March 10, 2014

TSG IntelBrief: The Mystery of Flight MH370: Terrorism Not Ruled Out

• The unsettling lack of details in the disappearance and presumed crash of Malaysia Air flight 370, carrying 239 people, is perhaps more complicated due to information that two passengers aboard the flight used stolen passports and had purchased their tickets together

• Of concern regardless of the tragedy’s cause, airlines do not, as a matter of routine, check passenger passports for international flights against INTERPOL’s Stolen and Lost Travel Documents database

• The combination of relatively lax transit controls in some South Asian countries, indigenous terrorist groups, and China’s problem with violent insurgents and tensions with its neighbors are a potential combination for destabilization that bears watching regardless of the cause of this tragedy

• Because air travel impacts so much of the world on such a regular basis, it remains a profoundly emotional issue. Whatever the cause of presumed MH370 down, the incident is a heartbreaking reminder that aviation remains a potent symbol of modernity and globalization, and therefore a prime target for terror acts.

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  When Malaysia Air flight 370 disappeared from radar an hour into its March 8 flight from Malaysia to Beijing there was nothing to indicate trouble. The plane simply disappeared, though there is some reporting from radar data that suggests the plane might have been reversing course. Beyond the immense personal tragedies of such a loss of life and the massive scene examination, there are immediate leads to pursue, including two passengers having booked their tickets and boarded the flight using passports—one Austrian, the other Italian—reported stolen in Thailand in two separate incidents in 2012 and 2013. INTERPOL reported that no country interrogated its database regarding the passports in question prior to MH370’s departure.

Early speculation is just that, but the trends and experiences that drive informed speculation are of merit as they form the backdrop against which decisions and judgments are made with imperfect knowledge, as well as provide sounding boards for scenarios that might play out in different ways.


The Usual Suspects

While it has been greatly diminished in almost every sense (logistically, financially, operationally), al-Qaeda core’s ideology of violent extremism still resonates with a small but lethal segment of the world’s population. Al-Qaeda, its franchises (AQIM, AQAP, al-Shabab) and inspired groups, tend to stick with what has worked. The attacks on 9/11 rightfully get all the attention when discussing al-Qaeda operations, but it is the failed 1995 Bojinka plot hatched by then freelancers Khalid Sheikh Mohammad and Ramzi Yousef that might be more applicable to the tragedy at hand. That plot involved the planned destruction of 11 airliners bound for the US, with explosives concealed in contact lens solution bottles. Before the plot was disrupted, Yousef, using a forged Italian passport, had tested a weakened version of the explosive device on a Philippine Airlines flight, killing one person and very nearly bringing down the plane carrying 273 people.

More recently, in 2001, al-Qaeda operative Richard Reid tried to bring down a plane using a shoe bomb that contained acetone peroxide (TATP); in 2009, AQAP dispatched Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab with the intent to bring down another plane, this time using an “underwear bomb” that contained TATP. According to FBI laboratory testing, both devices, if properly ignited, would have caused catastrophic damage. There have been recent reports that at least AQAP continues to work on harder-to-detect devices. Recall that Homeland Security put out a shoe bomber warning on February 19.

In recent history of pre- USS Cole and 9/11 attacks, Malaysia had been a transit/meeting point for al-Qaeda operatives. Detainees directly involved related that a significant part of what became 9/11 was planned in, and casing operations conducted from, Kuala Lampur, due to its permissive entry rules and proximity to support elements from terrorist group Jemaah Islamiyah.

Given these facts, it would not be unreasonable to at least suspect an organization such as al-Qaeda or its other affiliates, if the investigation determines foul play was involved. A long track record of similar attacks, targets, and locations reminds us that nothing remains static in global counter-terrorism efforts.


Current Conflicts and Threats

China is confronted with a persistent threat from a very small but violent opposition within its Uighur minority, one with the characteristics of both a local and transnational terrorist organization. Locally, Uighur members are suspected in the brazen March 1 knife attack at a Chinese train station that left 27 dead and over 100 injured. Internationally, Uighur extremists have trained in terrorist camps in Pakistan and Afghanistan, creating potential terrorist connections. Moreover, Uighur extremists are suspected of carrying out the October 2013 attack in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square that killed five.

Last month, Chinese officials announced the death of 11 Uighurs during clashes with police as well as during operations involving improvised explosive devices. Given recent history and escalating tensions, it is not unreasonable to speculate as to possible terrorist involvement. However, it would be a significant leap in tactics and reach for Uighur terrorist elements, though a similar assessment could have been made prior to AQAP’s underwear bomb and KSM’s Bojinka attacks.

The primarily northwestern China Uighur movement is influenced by its proximity to the tensions in Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Pakistan, and of course, Afghanistan. There is no shortage of groups capable of planning an attack on aviation, even if the location and modus operandi are not associated with these groups.

This brings an important point: technology and increased travel, even with enhanced security, increase odds of success. Explosives such as TATP, which is wildly unstable (for which reason Hamas has referred to it as “the mother of Satan”), are maddeningly difficult to detect using methods that still allow for smooth transit of millions of daily passengers worldwide.

Furthermore, the circumstances that give rise to extremist/terrorist groups—instability, conflict, economic tension—show little sign of improvement. Look no further than Syria, Iraq, Turkey, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and China, to see that the narratives used by al-Qaeda et al continue to have an audience.

Our thoughts go out to the families of the victims of flight MH370, regardless of the cause. While it may prove to be a tragic accident, the incident serves as a reminder that nothing is certain in counterterrorist efforts, no matter how long a lull between attacks, except for the certainty that terrorist groups will adapt and continue to strike at aviation targets.



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