Malaysia Probes Hijack to Sabotage; Terror Not Ruled Out

Malaysia authorities said hijacking and sabotage are part of the criminal probe in the disappearance of Flight 370, a mystery now in its fifth day, and the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency said terrorism can’t be excluded.

“I wouldn’t rule it out, not at all,” CIA Director John Brennan told an audience yesterday in Washington, hours after Malaysia and Interpol said two passengers who boarded the missing jet using stolen passports were Iranians who probably had no link to any terror group.

Malaysia is combing through the plane’s passenger manifest and scouring the background of the crew for signs of personal or psychological issues, Inspector General of Police Khalid Abu Bakar said in Kuala Lumpur. Photos and video of bags and cargo are being reviewed “piece by piece,” he said.

Khalid gave the outlines of the law enforcement inquiry even as the lack of debris meant that an aviation accident remains part of the case. Hours after Malaysia broadened the search to include the Malacca Strait, across the country from the route of the Beijing-bound jet, the Associated Press reported that Malaysia’s military has radar data showing the Boeing Co. 777-200 reached the strait.

Northeasterly Route?

Air patrols hunting for the Malaysian Airline System Bhd. plane resume today after the search went on overnight with a multinational flotilla prowling waters near Malaysia and Vietnam. Flight 370 left Kuala Lumpur on March 8 flying a northeasterly course to Beijing, taking it over the Gulf of Thailand and on toward China.

The AP’s account of radar data showing the jet at the Malacca Strait, to the northwest of Malaysia’s capital, is at odds with official announcements that Flight 370 with its 239 passengers and crew was nearing Vietnamese airspace when controllers lost all contact.

AP cited a local newspaper report quoting a Malaysian air force general and an unidentified military official whom the news agency said had been briefed on the investigation.

Both the men on Flight 370 using stolen passports arrived last month in Kuala Lumpur with Iranian passports, Interpol Secretary General Ron Noble told reporters yesterday in Grenoble, France. Interpol helps coordinate police departments around the world.

Interpol’s View

“The more information we get, the more we’re inclined to conclude that it was not a terrorist incident,” Noble said. He identified the older of the two men as Delavar Seyed Mohammad Reza, 29.

That passenger used an Italian passport, Malaysia’s Khalid told reporters. The other traveler used an Austrian passport and was Pouria Nour Mohammad Mehrdad, 19, Khalid said. Authorities followed normal procedures in granting him a visa when he entered Malaysia, Khalid said.

“We have been checking his background, we have also checked him, with other police organizations, on his profile, and we believe that he is not likely to be a member of any terrorist group,” Khalid said.

The CIA’s Brennan, addressing a Council on Foreign Relations meeting in Washington, said the lack of any wreckage robs investigators of the opportunity to “do some of the forensic analysis that will lead us” toward a cause for the plane’s disappearance.

‘Very Disturbing’

“Our Malaysian counterparts are doing everything they can to try to put together the pieces here,” Brennan said. “But clearly, there’s still a mystery which is very disturbing.”

While it’s rare for investigators not to find aircraft wreckage for days, it has happened. The longest period in modern aviation history between an airliner disappearance and initial findings of debris was seven years ago, when Adam Air Flight 574 disappeared off the coast of Indonesia’s South Sulawesi.

The Boeing 737-400, operated by PT Adam Skyconnection Airlines, lost contact with air traffic control Jan. 1, 2007. Only 10 days later was any wreckage found. Not until August did Phoenix International Inc., a U.S.-based marine salvage company, retrieve the flight data.

The current search has been expanded beyond the flight path to the Malacca Strait, Malaysia Airlines said in a statement. That is on the opposite side of the country, and in the opposite direction, from Flight 370’s intended route to Beijing, which would have taken it over the Gulf of Thailand. The jet was nearing Vietnamese airspace when controllers lost all contact.

Turning Back?

The authorities are also looking at the possibility of an attempt by Flight 370 to turn back to Subang, near Kuala Lumpur.

At least nine countries are trying to locate the jet. The search originally focused on the Gulf of Thailand, between Malaysia and Vietnam, then was broadened to the west as well as eastward to the South China Sea.

Malaysia Airlines is offering 31,000 yuan ($5,000) to the victims’ relatives to help with expenses, Ignatius Ong, an executive at the company, said in Beijing. “We understand a lot of people are very frustrated,” Ong said.

With current technology, it’s unusual for an aircraft to vanish without a distress call. When they do disappear suddenly, it’s typically because of an explosion. Yet that would create widely scattered debris, and search teams haven’t been able to recover any remnants. That the plane was a Boeing 777, one of the most reliable jets in the air, only adds to the puzzle.

No Debris

Potential leads haven’t panned out. Vietnamese vessels failed to discover any objects after searching in the area where a Hong Kong plane spotted debris.

Airline officials retracted an earlier statement about having removed baggage belonging to five passengers who hadn’t boarded the flight after they had checked in. Instead, the company said four passengers who were booked to travel on Flight 370 didn’t show up to check in.

The aircraft, which disappeared without providing any distress signal, may have made an “air turn-back,” Malaysian Acting Transport Minister Hishammuddin Hussein had said earlier. That means the plane may have deviated from its planned route, said Malaysian Airline Chief Executive Officer Ahmad Jauhari Yahya. The pilots never signaled trauma or danger before losing radio contact between Malaysia and Vietnam.

The last known position of MH370 before it disappeared off the radar was 065515 North (longitude) and 1033443 East (latitude). Boeing and the National Transportation Safety Board have also started investigating, Ong said in Beijing.

Flight 370 departed Kuala Lumpur at about 12:41 a.m. local time March 8 and was scheduled to land in Beijing at 6:30 a.m. Security screening was performed as usual, Malaysia Airports Holdings Bhd. said. Controllers lost radar contact about an hour into the flight as the plane neared Vietnamese airspace.