojinka plot was the first large-scale Islamist attack to be plotted in that region. Al Qaeda assigned Ramzi Yousef and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed to follow Osama Bin Laden’s master plan for throwing international civil aviation into disarray by blowing up 11 passenger flights in mid-air en route from the Far East to the US.
An approximate total of 4,000 passengers were to die
Counterterrorism experts point to Uighur extremists
That plot was never executed. But already then, 19 years ago, Al Qaeda and its activists took note of the laxness of security at East Asian airports and saw how easy it would be to smuggle explosives onto planes taking off from there.
The US Director of Intelligence John Brennan, asked on March 11 at a hearing before the Council on Foreign Relations, whether he had ruled out terrorism as a factor in the Malaysian airliner’s disappearance, replied: “No I wouldn’t rule it out. Not at all.”
If anyone knows about the glaring security holes, which the Malaysian authorities are striving to conceal, it is the CIA director. He must be well aware that Kuala Lumpur’s international airport is wide open.
By Wednesday, March 12, the area covered by the search for the Malaysian plane had expanded to 27,000 square nautical miles, encompassing five countries – Vietnam, Burma, Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines, and a vast swath of the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian Oceans.
The dominant theory held by the Western and Far Eastern counterterrorism services consulted by DEBKA Weekly counterterrorism sources was that a band of terrorists, probably members of the East Turkestan Liberation Organization-ETLO, was responsible for seizing the Malaysian airliner plane and causing its disappearance by an undiscovered act of sabotage.
The ETLO is a separatist Chinese Uighur organization, which uses violent means to fight for an independent "East Turkestan" state in Xinjiang, Western China. This region has a population of 18 million, eight million of which are Turkic-speaking Muslim Uighurs.
The ETLO, founded in Turkey in 1996 to fight the Chinese government in Xinjiang, is designated a terrorist organization by the governments of China and Kazakhstan.
Three scenarios of terror
Three scenarios are conjectured:
1. At Kuala Lumpur International Airport, one of the largest airports in Southeast Asia, Malaysian security personnel may be bribed to allow an individual to wander through the closed areas of the airport and stroll onto the runways right up to stationary aircraft.
2. Most passenger planes, except those taking off from China or India, don’t carry air marshals on international flights, and their crew rarely complies with standard restrictions for keeping passengers under control.
Two young Australian women, who flew Malaysian Airlines two years ago, showed photos of themselves with the pilots, with whom they spent a couple of hours in the cockpit by invitation. One of those pilots flew the missing airliner.
3. The suspect band of terrorists could have boarded the flight without going through the formal pre-boarding procedures such as luggage and ticket checks.
They would then be free to sabotage the flight in two ways:
– By boarding the plane hours before the crew and passengers, they could have secretly hijacked the flight Friday, March 7, when it was still on the ground before takeoff.
This option would have required a very large group of terrorists, from 6-10 spread out through the plane to nab each passenger or crew member as they boarded.
The hijackers may have reached the cockpit from the cargo hold
This theory would account for the unusual terseness of the pilot’s response to air control when flying over Tho Chu Island. In the plane’s last known contact before it disappeared, the pilot is recorded as saying just three words: “Okay, Roger, received.”
The air crew may have been held down by the hijackers and prevented forcibly from giving the game away.
– Alternatively, the terrorists did not enter the passenger cabin, but the cargo hold. Only after takeover did they make their way into the cockpit and seize control of the aircraft
This would explain the aircraft’s sudden sharp turn west, away from its assigned route and back to Malaysia, without signaling air control.
The prevailing theory among intelligence experts is that at some point, either the terrorists killed the pilots and crew or decompressed the plane causing all 239 people aboard to die.
This kind of Boeing jet would keep on gliding for some time until it ran out of fuel and crashed. The fact that was crippled would not have been noticed for some time, until it plunged into the sea or in a jungle.
It has even been suggested that, by the time had MH370 turned around and flown about 500 kilometers back over Malaysia, everyone on board, pilots, passengers and terrorists, were already dead or unconscious.