Sunday, 16 March 2014

The Case of the Missing Airliner

When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth - Sherlock Holmes (Arthur Conan Doyle)

'The Case of the Missing Airliner' was blown wide open by Saturday's announcement from Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak that the plane's communication systems had been deliberately cut. This eliminated the most likely explanation up to that point – that mechanical or pilot error had caused the aircraft to crash at the moment contact was lost – and turned the case into a criminal hijacking. The core question, which has remained unchanged from the moment flight MH370 disappeared from radar screens in the early hours of March 8, is this: What happened to the plane?
The aircraft contained seven hours-worth of fuel, so it must either have landed or crashed within that time period. Considering the facts that a) control of the aircraft was successfully seized and b) it took five days for authorities to confirm this fact, giving the hijackers a very useful head-start, they have proven themselves capable of meticulous planning and effective execution, and thus it is worth examining their possible ultimate intentions. Meanwhile it is important to bear in mind that from the minute the plane diverted from its course, any number of factors might have caused it to crash into the sea or a remote piece of land, whether or not this was the ultimate intention of its hijackers.

1) Flight crew
Operationally speaking, the actors with the fewest obstacles to overcome to effect a successful hijacking would be the flight crew. With the trust of the passengers already gained, it would be reasonably straightforward for one or both of the pilots to lock themselves into the cockpit, switch off the transponder and change the direction of the aircraft. The key question in this case would be why? In February this very occurrence took place, when an Ethiopian pilot diverted the course of an Addis Ababa to Milan service and landed in Switzerland, seeking asylum. In this scenario our pilot might have switched off the transponder in an attempt to reach his chosen destination before authorities realised his intentions. This scenario plays out with the plane crashing, possibly in an attempt by passengers or other flight crew to regain control of the aircraft. Other possible motivations for a flight crew hijack include a dramatic suicide and insanity. The lack of a suicide note would seem to detract from the point of such a dramatic act, whilst insanity is likely to have been preceded by erratic behaviour in the months leading up to the event, of which there has been heretofore no mention. It should also be noted that members of the flight crew might have been paid to conduct the operation. This would imply a high level of complexity and resources from the organisation responsible. It would also imply that the ultimate goal of the operation would be to land the plane, since a mercenary would need to be alive to spend his earnings.
2) A ‘terrorist’ organisation
In order to examine the possibility of a hijack by an external group, it becomes necessary to explore what value could be gained from the aircraft:
a) the aircraft – although a 777 has a market value of upwards of $150m when new, the planning required for the operation and the ensuing publicity make it very unlikely that this was a simple snatch and grab operation – for one thing it would be extremely hard to sell;
b) 227 passengers – including 153 Chinese and 38 Malaysians; other nationalities represented include the US, France, Ukraine and Russia;
c) cargo – although it is unlikely that an object of importance or significant value would be carried on board a common passenger flight, it is possible.

The most likely target of the hijacking would be the passengers. Their value can be broadly split into three categories:
i) economic – a ransom could be extracted for their safe return;
ii) political – pressure could be brought to bear on a government;
iii) unknown quantity – it is possible that one of the passengers has a value that has not thus far been revealed. A family member of an influential figure for example, or a high-ranking intelligence operative travelling incognito could, if captured, present kidnappers with significant rewards.
An economically-motivated hijack is piracy by another name. Attention immediately shifts to Somalia, whose residents have notoriously been carrying out the maritime equivalent of this act in the Indian Ocean for several years. The aircraft appeared to be turning in the direction of the Horn of Africa before communication was lost, and it is quite possible that a runway could be provided which would allow a 777 to land. This, however, is a substantially more complex undertaking than boarding an oil tanker from a small boat waving AK-47s, and the lack of Somalis on the passenger manifest makes it immensely unlikely. 

The Straits of Malacca has historically been a hive of piracy, but concerted actions by Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore in recent years has all but wiped this out. The 38 Malaysians aboard, however, could perhaps contain some of these former ne'er-do-wells seeking a new outlet for their piratical instincts. In order for this scenario to play out, these actors would need to have prepared a runway capable of supporting a landing 777. This would presumably require an extended period of jungle clearing and concrete-laying in an obscure corner of the Malaysian archipelago, which would be reasonably easy to find if investigators knew what they were looking for. 
A final group potentially motivated by economic concerns would be a heretofore unknown international organisation along the lines of S.P.E.C.T.R.E from the James Bond series. On a more realistic note, Al Quaeda has proven itself capable of such an operation in the past, but using such an act to raise money would be a departure from its traditional methods.

The fact that the passenger manifest contained 153 Chinese nationals would give a potential kidnapper a considerable hold over the Chinese government. A neighbouring Asian country would have the wherewithal and the means to effect such an operation, as well as a runway for a successful landing. North Korea, the most deranged of China's neighbours, is hypothetically within the aircraft's range. China has not been making political friends in its immediate surroundings of late, but even the ever-erratic North Korea knows that kidnapping another country's nationals is not an effective lever for extracting political concessions, not to mention the fact that China has long supported the Kim dynasty against Western pressure. A state-sponsored operation is exceedingly unlikely.

There is a group with a substantial political axe to grind against China, and it has recently been demonstrating its willingness to do so. This group also happens to be based along Flight MH370's last known course. This group is the Uighurs of Xinjiang, a separatist region in the northwest of China. The Uighurs have recently expanded their terrorist activities away from their heartland, with six men armed with knives leaving a wave of devastation in their wake in a train station in Yunnan Province, in the southwest of China, on the 1st of March. There was at least one Uighur passenger aboard flight MH370. This scenario is undermined by two factors: 1) it would be a significant upscaling in the Turkestan Islamic Army's operations thus far and 2) if the original plan was to land the aircraft, it would be very hard to secure a runway large enough within Chinese-occupied Xinjiang without attracting attention. If the original plan was to crash the aircraft, why has a successful operation not been announced? Since the Uighurs are Muslim, it could be conjectured that an Islamic group such as Al-Quaeda might provide operational assistance and arrange the use of a runway in a sympathetic nation such as Yemen or Somalia, however an anti-Chinese operation would again be a strange departure from Al-Quaeda's previous modus operandi – to conduct operations against America and its allies.

Why so quiet?
The obvious explanation for the lack of hard facts in this case would be that the aircraft now lies at the bottom of the sea. The change of course and considerable amount of fuel remaining on-board means that investigators are now looking for debris across the whole of the Indian Ocean, significantly complicating the search effort.

If the aircraft was hijacked and successfully landed with the intention of extracting an economic or political ransom for its passengers, it would make sense to devote some time to covering tracks before sending the ransom note. For example, the instant Somali pirates revealed themselves to be responsible, international search efforts would immediately be trained upon that country, and it is quite hard to hide a wide-body jet in such an economically backward nation. Time would be needed to cover the aircraft in order to prevent aerial detection, or perhaps even to dismantle it, all while moving the passengers to a separate location far from the landing point.

If the hijack were motivated by the capture of a politically sensitive VIP, it is possible that a deal is currently being done behind the scenes for their safe return, the same is true of a valuable object which might have been in the plane’s cargo hold.

Would Sherlock Holmes have already solved this case given the facts available? It seems unlikely. An increased international search effort and an appreciation of the criminal context of the disappearance will aid understanding, but unless a message is released by those responsible or physical evidence of the aircraft emerges, it is possible that Flight MH370 will join the long list of unsolved mysteries so adored by thriller-writers everywhere. 

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