Asia-Pacific Society Sophia Alifirova

Malaysian Airlines flight 370: Few clues, many theories

Malaysian Airlines flight 370 from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing has been missing since early Saturday, March 8 when its signal disappeared from flight radars. The Malaysian government has said that the Boeing 777, carrying 239 passengers and crew, was intentionally diverted from its flight path less than two hours after taking off. The state’s Department of Civil Aviation announced that ‘pings’ were picked up from the jetliner six hours after military radar had last detected it over the Strait of Malacca at 02:15 on March 8. Nothing has been heard or seen from the plane since, by any of the satellite and radar equipment, both commercial and military, in any of the countries on the jet’s possible flight path. In the age of technological advances beyond anything the world has seen before, it seems unbelievable that something as big as a Boeing 777 can get lost and stay lost for almost two weeks. People all around the world can be tracked using signals from their electronic devices, but a plane with 239 people on board seems to have been misplaced? flight 370 (1)

As with any tragic and unexplainable event before this, such as the disappearance of Air France flight 447 on route from Rio de Janeiro to Paris, which crashed into the Atlantic Ocean on June 1, 2009, theories as to what really happened abound. What adds to the mystery is the fact that nothing from the missing Malaysian flight has been discovered, no debris has been found so far; debris from the Air France flight was spotted by search teams on June 2, 2009, a day after the plane went missing. In order to find a clue into what happened, Malaysian authorities, along with the governments of 26 other states, such as China, Singapore, Thailand, Kazakhstan, and Australia, have been conducting an international search of an unprecedented scale. The current land-and-sea search is concentrated on an area the size of Australia, but investigators do not yet have a clear motive.

The authorities are convinced, though, that someone with deep knowledge of commercial navigation systems and the Boeing 777 – 200ER purposefully diverted the flight off its course. Possible debris has been spotted off the Western coast of Australia, near Perth, by commercial satellites. Two objects – one about 24m in length and the other about 5m – can be seen in images provided by the satellites, but it is difficult to determine with certainty what those objects are. The debris was spotted earlier in the week floating in one of the most remote spots on the planet; while search crews make their way to the location, experts say the ocean currents could have easily moved the objects miles off course by the time ships and aircraft reach the area.

While the land-and-sea search continues, numerous theories as to what could have taken place aboard Flight MH370 have been advanced. These range from the jet landing on the Andaman Islands unnoticed by military radar, which could have been switched off, to its hiding in the shadows of another commercial airliner to avoid detection, specifically Singapore Airlines flight 68 en route to Spain. flight 370 (2)

The theory of terrorism is also on the list and it has attracted a lot of attention from commentators. Memories of terrorist attacks using commercial aircraft, specifically the events of 9/11, are still painfully present. Experts and authorities, however, have dismissed terrorism as a likely cause for the flight’s disappearance as there was no ‘chatter’ caught by surveillance related to a potential terrorist attack. As well, no known organizations in the area are thought to have the capacity to carry out such an attack and, to date, no group has claimed responsibility.

The only support for the theory seems to be a flight simulator the captain of MH370, Zaharie Ahmad Shah, had built in his home; several files of flight simulations were deleted from the program last month and authorities are trying to determine whether these were of any relevance. So far the investigation established that Captain Shah, who joined Malaysia Airlines in 1981 and had more than 18,000 hours of flight experience, was known as a sociable and caring individual dedicated to his job. Background checks into all other crew and passengers have not raised any concerns either.

flight 370 (4)Despite the fact that terrorism does not seem to be a likely cause of the Malaysian airliner’s disappearance, the immediate attention the theory received raises important questions. In the post-9/11 world, the governments of several Western states have waged a prolonged ‘war on terror’ in Afghanistan and Iraq at a high material and physical cost of lives. All the losses were supposed to make the world a safer place, but as Patrick Cockburn, a commentator for the Independent, points out “the spectacular resurgence of al Qaeda and its offshoots has happened despite the huge expansion of American and British intelligence services and their budgets after 9/11”. Has the ‘war on terror’ produced the desired results? Has the world been made a safer place with the death of al Qaeda’s leader Osama bin Laden? No one has a definite answer to these and other similar questions. What is clear is that terrorist attacks have steadily grown in number in the past several decades; the latest available data shows the number to be over 8,000 attacks worldwide in late 2010. Not every attack had fatalities or injuries, but they took place in various locations around the world, reminding us that the ‘war on terror’ and the methods used to fight it, were not as successful as we may believe.

So while the families of those aboard Malaysian Airlines flight 370 wait for new information, authorities continue to explore various theories in the hope of explaining how a Boeing 777 can remain lost for close to two weeks. As vast as this world is, a jet of that size is not small either. Theories of what happened are numerous, including terrorism, so finding out what really happened remains a top priority.

Sophia Alifirova
Sophia Alifirova received a BAH from the University of Toronto where she studied a Specialist program in Political Science. She is now an MA student in her second year at the Centre for European, Russian and Eurasian Studies at the Munk School of Global Affairs, University of Toronto. Her primary research interests are in EU-Russian energy relations, the East-West energy dialogue, and pipeline politics. She is also interested in EU enlargement and geopolitics more broadly.