Zaharie Ahmad Shah, the pilot of missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, mocked the current head of the search for the missing plane and explored atheism on social media, according to an investigation by the New York Times.
The New York Times’ look into Zaharie’s profile reveals much that has already been published on the pilot: his support for and ties to jailed opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, for example, or the fact that he did not go to any lengths to hide that he had a flight simulator in his home. It also reveals, however, what author Robert Mackey describes as a portrait of “a man interested in electronics and technology, but also Malaysia’s democratic opposition and discussions of atheism.”
Zaharie’s affiliations with Anwar were almost immediately clear upon investigators focusing on his background. Zaharie is the uncle of Anwar’s daughter-in-law and had met the opposition leader on several occasions. The photo of Zaharie with a friend wearing a “Democracy is Dead” shirt has become one of the iconic images of the investigation.
What the New York Times finds in Zaharie’s social media profiles is consistent with this image. Zaharie’s Facebook posts depict someone obviously political, who had expressed opposition to terrorism in the past. He sent condolences to the United States after the Boston marathon bombing, and responded to a commenter that insisted the attack was as “false flag” operation with a tone of admiration for the United States. “tHREAT IS IMMINENT ANY TIME THERE IS A PARADE,” he responded to the commenter, who suggested that American authorities’ warning that people remain calm was a sign they knew the attack was going to happen. If Americans were to stop having “parades” whenever the threat of terrorism surfaced, Zaharie argued, “sO NO PARADE FOR EVER [sic] , (NOT THEIR CULTURE LA) TATS [sic] NOT HOW THEY DO THINGS.”
Zaharie also mocked Hishammudin Hussein, the current acting Transportation Minister of Malaysia and head of the investigation to find Zaharie’s plane. “real joker !” he wrote as a caption to a video of Hishammudin.
His YouTube profile shows other interests, however, including repairing electronics and discussions on atheism. Mackey notes that four of the videos he favorited on he site were discussions among prominent atheists, including a discussion of a book by Richard Dawkins and a subscription to the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science’s official YouTube account.
Atheism is a sensitive subject in Malaysia. A study by the International Humanist and Ethical Union listed Malaysia as one of 13 countries in the world that lists the death penalty as a potential punishment for blasphemy or atheist thought, according to Reuters. According to Georgetown University’s Berkley Center, Malaysia imposes strict laws against offending any religion or “disturbing public morality.”
While nothing in Zaharie’s profile shows a tendency towards militant atheism, his interest in Dawkins work suggests an interest that illuminates his political advocacy for expanded freedoms of expression.
Malaysian authorities are currently attempting to retrieve deleted files from Zaharie’s flight simulator, which Malaysian media have reported contained five runway simulations in the Indian Ocean, including on an American air force base and as far west as the Maldives. Meanwhile, Australian authorities have reported that they have seen two objects on satellite footage they believe could be debris from the plane in the southeastern Indian Ocean, and have dispatched search teams to the area.