The sudden mid-flight disintegration of a Malaysian Airlines flight to Beijing appears increasingly likely to have been an act of terrorism. No group has claimed responsibility, but there are two chief suspects: The East Turkestan Islamic Movement and/or Jamaat e-Islami. Both have Al-Qaeda links.
All 239 passengers are thought to have perished in the disappearance of the Boeing 777. Although no firm conclusion has been reached, the most probable cause is an intentional explosion.
There was no distress signal from the pilots, as would happen in the event of a weather emergency, mechanical failure or hijacking. It is believed that the plane exploded at around 35,000 feet in the air. There are no signs of poor weather in the area. Malaysian Airlines has a good reputation and the specific flight was recently examined and cleared of any problems.
The suspected culprits are two passengers who got on board using European passports that were stolen in Thailand up to two years ago. Their tickets were purchased together, $625 apiece in Thai currency. Interpol says it is looking at other “suspect passports,” but the Malaysian Transportation Minister said reports that there were two more suspects are false.
After the passports were reported stolen in 2012 and 2013, Interpol logged them into its international database. It stated that no country accessed its database to check on those specific passports since then, which is how the two passengers were able to enter the aircraft.
If the disappearance was indeed a terrorist attack, it was most likely aimed at China. It was a flight headed towards Beijing, so the operatives understood that the majority of the passengers would be of that nationality. The list of passengers shows that 154 were Chinese or Taiwanese. There were also three Americans, but it is improbable that the perpetrators knew the nationalities of all those onboard.
One of the big questions remaining is whether it is true that the flight turned around. This would suggest that the pilot knew of an emergency, but it is then a mystery why no distress signal was sent.
If the target was China, then the most obvious suspect is the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, a Chinese Islamist terrorist group that operates in Pakistan and Xinjiang Province, a Muslim-majority province of western China. Its Turkic population is called Uyghurs and separatists refer to the autonomous province as East Turkestan. It had independence from 1644-1911 and 1944-1949.
The Chinese authorities periodically clash with the Uyghurs. While most are Sufi Muslims and are not considered radical, there are Islamist terrorists among them like ETIM. The group dramatically increased the scope of its violence this year.
On October 28, the first major suicide attack took place in Beijing in Tiananmen Square, when the vehicle collided into a crowd and a gate and then burst into flames. Two tourists died, as did the three inside the vehicle. ETIM didn’t claim responsibility until November 12 but when it did, it said it was a “jihadi operation.” It was claimed under the name of Turkestan Islamic Party (TIP), which is widely thought to be ETIM under another name.
On March 1, a terrorist knife attack in a Kunming train station killed 29 civilians and four terrorists. The Chinese government blames Urghur terrorists and said East Turkestan flags were found at the scene. At least two women were involved, an interesting fact considering that ETIM has released videos of its female
The disappearance of the Malaysian Airlines flight comes shortly after TIP published a video of a Uyghur cleric threatening to kill and behead Chinese Buddhists and “cut you piece by piece” and insulting their “small eyes, flat noses.”
“Judgment day will not come, until we attacked them. Judgment day will not come, until we slaughter them. Judgment day will not come, until our war with them and attacking them,” a translation reads.
ETIM/TIP is known to have links to Al-Qaeda and the Taliban. Abdul Haq, its leader that was killed in Pakistan in 2010, was a member of Al-Qaeda’s Shura Council. In 2009, a senior Al-Qaeda leader in Pakistan urged Muslims to attack China. Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb also threatens to kill Chinese workers in North Africa.
In August, a U.S. drone strike in Pakistan killed four terrorists from Turkmenistan that worked with a Taliban leader in North Waziristan. They are believed to belong to TIP. The State Department says ETIM fights alongside Al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan and that two members were deported from Kyrgyzstan in 2002 after they tried to bomb the U.S. embassy.
ETIM/TIP is not known to have a network in Thailand that could steal the passports and is not thought to have advanced explosives. If it is responsible, it may have got training and/or equipment from an Al-Qaeda affiliate in the region. Alternatively, an Al-Qaeda affiliate could have perpetrated the attack itself in support of the ETIM cause.
Al-Qaeda has a long history in southeast Asia (including Thailand) and specifically in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, where the flight departed from. Top Al-Qaeda leaders met there from January 5-8, 2000 to plan the bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen and the 9/11 attacks. Two of the 9/11 hijackers, Khalid al-Mihdhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi, went to Bangkok, Thailand after the meeting.
The best positioned affiliate is Jemahh Islamiya (JI), which as carried out massive bombings before and is known to operate in Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia. It has yet to target or directly threaten China, but its Al-Qaeda colleagues and supervisors have. Orders could have come from above, as Al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri has held secret calls with over 20 Al-Qaeda operatives at a time to coordinate terrorist campaigns.
JI is best known for the 2002 bombings in Bali, Indonesia that killed over 200 people. It has carried out various other attacks in Indonesia and has targeted Western interests in the Philippines and Singapore, as well. A senior leader was captured in Thailand in 2003. In 1995, he helped oversee a failed plot to blow up 11 American airliners in Asia.
The threat from groups like ETIM should make China reconsider its support for Iran and Hamas. Al-Qaeda leaders allied to ETIM operate from Iran and they all share the same Islamist ideology that inspires violent jihad.
The March 1 knife massacre was framed as “China’s 9/11.” If the disappearance of the Malaysian Airlines flight is the handiwork of ETIM or another Al-Qaeda affiliate, then the commentators spoke too soon.
Ryan Mauro is the ClarionProject.org’s National Security Analyst, a fellow with the Clarion Project and is frequently interviewed on top-tier TV stations as an expert on counterterrorism and Islamic extremism.