MH370: Suicide or Spoof? Part 2 — Motive

Symbol of the 53rd Anti-Aircraft Missile Brigade

In the previous installment of this series, I looked at the psychological context for a hypothetical suicide run into the southern ocean. Today, I’d like to consider an equivalent issue with regard to a hijacking scenario. Presuming one occurred, what could be the motive for such an act?

As has often been observed, nobody claimed credit for the disappearance of MH370, and nobody visibly benefited from it. No benefit would seem to imply no motive.

Motive, however, can be a tricky thing to impute to another person’s actions. How can we be confident that we understand enough about a person’s position in the world—or more importantly, how they perceive their position in the world—to judge whether a given act would or would not be rational from their perspective?

A question more likely to yield results, I would argue, is: are there any potential perpetrators who might feel motivated to take such an action, however opaque their motive might be to us?

Here the answer is a resounding “yes.”

As it happens, the UK-based group Bellingcat today released the latest in a series of reports about the shootdown of MH17. For anyone who is not familiar with its work, Bellingcat is a very highly regarded group of amateur analysts who have pioneered the crowd-sourced investigation of open-source data. Bellingcat founder Eliot Higgins first attracted attention after using social media to locate evidence that the Syrian regime had used chemical weapons; later the group used similar techniques to identify the specific Buk missile launcher used to shoot down MH17 and has grappled with many other pressing topics of the day. If you haven’t visited their website, I heartily recommend it, as their coverage is fascinating and offers an excellent model for transparency and balance. Not for nothing the Columbia Journalism Review described Bellingcat’s work as “rigorous, evidence-based examinations of extremely specific questions… extremely valuable in helping us understand complex subjects.”

What has emerged from these reports is a strikingly concrete and layered depiction of events surrounding the destruction of MH17. And it is radically different from the picture that most journalists and analysts hold.

According to Bellingcat’s research, the Buk missile launcher that destroyed MH17 was not some trophy of war that a bunch of untrained militiamen got their hands on and fired off willy-nilly. Rather, it belonged to a specific regular Russian army unit, the 2nd Battalion of the 53rd Anti-Aircraft Missile Brigade, which was sent from its base near Kursk to the Ukrainian border. From there, this specific launcher was brought across the border in the middle of the night and positioned under the scheduled flight path of MH17. After it blasted the plane out of the sky it was put back on its trailer and brought back to Russia. The whole operation was a one-day mission.

Bellingcat identifies the unit’s officers, and even hones in on the individuals who likely operated the Buk in question. They stop short of speculating at who pushed the “fire” button. The report does make very clear, however, that operating a Buk requires intensive training, so whoever committed the fatal act must have had considerable experience with the system. And as might be expected with a weapon of its range and lethality, a major part of operational training is a tightly controlled firing process. Of the four man crew, only the officer in charge is authorized to make the firing decision. He, in turn, must receive the necessary order from his commanding officer. Contrary to the popular narrative, anyone who would be able to fire off a Buk blindly would know better than to do so.

That’s why, as I write in New York magazine today, Bellingcat has concluded that “responsibility for the downing of MH17 from a weapon provided and possibly operated by the Russian military lies with the Ministry of Defense and the Supreme Commander of the Russian Armed Forces, President Vladimir Putin.”

Some will no doubt find this conclusion incomprehensible: Why in the world would Putin order, or allow, a brutal attack which triggered such harsh repercussions against his country? What possibly could be the motive?

The answer is, we don’t know Putin’s motive. Indeed the alarming upshot of MH17, and how badly the press and intelligentsia have bungled their attempts to understand it, is that we don’t understand Vladimir Putin at all. We can’t presume to guess what his cost/benefit analysis of this decision was. But based on a year’s worth of intensive reporting by Bellingcat, as well as on work released by the official Joint Investigative Team, Putin obviously felt he had reason enough.

By this point I think the relevance of this story to MH370 should be clear. Within four months, two Malaysian Airlines 777s were taken out of the sky under suspicious circumstances. Imagine if you were a farmer who’s been raising chickens for many years without incident. Then one day, for the first time ever, one of the chickens goes missing. Then the next day, you see the neighbor’s dog jumping over your fence with a second chicken in its mouth. Now would you have a theory about what happened to the first chicken?

We know from the analysis of MH370s satcom system carried out by Mike Exner, Victor Iannello, Gerry Soejatman and others, that if a spoof hijacking was perpetrated on MH370 then whoever carried it out possessed an extremely high level of technical sophistication. So high, in fact, that the attack must not only have been state sponsored, but sponsored by a state with cutting-edge technology in aircraft systems and satellite communications. That being the case, if we suppose that MH370 was hijacked by someone other than Russia, then that would mean that two Malaysian Airlines 777s—of which only 15 existed out of a worldwide commercial aircraft fleet of perhaps 18,000—happened to be targeted within the span of four months by two different major powers.

Talk about bad luck!

290 thoughts on “MH370: Suicide or Spoof? Part 2 — Motive”

  1. This is from @GuardedDon in an email to me:

    “Your explanation is essentially correct but it might be more forceful to emphasize that the path between aircraft and ACARS server, whether via the VHF network or a satcom datalink, is not determined by addressing implicit in the SUs/data packets (as may be understood for internet routing). The path is determined by the ‘Media Advisory’ (SA) message sent from the aircraft; the ACARS server determines the VHF RGS or GES from which the SA message is received & replies via that node in the network. The last recorded SA message was sent by 9M-MRO’s DCMF (the aircraft ACARS handler) via satcom at 16:11UTC. This is evident in the ACARS Log at Appdx 1-9A in the Factual Information and correlates with the Inmarsat SU Log.”

    “At 18:03 the (SITA) ACARS Server attempts to send the outbound message to 9M-MRO via the GES in Perth (path as per last SA message receipt); the GES makes 3 attempts to forward the message to the AES without acknowledge for each SU block transmitted; the GES responds to the ACARS server that 9M-MRO’s AES is unavailable; the ACARS server marks 9M-MRO as unavailable for messages; the ACARS server replies to the MAS OCC terminal that 9M-MRO is unavailable; MAS-OCC terminal repeats msg submission approx every 2 minutes; ACARS server immediately rejects the submission with ‘AIRCRAFT NOT LOGGED ON’ status; MAS OCC terminal retries many times/ACARS server immediately rejects until time-out.”

    Don’s explanation certainly makes sense to me.

  2. Nederland,

    Good catch. Given that “ACARS is set to auto mode (all boxes selected) at power-up” (p.74 of the document you cited), one could expect ACARS message within 2 minutes after the power restoration, i.e. sometime between 18:25 and 18:27, right?

    Also, it is a good question why IFE did not send/receive any message after the reboot. Doesn’t it require any real-time information from the ground, for example updated weather forecast or connecting gate information?

  3. Victor,

    I did accurate calcs to establish locations at the 7th arc, where zero RoC pairs with ground speed suitable for landing under the assumption than abnormal BFOs are caused by missing Doppler correction.

    The minimum ground speed of 151 kph at zero RoC is at 94.29E, 34.94N. If zero RoC is associated with landing, it would still be feasible up to ~91.4E.


    If I am not mistaken the terminus of your trajectory under “modified declination parameters” assumption is relatively close to the Besh-Tash Valley discussed early days.

  4. @Oleksandr: I am re-thinking my work regarding a landing at 00:19. If you calculate the minimum average speed required to hit the 6th and 7th arcs, it seems too fast for a landing followed by a reboot of the SATCOM. I am considering scenarios in which the plane was flying level at 00:19.

  5. @VictorI, Okay, thanks for passing on Don’s explanation. Is there anything we can deduce from the fact that the IFE appeared to be working (based on the fact that incoming call was accepted) but that it didn’t initiate any outbound communication after 18:25, for instance seeking info for the map function? Can we assume that pax were incapacitated by the fact that no outgoing calls were made? I guess what I’m asking is whether IFE functionalities that could trigger outbound messages can be shut off from the flight deck.

  6. Victor, you call yourself an INDEPENDENT investigator , yet you are pushing for blame with no evidence citing your suspicion of a rogue pilot. Any decent humane person would never point a finger at another based on hypotheses and possibilities. Only the callous one would hurt other humans needlessly by making accusations without evidence. Which one do you fit into? Remember there are loads of relatives left to grieve. Do they not feel the pain or do you even care?

  7. @Dah Ah

    I think you have Victor confused with someone else.

    Victor has been reluctant to assign blame or causality to the disappearance, and has been heavily engaged on the analytical details.

    BTW, “rogue pilot” could refer to anyone on the aircraft.

  8. @MHW

    “Anwar would have met Z without even remembering it.”

    but Z would remember it very well 😉

    The reality is he was the only one on board who could pull off something like this. The reality is he went around Indonesia for a reason and if you exclude suicide it could be only reaching australian territory.

    Until someone finds better motive I’ll stick to the political one, sorry.

    Do I find him responsible for what happened? Absolutely yes. Do I consider him a terrorist? Hell no. He acted on a whim, did a very unprofessional thing and endangered lives of 200 passengers…unfortunately it didn’t go according to his plan so the outcome was worst possible. If he succeeded maybe people would look at him with different eyes.

  9. @jeffwise, thanks

    I’d like to add that the controller at MAS OPS acknowledged that the aircraft received the message.

    FI, App. 1.18F, p. 29f.

  10. @Dah Ah: The ATSB based its search area on the assumption that there were no pilot inputs after the turn south. The ATSB is now considering the possibility of a “rogue pilot” meaning somebody was at the controls until the end. What was once considered a “conspiracy theory” is now considered by the ATSB to be possible. And as @DennisW has stated, neither the ATSB nor I have assigned an identity to a possible rogue pilot.

    Frankly, I think any scenario in which a pilot deliberately flies a plane into the SIO until fuel exhaustion does not make sense, be it Zaharie Shah or anybody else.

    As for accusing Zaharie Shah, I have never accused or exonerated him. To be honest, I don’t know how anybody with the facts at hand can do either with any certainty. As the captain of the airplane, of course he and the First Officer are suspects. That’s just the reality based on the facts of the case.

    While we are speaking about accusations, you have made false accusation against me. So, you should take your own advice and apologize to me. As you say, “Any decent humane person would never point a finger at another based on hypotheses and possibilities.” Well, that’s exactly what you have done in your false accusation.

  11. @Nederland: We have been through all of this before. Columns were redacted, not lines, except for where it is indicated in the logs.

    As for MAS Operations claiming the message went through when it did not, these are the same guys that claimed the plane was flying over Cambodia.

  12. @StevanG
    You wrote “The reality is he was the only one on board who could pull off something like this. The reality is he went around Indonesia for a reason and if you exclude suicide it could be only reaching australian territory.”

    This is all theory – no REALITY! You write as if it has actually happened but have no evidence. As to the aim of reaching Australian territory, Christmas Island is no picnic spot. I expect he would be arrested and sent back to Malaysia immediately to face the consequences there. BTW, have you not followed the news about the atrocious conditions at the detention centre at CI?

    Fair enough, you have your own theory about what happened but we have heard it all before. Also, I doubt whether anyone knows for sure whether there was someone else (other than the pilots) on that flight who could fly the plane. Lets hope for something new and definitive in the upcoming 2 year FI from Malaysia.

  13. @VictorI, @Nederland,

    In the video, Nederland linked, the Inmarsat engineer spoke at length about how many airlines use the system for position reporting (global average of about 1report/22mins or so).

    Do we know MAS’ average reporting period? Does this reporting rely on one of the interrupted/disabled comms systems or is it done via the SATCOM direct?

    If the latter, we need to ask, whether the “in Cambodian airspace” story was really based on some prediction software (the reason for dismissing it later). Could be the source of it be this frequent position reporting (if it was still happening via SATCOM direct)?

    Re complete log in terms of lines. Victor states “Columns were redacted, not lines, EXCEPT for where it is indicated in the logs.” In the video, the ISAT engineer clearly states that NO lines were missing.

    I am not reading anything into that, but thought I share that discrepancy between the ISAT official line vs the published log indicating missing lines.

  14. @StevanG

    I’ve been thinking about that scenario a lot (obviously). Input from Don requires some modifications to be made. I am working on it. My original flight path in the vicinity of CI does not hold together (for me).

    Probably will wait for FI before posting anything. No rush at this point.

  15. @AM2

    you said:

    “This is all theory – no REALITY! You write as if it has actually happened but have no evidence.”

    That could be said for any scenario ever posted.

  16. The spoof version 2.0

    Swiss doesn’t fly this route!
    They’ve spoofed the flight no!
    Done it once…

    On top of that according to the wikipedia article Tupolev Tu-214R are :

    “Special-mission versions of the Tu-214 commercial transport aircraft, developed under the codename ‘Project 141′, to replace the Il-20 Coot ELINT platform. The aircraft are configured to carry the MRC-411 multi-intelligence payload, to include electronic intelligence (ELINT) sensors, side-looking Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) and other Signals Intelligence (SIGINT) and Communications Intelligence (COMINT)”

  17. @VictorI
    Yes they are the same. I still wonder if they could see anything on their monitor, when the SDU rebooted, that we can’t see in the ACARS logs (App. 1.9A) as they are missing after 18:15.

    To report the aircraft is in a different airspace would perhaps make more sense to me if there was some interest to prevent Vietnam air traffic control from being responsible for taking actions, such as raising an alarm phase or coordinating a search.

  18. Jeff,

    Re: “IFE appeared to be working (based on the fact that incoming call was accepted)”.

    FI explicitly stated that IFE successfully re-established data link after 18:25 SATCOM boot-up. But it is weird that IFE did not make any attempt to acquire data during the next 6 hours via the established data link. Why? What could this mean?

    Map application does not really need any data from the ground. But Panasonic IFE has a number of other applications, which may need. “Connecting gate” is apparently one of them. It is listed at Panasonic Web, but I am not sure if it was included into 3000 series or not.

  19. Dennis,

    Re: “Not intended to make Paul S. nauseous.”

    The link you posted appears to be irrelevant to mh370… D.Trump also has 1 bln, then what? You are chasing witches.

    Re: “Input from Don requires some modifications to be made.”

    What has changed? We discussed fuel issue and missed approach to CI a year ago. StevanG explained this either by failure of some equipment at the very end, or by a fight in the cockpit. In my understanding you silently agreed.

  20. At 18:25 the communications from the airplane did not contain the Flight number. Is the Flight number perhaps entered as part of the Flight Plan, and was no longer available because that Flight Plan had been cancelled?

  21. Victor – That crazed bit from Dah-ah was so left field it had me wondering right away? Shredder.

  22. Re IFE

    Perhaps an interesting note that there was a software downgrade carried out earlier on the day of the accident flight (App. 1.6A) There was also a defect deferred since Oct 2013 as the flight show failed to display arrival time (p. 28). I’m not sure if that means you couldn’t track the flight route on passenger screens.

    In case of an attempted hijacking, it would obviously make sense to switch off data transmission from business class to ground (satellite phones didn’t connect to the ground on the accident flight, though).

    And thanks for all explanations so far!

  23. @DennisW

    What if a possible plan to land at Cocos Is didn’t work out (for whatever reason) and MH370 followed a route along Penang, VAMPI, MEKAR, NILAM, IGOGU, ISBIX, but did not continue to CI? That could be consistent with the route proposed by Inmarsat (is their hotspot yet to be searched?) It would have taken the plane over the Malaysian Peninsula, but had it skirting Indonesian territory. I’m not sure in that case which autopilot mode Inmarsat assumed for the final flight phase, could it be standard mode on great circle, thus explaining eastern drift towards the magnetic south pole?

  24. Nederland,

    Sat call feature was not available from the cabin of mh370, but e-mail/sms service was. I have not found whether it was possible to disable it from the cockpit. Apparently map feature would not work, when, for example, PA is in progress.

  25. StevanG,

    Re: “The reality is he went around Indonesia for a reason and if you exclude suicide it could be only reaching australian territory.”

    Only you still believe in this silly nonsense. You already have demonstrated huge gaps in your knowledge of math and geography.

    You sound like a broken record. Have you ever heard about “presumption of innocence”? If you have any proof of your reality, please tell us. Otherwise no need to repeat the same thing, which is a product of your imagination.

  26. @Nederland, The page you reference in the FI indicates that there is a switch in the overhead cockpit panel that allows the pilots to shut off “In Flight Entertainment System/Passenger Seats.” If this had been turned off, would it have prevented the cockpit phone from working?

    @Oleksandr, You wrote, “Sat call feature was not available from the cabin of mh370, but e-mail/sms service was.” For those of us who need a refresher on this topic, could you walk us through how we know this?

  27. Jeff,

    FI, p52 contains description of what services were available from the cabin and cockpit. Only e-mail/sms service was available in the cabin. Access to voice service was available from the cockpit only.

    I recall Nihonmama also found similar statement at MAS web: despite voice call service was advertised for businesses class, it was actually not available in this flight.

  28. @Gysbreght
    “My understanding is that in the [Not AIMS 2003] version you can select “VHF only” in the ACARS Manager, and then select the default VHF as “Voice” (not Data) in the VHF Manager.”

    How would ACARS behave in this case? Would it be prevented from transmitting by internal logic? Would it still transmit in some kind of modulated way (think old 56k modem)?
    If 2nd option, how would that sound to someone listening on the same frequency? like mumbling?

    @Matty – Perth
    Syria is a war zone… It’s far less dangerous to fly through it while broadcasting “I’m SWISS” rather than “I’m russian” as the swiss are neutral.

  29. Nederland Posted March 2, 2016 at 4:25 AM: “I’m not sure in that case which autopilot mode Inmarsat assumed for the final flight phase, could it be standard mode on great circle, thus explaining eastern drift towards the magnetic south pole? ”

    This is what they write in the Journal of Navigation paragraph 6 (P.19):

    Trial and error shows
    that we obtain the best BFO match for an aircraft track of 300°, which is consistent with the aircraft travelling along airway N571 towards the IGOGU waypoint at N07 1, E094 25 at a ground speed of 480 knots. Such a flight path would be consistent with the route determined by radar prior to 18:22 UTC where the aircraft appears to be moving between waypoints.
    6.2. Late Flight Path. The technique presented here to reconstruct the end of the flight path uses a constant ground speed model. Constant ground speed is capable of being programmed into an autopilot, and flight paths consistent with these are relatively straightforward to generate and evaluate.
    At some time between 18:27 and 19:41 MH370 turned south …

    Radar data show that the groundspeed along airway N571 (VAMPI, MEKAR) was higher, about 517 kt. Constant ground speed cannot be programmed into the autopilot. The BFO data are however consistent with a groundspeed of about 450 kt as assumed in the article flight path reconstruction.

  30. Re sat phones:

    This passage may be helpful:

    ‘CTU is the Cabin Telecommunications Unit, which provides an interface between the
    in-seat handsets and the SDU, for cabin telephony calls, were that functions available. In the case of 9M-MRO, the in-seat phones can only be used for seat-to-seat calling.’

    So, probably not very useful in cases of emergency

    p. 49

    @Jeff, I am an interested amateur, but my reading would be that this relates to the IFE in the cabin/passenger seats only.

  31. @Nederland

    Thanks a lot for the youtube link containing the ISat statement about completeness of released data. It is important to have that on record.
    Nevertheless, I’m still worried about the data. It is such important evidence. Is there a proper “chain of custody” for it? Independent investigators should have turned the database with the raw data inside out. I wonder if that happened.

  32. @Oriondt, This piece was discovered by self-financed independent investigator Blaine Alan Gibson, who posted several pics on a closed Facebook page several days ago. Some of us have had a chance to look at it and generally came away unconvinced. I have to run out at the moment but will post some pictures later this morning, east coast US time, unless someone else beats me to it.

  33. @oriondt: I have seen the photos and the videos, but they are not mine to share unless Blaine gives permission, so I won’t, nor should Jeff unless he gets permission.

    This part certainly deserves close scrutiny, but I advise caution. For one, the recovered part is in relatively good condition, with no barnacles and little or no algae. It doesn’t look like a part that has traveled across the Indian Ocean on a two-year journey.

    Secondly, the part is constructed with a composite skin and an aluminum honeycomb core. I shared the photos with @GuardedDon who is certain that no parts on a B777 have this construction. I have not been to find a candidate part, but I can’t say with certainty that it is not from a B777. The media is reporting it may be part of the horizontal stabilizer.

  34. @Niels,

    you’re welcome

    the Inmarsat analysis has been published in a peer-reviewed journal. The peer review process normally deals with methodology rather than verification of data. However, chances data are fabricated in peer-reviewed publications are exceedingly low and only heard of in cases of considerable economic interest. As the data in this case have received unusual attention and the journal is keen to safeguard its academic reputation, I’d say chances the data are fabricated are too small to consider.

    That said, there are some appendixes listing some columns separately, but this is for clarity only and clearly flagged in the data sheet.

  35. @Gysbreght wrote

    ‘At 18:25 the communications from the airplane did not contain the Flight number. Is the Flight number perhaps entered as part of the Flight Plan, and was no longer available because that Flight Plan had been cancelled?’

    I don’t think so. A possible explanation could be that the Flight ID could have been deleted in the Flight Management System. You can again find a description for this here:

    p. 57-8

    The consequence would be that connection to the current ATC also is cancelled.

    Can anyone advise what connection that is (i.e. radio, SATCOM)?

  36. @AM2

    “This is all theory – no REALITY! You write as if it has actually happened but have no evidence.”

    Admittedly I don’t, however common sense says intelligence would likely know if there was anyone else on board capable of doing this.

    I leave certain probability that someone else on board forced him to do so(having in mind that Z is very good pilot who knows the area very good). But to pilot it like this and do all the stuff needed to go dark…sorry but he had to be involved this or that way.

    ” I expect he would be arrested and sent back to Malaysia immediately to face the consequences there.”

    If extraditions would only work that simple…especially because Australia would be under pressure since he would face death penalty in Malaysia(for basically diverting a plane).


    “My original flight path in the vicinity of CI does not hold together (for me)”

    I am really not sure they ditched close to CI, it could be some 300-500 miles to the south which is a lot, but CI was the most probable target, if not then australian mainland(maybe Learmouth).


    “You sound like a broken record. Have you ever heard about “presumption of innocence”? ”

    well unlike MSM and officials(although they don’t publicly say it – they mean it) I have actually never accused him of intentional murder, huge unprofessionalism and negligence certainly yes

    Someone has to be suspected, how else do you think this mystery could be solved? By endlessly calculating BTO&BFO values and setting ridiculous assumptions? I think not.

  37. Victor,

    So, what is difference between Malay military, who don’t want to disclose radar data, possibly sourced from other countries, apparently for security reasons, and IG, who doesn’t want to share photographs of a possible piece from the aircraft, because these were privately made?

    I think it is not ethical to hide these photos from the public and Jeff certainly should post them.

  38. Why is the photo being kept secret? Why being shared on a “closed” page? Something smells of bullshit.

  39. @Oleksandr: When somebody shares something with me in confidence, I abide by that confidence, unless doing so endangers somebody. End of story.

    I would be surprised if the pictures are not eventually shared, either by Blaine or by an official. And anybody that violates that confidence with Blaine is likely doing it for media attention.

  40. @Nederland

    I have looked pretty closely at the family of routes you are suggesting above. Many of them can be made to work (reconciled with ISAT data), but they are all difficult to reconcile with running out of fuel and ditching. I continue to believe that the plane was diverted for a political motive without intending harm to the PAX. The retention of the that scenario requires an unplanned event to have occurred. I have no good ideas relative to what that event might have been.


    Yes, I know the link relative to Najib does not directly relate to MH370. What is does highlight is the rampant corruption within the Malay government which may or may not be relevant. I will once again distance myself from the “fight in the cockpit”. Silence on that issue does not constitute agreement. There are many things stated on this forum that I do not comment on. It does not mean that I agree with them.

  41. @DennisW

    Could an event such as an attempt to violently gain access to the cockpit be related to the hypoxia/unresponsive pilot scenario?

  42. @Nederland

    I have never considered a hypoxia scenario. The flight path (from IGARI to the 18:25 ring) suggests a conscious pilot to me. I regard your efforts (and others above) to understand what happened to satcom during that period to be a good thing. Likewise getting a better grasp of what the radar might be able to tell us. I am comfortable that the right people from this group are working those issues.

  43. @DennisW

    In the example flight route mentioned above, a hypoxia/unresponsive pilot scenario may have occurred between IGOGU and ISBIX. One could think about reasons how this could be related to the controlled flight/diversion of plane scenario until 18:25, especially in case it was a hijacking of the plane. Recent cases of plane hijacking indicate cabin crew/passenger resistance.

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