Jakarta, March 17 -- With nefarious intent exposed in the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, Asian intelligence experts and law enforcement officials are now examining a growing possibility that the perpetrator, who steered or ordered the flight off course, was a lone wolf terrorist or one connected to international terror networks.
While the failing search for the missing aircraft widened Monday to Central Asia in the north and the vast expanses of the Indian Ocean in the south, the decades-old fear of aviation terrorism in Asia resurfaced."The perpetrator of this apparent attack had exceptionally good knowledge of how to breach security and a very good understanding of piloting," said Dr. Rohan Gunaratna, one of Southeast Asia's leading terrorism experts, who has testified before the 9/11 Commission about al Qaeda affiliates in Asia and their designs.
Gunaratna was careful to point out that few terrorist organizations in Asia have the competence at present to conduct 9/11-style attacks, and that aerial terrorist operations are much more difficult to carry out today than they were 13 years ago. However, Gunaratna and other Asian terrorism experts said that terrorism sanctuaries in Pakistan's tribal areas offer plenty of space for planning by groups with possible motives to attack the 154 Chinese passengers aboard Flight 370, adding that a terror-related takeover of the Malaysian craft was a distinct possibility in the wake of new revelations.
The chief planner of the attacks on the World Trade Center, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, now imprisoned in Guantanamo Bay and identified by the 9/11 Commission as the "chief architect" of those attacks, began working with ground operatives here in Southeast Asia, starting in Singapore in 1994 on the so-called "Bojinka Plot." That terror scheme, never completed, was assisted by Indonesian Riduan Isamuddin, a.k.a. "Hambali," and was designed to commandeer 11 airliners and target both CIA headquarters in Virginia, and Pope John Paul II. A parallel plot included the idea of recruiting Malaysian pilots for an operation.
Malaysian officials said Monday that police were investigating flight crew, cabin crew, a lone and independent jet engineer, and all passengers from Flight 370 for possible ties to what they now strongly suspect was a malicious takeover of the airplane controls. That takeover included a switching off of the plane's internal tracking devices, which left the craft flying undetected over Asian airspace for several hours when the co-pilot signed off with the ground staff in Kuala Lumpur.
With little more than random electronic blips from the engine to go on as feedback from MH Flight 370 after that, Malaysian authorities have petitioned the U.S. Government as well as China, Indonesia, and Australia, among 26 nations to help them search for the airplane, which they believe is disintegrated at sea or on land. The Malaysian Government is directing an international "search and rescue" effort that has garnered the mounting ire of passenger's families as well as that of the Chinese government, whose own 154 passengers represented the majority of the 237 people on board the plane when it went missing on March 8th.
After take-off, Flight 370 turned sharply to the left and back towards Malaysia after approaching Vietnamese airspace. The craft passed over Malaysia and near to Singapore, noted Gunaratna. The pilot, alone or possibly coerced by a perpetrator, did not apparently intend to "attack a target" in Malaysia, Singapore or Indonesia, he added, pointing out that authorities believe the craft cleared land again after leaving the South China Sea. The New Straits Times of Singapore, quoted unnamed sources today, stating that Flight 370 flew low to avoid radar detection.
With few clues to go on, senior Malaysian Airways officials said that the airline gave psychological tests to all their pilots and was now flying its fleet of planes at a "heightened security." One senior official added that the airline's screening of pilots would be enhanced in the future.
Though Malaysian officials contended over the weekend that the last "all right, good night" to the control tower, spoken by the co-pilot, not the pilot, took place after the turn-off of the planes internal tracking gear, it became apparent on Monday that even this might be inaccurate. The electronic tracking gear, which communicated to the tower as 1:07 am, was not due to give an automated location again until 1:37 am and the voice came across at 1:19 am, which suggests that the gear could have been turned off anytime form 1:19 am to 1:37 am as well.
Malaysian officials, who removed a flight simulator from the home of the main pilot over the weekend, say that the suspected malicious intent could have begun as anything from an essential hijacking and ransom attempt, on the one hand, to a deliberate attempt to terrorize and murder all passengers on board and send a message around the globe. However, western officials openly wonder why - if indeed terror was a motive - no known group, to date, has made a serious effort to take credit.
Flight 370's passengers would have been a "soft target" for any terrorist trained to fly an aircraft and avoid detection by radars. Still, as Gunaratna repeated in his 9/11 testimony, aviation terror "attracts significant attention" and so "al Qaeda assigns a high priority to aviation-impact terrorism." In other words, if you are going to seize an international airliner, it is also advantageous - from the perspective of a terrorist -- to use the craft as a weapon to attack a building as was done successfully in New York and Washington a dozen years ago.
This was not done with Flight 370, which, in any case, is believed by most aviation officials to have crashed somewhere at sea or on land.
Some international terrorism analysts believe that al Qaeda's capabilities, while degraded in Southeast Asia by the capture and killing of key operatives, including Hambali, are still being improved upon in Pakistan's tribal areas, a terrorism nexus, or "playground," which have been the target of U.S. drone attacks for the last decade.
Al Qaeda, now a decapitated snake with the killing of Osama bin Laden, has morphed into something more akin to a hydra-headed medusa today, which some members of China's Uighur minority have linked up with in Pakistan's Waziristan to plan operations. There are conflicting reports of one member of the Uighur minority having been a passenger on the 370 flight and two young Iranians with false passports have also raised red flags for Malaysian authorities, who have sought information from Tehran.