Malaysian officials announced this week that they believe “beyond a reasonable doubt” that missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 ended its voyage in a remote area in the southeastern Indian Ocean. Yet as the search narrows to an area thousands of miles from anything, unfollowed leads and unsolved mysteries remain.
Below are five questions raised upon Flight 370’s disappearance that have yet to be answered: from plane sightings to clues that do not compute and threats that do not fit the few facts of the case currently available.
1. Maldives Islanders See ‘Low-Flying Jumbo Jet’ Miles From Reported Crash Site
The Malaysian government had few, if any, leads in the second week of searching for the missing flight. Chinese officials were publicly expressing frustration, families grieving, and a world wondering how a plane as large as a Boeing 777 could disappear right now of the sky.
And then the biggest newspaper in the Maldives, the Haveeru, published testimonies from residents on the island of Kuda Huvadhoo that they had seen a red-striped “low-flying jumbo jet” flying overhead on the morning after Flight 370 disappeared. “I’ve never seen a jet flying so low over our island before,” one witness said, “We’ve seen seaplanes, but I’m sure that this was not one of those. I could even make out the doors on the plane clearly.”
The Malaysian government all but ignored the report, and the search has been narrowed to an area far from the Maldives–far from any land, but nearest Australia. Only Haveeru has kept on the case–even the government of the Maldives is not involved in the search–and they insist the evidence is consistent with a plane crashing near the Maldives. Their latest report indicates that materials commonly found on a plane have washed ashore on another island.
So what did these islanders see? If they saw nothing, what motivation would they have to lie to the local newspaper, and give consistent testimonies? There is always the possibility that they saw another, perhaps private, airplane flying through, but no answers have been given that fully seal this case.
2. New Zealand Oil Rig Worker Claims To Have Seen Flight 370 ‘Burst Into Flames’ Near Vietnam
Now forgotten in light of new developments, one of the first leads on the missing Malaysian flight was from an New Zealand oil rig worker. Mike McKay was on an oil rig in the Gulf of Thailand when he claimed to see a plane “burst into flames” before his eyes on the morning the flight was to have ended. His position, several miles off the coast of Vietnam, would have put the plane precisely where it should have been had it continued on the correct path to Beijing–nowhere near the current search area off Australia or the Maldivian island on which residents claimed to see a plane.
The Vietnamese government said they complied with his request for a search of the area, but found nothing and abandoned the area when more credible leads from satellite engagement of Flight 370 led the search south. McKay’s testimony received even less follow-up than that of the Maldivian islanders–not even local newspapers caught up with him to hear his side of the story. What he saw in the sky that day remains a mystery.
3. Relatives Of Passengers Report ‘Phantom Phone Calls’ Indicating Plane Still Intact
For days after the plane’s disappearance, relatives of those on board Flight 370 reported “phantom phone calls” to those on board the plane. They would call the phones of those on board and receive the routine rings that indicated that the phone was intact and functioning. Relatives demanded that the governments of China and Malaysia call the phones themselves and use the ringing to find the location of the plane through satellites. If they all called at the same time and kept the phones ringing normally, a satellite could find that the phones were all in the same place, relatives hoped.
Other relatives told authorities that their loved ones were still signed on to the instant messenger QQ, visibly online for days after the plane’s disappearance. The lead went nowhere, as the passengers were automatically signed off after some days and never returned.
Some of these “phantom phone calls” have been solved–one woman, for example, simply dialed the wrong phone. But others, particularly calls to the crew from officials at the airline, received no rational answer. Phone companies have also not weighed in on the possibility that the phones could linger on and appear intact even after being destroyed.
4. Al-Qaeda Member Claims To Have Trained Malaysian For ‘9/11-Style Hijacking’
With little evidence surfacing during the first days of the search, many looked to find any evidence that terrorist groups were active in Malaysia, possibly hijacking the plane and landing it on a remote island for use later. This concern was especially prevalent among some in the Israeli community, who considered the possibility that the plane was to be used for an attack on their homeland in a future time.
Malaysia has deep ties to al-Qaeda, with Kuala Lumpur hosting the 2000 summit at which al-Qaeda leaders planned the September 11 attacks. And one currently imprisoned al-Qaeda operative told a British court that he had worked with Malaysian extremists and taught them how to hijack a plane. Saajid Badat, an al-Qaeda member testifying at the trial of Osama bin Laden’s son-in-law, told the court that it was requested of him to teach Malaysian al-Qaeda members how to make a shoe bomb to use on board a plane. In the post-9/11 world, cockpits are usually locked and passengers cannot get on board; the shoe bomb was intended to help the extremists take control of the plane’s direction.
The evidence indicated there was a possibility the plane was hijacked by extremists, but all signs pointed to no struggle within the cockpit. The plane disappeared from radar just as it sent its last signal to Malaysia, and the transcript of that conversation shows no distress, which would not be the case in the event the plane was hijacked. Authorities have said multiple times the deviation of the plane required significant knowledge of a Boeing 777–unlikely to be in the hands of al-Qaeda extremists. In the event that the pilot or co-pilot were the ones to divert the plane, however, they would not need a shoe bomb to enter the cockpit.
5. The Biggest Mystery Of All: Motive
With all signs pointing to a crash site thousands of miles from anywhere and no signs of distress from the cockpit before the plane disappeared, the biggest mystery surrounding the plane is why it took a sharp turn away from Beijing and flew for hours before running out of fuel in the middle of the southeastern Indian Ocean. Malaysia authorities have indicated that they have narrowed the investigation down to the pilot, Captain Zaharie Ahmad Shah, who had expressed dissident views from the government on Facebook and is related to opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim. According to those who knew him, however, there was no indication that Zaharie was radicalizing– in fact, searches found that Zaharie was interested in atheism, despite being a moderate Muslim.
Terrorist attacks tend to be explosive and eye-catching: the idea is to scare civilians into believing they could happen at any time. Flying a plane for hours into the middle of nowhere leaves no wreckage, nothing eerie or grotesque to look at, which is not typically the calling card of terrorists. Reports say that investigators are exploring a suicide theory, but in the event the pilot wanted to die, no motive has surfaced for him not simply crashing the plane in the waters outside of Malaysia, or flying in any other direction for less time than the full endurance of the aircraft.
With reports of new debris in the southern corridor search area, some of these answers may possibly be found. Others may remain unsolved even with the discovery of a black box. Even as the search begins to uncover some evidence, the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 will remain among the biggest mysteries of the decade.