Three days after it disappeared over the Gulf of Thailand, the fate of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 officially remains a mystery. Search teams are combing thousands of square miles of ocean, looking for remnants of the Boeing 777-200 and the 239 passengers and crew that were on the flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing. So far, no wreckage or other signs of a crash have been sighted; early reports that one of the jetliner’s cabin doors had been spotted proved false, and long fuel slicks on the water were not connected to the missing jet, according to local authorities.
But if the physical search for clues has proven fruitless (so far), the examination of passenger manifests and other travel documents has been much more productive. Within 24 hours of the airliner’s disappearance, it was learned that two of the passengers were traveling on stolen passports, reported missing more than a year earlier by their rightful owners, an Italian and a man from Austria. Surveillance camera footage from the gate area suggested that the passengers using the stolen passports were “not Asian in appearance.” At a press conference, a Malaysian police spokesman said one of the men looked like Italian football star Mario Balotelli, who is of Africa descent.
The U.K. Daily Mail also reports that at least five ticketed passengers failed to board the plane, though it was unclear if any of those individuals tried to check luggage for the flight–and if any bags under their names were removed from the aircraft before it left Malaysia.
But the day’s most disturbing development came from Thailand, and new details on how the “mystery passengers” wound up on the flight. From the Daily Mail account:
“A Thai travel agent who arranged the tickets for the two passengers has now said she had booked them on the flight via Beijing because they were the cheapest tickets, it has been reported.
The travel agent in the resort of Pattaya said an Iranian business contact she knew only as ‘Mr Ali’ had asked her to book tickets for the two men on March 1.
She had initially booked them on other airlines but those reservations expired and on March 6, Mr Ali had asked her to book them again.
She told the Financial Times she did not think Mr Ali, who paid her in cash and booked tickets with her regularly, was linked to terrorism.”
Well, that’s certainly reassuring. So far, we haven’t heard any details about “Mr. Ali’s” other ticket purchases, but that information might prove illuminating. It’s quite possible that the Iranian businessman–if he is a terrorist operative–used previous flights as dry runs, testing transport security measures. One of the first steps in that process would be establishing a relationship with a local travel agent who accepted cash for short-notice flights–and never asked any questions.
In fact, Al Qaida has a long history of rehearsing airline operations before actually carrying them out. Actor James Woods was on a Boston-to-Los Angeles flight two months before 9-11 and observed four Middle Eastern men behaving strangely. Their actions left such an impression that Mr. Woods reported the activity to a flight attendant and the jet’s first officer when it landed in California. After the September 11th attacks, he remembered the incident and called the FBI, who sent agents to his home with photographs. Woods recognized two of the men from his flight; one was identified as a hijacker on United Flight 77, which flew into the Pentagon; the other helped commandeer United Flight 175, which slammed into the South Tower of the World Trade Center.
Over the years that followed, there have been several foiled plots, including the infamous shoe and underwear bombers, along with more dry runs. Just last year, the U.S. Airline Pilots Association warned its members that terrorists were again rehearsing for possible attacks on airliners. The memo from the pilot’s union cited an incident where Middle Eastern man (on a U.S. Air flight) who ran towards the cockpit door before veering into the forward lavatory, where he spent a considerable amount of time. At the same time, other Middle Eastern men switched seats, opened overhead bins and “generally caused a disturbance,” possibly trying to distract flight attendants. The Washington-to-Orlando flight landed safely at its destination, but the Captain refused to fly the next leg of his route until the aircraft was thoroughly checked. While the inspection revealed signs of “tampering,” the Department of Homeland Security concluded its was “not” a dry run.
While these possible dry-runs have garnered a certain amount of media coverage, little attention is paid to the process of getting the “right” people on the flight without attracting the attention of the airlines or government security organizations. In the days before 9-11, it was simply a matter of purchasing tickets; in fact, several of the 9-11 hijackers logged ththousands of frequent flier miles in the months leading up to the attacks, as part of the rehearsal and preparation process. Since then, various screening measures and intelligence analysis have made it more difficult for terrorists to slip undetected on airliners, but the system is far from perfect. Consider the cases of the shoe bomber and the underwear bomber, who were able to get on board and attempt to detonate their devices before they were stopped.
If the loss of Flight 370 was an act of terrorism, investigators will almost certainly uncover a very detailed and well-executed plot. Al Qaida, its affiliates and other terror groups have never lost interest in aviation targets are are constantly looking for new ways to bring down an airliner. At this point, no one can definitely say that terrorists were behind the disappearance of the Malaysian airliner; but the few pieces now falling into place seem to fit that pattern.