By Aaron Klein
TEL AVIV — Just eight days after a terrorist attack in the city of Kunming dubbed “China’s September 11th,” a Malaysia Airlines flight carrying mostly Chinese passengers disappeared over the South China Sea.
While the international probe is in its early stages and questions are being raised about the prospect of terrorism, investigators would be wise to thoroughly examine the possibility of a missile attack, however remote, in light of recent information about the global proliferation of projectiles capable of downing civilian airliners.
Further, China has issued a series of warnings about North Korean missiles, including one that crossed paths with a Chinese airliner carrying 220 people just last week.
On Friday, China complained to North Korea when one of its missiles came dangerously close to a civilian jet last Tuesday. The airplane had departed Tokyo’s Narita airport en route to the northeastern Chinese city of Shenyang.
One day earlier, South Korea’s defense ministry released a statement saying the Chinese civilian plane had “passed as the ballistic missile (from North Korea) was in the course of descending.”
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang told reporters, “On this issue, we have already contacted the North Korean side to convey our deep concern.”
“If any country is to hold training or exercises, it should take measures in accordance with international practice to ensure the safety of civil [facilities] in relevant airspace and maritime space,” said Qin.
Qin said the jet was flying over international waters at an altitude of 10,000 meters, or 32,800 feet.
“The rocket could have hit the plane on its way down,” he said. “North Korea had not given any warning. It was an unexpected and immoral act that goes against international norms.”
One week earlier, North Korea reportedly test-fired two short range missiles into the sea.
The Malaysian Airlines flight reportedly lost contact with air traffic controllers some 2 hours after departing Kuala Lumpur, when the plane was about one third of the way into its trip.
Vietnamese searchers said they found possible aircraft debris, including part of a door, that could be from the missing flight. Those fragments were reportedly located about 65 miles south-southwest of Vietnam’s Tho Chu island. The distance from that area to North Korea is about 2,600 miles.
North Korean missile capabilities are said to include the Musadan missile, with a range of about 2,485 miles; the 4,000-mile range Taepodong-2; and a claimed long-range UNHA-3 missile. None of those missiles were reportedly tested in public.
In January, former CIA Director David Petraeus warned of a “nightmare” scenario in which the proliferation of missiles could provide terrorists the ability to shoot down passenger airplanes.
The largest terrorist looting of Man-Portable-Air-Defense-Systems, or MANPADS reportedly took place immediately after the U.S.-NATO military campaign that helped to end Moammar Gadhafi’s rule in Libya.
Gadhafi had hoarded Africa’s biggest known reserve of MANPADS, with his stock said to number between 15,000 and 20,000. Many of the missiles were stolen by militias fighting in Libya, including those backed by the U.S. during the anti-Gadhafi efforts.
Last week there were unverified claims some MANPADS went missing in Ukraine.
Last April, the United Nations released a report revealing that weapons from Libya to extremists were proliferating at an “alarming rate,” fueling conflicts in Mali, Syria, Gaza and elsewhere.
Most MANPADS are designed to down a low-flying aircraft. Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370, however, reportedly disappeared from radar while flying at cruising altitude in fine weather.
The details surrounding the fate of the China-bound flight could take months or even years to fully emerge. While it is too early to jump to conclusions and the possibilities will evolve along with the investigation, some reports about the flight are technically consistent with a potential mid-air explosion.
Reuters has exclusively quoted a senior source inside the probe saying they were narrowing the focus of the investigation to the possibility the aircraft disintegrated mid-flight.
Malaysia Airlines CEO Ahmad Jauhari Yahya told reporters the airline had no indication of any distress signal from the pilot, with CBS News reporting this suggested “that whatever happened to the plane occurred quickly and possibly catastrophically.
Other reports say radar tracking the flight indicated the pilot may have turned back from its path to Beijing before disappearing. It was unclear how quickly the airplane did an about face or why the pilot may have decided to reverse course.
Meanwhile, international intelligence agencies have joined the investigation amid news that two passengers boarded the jet using stolen passports, raising terrorism concerns. Interpol revealed more “suspect” passports are being investigated.
‘Nightmare’ threat targets passenger aircraft
At a conference in Tel Aviv in January, Petraeus warned of a “nightmare” scenario in which missile proliferation could provide terrorists the capability to shoot down a civilian airliner.
Petraeus was speaking at the annual conference of the Institute for National Security Studies, a think-tank at Tel Aviv University.
He referred to a video posted on YouTube by the Sinai-based Ansar Jerusalem jihadist group, which claimed it had fired a surface-to-air missile at an Egyptian helicopter.
“I mean, shooting down a helicopter with an apparent shoulder-fired missile is a big deal,” Petraeus said.
“As you know, that was always our worst nightmare, that a civilian airliner would be shot down by one. Which is why we were so concerned when they moved around,” he said.
The MANPADS didn’t just move around. Thousands were looted when Gadhafi’s reserves were unprotected following the NATO campaign there in 2011.
At the time, CBS News reported the U.S. was unable to secure “thousands” of MANPADS.
CBS quoted a “well-placed source” divulging that hundreds of missiles were tracked going to the group Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, AQIM, the al-Qaida franchise based in Algeria that is now considered to be one of the gravest threats to the U.S.
With additional research by Joshua Klein.