The story of the missing Malaysian Airlines plane has been getting weirder and weirder.
Instead of being a simple crash in the sea, it seems that the plane was deliberately hijacked, that its communications gear was largely switched off, and that then it flew along for hours, seemingly being guided expertly using navigational landmarks.
It may be a long shot that the passengers are still alive, but we should pray for them and for their families—and the safety of the whole world.
There are a lot of theories about the missing Malaysian Airlines plane, and we’ll undoubtedly know more in coming days, but I thought I’d put down a few thoughts as I clarify my own thinking on the subject.
Of course, a key question is who took the plane (one or more of the pilots? stowaways? hijackers hiding among the passengers? some combination of these?).
The question that interests me most at the moment, though, is why they took the plane.
The only reason anyone would take a plane is to acquire something that they don’t otherwise have. That would seem to be one of three things:
1) The plane
2) The cargo
3) The passengers
Let’s look at each of these theories. Some of them get rather Tom Clancy, but—like 9/11—the story itself seems to have veered into Tom Clancy territory.
1) Reasons hijackers might want the plane itself
I can think of several of these:
a) To study
b) To sell
c) To use as a weapon (a la 9/11)
d) To use as a weapons-delivery system
a) Study: There have been cases of people stealing planes for purposes of studying them before. That’s how the U.S. initially got its hands on a MiG fighter during the Cold War.
But stealing a military plane to reverse-engineer it is one thing. Why on earth would you want to study a commercial passenger plane?
While there were undoubtedly trade secrets involved in the building of this plane, much information is already publicly available about the model, and whoever took it obviously knew a lot about it. There would be easier ways to find out what you need about the plane.
If you were a bunch of ragtag terrorists then you already knew enough about the plane to hijack it. What more would further study give you?
If it were a state that was behind the hijacking then why not just buy one of the planes and study it?
b) Sale: Since the plane is commercially available (as are many other large passenger planes), the only reason a group would hijack one for purposes of sale would be to sell it to a group that, for some reason, could not get one.
Lack of money would be a plausible reason. If the buyer didn’t have the money to get this—or a comparable plane—commercially then he might want to acquire one on the cheap from hijackers, but that only raises the question of why the buyer would want one at all, which tends to reduce the sale hypothesis into one of the other hypotheses.
c) Weapon: This was certainly where a lot of people’s thoughts went when it was realized that the plane had not simply crashed but was hijacked.
We’ve see airliners used as weapons before, on 9/11.
But since the plane wasn’t immediately used as a weapon (as the planes were on 9/11), it raises a question: Why didn’t that happen?
There were targets in the area, such as the super-tall Petronas Towers right there in Kuala Lumpur.
It could be that the hijackers wanted to use the plane on a target in a distant land, but if that were the case, why not hijack a plane closer to the target?
It could be that they thought security was looser in Malaysia than in the vicinity of the target, but they would still be taking a big risk, if that’s what they thought.
After all, they can’t turn on the plane’s transponder without identifying it, and every country is now going to be on high alert looking for mysterious 777s approaching their borders.
Any such plane will be shot down at once.
d) Weapons Delivery: It could be that the plane wasn’t immediately used as a weapon because the hijackers want to use it as a weapons delivery system.
They may have wanted to take the plane somewhere so that it could be loaded with a highly destructive weapon (a nuke?) that could then be used on a target somewhere in the world.
This wouldn’t get around the problem of nations looking for mysterious 777s approaching their borders.
If the hijackers have sufficient technical skills, they might be able to replace or reprogram the plane’s transponder to disguise it, but there’s still a big risk to them.
If this theory turned out to be true, the hijackers might strike at a target fairly nearby to reduce the risk of detection. One such target suggests itself: Tel Aviv.
But suppose that they didn’t want the plane. What about the other options?
2) Reasons hijackers might want the plane for its cargo
Anyone taking a plane like this for its cargo would have to have an extremely compelling reason. The cargo would have to be extremely valuable to them.
What might it be?
A large load of drugs? Diamonds? Secret military technology? A laptop with a backdoor to the world’s financial system?
Hypothetically, it could be any of these things—or others—but I’m a skeptic on this.
It would be one thing to hijack a tiny plane with a load of drugs (or something else valuable), but stealing a plane in this spectacular a manner will focus the attention of the entire world on you.
There is presently a massive alliance of nations looking for this plane, and unless it’s at the bottom of the ocean (and even then), it will probably eventually be found.
The risk of getting caught would seem disproportionate to the value of whatever cargo the plane had.
3) Reasons hijackers might want the plane for its passengers
There are several possibilities here:
a) They wanted a particular person on the plane (or a small group of them)
b) They wanted all of the passengers so they could hold them hostage
c) They wanted all of the passengers so they could kill them
a) A Particular Person (or Small Group): I’ve heard it suggested that the hijackers may have wanted a particular person on the plane so that they could kill him.
Alternately, they might want to abduct him so that he could do something for them.
If so, this person (or small group, if it was that) would have to be someone very important, since the other passengers would likely have to be killed to keep the secret.
And if the goal were killing the person (or group), why go to the trouble of hijacking the plane? Surely there would be easier ways of rubbing the person out than an elaborate plot like this.
The same goes for abducting him.
Neither of these theories strike me as plausible.
b) Hostages: Passenger planes have been hijacked before with the purpose of holding the passengers hostage—either for money or to achieve some other end (e.g., release of political prisoners).
So the hijackers would be taking a huge risk.
There’s also the fact that we haven’t heard anything from the hijackers. If you want to hold people hostage, you need to tell people what your demands are, and the hijackers haven’t done that—at least not publicly. Why not?
It could be that they have done so, privately, to the Malaysian or Chinese governments, but the latter are keeping quiet for some reason.
Or it could be that they never reached a safe landing place and crashed.
c) Murder: It could be that the hijackers wanted to kill everyone aboard the plane—either as a terrorist act or as a deranged personal statement.
The latter may be floated since attention is focusing on the pilot, with the suggestion that he may have become unhinged as a the result of his dissident political views.
However, both of these theories suffer from a problem: Why didn’t the plane crash immediately? Why did it fly for hours, apparently being skillfully guided using navigational landmarks?
A deranged person wanting to die and take everyone with him wouldn’t do that, and neither would terrorists who merely wanted to kill the people on the plane. There would be some other goal in view.
So I don’t know what happened here. We’ll have to wait and see what is discovered.
I suspect that, eventually, the truth will be known—but possibly not by the public.
We should, in any event, continue to pray for the passengers (whether they are alive or not), for their families, and for the safety of the whole world.