Search for MH370: Here's the most likely reason Malaysia Airlines plane went missing

17 March 2014

This op-ed was written by Visiting Professor Clive Williams, from the Centre for Military and Security Law at the ANU College of Law and was first published in The Canberra Times.

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak's announcement that the Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System (ACARS) and transponder on Flight MH370 were deliberately disabled and the plane diverted towards the southern Indian Ocean or north towards Kazakhstan suggests that one (or both) of the pilots or one (or more) of the passengers was responsible for the loss of the aircraft. It has created hope among relatives of the crew and passengers that survivors could be found somewhere on land or in a life raft on the Indian Ocean.

This new Malaysian revelation again raises the spectre of terrorism. Terrorism certainly cannot be ruled out, but seems less likely than other possibilities. Terrorism is by definition politically-motivated with a strategic outcome in mind. If terrorism was the motivation you would expect that the perpetrators would have already used the plane as a weapon against a possible target, such as Mumbai or Colombo, would have made political demands, or would have tried to put pressure on a target government.

It is not always the case that terrorist groups claim responsibility for their acts, but that is usually true when there is little doubt about who they are and what they want, whether it be Hamas fighters rocketing southern Israel from Gaza, or al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula deploying underwear bombs against US aircraft. There is little point in terrorists hijacking MH370 if no one knows why they did it or what they are trying to achieve.

In the modern era since 2000, for most people, hijacking conjures up images of 9/11 - where four hijacked aircraft were seized by 19 hijackers to be used as flying bombs. Before that, there had been only one occasion when terrorists hijacked a large passenger aircraft to use as a weapon. In December 1994, Algerian terrorists hijacked Air France Flight 8969, which they allegedly planned to crash on Paris.

Before that, particularly since 1968, there had been many terrorist hijacks; many of them by Palestinian groups trying to gain international recognition for their territorial rights. The usual routine was to hold the plane on the ground somewhere to get publicity and then release the passengers. Since the Oslo Accords in 1993, there has been a decline in the number of terrorist aircraft hijacks or attempted hijacks.

Internationally, since 2000 there have been only 18 hijacks or attempted hijacks of large passenger aircraft. Of these, seven were by passengers wanting to get to a destination to seek asylum, one was criminally motivated to steal the cargo, six were by mentally ill persons, and four were politically motivated (counting 9/11 as one incident).

Some of the perpetrators could probably be recategorised from the "seek asylum" category to the mentally ill category, judging by how they went about it or their intended destinations. Mental disorders seem to account for most of the lone-perpetrator hijacks and attempted hijacks.

This is certainly true of Australia where since 1960 there have been at least 11 attempts to hijack aircraft, some of which have been successful. None was terrorism related. All were by lone perpetrators, most of whom seemed to be suffering from mental illness at the time.

Since 2000 there have only been two hijack attempts in Australia.

On 19 February 2003, a TAFE student, Kelly Witchard, armed with a knife, hijacked a Cessna 210 at Hedlow Airport near Rockhampton, and forced the pilot to fly 300 kilometres to Mackay. There were no passengers on the aircraft.

Witchard was arrested on arrival at Mackay Airport. The pilot was not injured. Witchard later received a four-year jail term.

On 29 May 2003,  David Robinson, a passenger on Qantas flight 1737, a domestic flight from Melbourne to Launceston, tried to overcome the flight crew with wooden knives that he had taped to his legs to pass through a Melbourne Airport metal detector. Instead, he was overpowered by the crew and passengers.

He later admitted attempting to hijack the plane to crash into the Walls of Jerusalem National Park in Tasmania - an action intended "to release the Devil from his lair and bring about Armageddon".

In July 2004, the Supreme Court of Victoria found Robinson not guilty of attempted hijack due to reasons of mental impairment.

Turning back to flight MH370, the most likely cause for the MH370 diversion seems to be mental illness on the part of one of the pilots, or a passenger who gained access to the cockpit and was able to force a pilot to fly in a particular direction - or was able to fly the aircraft himself (hijackers rarely being women). One would also have to question his mental state.