Evidence of a plot by Malaysian Islamists to hijack a passenger jet in a 9/11-style attack is being investigated in connection with the disappearance of Flight MH370, British newspaper The Telegraph reported.
An al-Qaeda supergrass told a court last week that four to five Malaysian men had been planning to take control of a plane, using a bomb hidden in a shoe to blow open the cockpit door, according to the report.
Security experts said the evidence from a convicted British terrorist was "credible". The supergrass said that he had met the Malaysian jihadists – one of whom was a pilot – in Afghanistan and given them a shoe bomb to use to take control of an aircraft.
A British security source said: "These spectaculars take a long time in the planning."
The possibility of such a plot, hatched by the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks on the Twin Towers in New York, was bolstered by an admission by Najib Razak, Malaysia’s prime minister, that the Boeing 777’s communications systems had been deliberately switched off "by someone on the plane".
In a series of dramatic developments yesterday, it emerged that:
– Flight MH370 had changed direction and altitude after communications devices had been deliberately disabled;
– The plane flew for up to seven hours after civilian radar lost touch with it;
– An unnamed official briefed that the plane had been hijacked although Najib refused to confirm that was the case;
– The plane flew towards either Indonesia or to Kazakhstan after the transponder and messaging systems were disabled;
– Police searched the homes of both pilots for two hours over concerns one may have switched off the communications systems in a suicide bid;
– Chinese officials accused Malaysia of withholding information in a ratcheting up of diplomatic tensions between the two countries.
In evidence in a court case last Tuesday, Saajid Badat, a British-born Muslim from Gloucester, said that he had been instructed at a terrorist training camp in Afghanistan to give a shoe bomb to the Malaysians.
Giving evidence at the trial in New York of Sulaiman Abu Ghaith, Osama bin Laden’s son-in-law, Badat said: "I gave one of my shoes to the Malaysians. I think it was to access the cockpit."
Badat, who spoke via video link and is in hiding in the UK, said the Malaysian plot was being masterminded by Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the principal architect of 9/11.
According to Badat, Mohammed kept a list of the world’s tallest buildings and crossed out New York's Twin Towers after the September 11, 2001 attacks with hijacked airliners as "a joke to make us laugh".
Badat told the court last week that he believed the Malaysians, including the pilot, were "ready to perform an act."
During the meeting, the possibility was raised that the cockpit door might be locked. Badat told the court: "So I said, 'How about I give you one of my bombs to open a cockpit door?' "
The disclosure that Malaysians were plotting a 9/11-style attack raises the prospect that both pilots were overpowered and the plane intended for use as a fuel-filled bomb. One possible target, if the scenario is correct, will have been the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur, a symbol of Malaysia’s modernity and the world’s tallest buildings from 1998 until 2004.
Flight MH370 had been heading away from Kuala Lumpur over the South China Sea when it disappeared off civilian radar screens.
Satellites have tracked it returning towards land.
Badat, who was jailed for 13 years in 2005 for his part in a conspiracy with the “shoe bomber” Richard Reid to blow up a transatlantic jet, had given similar evidence in 2012.
In other words, his claims were first made long before the disappearance of Flight MH370.
In the earlier case, during the trial of Adis Medunjanin, an American who was later convicted of conspiring to blow up New York subways, Badat told prosecutors of the Malaysian shoe bomb plot.
Asked what he knew of the Malaysian group, he replied: "I learnt that they had a group, uh, ready to perform a similar hijacking to 9/11."
Asked if he helped them, he said: "I provided them with one of my shoes because both had been, uh, both had explosives inserted into them."
Prof Anthony Glees, director of the University of Buckingham’s Centre for Security and Intelligence Studies, said the prospect of an Islamist plot offered one explanation for why the Malaysian authorities "have not been telling us the whole truth".
Prof Glees said: "I believed this was a hijacking as soon as we were told that the plane had altered its flight path."
"Evidence that it turned back to Malaysia means that this could easily have been a Malaysian Islamist plot to turn the plane into a 9/11-style bomb to fly it into a building in Kuala Lumpur."
"Now we know there is evidence of a Malaysian terror cell with ambitions to carry out such an attack and so this makes it even more credible."
Prof Glees added: "Islamist terrorists in Malaysia present the country with a really serious political problem. The global repercussions of another 9/11 attack, including grounded aircraft and stock markets crashes, is something no government would want to face."
James Healy-Pratt, head of aviation at Stuarts Law solicitors, said the lack of information from Malaysian authorities was in stark contrast to the reaction of French officials when an Air France plane – whose black box was not recovered for two years – crashed in the Atlantic in 2009. The lack of information suggested Malaysian authorities may have something to hide.
Healy-Pratt, who represented 50 families in the Air France crash, said: "Compared to Air France there has been very little information given out. Serious questions need to be asked about how this has taken a week to get so little information. If it is terrorism that will have an effect on the Malaysian stock market and local economy."
Last May, two Malaysian men were arrested for links to al-Qaeda and charged with joining the Tanzim al-Qaeda Malaysia group. In a separate incident two other men from Malaysia were held in Lebanon as they allegedly tried to cross into Syria to join Islamist extremists fighting the Assad regime.
In 2001 Yazid Sufaat, a biochemist and former army captain, was imprisoned for seven years under internal security laws on suspicion of being part of the Jemaah Islamiah network, the terrorist organisation behind a series of bombings in south east Asia including the Bali nightclub massacre in which 202 people were killed in 2002.
Yazid, who was released in 2008, was also suspected of providing lodging for two of the 9/11 hijackers. Malaysian sources, however, insisted Islamic terrorism carried out by Malaysian jihadists is unlikely since the country has only a tiny number of Muslim fundamentalists.
But after a week of wildly fluctuating theories, the admission by Malaysia’s prime minister yesterday that the plane had been deliberately re-routed and flown for hours with communication systems switched off to disguise its flight path provided the most significant clues yet as to what might have happened. Najib stopped short of confirming Flight MH370 had been hijacked.
Najib said in a press conference: "Based on new satellite information, we can say with a high degree of certainty that the Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System was disabled just before the aircraft reached the east coast of Peninsular Malaysiapeninsular 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."
The new information appears to rule out previous theories that the plane suffered a sudden mid-air explosion, catastrophic equipment or structural failure, or a crash into the South China Sea.
As a result, the search in the South China Sea was called off and operations concentrated instead on two huge corridors –- one to the north of Malaysia and stretching as far as Kazakhstan and the other to the west across the Indian ocean to Indonesia.
Prior to the press conference, a senior Malaysian military official told one news agency that investigators now believed the plane was commandeered by a "skilled, competent and current pilot" who knew how to avoid radar.
Terrorism was originally suspected as a possible motive when it emerged that two Iranian men, travelling on stolen European passports, had managed to board the aircraft. They were ruled out as refugees trying to reach Europe via China.
All passengers will now be scrutinised again while the focus was also thrown on the plane’s two pilots – Capt Zaharie Ahmad Shah, 53, and his First Officer, Fariq Abdul Hamid, 27. Fariq broke post 9/11 security rules by allowing two female passengers into the cockpit on a previous flight.
Witnesses said the two men’s houses were visited by police for two hours yesterday in the hunt for clues. Foreign intelligence agencies are now expected to assist in sifting through the passenger lists to identify suspects.
The pilot and co-pilot because are regarded as the most likely to have the specialist aviation expertise to locate and switch off radar, satellite and other transponders to remove the aircraft from the 'grid’ before changing its direction.
But investigators said there was no evidence against members of the crew and it was possible that some of its passengers also had the knowledge required.
On Saturday, James Wood, the brother of one of the three Americans aboard MH370, said that the Malaysian prime minister's announcement "gives us a little hope, as ironic as that might sound".
"If they're wanting to hurt people they would do it right then and there. But if they're wanting to do something later then at least it gives us hope that there's still life and that we're going to have an opportunity to see our family again," he said.