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MH 370: Terrorism?


MH 370: Terrorism?

by Philip Baum, Editor, ASI

48 hours have elapsed since the ‘loss’ of MH 370. Along with many others, I have been reluctant to speculate, but as hours move to days we are forced to contemplate every possible cause. Airliners simply do not fall out of the sky. Whilst this incident may indeed turn out to be a failure of the aircraft itself, there are a growing number of indicators that we may be witnessing the latest act of terrorism targeting civil aviation.

Only a week ago I was running a training course in Switzerland and one of the exercises I gave the class was to evaluate the potential for certain groups to target aviation. The aim was to encourage aviation security personnel to consider five groups, and causes, outside their comfort zone – only some of which are currently active and branded as terrorist organisations. Along with Boko Haram, the FARC, Femen, and Meibion Glyndwr (the latter two included in order to encourage them to think ‘outside the box’), I asked them to consider the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM); most of the delegates had never heard of the group despite the fact that it is believed to be behind a number of attacks against civil aviation.

In 2008, Guzalinur Turdi allegedly attempted to bring about the destruction of a China Southern flight en route from Urumqi, in Xinjiang Province, to Beijing. Her suicidal act involved igniting gasoline which she had infiltrated onto the aircraft in fizzy drinks cans. Turdi, travelling on a Pakistani passport, had doused paper in the over-wing toilets (hence close to fuel tanks) with the gasoline; alert crew, detecting the strange odour, overpowered her before an almost certain conflagration was initiated.

In 2012, a ‘team’ of six ethnic Uighurs allegedly attempted to seize control of a Tianjin Airlines flight operating from Hotan to Urumqi; two were killed when passengers and crew overpowered the hijackers, who had smuggled explosives on board concealed in the crutches of one of the men feigning to be disabled, and the other four were later sentenced to death.

There are a number of similarities between the two incidents. Both were Chinese domestic flights; both involved infiltrating prohibited items on board using innovative means; and both flights were saved by the presence of police or sky marshals on board. It is also believed that ETIM, or at least the cause ETIM is fighting for (independence for Xinjiang), was behind the attacks.

As a group in Switzerland last week, we discussed the fact that if ETIM wished to garner more international recognition, it would need to attack an international flight. Imagine, we contemplated, the targeting of a flight departing from Hong Kong. Would the group remain so unknown?

And so here we are having to contemplate the fact that the destruction of a Malaysian Airlines flight might have been caused by terrorism. Why Malaysia? After all, it is an Islamic state and those behind the fight for the independence of Xinjiang from China are Muslim. The answer could lie in the fact that Malaysia has recently been denounced by members of the international community for forcibly deporting back to China, on New Year’s Eve, six ethnic Uighurs who had claimed asylum in Malaysia having been found to be carrying forged passports. A further 11 had been deported to China in 2011.

So could the targeting of a Malaysian flight operating to China be seen as an attack against China and an act of retribution against Malaysia? Only time will tell. What we do know is that ETIM is becoming increasingly militant and is spreading its wings. On 1st March, the group is believed to be behind an attack in Kunming in which 29 people were killed and more than 130 injured when a group of men attacked people armed only with knives.

If it was terrorism, how could an aircraft be brought down without the crew having the chance to make a mayday call? Here the options are many: a suicidal individual, or group of individuals, managing to infiltrate the cockpit (and yes it is still reasonably easy to do despite the enhanced flight deck doors) and neutralise the pilots before crashing the aircraft in a suicidal act; hijackers trying to fly the aircraft but losing control; insiders working at Kuala Lumpur International Airport infiltrating a device onto the aircraft; a passenger (possibly one of those carrying forged travel documents) duped into carrying a device on board; a device transported in air cargo; or, a simple failure of current airport systems to detect an improvised explosive device in checked luggage. The possibilities are many.

It may well be that terrorism was not the cause. We must also consider the possibility of a military exercise gone wrong and that the aircraft could have been shot down by ‘friendly’ fire. Were that to be the case, especially in the area of the South China Sea, the political fallout would be monumental…but it is not as if it hasn’t happened before, with the downing of the Iran Air flight being an obvious example.

Whilst it may well be highly significant, we should not get too worked up about the presence of passengers holding forged documents. That is not as rare an event as the general public might expect It is all too easy to board a flight with incorrect travel documentation as such checks are usually left to airlines, who are not connected to international databases, keen to avoid fines by transporting incorrectly documented passengers. States themselves are less concerned about departing passengers than incoming ones for obvious reasons. Many States, including the UK and the US do not inspect passports at all for departing international passengers.

Then again, the possible use of stolen Austrian and Italian passports could be a means of hiding the identity of people known to the authorities or, if using lookalikes (passengers resembling the original passport holders), could give passengers of a different ethnic origin the persona of being European. We must accept that it is far more difficult for security officers to evaluate photographs in passports where the holder is of a different ethnic background. I travel frequently in Asia (and just arrived in Australia from Hong Kong last night) and my passport is usually subject to cursory examination at best. In Asia or Africa, it is as much of a challenge for screeners to evaluate a Caucasian’s photograph as it is for a European Caucasian to evaluate an ethnic African or Asian photograph; when you hear somebody say, ignorantly, “all Chinese look the same”, the same is true in reverse.

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