The more news comes out about the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines flight 370, the more it looks like foul play was definitely involved. In a press conference this morning, Malaysian PM Najib Razak stated:
Based on new satellite information, we can say with a high degree of certainty that the Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System (ACARS) was disabled just before the aircraft reached the East coast of peninsular Malaysia. Shortly afterwards, near the border between Malaysian and Vietnamese air traffic control, the aircraft’s transponder was switched off.From this point onwards, the Royal Malaysian Air Force primary radar showed that an aircraft which was believed – but not confirmed – to be MH370 did indeed turn back. It then flew in a westerly direction back over peninsular Malaysia before turning northwest. Up until the point at which it left military primary radar coverage, these movements are consistent with deliberate action by someone on the plane.
The list of possible landing sites has now spread from the East China Sea to the Indian Ocean and even the China-Kyrgyz border, but search parties sent to these areas have so far turned up with nothing.If some of the hypotheses floating around prove to be correct—that, for example, someone tried to steal the jet for use in a later massive terror attack—then this is big news. One theory that Islamabad probably hopes isn’t true: that the disappearance is related to Uighur groups fighting China. Any sign that Islamist Uighurs are getting the kind of help to pull off an attack like this would be a massive shock to Chinese-Pakistani relations. Most of the passengers on the missing plane are Chinese citizens; if Uighur resistance groups have anything to do with this, the effect on public opinion in China will be seismic.But while we still don’t know exactly what happened (and possibly never will), it’s a timely reminder that the bad guys aren’t sleeping.It’s easy to dismiss the terror threat these days as much of the energy is going into localized movements that are mostly very low tech—think Boko Haram in Africa. But somewhere in the chaos are more accomplished people who still dream of repeating attacks on a massive scale—9/11 or better. Their capabilities are changing over time; our responses must continue to be flexible and dynamic as well.One of the big questions now is what this means for intelligence policy. There’s a lot of concern, which we share, about the abuse of power in government surveillance. But those concerns need to be balanced by a healthy awareness that real threats—and quite serious ones—exist.