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 helicopter looking yesterday for the Malaysian Airline Boeing Co 777-200 spotted a suspected window or door fragment in rough seas 90 kilometers (56 miles) south of Vietnam’s Tho Chu Island, with ships and aircraft now searching for it, Vietnamese 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 all 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 the same time, our own intelligence have been activated and, of course, the counter-terrorism units from all the relevant countries have been informed,” he told reporters at a briefing.
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.
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.
“It is clearly of great concern that any passenger was able to board an international flight using a stolen passport listed in Interpol’s databases,” Interpol Secretary General Ronald K. Noble said in the statement.
The missing plane was a code-share service with China Southern Airlines Co, which said it sold seven tickets on the flight, including to people of Austrian and Italian nationality, according to the company’s microblog. When asked about the two passengers who boarded with stolen passports, Chairman Si Xianmin told reporters in Beijing: “The key is with border control and immigration departments on the ground.”
Thai police are investigating the passports, the Bangkok-based Post Today reported on its website, citing Panya Mamen, the police commander in Phuket province. They are looking at whether the documents were stolen by counterfeit passport gangs, the newspaper said.
Maraldi Luigi, an Italian man whose name appeared on the passenger list for the flight, attended the briefing held by the Phuket police, Post Today said. Luigi said his passport was stolen in Phuket in July 2013 when he used it to rent a motorcycle, and reported the loss to police, it said.
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.
A spokeswoman for the U.S. National Security Council, Caitlin Hayden, said in a statement March 8 that U.S. officials “believe it is too early to comment on the causes” of the plane’s disappearance.
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.
“Terrorism has to be politically motivated, and it’s unlikely it would be that,” he said. “The flights at higher risk are American flights, Israeli flights and flights going to North America.”
“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.
Authorities have been slow to talk about the possibility of terrorism in the disappearance of the Malaysia plane, Greg Barton, a professor at Monash University’s School of Political and Social Inquiry in Melbourne, told Bloomberg Television. 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. All of this is most peculiar.”
The governor of Yunnan, Li Jiheng, told reporters yesterday in Beijing there’s no evidence of a link between attacks in the provincial capital of Kunming and the missing flight. 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.