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The Jumbo Jet of Damocles

by Jeff Cox, published

A famous ancient Greek legend holds that Dionysius II, the tyrant of the Sicilian Greek city of Syracuse (at a time when Sicily was ruled by Greeks and Carthaginians, and a time when the word “tyrant” was merely a term of art and not a pejorative), had a rather obsequious servant named Damocles. Damocles told the tyrant that as a great man of power and authority surrounded by magnificence, Dionysius was truly extremely fortunate.

Perhaps suspecting that his servant was a little too flattering, Dionysius then offered to switch places with Damocles, so that the servant could taste that very fortune firsthand. Damocles quickly and eagerly accepted the offer, and sat down in the tyrant's throne surrounded by every luxury. However, Dionysius arranged that a giant sword should hang above the throne, pointed downward at the occupant of the throne, held at the pommel only by a single hair of a horse's tail. His terror building, Damocles begged Dionysius to switch back. The servant, it seemed, no longer wanted to be so “fortunate.”

Historically, the story has been told to teach the lesson that with great fortune and power come also great peril and anxiety. Over the years, however, the focus has more become on the Sword of Damocles itself. The lesson has become one of a known threat that will strike, but you know not when or perhaps where.

In the past week, the world has been treated to a new Sword of Damocles -- more properly, a Jumbo Jet of Damocles -- in the form of the bizarre and increasingly ominous case of Malaysia Air Flight 370. CNN gives a pretty decent account of the known activities of the missing Boeing 777-200ER. The plane left Kuala Lumpur at 12:41 a.m. local time on Saturday, March 8, headed for its intended destination of Beijing, and then:

Around 1:30 a.m., air traffic controllers in Subang, outside Kuala Lumpur, lost contact with the plane over the sea between Malaysia and Vietnam. The plane's transponder, which identifies the aircraft and relays details like altitude and speed to controllers, stopped transmitting.

A senior Malaysian air force official said last Tuesday the flight was hundreds of miles off course and traveling in the opposite direction from its original destination. It was last tracked over Pulau Perak, a tiny island in the Strait of Malacca at about 2:40 a.m., over an hour after air traffic controllers in Subang lost contact with the aircraft.

At the news briefing Wednesday, however, Gen. Rodzali Daud, head of the Malaysian Air Force, and other officials said it wasn't yet clear whether the object that showed up on military radar flying over the sea northwest of the Malaysian coast early Saturday was the missing plane.

Adding to the puzzle, the Wall Street Journal reported Thursday that the plane may have continued flying for 4 hours after its last reported contact. The newspaper attributed the information to two unidentified sources who were citing data automatically transmitted to the ground from the aircraft's Rolls-Royce-manufactured engines.

A senior aviation source with detailed knowledge of the matter told CNN's Richard Quest on Thursday the Wall Street Journal account was incorrect. The paper later corrected its story, saying it was satellite data, not engine data, that drove the belief the plane continued to fly.


When the initial reports came in that Flight 370 had gone off course, I had thought -- hoped? -- this was a situation like Oceanic Flight 815. At worst -- and this would indeed be bad, because of the 239 poor souls on board -- a Flight 19 situation. But when the information came in that the plane's transponders had been intentionally turned off and the plane had flown off course, but between known, pre-set navigational waypoints, far darker scenarios started emerging.

This past Saturday, the Prime Minister of Malaysia, Najib Razak, had to make the painful and embarrassing

admission that the plane’s disappearance was “deliberate” and that the plane continued to fly for 7 hours after its radar transponder and some of its satellite uplinks were switched off, apparently by someone in the cockpit. Malaysian authorities are now closely looking at the pilots.

Flight 370 has not been seen since. On its face that's bizarre, but perhaps not unexpected. Most of Malaysia consists of dense jungle (albeit not impenetrable jungle, as the British found out to their dismay in World War II). Judging by the radar contact off Pulau Perak at 2:40 a.m., the redirected 777 would have flown closest to Kota Bharu and Alor Star (both with World War II British airfields), before heading out over the Strait of Malacca. Considering the time of night and the area over which it flew, there would have been few visual witnesses to the plane's flight.

Once over the Strait of Malacca, the missing 777 might have been free to go anywhere. The radar contacts suggest it zigzagged, trying to avoid radar coverage, which strongly suggests whoever was flying the plane had military experience, and hinting at state involvement.

Even with the transponder turned off, however, the 777 continued to send telemetry, albeit with no details since Malaysia Air did not pay for detailed telemetry. However, an analysis of the transmissions shows two possible air corridors, one skirting the coast of Sumatra over the Bangka Sea and turning over Java very near Jakarta into the Indian Ocean, the other straddling the border of Thailand and Burma, crossing into China and into central Asia.  The Telegraph provided a graphic from the New York Times showing the possible courses:

Screen Shot 2014-03-17 at 10.03.51 AM

The blog for the journal Foreign Policy has a handy-dandy map showing as many potential airfields that could land a 777 as they could identify from public sources. The Telegraph has one as well, narrowing down the potential airfields … to 634.

Screen Shot 2014-03-17 at 10.03.34 AM

And that's assuming it did not stop in, say, Aceh, and somehow refuel. Ominous.

And the ominosity -- is that a word? -- gets worse:

An Indonesian terrorist organization that a senior defense official said this week posed a “serious transnational threat” has previously been caught planning hijackings in the region where Malaysian Airlines Flight MH370 disappeared.

U.S. military assets participating in the search and recovery efforts confirmed they were asked to relocate to the west side of Indonesia in the Indian Ocean as pings indicated the plane turned away from its route to China and turned back over the Malaysian peninsula. ABC News also reported Thursday that the data-reporting system on the flight shut down before the transponder, from 1:07 1:21 a.m., raising suspicions that the plane was at the hands of someone nefarious.

Gee, ya think?

Jemaah Islamiyah has long had designs on roping Malaysia and the Philippines into an Islamist state along with Indonesia, and was designated a foreign terrorist organization by the U.S. government after the 2002 Bali nightclub bombing. The group has traditionally used Malaysia for fundraising and as a home base for trainees fresh from the Af-Pak region.

JI plotter Mas Selamat Kastari, who escaped from custody in Singapore in 2008 and was recaptured in Malaysia the following year, was accused of orchestrating a plot earlier in the decade to hijack a plane out of Bangkok’s airport and crash it into Singapore’s airport.

Jemaah Islamiyah had been considered a shadow of its former self in recent years, but the terror group’s name has been occasionally dropped on Capitol Hill as a jihadi movement getting a new lease on life in a post-Osama world.

“Indonesians are the first — are for the first time going overseas to fight, not just to train, which has given rise to concerns that this conflict may breathe new life into the group Jemaah Islamiyah, which analysts previously considered to be moribund,” Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee at a Syria hearing last week.

The terrorist scenarios got a boost over the weekend by reports from Great Britain that such an attack was planned:

Evidence of a plot by Malaysian Islamists to hijack a passenger jet in a 9/11-style attack is being investigated in connection with the disappearance of Flight MH370.

An al-Qaeda supergrass told a court last week that four to 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.

Security experts said the evidence from a convicted British terrorist was “credible”. The supergrass said that he had met the Malaysian jihadists – one of whom was a pilot – in Afghanistan and given them a shoe bomb to use to take control of an aircraft.

A British security source said: “These spectaculars take a long time in the planning.”

Badat told the court last week that he believed the Malaysians, including the pilot, were “ready to perform an act.”

During the meeting, the possibility was raised that the cockpit door might be locked. Badat told the court: “So I said, 'How about I give you one of my bombs to open a cockpit door?’ ”

The disclosure that Malaysians were plotting a 9/11-style attack raises the prospect that both pilots were overpowered and the plane intended for use as a fuel-filled bomb. One possible target, if the scenario is correct, will have been the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur, a symbol of Malaysia’s modernity and the world’s tallest buildings from 1998 until 2004.

Flight MH370 had been heading away from Kuala Lumpur over the South China Sea when it disappeared off civilian radar screens.

Satellites have tracked it returning toward land.

Badat, who was jailed for 13 years in 2005 for his part in a conspiracy with the “shoe bomber” Richard Reid to blow up a transatlantic jet, had given similar evidence in 2012.

In other words, his claims were first made long before the disappearance of Flight MH370.

In the earlier case, during the trial of Adis Medunjanin, an American who was later convicted of conspiring to blow up New York subways, Badat told prosecutors of the Malaysian shoe bomb plot.

Asked what he knew of the Malaysian group, he replied: “I learnt that they had a group, uh, ready to perform a similar hijacking to 9/11.”

Asked if he helped them, he said: “I provided them with one of my shoes because both had been, uh, both had explosives inserted into them.”

None of which does anything to answer the question of what happened to the plane. As CNN describes it, "The flight has turned into one of the biggest mysteries in aviation history, befuddling industry experts and government officials. Authorities still don't know where the plane is or what caused it to vanish."

I have this nightmare that the passengers have all been murdered and the plane is now being prepared for use in a dirty bomb or EMP attack.

 Photo Source: Malaysia Airlines

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