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Did terrorists take control of Flight 370?

Story highlights

  • Officials say Flight 370 was diverted, but how likely is it that terrorists were responsible?
  • Peter Bergen says known terrorist groups seem unlikely to be involved
  • Jemaah Islamiyah has a presence in Malaysia, but it has been on the decline, he says
  • Bergen: If a terrorist group was responsible, it hasn't acted to achieve any political aims

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak told reporters over the weekend that "deliberate" action by somebody on board accounted for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 veering off course.

Could the mystery of Malaysia Airlines 370 then be explained as an act of terrorism?

To answer that you have to assess both the capabilities and the intentions of the known terrorist groups that might want to hijack such a plane. And you have to ask the question: Cui bono? For whose benefit?

The al Qaeda-affiliated group, Jemaah Islamiyah, has a presence in Malaysia as well as in the Philippines and Indonesia. But the group has been under sustained law enforcement pressure for more than a decade after it bombed nightclubs on the Indonesian island of Bali in 2002, killing more than 200 people, mostly Western tourists. The group has also carried out bombings at the Australian Embassy in Indonesia and the JW Marriott and Ritz-Carlton Hotels in the Indonesian capital, Jakarta.

Peter Bergen

However, the capabilities of the once-potent Jemaah Islamiyah have eroded over time. And would Jemaah Islamiyah, an Islamist militant group, target for attack the air carrier of a majority Muslim country on which quite a number of Muslims were likely traveling? It is more plausible that the group would select a Western airline because Western embassies and Western brand-name hotels have been the focus of their previous attacks and plots.

A terrorist group that might have a motive is the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, a separatist group in China founded by Uyghurs that has had some historical ties to al Qaeda and the Taliban. The Uyghurs are an ethnic group in western China who are Muslim. The group has conducted a number of terrorist attacks in China.

Uyghur terrorists might have a motive to hijack the Malaysia Airlines flight as it was bound for Beijing and most of the passengers were Chinese. But Uyghur militants have operated almost exclusively inside China. And when they have tried to mount hijackings in the past they have been complete flops. On March 9, 2008, a 19-year old Uyghur woman attempted to set off some kind of explosive device on a flight from the Xinjiang Uyghur region en route to Beijing. The flight crew detained the woman before she could detonate the device.

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Four year later, on June 29, 2012, half a dozen Uyghur men attempted to take control of an aircraft flying in the Xinjiang Uyghur region using pieces of a metal crutch that had been sharpened to make crude weapons. This plot was also foiled.

Bolstering the view that Uyghur terrorists did not hijack the Malaysia Airlines flight, on Tuesday a Chinese official said that background checks on the passengers on the plane produced no evidence that any of the Chinese citizens on board were involved in terrorism.

Beyond Uyghur militants or operatives of Jemaah Islamiyah, might there be other terrorist groups with the motivation and capability of pulling off the hijacking of the Malaysia Airlines flight?

It doesn't seem so. If this were a hijacking for political purposes, the hijacking would have been followed by an act designed to send a political message, such as the planes hijacked on 9/11 that were then flown into the World Trade Center and Pentagon.

Or there would be set of demands, as was the case with the Indian Airlines flight that was hijacked to Kandahar, Afghanistan, by militant Kashmiri separatists in December 1999. They demanded the release of leading militants in Indian jails, a demand to which the Indian government acceded.

Or there would be a credible claim of responsibility. The one claim of responsibility so far is from an outfit calling itself the Chinese Martyrs' Brigade. This claim is not deemed to be credible. Malaysian Transport Minister Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein told reporters last week: "There is no sound or credible grounds to justify their claims.'"

If the diversion of Malaysia Airlines 370 was not an act of terrorism, the other likely scenarios are a pilot suicide attempt, the piracy of the plane for some kind of economic reason or the commandeering of the aircraft by someone with an idiosyncratic motive that will only become clear over time.

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