Sunday, March 16, 2014

MH370: "Criminal" investigation begins, search widens

Theories on what caused Malaysian Airlines flight MH370 to deviate from its intended flight path from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing have shifted focus with pilot suicide, terrorism & even cyber-hijack cited as possibilities. Meanwhile the search for the missing plane has widened to an area stretching several hundred kilometres and across several countries.

After a week of searching for the missing Boeing 777-200ER new data emerged that confirmed the plane had turned back, headed west and then turned either north or south, travelling for several hours before data was lost.

Investigators are now convinced that someone on the aircraft deliberately took control and flew it on a different route.

Chronology of events

Soon after flight MH370 took off from Kuala Lumpur International Airport the ACARS transmitter was switched off or otherwise disabled. ACARS is used to send various types of data, such as information relating to fuel consumption, engine performance data, aircraft position and occasionally text style messages. The switching off of this data stream may have been overlooked by Malaysian Air Traffic Control however since they raised no concerns and later made the routine call to the plane when it was about to enter Vietnamese airspace.

On being informed to contact Ho Chi Minh ATC in Vietnam there was only the simple audio message response, “All right, roger that” [BBC].
[Note that some media have also reported the pilot returned a response as, “All right, goodnight”] / Timeline: BBC / Washington Post


What has now become clear, from studying military radar data, is that the plane made a counter-clockwise turn and headed west back across Malaysia.

Then on Saturday, one week after the disappearance of the Boeing plane, it was revealed that a satellite belonging to Inmarsat had picked up a ‘ping’ from the aircraft [Inmarsat - Press Release].

Analysts had studied this new data and extrapolated the possible route that the plane may have followed. Given only one satellite had picked up the plane, triangulation was not possible. Thus investigators could only determine the plane’s possible trajectory as being within one of two arcs that extended several hundred kilometres.

One one possible route the plane would have headed was south across the Indian Ocean with no possible landing place. The other route would have taken the plane across India, China, and as far north as Kazakhstan.

While the route was approximate, data showed the plane was in the air for several hours, though it has not emerged for exactly how long.


From the newly uncovered data, investigators were now convinced that someone in the cockpit took control of the aircraft. The question was who and why?

Suspicions have focused firstly on the pilots. Plain-clothes detectives have searched the homes of both the captain, 53-year-old Zaharie Ahmad Shah, and co-pilot, 27-year-old Fariq Abdul Hamid.

Neither had, according to authorities, made a request to fly together, something that had been speculated by some media reports. There was some concern expressed by reports that the captain had an elaborate flight simulator installed at his home.

Malaysia's Transport Ministry confirmed that they were examining the flight simulator taken from his home, but did not elaborate further.

Neighbours, speaking to CNN, were sceptical of any suggestion Captain Shah would have endangered his own aircraft or its passengers and said the media were making too many assumptions of his owning a flight simulator.

There are suggestions too that the captain was political fanatic and an ‘obsessive’ supporter of Malaysia’s opposition leader, Anwar Ibrahim [BBC - Profile / Daily Mail].

Possible hijacking

The speed at which ACARS and the transponder were switched off has prompted many investigators to dismiss the possibility of a hijacking.

Flight MH370 departed from Kuala Lumpur International Airport at 00:41 on Saturday [16:41 GMT Friday], and was due to arrive in Beijing at 06:30 [22:30 GMT].

Malaysia Airlines says the plane lost contact at 01:30 [17:30 GMT] 49 minutes after takeoff. However ACARS had been switched off shortly after the aircraft had reached its cruising height of 35 feet at 01:01 [17:01 GMT].

Only on reaching cruising height would seatbelt signs be switched off. Thus terrorists or hijackers would have only a small window in which to launch an attack on the cockpit.

Nonetheless, minutes may be all that was needed.


The possibility of a terrorist attack is raised in several reports. The Sunday Telegraph reported that there was a possible plot being investigated after an Al-Qaeda supergrass told a court that four or five Malaysian men had planned to hijack a passenger airliner.

Giving evidence at the trial in New York of Sulaiman Abu Ghaith, Osama bin Laden’s son-in-law, Saajid Badat, a British-born Muslim from Gloucester, said that he had been instructed at a terrorist training camp in Afghanistan to give a shoe bomb to some Malaysian terrorists. “I gave one of my shoes to the Malaysians. I think it was to access the cockpit,” Badat said.

Badat, who spoke via video link and is in hiding in the UK, said the Malaysian plot was being masterminded by Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, said to be the principal architect of 9/11. The reports have certainly refocused the media spotlight on Al-Qaeda [].


Should terrorists have taken control of Malaysian Airlines flight MH370 there surely must have been a motive.

Several media reports point their suspicions to Uyghur separatists. Indeed such theories do have some credence.

Reuters this week reported that Uyghur rebel Abdullah Mansour had said he was intent on bringing a Holy Fight to China because of its treatment of Muslims in the country.

Speaking from an undisclosed location Pakistan Mansour said, “The fight against China is our Islamic responsibility and we have to fulfil it.”

Interestingly if the plane had turned west from the South China Sea and then turned north-west towards Kazakhstan, it would have taken a direct path over Xinjiang, the Uyghur heartland.

In the Reuter’s report, Mansour said attacking China was the duty of not only his party, but all Muslims. And while he made no mention of the missing Malaysian Airlines plane or a recent terror attack in Kunming, Mansour said there were many operations being planned.

“We have plans for many attacks [against] China,” he told Reuters. “We have a message to China that East Turkestan people and other Muslims have woken up. They cannot suppress us and Islam any more. Muslims will take revenge.”

The Turkestan Islamic Party, which China equates with the East Turkestan Islamic Movement [ETIM], keeps a low profile in Pakistan. Unlike the Taliban, it almost never posts videos promoting its activities or ideology. Its exact size is unknown and some experts dispute its ability to orchestrate attacks in China, or that it exists at all as a cohesive group [Reuters / Guardian Liberty Voice / EuroNews / / Daily Mail].


Aside of the obvious theories of a pilot suicide or conventional hijack there has also been the suggestion MH370 was the victim of the first cyber-hijack. Several Sunday newspapers reported that the plane might have been controlled from the ground or even on board the aircraft using something as simple as a mobile phone [CNN].

“It might well be the world’s first cyber hijack,” British anti-terror expert Dr Sally Leivesley said.

Dr Leivesley, a former Home Office scientific adviser, said the hackers could have changed the plane’s speed, altitude and direction by sending radio signals to its flight management system. It could then be landed or made to crash by remote control.

Again both the theory and motive are highly speculative with possible perpetrators cited as being criminal gangs, terrorists or a even a foreign power [Express / Daily Mail].

Wider search

With the search now expanded across a vast stretch of ocean and several countries the hunt for flight MH370 has become all the more complicated.

Many of the countries that the plane may have crossed are particularly sensitive about revealing their defence capabilities. Indeed Indonesia said on Sunday that it would have to take requests for military radar data under advisement though it said it would launch land searches.

Even where countries are prepared to release data this may reveal little. Vast regions are not covered by radar or, according to some reports, operate on an “as needed” basis.

The search now involves 25 countries, from the previous 14 engaged in the multi-national effort. Planes will have to seek special permission to search some territories which may further delay efforts in finding the missing aircraft.


What remains a mystery is where the plane might be. Did it crash after running out of fuel? Did the hijackers or pilots land at a remote airfield and if so what has become of the 12 crew members and 227 passengers on board?

If terror related there is the slim possibility they might be planning video executions such as seen throughout the Iraq War. In fact even FBI investigators say the disappearance of MH370 may have been ‘an act of piracy’ with the possibility that hundreds of passengers are being held at an unknown location not being ruled out.

A more likely possibility is a failed 9/11 style plot. However the apparent north-westerly route seems to dismiss this since there are no high profile targets along this trajectory.

If a pilot suicide, this would seem unlikely given the distance covered. Surely any such attempt to commit suicide and destroy the plane would have been conducted as soon as one had control of the aircraft.

A cyber-hijack in some ways makes the most sense. Should someone have taken absolute control of the plane, switching off communications, transponders and sending it on a new course, the pilots may have been unable to do anything but watch as their aircraft flew towards Kazakhstan before finally running out of fuel.

But what would be the purpose? If it was a cyber-hijack it could have been a test run. Finding out how far one could travel undetected or unchallenged. Indeed it does appear that the plane managed to fly without identifying itself for hundreds of kilometres whilst travelling through several countries’ airspace. The only alternative to it running out of fuel or landing is that MH370 was shot down and no country has admitted responsibility.

The shooting down of a civilian aircraft has happened a number of times in the past. There have been more than a dozen such incidents since 1970 many by fighter jets who have downed airliners for violating sovereign airspace and failed to respond to radio transmissions [Wikipedia: List of airliner shootdown incidents].

However much such theories fit, there will be no real way of knowing until the plane, whole or in part, is located.

tvnewswatch, London, UK

Thursday, March 13, 2014

The mystery & tragedy of flight MH370

Mystery still surrounds the disappearance of flight MH370, a Boeing 777-200ER which went missing last Saturday [8/3/2014].


Flight MH370 had departed from Kuala Lumpur International Airport in Malaysia at 00:41 on Saturday local time [16:41 GMT Friday], and was due to arrive in Beijing at 06:30. But Air traffic controllers lost contact at 01:30, less than an hour into its flight.

Malaysian officials said that the last verbal communication with the plane came at the boundary between Malaysian and Vietnamese airspace. Malaysia's air traffic control informed the pilot that the flight was about to fly into Vietnamese airspace and told them to contact Ho Chi Minh control. "OK, roger that", was the last radio transmission.

Soon after the aircraft’s transponder went off and there were no further communications from the aircraft.

Terrorism theory

There have been countless theories as to what became of the plane with a strong focus on terrorism, a catastrophic structural failure or even pilot suicide.

Concerns were doubly raised when it was revealed that two passengers had boarded using stolen passports [Telegraph]. Later identified as two Iranians, Delvar Suyed Mohammad Reza & Pouria Nour Mohammad Mehrdad, their involvement in foul play was discounted since both individuals had arranged to meet up with relatives in Frankfurt, Germany.

Nonetheless some government agencies, including the CIA, said they had still not ruled out terrorism. Indeed there is some concern that coming on the heels of a terror attack in Kunming, Yunnan, China, only a week earlier, the disappearance of flight MH370 might have been a terror attack perpetrated by Uyghur separatists.

There is certainly anecdotal evidence supporting such theories. China has claimed several times to have thwarted terror attacks aimed at bringing down planes.

In June 2012 passengers subdued a person who tried to gain access to the cockpit of Tianjin Airlines Flight 7554 which was travelling between Hotan Airport to Urumqi, the regional capital of Xinjiang of Urumqi [ABC].

In 2008 Chinese state news agencies reported that a China Southern Airlines plane was forced to land because "some people were attempting to create an air disaster." The flight had taken off from Urumqi, the capital of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, and militants had attempted to hijack the plane but were foiled by the flight crew, according to officials. [CNN / LA Times].

Malaysia forcibly returned at least 11 Uyghurs on 6th August 2011. On the same day, the Thai government turned over an ethnic Uyghur, Nur Muhammed, to Chinese diplomats in Bangkok. And on 8th August, Pakistan deported five blindfolded and handcuffed Uyghurs, including a woman and two children, to China, media reports said. It is unclear whether these individuals had any connection to separatist activities, but such deportations certainly raise the finger of suspicion.

Structural failure

One main theory is that there was a catastrophic failure of the aircraft. An FAA [Federal Aviation Administration] had earlier approved an order asking that hundreds of 777s be checked for cracks and corrosion issues. The concern was that should these problems go undetected, they could potentially lead to decompression problems or a "loss of structural integrity of a plane", essentially resulting in a break-up mid-air [CNN].

A sudden depression in the cabin could have resulted in the pilots falling unconscious sending the plane well beyond the current search zone as it flew on autopilot before running out of fuel.

Malaysian authorities dismissed such possibilities saying the aircraft had been inspected in February and given an all-clear. The FAA warning also seemed to reject this possibility. The warning related to the fuselage skin underneath an adapter for the airplane's satellite communications antenna something that was not fitted on the 777-200ER Malaysia Airlines aircraft, and as such was not subject to the FAA order, Boeing said [Reuters].


Another theory being discussed is pilot suicide, and there were suggestions that authorities had begun to investigate the backgrounds of the crew. However Malaysian officials denied they had searched the homes of the pilots. Meanwhile, police sources said they had questioned the pilot’s family and were investigating if there were any underlying mental or psychological issues [ / Daily Mail].

There have also been reports that the co-pilot at the controls of the missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 had invited a Melbourne tourist and her friend into the cockpit where he smoked, took photos and entertained the pair during a previous international flight. Fariq Abdul Hamid’s behaviour has certainly raised eyebrows, especially in a post-9/11 world where the integrity of the cockpit is now considered to be off limits to passengers on security and safety grounds [Guardian / / Nine MSN]

Confused information

There has been much criticism, especially from China, concerning the information coming from Malaysian officials. Information has been sketchy, confused and contradictory at best.

There have been reports the plane turned back and that military radar had tracked the aircraft to the Malacca Strait, hundreds of kilometres to the west of its last reported position. But these reports were later quashed by another military spokesperson [NBC].

The confusion has resulted in searches being conducted in areas that may not have been necessary. But Malaysian authorities have defended their efforts. “This is a crisis situation... and a complex situation,” a spokesman said Thursday before adding, “We have not done anything to jeopardize this search effort”.

Extensive search

That search effort has been extensive and involved many nations. Much of the search has been conducted conventionally with the use of planes, boats and helicopters. Several nations have sent warships and aircraft to the areas where flight MH370 may have gone down but some 6 days after the plane disappeared there has been no sign of wreckage.

However there are many who believe that the search has been hindered by imprecise, incomplete, and sometimes inaccurate information which have raised doubts about the aircraft's possible location and trajectory.

The searches have also stretched to hi-tech methods. On Wednesday China released satellite images taken on Sunday morning, a full 24 hours after the Malaysian flight disappeared. However, soon after the pictures were posted to the State Administration for Science, Technology and Industry for National Defence (SASTIND) website, the portal became inaccessible for several hours.

Meanwhile news stations poured over the images and debated their veracity, the poor image quality and timing of their release. There were questions over whether the images truly showed wreckage of the missing Boeing 777-200ER. Given the dimensions of the supposed debris some commentators on CNN were sceptical that the images showed parts of an aircraft at all. The estimated size of one piece was 24 metres by 22 metres, too large to be a part of the plane.

There was also a debate over why it had taken more than three days for the Chinese to release the images and a discussion as to why the images were so fuzzy. There was some suggestion that the photographs had been deliberately doctored in order to hide China’s satellite capabilities.

There was a sense that the position of the supposed debris was correct given the last reported position of the aircraft and the prevailing currents. However, by Thursday China said they had released the images by mistake [BBC]. Furthermore, a search in the area concerned proved fruitless.


There have also been crowd-sourced searches for the missing plane. Digital Globe,  a commercial vendor of space imagery, set up a portal through which Internet users could browse through satellite photographs and mark objects which might show signs of the aircraft [Telegraph].

As well as satellites even the International Space Station has been employed, training cameras on the region, though sifting through all these images can take hundreds of man-hours and even then one could miss any potential evidence.

Wake-up call

While the cause of the disappearance of flight MH370 has yet to be established, the incident should serve as a wake-up call on a number of levels.

In respect to security, there has been a major failure in allowing two individuals to board the plane using stolen documents. These two men should have been stopped and apprehended upon their arrival at Kuala Lumpur airport. However, Malaysia failed to check the passports against a list maintained by Interpol. The number of names is significant, more than 39 million according to Interpol themselves. But the organisation said only a handful of nations, amongst them the UK, USA and UAE, bother even to check names and numbers on a routine basis.

Another concern is the issue surrounding flight data. The main problem surrounding the search for flight MH370 has been determining where it might have gone down. The problem might well have been made much easier should a constant stream of telemetry be broadcast as routine from international flights. While some modern aeroplanes are fitted with such equipment it is not mandatory.

There also needs to be better coordination between different agencies and countries. There have been several erroneous reports concerning what was transmitted from the aircraft and where it was last spotted either by its transponder or radar. Indeed this has led to confusion which may well have impeded search efforts.

Human tragedy

Almost forgotten in the fog of disinformation are the passengers of flight MH370.

There were 227 passengers, including 153 Chinese and 38 Malaysians, according to the manifest. Seven were children. All 12 crew members were Malaysian.

Families have expressed frustration at not receiving enough information and there have been angry scenes at daily press conferences in Beijing where relatives of the 153 Chinese on board the stricken plane have gathered.

In Australia too there have been criticisms coming from family members of seven passengers aboard the plane. The pain and anguish is likely to continue until evidence concerning the whereabouts of the Malaysian aircraft emerges.

Like Air France flight 447 it could take months if not years to find out what happened to the ill-fated flight of Malaysian Airline flight MH370 [BBC]. This delay and the not knowing will only make it harder for those who have lost their loved ones.

tvnewswatch, London, UK

Monday, March 03, 2014

Kunming terror attack leaves dozens dead

An attack on civilians at a train station in China has left at least 30 dead and more than 100 injured. It is the worst single terror attack, believed to have been carried out by Muslim separatists, China has seen in recent history.

The attack occurred at about 9:20 p.m. Beijing time, on Saturday 1st March, which saw at least ten attackers using long-bladed knives to stab and slash passengers.

According to initial reports about twenty had been killed, though the death toll swiftly rose to 33, amongst them four assailants who were said to have been shot by armed police.

State media said the attackers were Xinjiang militants, though there was no immediate claim of responsibility.


The attack is an escalation of attacks believed to have been perpetrated by the Turkestan Islamic Party, sometimes referred to or linked with the East Turkestan Islamic Movement. The group, which has claimed responsibility for several attacks in the past, want independence from China.

Xinjiang has seen decades of tension with many people of Uyghur ethnicity having struggled to be an independent country.

A group of Uyghur separatists claim that the region, which they refer to as East Turkestan, is not legally a part of China, but was invaded by the PRC in 1949 and has since been under Chinese occupation. The separatist movement is led by Turkic Islamist militant organizations, most notably the East Turkestan independence movement, against the national government in Beijing.

The group have previously claimed responsibility for bomb attacks in Kunming in 2008 [tvnewswatch: Kunming hit by terror attack / tvnewswatch: Internet access blocked after Kunming attack / tvnewswatch: Islamic terrorism growing in China / tvnewswatch: Kunming bus bomber identified police say] and more recently an incident where a four wheel drive vehicle was deliberately driven into a crowd in Tiananmen Square in October last year [Wikipedia / BBC / SITE Intel Group].

China's 9/11

Given the seriousness of last week’s attack at Kunming station, some Chinese media referred to it as China’s 9/11. While the scale of the attack was much smaller, it was nonetheless significant in that it showed a rise in Islamic inspired terrorism.

The west has often itself been blamed by Chinese media for bringing about the 9/11 attacks through its foreign policy. Even amongst many Chinese there was a sense of excitement on seeing the Twin Towers being struck by planes and subsequently collapsing.

There were reports of people cheering while watching footage of the collapsing towers and some even let off fireworks. Donnie Wang, a project manager from Chongqing, who was 16 at the time, told the state run Global Times of his recollections. He spoke of the reactions of parents and teachers at his school when hearing the news. “Their jaws were flapping all the time and the burst of excitement was quite clear,” he said.

Of course there was a backdrop of resentment that had built over many years. Two years earlier, five American bombs had hit China’s embassy in Belgrade, killing three Chinese. And only months before the 9/11 attacks a US reconnaissance plane had collided with a Chinese fighter jet off the coast of Hainan, killing the Chinese pilot [See also: YouTube / Free Republic / SFGate].

A decade on, those who cheered the attack on America, in which more than 3,000 died, may well feel a sense of shame. Now China is feeling the wrath of Islamic extremists inspired by a similar ideology.

There can be no excuse for such attacks, though there may be some who will feel China has fuelled the fire by its oppression of the Uyghur people.


Following 9/11 the Chinese President Jiang Zemin said he was "shocked" and sent his condolences to President Bush, while the Foreign Ministry said China "opposed all manner" of terrorism. And despite some Chinese having celebrated of the attacks, tens of thousands of people visited the US Embassy in Beijing, leaving flowers, cards, funeral wreaths and hand-written notes of condolence on the pavement.

They like many saw, that whatever the policy of the US government, the victims were innocent members of the public.

And so too of the terror attacks in Kunming and elsewhere. While the anger of the Xinjiang separatists might be directed towards the Chinese government, the victims have been ordinary Chinese people going about their everyday business.

Families have been torn apart, some left childless with several children reportedly amongst the victims. Others will be maimed for life, and few will fully understand the reason behind the attacks given how strictly controlled the media is in China. Indeed few will have any real knowledge about Xinjiang and the internal struggles that continue.

Censored news

In fact there will be many in China who may have missed the news of Kunming’s terror attack entirely. Whilst there was some coverage in the regional press with the Kunming Times carrying the story on its front page, for papers outside the region there was scant mention, if any, of the incident.

The Hong Kong based South China Morning Post reported that there was no mention of the attack in Beijing News, Beijing Times or Beijing Youth Daily, and the CCTV evening news did not report the attack. Where news stations did mention the attack it was only briefly referred to. Photos of the attack, many extremely graphic and taken by members of the public, were also swiftly deleted by censors from microblogs and social media.

English language media did report more extensively with the Global Times saying "a nationwide outrage has been stirred... [by] China's '9-11'" Hard to see how a whole nation was outraged, given many may well be oblivious to the attack.

Official response

While the media downplayed the attack, there were nonetheless statements issued by the CPC general secretary Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang who assigned Meng Jianzhu, Secretary of the Central Politics and Law Commission to oversee the investigation. Meanwhile Lü Xinhua, spokesman for the second session of the National Committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference denounced the attack as a "serious violent terrorist attack [perpetrated by] terrorist elements from Xinjiang."

Abroad, the attack did make the news, though was much obscured by the growing tensions in the Ukraine.

Surprisingly, there were few public messages of condolence. The UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon strongly condemned the attack and expressed condolences to the bereaved families. Dilxat Rexit, a spokesman for the World Uighur Congress also condemned the attacks, saying he denounced "any form of violence", and urged the Chinese government to "ease systematic repression".

The French also released a statement expressing “solidarity” with the Chinese people, but that was about the extent of a world wide response.

Indeed, there was almost stony silence from the US, most European countries and others. Perhaps that says volumes for how some see the incident; a symptom and reaction to China’s brutal domestic policy.

More reports: Wikipedia / BBC / BBC / BBC/ Sky NewsGuardian / TelegraphDaily MailMirror / FTWSJ / LATimes / LATimes / China Smack (Graphic) / LiveLeak (Graphic)

tvnewswatch, London, UK