Is Zaharie Ahmad Shah a real-life Marko Ramius? Is the mystery of Malaysia flight 370 lifted straight from a famous bestselling thriller-turned-Hollywood-blockbuster? Recall: A brand new high tech Soviet nuclear submarine vanishes with officers and full crew aboard. A frantic search begins, though the alarmed Kremlin is silent about the fact that it has been notified by the captain that he intends to defect and hand the sub over to the Americans. The officers — but not the crew — are in on the plan.
The Israeli government is alarmed that the vanished Malaysian plane has in fact been hijacked to Iran in order to attack Israel with a weapon of mass destruction, and the New York Times reports that the “first turn that diverted the missing Malaysia Airlines plane from its route was entered into a computer system, most likely by someone in the plane’s cockpit.” So too in the late Tom Clancy’s bestselling thriller does a stunned debate rage at the highest levels over the intent of those aboard the missing sub. Is it ready to park off the U.S. coast and launch its nuclear missiles — as the Kremlin is falsely telling American officials? Or is it a bold defection, an attempt, in words of one American official, by the captain to hand over “several billion dollars’ worth of Soviet state property”?
The storyline, of course, is from Clancy’s famous novel The Hunt for Red October, later made into a Hollywood blockbuster (trailer here) starring Sean Connery as the Red October’s Captain Marko Ramius and Alec Baldwin as CIA analyst Jack Ryan.
But how farfetched is the Clancy story from what is going on right now in the massive 25-nation search for the Malaysian flight 370, a Boeing 777, the civilian airline equivalent of the high-tech submarine Red October?
Suggestions are now pouring in from everywhere that this was no accident, but rather a conspiracy to steal the 777, and those suggestions grow louder by the hour. Whatever the truth turns out to be — pilot suicide, an accident, or a set-up to some further deed of horror — the entire incident is a stark reminder that 9/11 has in fact become what military strategists always warn against fighting: the last war. In fact, there is every reason to think that terrorists are capable of considerable planning and — as with Osama Bin Laden himself — obtaining the resources to execute those plans.
One of the puzzles to Clancy’s Dr. Ryan was that if in fact Captain Ramius was trying to defect with the Red October, he would presumably face stiff opposition from dozens of his Soviet crew members. If Ramius’s fellow officers, small in number, were in on the plot, Ryan tries to figure out what they plan to do with the rest of the crew. The answer, Ryan correctly guesses, is that Ramius will fake an accident with the nuclear reactor, necessitating a surfacing and evacuation of the unsuspecting seamen.
One of the memorable events of 9/11 was the rebellion by the passengers of United Flight 93. Learning of the other airline hijackings that morning by cell phone calls from family — and the attacks using those planes on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon — the Flight 93 passengers took matters into their own hands and fought back. The plane crashed in a field in western Pennsylvania, but it is gospel today that the heroic actions of the passengers prevented an attack on either the U.S. Capitol or the White House.
If, in fact, the intent of someone on Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 was to do a version of what Captain Ramius did with the Red October — steal the 777 — and understanding the threat posed by brave passengers, something would have to be done with the 239 people aboard. Ramius had no intention of killing his crew, so he used the gambit of the fake reactor accident to give them the incentive to get off the sub. A hijacker of a 777 loaded with passengers would have the same objective, particularly in order to avoid a passenger rebellion. Alas, real life terrorists are less compassionate than Clancy’s Ramius. And the aerospace equivalent of surfacing a submarine — landing — could potentially result in the plane never leaving the ground again to complete its mission. So how to incapacitate the passengers in the air? Take the plane up to an elevation of 45,000 feet, which is exactly what was done. Doing this, say all the experts, would depressurize the cabin and put the passengers first to sleep, and then kill them. Without a single unsuspecting passenger leaving his seat. Now only the hijackers would be left alive aboard the 777, just as only Ramius and his defecting officers were left on the Red October. (There was that one KGB guy left — the cook — but he was taken out by Ryan himself.)
In the Clancy novel, a chasing Russian submarine whose captain has orders to kill Ramius and blow up the Red October, in a fit of bad seamanship, winds up torpedoing his own sub. The Red October surfaces out of sight of Soviet spy satellites, emerging to safely hide itself in a river in Maine where the U.S. will formally if secretly take control of the sub.
Has the 777 likewise now disappeared out of satellite view, in a hangar well out of sight? There to be re-painted and, lethally, outfitted with some sort of weapon of mass destruction? Flown into a target country in a jetliner that looks like any of hundreds from major airlines around the world? United? American? British Airways? Air France? At this point, we don’t know. But what we do know with certainty is that this incident will redefine and refocus the entire concept of airline security.
The question of pilot suicide has apparently been an under-examined phenomenon, as reported by CBS:
Mike Glynn, a committee member of the Australian and International Pilots Association, said he considers pilot suicide to be the most likely explanation for the disappearance, as was suspected in a SilkAir crash during a flight from Singapore to Jakarta in 1997 and an EgyptAir flight from Los Angeles to Cairo in 1999.
“A pilot rather than a hijacker is more likely to be able to switch off the communications equipment,” Glynn said. “The last thing that I, as a pilot, want is suspicion to fall on the crew, but it’s happened twice before.”
Glynn said a pilot may have sought to fly the plane into the Indian Ocean to reduce the chances of recovering data recorders, and to conceal the cause of the disaster.
While such incidents have happened before, the topic remains almost taboo, with investigators and officials reluctant to conclude that a pilot purposely crashed a plane in order to commit suicide even when the evidence appears compelling.
Could it be a simple mechanical failure? An accidental decompression as was the case in the death of golfer Payne Stewart? Then we eventually learned:
WASHINGTON (CNN) — Federal investigators said Tuesday the cockpit voice recorder recovered from the wreckage of golfer Payne Stewart’s Learjet 35 includes the sounds of a low-pressure alarm — consistent with suspicions that the plane lost cabin pressure during its flight. […]
The plane carrying Stewart and five others crashed October 25 near Aberdeen, South Dakota, after traveling 1,500 miles, most of it while the pilot, co-pilot and passengers were apparently unconscious or dead.
Now there’s an image for a novel. A flying plane full of passengers and crew — all of them dead. In fact, that is just the way novelist Nelson DeMille began his 2000 bestseller The Lion’s Game. We won’t issue a spoiler alert (suffice to say DeMille knows how to write a superb thriller) but the opening of the book is riveting. A 747 with 310 passengers and crew aboard that had departed from Paris has gone NO-RAD, as in “No Radio” status. Among its passengers is a notorious Libyan terrorist known as “The Lion,” who is on his way to New York to defect to the West. Accompanied by agents of the FBI and CIA, the group is sitting in the business class section of the airliner. Eerily, in a piece of fiction written fourteen years ago — published a year before 9/11 — DeMille creates exactly the sensation of widespread speculation that is fact today as the world waits to learn the fate of Malaysian 370. Is it total radio failure? Is it antenna failure? Was there a fire on board? Is it a hijacking? Is it on its way to a certain crash — which was the same fate of Payne Stewart’s plane in 1999, the year before DeMille’s book was published? (In that case, F-16s were dispatched to eyeball the Stewart jet, reporting that the windows were frosted over and the crew unresponsive. The military jets were helpless to do a thing beyond that, and Stewart’s jet, all of the crew and passengers long dead, finally crashed in South Dakota.)
DeMille’s fictional 747, with defecting terrorists, FBI and CIA agents, and the rest of the 310 passengers and crew on board, lands perfectly and comes to a halt. An emergency Service Crew Chief Sergeant enters the plane and finds every single person, passengers and crew, dead. Peacefully dead at that. All in their seats, writes DeMille, faces “peaceful — no saliva, no mucus, no vomit, no tears, no tortured expressions….a peaceful, sleep-like unconsciousness, followed by death.”
The story rockets from there, and as mentioned, no spoiler alerts. The point? Are there terrorists out there studying thrillers and Hollywood blockbusters for ingenious ways to carry out real live terror? Have all of the passengers of Malaysia 370 been killed so that when the plane lands to be handed over to a terrorist group, it is, like the DeMille novel, filled with nothing more than the conspirators and the dead?
One of the hotbeds of global terrorism is Pakistan. It is infamously the place where Osama bin Laden resided undisturbed in a walled mansion mere miles from the Pakistani equivalent of West Point. Recall that in the mission to drop Navy Seal Team Six into that walled compound to get bin Laden, the U.S. government made the deliberate decision not to inform, much less work with, the government of Pakistan. Why? Here is then-CIA Director Leon Panetta explaining this decision to Time:
In his first interview since commanding the mission to kill Osama bin Laden, CIA chief Leon Panetta tells TIME that U.S. officials feared that Pakistan could have undermined the operation by leaking word to its targets. Long before Panetta ordered Vice Admiral William McRaven, head of the Joint Special Forces Command, to undertake the mission at 1:22 p.m. on Friday, the CIA had been gaming out how to structure the raid. Months prior, the U.S. had considered expanding the assault to include coordination with other countries, notably Pakistan. But the CIA ruled out participating with its nominal South Asian ally early on because “it was decided that any effort to work with the Pakistanis could jeopardize the mission. They might alert the targets,” Panetta says.
Got that? To involve Pakistan in the bin Laden mission could mean someone inside the Pakistani government “might alert the targets.” Hmmm.
So what do we find is going on in this search for Malaysian 370? This, from CNN (emphasis added):
Malaysia’s Ministry of Transport said Sunday that both the northern and southern corridors are being treated with equal importance. Malaysian officials are working with 25 countries, many of them along the corridors. They include Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, Pakistan, Bangladesh, India, China, Myanmar, Laos, Vietnam, Thailand, Indonesia, Australia, France, the United Kingdom and the United States.
To use the caution of Leon Panetta, is it possible that there are people in the Pakistani government — or other governments assisting in this search — who are sympathetic to terrorism? And thus leaking the details of what is or is not to be searched to people holding the plane in that proverbial river in Maine? The answers are still to come. But they will come. The question is: Will they come too late?
Or is this a perfect example of Occam’s Razor? You know, the principle named for William of Occam that posits the simplest explanation of events is the most likely to be true. Meaning that Malaysia 370 probably crashed — whether by accident or design — and killed everyone on board.
One way or another, we will eventually find out. But make no mistake: Airline security as we have come to know it in the post-9/11 world is about to change. And that’s no fiction.