The use of stolen passports by two passengers to board a Malaysian airliner that vanished over the South China Sea sends a “red flag” that terrorism may have played a part, according to security officials and analysts.
Groups such as al-Qaeda have sought to crash planes into oceans to cover up evidence, they said. A Singapore aircraft looking for the Malaysian Airline Boeing Co 777-200 today spotted what appears to be a life raft in the sea, with two ships sent to the area in the Gulf of Thailand to search for it, Vietnam officials said.
No evidence exists of terrorism at this point, said a U.S. official following the case who asked not to be identified because the investigation is in its early stages. Even so, terrorism needs to considered, said New York Republican Representative Peter King, who is a member of the House intelligence and Homeland Security committees.
“When you get the red flag of two passengers flying with stolen passports it could well be more than a coincidence,” King told Bloomberg Television. There needs to be a “full scrub” of everyone on the flight, and U.S. intelligence agencies are working with their counterparts in Asia, he said.
“It could well turn out just to have been a terrible accident,” King said. “We are not saying it’s terrorism, but we have to do everything we can to rule it out.”
The Malaysian Airline System Bhd. plane, en route to Beijing from Kuala Lumpur, was carrying 239 people, including 153 Chinese passengers and three U.S. citizens. Nations searching for the plane had little to go on with no distress calls, emergency-beacon signals, bad weather or other signs why an airliner would lose touch in one of the safest phases of flight.
Investigators will probably consider the two passengers using fake passports “instant suspects” and seek to establish their identities, said John Magaw, a former administrator of the Transportation Security Administration and U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
“That raised huge red flags -- the stolen passports and the plane crashing over water,” said Magaw, who also was director of the U.S. Secret Service and is now a security consultant.
Malaysia’s Acting Transport Minister Hishammuddin Hussein said yesterday that he was in touch with international intelligence agencies about the fake passports.
“At this point it’s too early to tell whether this was a terrorist incident or not,” said Rohan Gunaratna, head of the Singapore-based International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research. “The downing of the aircraft should be investigated by a multiagency and a multinational team,” he said. “Certainty there was a security breach because at least two passengers boarded the flight using passports that belong to other persons.”
The governments of Italy and Austria confirmed that two passports used to board the flight were previously reported stolen by citizens of their countries. Malaysia’s Department of Civil Aviation said it had CCTV recordings of the passengers from check-in through the departure point.
Azharuddin Abdul Rahman, director general of the department, told reporters today that five passengers did not board the flight and their bags were removed. All checked-in baggage was screened and security measures at the airport met international standards, he said.
At least two passports recorded in Interpol’s records as lost or stolen were used by passengers on the flight, the cross-border crime agency said yesterday in a statement. No checks of those passports were made by any country between the time they were entered into Interpol’s database and the departure of Flight 370, it said.
The missing plane was a code-share service with China Southern Airlines Co. Two people using Italian and Austrian passports on the flight, Luigi Maraldi and Christian Kozel, had consecutive ticket numbers, according to the Chinese e-ticket verification system Travelsky. They were due to fly from Beijing to Amsterdam and then split up -- Kozel going to Frankfurt and Maraldi to Copenhagen, according to copies of their ticketing information on Travelsky.
The two passports were reported stolen in Phuket in 2012 and last year, Thai police spokesman Piya Uthayo said today at a briefing in Bangkok. Interpol was informed of both cases, he said. Thailand’s Transnational Crime Coordination Center has been assigned to set up a database of stolen passports to link with Interpol’s system.
Kip Hawley, a former administrator of the U.S. Transportation Security Administration, said the stolen passports and the prospect the plane crashed into the Gulf of Thailand “makes the hair stand up on the back of my neck.”
Hawley, a consultant and author of “Permanent Emergency,” a book about his time at the TSA, said he has been especially concerned about bombs hidden in the shoes of passengers as they are powerful enough to bring down aircraft and security officials have grown lax about checking footwear.
Clive Williams, a visiting professor at the Australian National University who specializes in security issues, said he was dubious so far of an act of terrorism. “The flights at higher risk are American flights, Israeli flights and flights going to North America,” he said.
“That’s not to say it wasn’t caused by an explosion, but there can be other reasons for an explosion on an airplane other than terrorism,” said Williams, a former Australian intelligence officer. “There are a huge number of fraudulent passports around the world, mostly used for criminal purposes,” he said.
Malaysia has been vulnerable to terrorist activity and has been used as a transit and planning hub for terrorists, according to a 2012 report by the U.S. State Department. Still, the department said the country hasn’t suffered a serious terrorism incident for “several years.”
China, the destination of the plane, has occasionally suffered what it calls terrorist attacks committed by Uighurs, a predominately Muslim ethnic group from the Xinjiang region of the country’s northwest.
“The investigation of this incident is still underway, so it’s too early to jump to conclusions,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang told reporters today in Beijing.
Authorities have been slow to talk about the possibility of terrorism in the disappearance of the plane, Greg Barton, a professor at Monash University’s School of Political and Social Inquiry in Melbourne, told Bloomberg Television. Still, if the Uighurs were involved “that would be remarkable,” he said.
“Apart from the Uighurs, and they seem unlikely given the capacity required to bring down an airline, it’s hard to think of anyone else who would want to attack China in this fashion. It’s hard to think of anyone who would want to attack Malaysia.”
The governor of Yunnan, Li Jiheng, told reporters yesterday there’s no evidence of a link between an attack in the provincial capital of Kunming and the missing plane. Uighur separatists were blamed for a March 1 knife attack at a train station in Kunming that killed 29 people, many of them migrant workers.