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18 Mar, 2014 09:28

Connecting the dots: Missing Malaysia Airlines plane a terror attack aimed at China?

Connecting the dots: Missing Malaysia Airlines plane a terror attack aimed at China?

While the terror angle behind the missing Malaysia Airline Boeing 777 plane is being probed, there are several questions which, though unanswered yet, can help in piecing together this jigsaw puzzle.

CIA Director John Brennan made a significant remark on March 12 that his agency has “not at all” ruled out terrorism as possibly having played a part in the disappearance of Malaysian Airlines Flight 370. He also said that there have not been any credible claims of responsibility from terrorist groups for the plane’s disappearance.

Obviously Brennan couldn’t have been unaware of claim of responsibility for the plane’s disappearance by the Chinese Martyrs’ Brigade – unheard of before now. This outfit had released a statement through an impossible-to-trace encrypted Hushmail anonymous service on March 9 saying: "You kill one of our clan, we will kill 100 of you as payback." According to the statement it was a response to the Chinese government for its persecution of the Uyghur ethnic minority.

This implies that the CIA chief attaches no importance to the claim, something which Malaysia's acting Transport Minister Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein has debunked in an on-record statement.

The needle of suspicion over the mysterious disappearance of MH 370 would inevitably point to the Chinese Uighurs if investigators conclude that the Malaysian plane was indeed a victim of terrorism.

The Muslim Uighur community is one of China’s 56 ethnic minorities which is in majority in the restive Xinjiang Autonomous Region. They have had a brief taste of independence as East Turkestan at least twice (in 1933 and 1950) but this independence proved to be short-lived. The Uighurs still harbor ambitions of becoming an independent state, a red rag for Beijing.

However, no such conclusive evidence has emerged yet. The Uighurs have come under the scanner because of ‘circumstantial evidence’. The MH 370 episode has come close on the heels of the March 1 terror incident in which knife-wielding assailants had killed at least 29 innocent people at a train station in the southwestern Chinese city of Kunming.

Also, of the 227 passengers on board MH 370 (apart from 12 crew members) at least 153 were Chinese nationals, a fact that must have been known to the perpetrators.

Besides, Uighurs continue to have links with Al-Qaeda-affiliated group, Jemaah Islamiyah, which has a presence in Malaysia, as well as the Philippines and Indonesia.

Nevertheless, there may be several reasons why the shadowy group’s claim is bogus and is just trying to make hay while the sun shines. First, the outfit has not given any details of the plane which is being searched by 12 countries’ navies. Six days after its disappearance, nobody knows what has happened to the ill-fated plane. Second, it may just be an attempt to whip up ethnic tensions between Uighurs and Han Chinese in China.

Third, hardcore terrorists seldom claim responsibility for their acts, as shown by the University of Maryland’s Global Terrorism Database according to which the perpetrators claimed responsibility for their acts in only 14 percent of the more than 45,000 terrorist acts that have occurred since 1998.

Some 20 activists demonstrate in front of the Chinese embassy in Vienna to protest against the repression of China's Uyghur minority in the northwestern region of Xinjiang (AFP Photo / Dieter Nagl)

Was China the prime target of the terrorists, if indeed it was a terror attack? Which terror group could be behind the suspected plane crash? It might be the Chinese Uighurs, but the actual perpetrator might still claim responsibility for this outrage which is too dastardly and too brutal a crime for any terror outfit to take responsibility without alienating the people. Besides, isn’t it possible that the real perpetrators would like to keep the waters muddied and lie low so that more attacks could be launched in the near future.

There is also a possibility that no organized terror outfit per se was involved in the act and instead it may have been a lone wolf (two wolves in the current context as the needle of suspicion is pointing to two men with "Asian features" who boarded the plane on stolen passports). Who will take responsibility for the terror attack if the perpetrators, on suicide mission, themselves perished?

Of course the ground staff of Malaysia Airlines and several Malaysian agencies are guilty of gross dereliction of duty. First they allowed two Asian-looking men who were traveling as European citizens to pass unchallenged. Second, they failed to run a check of the men’s stolen passports against Interpol's vast database of more than 40 million lost and stolen travel documents. Just these two preliminary precautions would have prevented the tragedy.

The dice seem to be heavily loaded in favor of China as prime target of the terror attack theory. There are several circumstantial reasons for this and China has repeatedly figured in the entire narrative thrown up so far.

The two prime suspects with "Asian features", who boarded the plane on stolen passports of two Europeans Christian Kozel (Austria) and Luigi Maraldi (Italy), had purchased their one-way tickets together from Pattaya (Thailand) and were due to fly on to Europe from Beijing. This eliminated the need for the duo to apply for a Chinese visa and undergo further checks.

Thailand has had a festering problem for years with Islamist terror outfits like Al-Qaeda in Southeast Asia, and China has suspected some of its restive Uyghur population to be in touch with terror modules in Southeast Asia.

Malaysia itself has figured prominently in the Uighur saga in recent years and Uighurs do have a reason to hate Malaysia, a country which deported several Uighurs to China in 2011 and 2012 for abortive bids to travel on false passports.

Uighurs are a Turkic ethnic group living primarily in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region in China, where they are officially recognized as one of the ethnic minorities. In 2009 violent riots broke out in the region’s capital Ürümqi that mainly targeted Han (ethnic Chinese) people. Over 1,000 Uighurs were arrested and detained during the riots, over 400 individuals faced criminal charges. Nine were executed in November 2009.

However, the most important question is whether there is any linkage between the Malaysia Airlines plane episode and the March 1, 2014, weird attack in the south-western Chinese city of Kunming, in which knife-wielding assailants killed at least 29 innocent people at a train station? The two episodes are too close for comfort for the Chinese. If an inter-connection is established, it would be really very bad news for Beijing.

There may not be any answers to the questions yet but these are leading questions which hopefully should be answered in the next few weeks. Hopefully it would not take very long before the wreckage of the missing plane is spotted and recovered and the Black Box, containing the Flight Data Recorder and Cockpit Voice Recorder (CVR), is recovered now that every major navy in the region is employed and satellites are being used to track the missing flight.

The discovery of the wreckage itself would proffer a clue to whether the plane had a sudden mid-air explosion or whether it nose-dived into the sea because of mechanical failure. A violent bombing would inevitably throw the wreckage to great distances – scores of kilometers at least – while in the latter scenario the wreckage would be confined to a much smaller area.

Rajeev Sharma for RT

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.