- The Washington Times - Monday, March 17, 2014

In 2001, al Qaeda operatives discussed a sinister mission: They wanted to recruit a Malaysian commercial pilot for a terrorist operation.

The 13-year-old plot is relevant once again as U.S. officials search for leads that may uncover why Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 went missing 11 days ago.

Malaysian officials on Monday offered a new timeline that posits the last voice transmission from the missing airliner’s cockpit came before any communications systems were shut down.

The search for the plane — and the 239 people aboard it — has expanded deep into the northern and southern hemispheres. Australian vessels scoured the southern Indian Ocean and China offered 21 of its satellites to help Malaysia in the unprecedented hunt, the Associated Press reported.

After the 9/11 attacks, leaders in al Qaeda and the Malaysian militant group Jemaah Islamiyah strategized ways to use pilots and planes to crash into U.S. assets, according to “The Second Front,” a book by Kenneth J. Conboy examining militant groups in Southeast Asia.

Yazid Sufaat, a then-Malaysian student, proposed crashing a commercial airliner into a passing American warship, the aircraft carrier USS Kitty Hawk, according to a Malaysian intelligence report cited in the book.

With foul play suspected in the vanishing of the Malaysian jumbo jet, U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies are focusing on criminal plots. And Malaysian officials are investigating Flight MH370 pilot Zaharie Ahmad Shah and co-pilot Fariq Abdul Hamid, noting that the plane was flown deliberately from its Kuala Lumpur-to-Beijing course.

The Malaysia-Indonesia region has long been a hotbed of terrorist activity. In 2002, more than 200 people were killed when Jemaah Islamiyah set off three bombs in and around nightclubs in Bali, Indonesia.

According to the British tabloid The Telegraph, an al Qaeda informant last week told a court that four or five Malaysian men had been planning to take control of a plane, using a bomb hidden in a shoe to blow open the cockpit door.

The chaotic search-and-rescue effort for the plane and contradictory statements by Malaysian authorities have fueled speculation.

“It was an intentional, deliberate act to bring down this airplane,” Rep. Michael T. McCaul, Texas Republican, said on “Fox News Sunday.”

Mr. McCaul, like U.S. intelligence officials, said no evidence suggests terrorism so far, but that possibility shouldn’t be ruled out.

The FBI attache office in Malaysia is working with authorities investigating the pilots and passengers to see if any terror or militant connections can be drawn. U.S. law enforcement officials are only playing a supportive role in the investigation, with Malaysian authorities taking the lead.

Terrorists have long focused on planes in their operations. From 9/11 to “shoe bomber” Richard Reid to “underwear bomber” Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, terrorists have learned from their plots, even those that were thwarted, counterterrorism analysts say.

In 2006, British and Pakistani intelligence authorities thewarted a network of about 50 self-identified terrorists who were in the “final stages” of an operation to blow up as many as 10 jets leaving London for the U.S. The plotters planned to mix a British sports drink with a gel-like substance to make an explosive that could be detonated with an MP3 player or cell phone, according to reports at the time.

That plot was inspired by the so-called 1995 Bojinka plan, an al Qaeda mission to blow up several airliners over the Pacific Ocean en-route to the U.S. Before the plot was disrupted, terrorists detonated a test bomb on Philippine Airlines Flight 434 that killed one person and caused the plane to lose its control systems, forcing the pilot to make an emergency landing.

In 2012, a CIA informant posed as a would-be suicide bomber to foil a plot in which he was to blow up a U.S.-bound airliner. The bomb the undercover agent was supposed to wear was designed to go through airport security undetected — a device was sewn into his undergarment so that it would not be discovered by a pat-down.

With regard to Flight MH370, officials say more facts must be gathered before any definitive answers can be reached.

“We need to give time to allow the investigation to come together and obtain all the relevant facts before rushing out to conclusions,” FBI spokesman Paul Bresson said in an email. “We’ll just have to wait and see.”

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