In March 2014 Malaysian Airlines Flight MH370 disappeared without trace somewhere, it was thought, in the Indian Ocean. After covering 46,000 square miles of seabed over nearly three years, the search was finally abandoned after no trace of the aircraft was found. But suppose it wasn’t in the Indian Ocean? Suppose it was somewhere else…completely….?
The Southern Indian Ocean is one of the most fearsome seas in the world. Searching for a vessel on the surface is difficult enough. At depths close to three miles, with canyons and crevices that make the Grand Canyon look puny, trying to locate anything on the bed of the Southern Indian Ocean resembled searching for a pin-head in the proverbial haystack.
The search for Malaysian Airlines MH370, which left Kuala Lumpur on March 8th 2014 bound for Beijing, has been abandoned. As yet no-one has determined why the aircraft apparently flew for seven hours on a directly opposing course to its flight plan, before crashing into the sea from lack of fuel.
And no-one ever will. MH370 will not be found in the Southern Indian Ocean. For ten months it has sat in a cave on a remote airstrip high in the mountainous northern region of Pakistan, near the border confluence with Tajikistan and Afghanistan. Taliban country. And the Taliban have formed a deadly alliance with the rapidly expanding military Islamic force we know as, ‘Islamic State’.
All the crew and passengers on MH370 are dead. They died within an hour of taking-off from Kuala Lumpur. A deadly nerve gas was released in the hold from the baggage of two Iranians on the flight. It seeped into the cabin via airways doctored by ground staff working for ISIS. Only the Iranians, Sunnis fleeing a Shia regime to join ISIS and embark on their final journey to Paradise, had breathing masks to avoid inhaling the noxious gas.
Once the passengers and cabin crew were incapacitated it took only minutes to enter the flight deck and overcome the pilot and co-pilot. The Iranians, trained in piloting big jets, were well versed in flying a Boeing 777. They turned off all communication devices, steered the aircraft’s head to the north-west, and headed inland from the Bay of Bengal. Skirting India by way of Bangladesh and Nepal it took seven hours, and most of the aircraft’s fuel, to reach their destination. A night landing in those remote mountains would have been impossible, but it was dawn as the big bird touched down on the make-shift runway, kicking up sand and rocks on an all-too-short strip of dirt serving as a temporary airfield.
No sooner was the plane on the ground than it was hitched to a tractor and towed out of sight, into a huge cavern hewn from the mountainside. There it stayed for nearly three years, until today.
Great ideas take time to plan and execute. This one was four years in the making. Now all the threads are coming together.
Acquiring the bomb had proved the easiest part. Pakistan has over a hundred such nuclear devices deployed at various sites throughout the country. The Taliban have been infiltrating these establishments for years. It only took one corrupt official to sign a document authorizing the transfer of a warhead to a second site, then conveniently forgetting to notify the other site of its pending arrival, for the weapon to silently disappear into the mountain ranges of the northern Wakhan Corridor.
During its time in the cavern the Boeing 777 has changed its appearance dramatically. No longer a Malaysian Airlines plane, it now wears the colors and insignia of Air India. The dead crew and passengers have long ago been dragged out, unceremoniously, and buried in a mass grave. Inside the plane, the cabin seats are gone, the floor opened up to expose the cargo hold underneath. Nestled between the two, welded firmly in place, is the bomb.
“You!” The voice is gruff and authoritative. “Get fed, and then sleep. You’ll need to be in the air by dawn tomorrow.” He’s an imposing figure. The Boss. The AK47 he brandishes brooks no dissent. He waves in the direction of several large caves cut into the mountainside.
The Iranian pilots have just arrived after a grueling, three hundred miles road journey from Islamabad. They rub their backsides and grimace. One asks, “Where are we headed tomorrow?”
“You’ll get your orders soon enough.” A dismissal that brooks no argument.
Dawn breaks early over the Hinduraj mountains. MH370 thunders down the airstrip, and with only yards to spare, lifts lazily into the air and climbs steadily over the mountain peaks.
Only an hour previous had they received news of their destination. Both men had expected it to be Israel. To strike at the heart of that renegade intruder of Arab lands was dear to their hearts. They were disappointed.
The Boss had been succinct. “You’ll be flying to Al-Tabqa air base in Syria. It’s held by the Caliphate.” He noted their puzzled expressions. “Your plane would never get out of here with a full payload of fuel. We’ve given you just enough to fly the two thousand miles to Al-Tabqa. Hopefully, you’ll be light enough to get airborne and not fall off the side of the mountain.”
“Syria! But that means crossing Iran. They’ll shoot us down, for sure.” The Iranian’s face had contracted with alarm.
The Boss shook his head. “Your flight plan is already programmed into the computer. You’ll go north of Iran, fly west over Turkmanistan, across the Caspian Sea, and over Azerbaijan and Armenia. Then you’ll head south, skirting the Turkey-Iran border until you reach Iraq. Once there, the Caliphate will guide you in from Al-Tabqa.”
“Suppose we’re challenged?”
“It’s been fixed!” The Boss was becoming impatient. “The only time you may be spotted is on the Turkish border, but it’ll be noon when you reach there. Those idle Turks will be dozing at their posts.” He stood up purposefully, “If you’re challenged. Make something up. Use your imaginations. But get that plane to Al-Tabqa, or Allah will not be pleased with you.”
India’s Delhi International Airport is chilly at one o’clock in the morning. Most of the passengers waiting to board Flight 101 wear jackets or sweaters. The hot season won’t arrive for another month. Most of those returning home will be glad not to be there when it does. The hot season is ghastly; the air pollution intolerable.
In one corner of the gate lounge, two little girls – around seven or eight years old – sit at their mother’s feet and complain noisily at the delay. They spot a photo machine against the wall and harry the young woman for money so they can have their picture taken. She sighs and opens her purse. She’ll be so glad when this trip is over and she can be back home in her own country, with her husband.
The children run off, soon returning, clutching a strip of small monochrome photographs. The mother’s tired attempt at enthusiasm, as it’s waved in front of her, is drowned out by the public address system announcing Flight 101 finally ready for boarding.
Two and a half thousand miles away from Delhi, Syria’s Al-Tabqa airfield is festooned with the black flags of ISIS. American war tanks, abandoned by the fleeing Iraqi army, stand guard around the perimeter. When the big jet touches down it is immediately ushered into a hangar, the Iranian pilots hustled to a scruffy office nearby. They are told to sit and wait.
Eventually, the door opens and a tall, heavily-bearded man, dressed in a black cloak and turban enters the room. The Iranians turn to look, and gasp, rising to their feet then dropping to their knees. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is an easily recognizable figure, though now he’s known only as Caliph Ibrahim, founder and leader of the Islamic State.
Baghdadi motions the two to rise and be seated. He speaks in Arabic, congratulating them on their success in completing the first part of their holy mission.
“Now,” he says, “it’s time for you to learn the final act of Allah’s Great Plan. Your success will usher in that which the western curs and infidels – those enemies of Islam whom Allah will confine to extinction – call the ‘end times’. Mohammed will return to earth and raise us all up to eternal Paradise. And you, my friends, will already be there to greet us.”
The Iranians glance at each other and smile knowingly. It has been their wish all their lives, to work for the Prophet, die for the Prophet, and live for eternity in Paradise with the Prophet. They lean forward, bewitched by al-Baghdadi’s stature and eloquence. Keen to learn more.
“Tonight,” he begins, “at around one-thirty, a Boeing 777 similar to yours will leave Delhi bound for…well, you will find out in time. By five-thirty in the morning it will be over northern Iraq, at thirty-five thousand feet. Thanks to our American friends…” his voice quivers with the sarcasm, “…we have the ability to shoot it down…” He pauses, watching for any indication of doubt in the faces of the Iranian pilots, but on seeing none, continues, “…at four-fifty tomorrow morning you will take-off and fly to the Turkish border. There, you will activate your automatic pilot. You will become that Air India plane. As we speak, the flight coordinates of Air India Flight 101, call sign AIC101, are being fed into your aircraft’s computer. It will take you to your final destination. Once there, you will descend to two thousand feet, as per the control tower’s standard landing procedure. At two thousand feet you press the red button recently fitted in the center of your cockpit panel. It will activate the detonator and explode the bomb. It’s a five megaton device, two hundred and fifty times more powerful than those dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.” He pauses momentarily, “That red button, my friends, is your passport to Paradise.”
Al-Baghdadi stands up slowly. He sighs. “Would that I could go with you. Allah has placed a great weight on my shoulders. However, I must finish my work here on earth before I may finally relax and enjoy whatever fruits of delight Allah may see fit to bestow on my unworthy being. Go, rest up. You will have more of Allah’s work to complete tomorrow, before you bask in your divine reward.”
Air India Flight 101 is asleep. Dinner has long since been served, the shades are drawn, the lights dimmed. Even the two little girls, worn out from excitement of travel and impatience to be home with their daddy, have been lulled to unconsciousness, huddled together, by the steady drone of the big jet’s engines.
They die before they can awake. The huge explosion, the fireball engulfing the plane from nose to tail, the break up of the fuselage, the long, slow, plunge of bodies, suitcases, cameras and bric-a- brac, through the thin night air, and finally to the desert floor, is unknown to them. They, and all the two hundred and forty-three passengers and crew of Air India Flight 101 die without knowing.
Only a Kurdish shepherd, an old man out alone in the desert tending his scraggy flock, sees the fireball light up the dawn on the distant horizon. Then, he catches a glimpse of heavy, black, smoke rising slowly, almost aimlessly, from the desert sand.
With an arthritic grunt he rises to his feet and begins to walk. There has been war in Iraq for a long time. Strange things happen. Machines often fall from the sky. Sometimes there are pickings, for those first on the scene. As he walks his rheumy eyes note early sunlight glinting on a small object blown across the desert sand. The wind carries much into the desert. Mostly, garbage, paper, worthless stuff. Once, though, as a younger man, he’d found a fifty thousand dinar bill. The memory causes a chuckle. He’d been drunk for a week on that one. He stoops, and with some difficulty, picks up the flimsy object. It’s a small strip of photographs, like the ones from those machines they once had in the bars, before ISIS came. It shows two little girls giggling together as the flash makes them wince. He grunts again, tosses it back on the sand, and carries on walking.
The Iranians reach the Turkish border ten minutes after the demise of Air India 101. At the coordinates given they switch over to the auto-pilot computer. The big plane swings in a wide arc before settling on a steady course – westward.
Almost immediately the radio crackles and the voice of Ankara control comes through. “Alpha India Charlie 101, do you read? Come in, please. Over.” The voice is agitated, almost panicked.
“Ankara, this is Alpha India Charlie 101, we read you. Over.”
“Oh! Thanks be to Allah. We thought we’d lost you, 101.”
“Sorry about that, Ankara. Had a slight problem with turbulence over northern Iraq and took a dive, but we’re fine now and able to continue to our destination, thank you.”
“I read you, 101. Continue on present heading to Black Sea and Romania control. Good afternoon to you.”
The Iranian co-pilot switches off his microphone and breathes a deep sigh of relief. Obviously the real Air India Flight 101 hasn’t yet been discovered. And neither will it be. ISIS fighters are at the scene long before the old Kurdish shepherd. Their huge American military diggers scoop out a hole in the sand large enough to hide the remains of Flight 101 and its unfortunate passengers. The old man sees the black ISIS flags too late. He turns to run. The AK47s rip his back apart. He lies paralyzed, but conscious, on the desert sand as they slit his throat, before dragging his body to the pit and throwing it in. By the time they leave, Flight 101 is invisible to any but the most curious of passers by.
On board the impostor aircraft, curiosity is consuming the co-pilot. “Where are we headed,” he mumbles, half to himself. “They might have told us. Surely, we’ve a right to know?”
The pilot, his friend, grins at him. “Let’s see if we can find out, then.” He reaches up into a cockpit locker, rummaging about, “They’re usually kept in here. Ah, yes, I believe this is one.”
He pulls a dog-eared, well-thumbed booklet from the locker and begins to turn the pages.
“What is it?” asks the other man.
“Flight listings. Almost every commercial flight is in here. I guessed they wouldn’t bother clearing out these lockers while this bird was in storage. Ah, here we are. Air India 101…Oh, my God! Oh, Allah be praised!” His face registers astonishment, then pleasure. “The Caliph said, ‘Armaggedon’. He meant it!”
He passes the booklet to his colleague, who glances down the page, then back up at his friend, “Shit!”
JFK Airport, New York could never be described as quiet at any time, but at four o’clock in the morning the busiest staff are the cleaners and floor polishers working to restore order from the ravages of the previous day.
One man stands alone in front of the arrivals screen. He scans the lists, finds what he’s looking for – Air India Flight 101, due to land at 4.45am – and decides he just has time for a coffee before greeting his wife and two young daughters, returning from Delhi after visiting his sick mother-in-law.
“JFK Tower, this is Alpha India Charlie 101 requesting landing instructions.”
“Good morning, Alpha India Charlie 101, we have you on-screen. Please proceed on present heading and await instructions.”
The atmosphere in the cockpit of the jet is tense; the red button on the console seeming to have grown in size over the last few minutes. Beads of perspiration stand out on the brows of both men. This is it. This is the moment they’ve been working towards all their lives. Nothing must go wrong now.
“I hope, for Allah’s sake, this thing works.” The younger man gestures towards the button.
“It’ll work, my friend. The Caliph doesn’t make mistakes. He’s had the best nuclear technicians in Pakistan assemble it.”
The radio crackles into life. “Alpha India Charlie 101, this is JFK Tower, reduce speed, two hundred knots, begin descent 2,000 and hold.”
In the Southern Indian Ocean, fifteen hundred miles south-west of Perth, the Australian frigate, HMAS Warramunga, is hove to after sonar reports a contact two and a half miles under the keel. On the bridge, Commander William Anderson sighs and orders the submersible launched. How many times has he done this, he thinks to himself.
“Maybe this time we’ll be lucky, sir.” His second doesn’t sound optimistic.
“Maybe, Number One. Damn thing must be here somewhere. All the boffins say it is.”
2,000 feet! The pilot claws back the throttles. The noise from the jet engines merge almost into silence. He pushes the joystick gently forward forcing the nose of the plane down. It’s speed begins to increase. The plane shudders as the co-pilot applies the air brakes.
Far below them the Statue of Liberty glows faintly in the early dawn. The altimeter casually counts down – ‘3,500’ – ‘3,200’ – ‘2,500’ – ‘2,200’, and then – ‘2,000’ feet.
The two Iranians turn towards each other. “Allahu Akbar!”
In the airport lounge the lone man drains his coffee cup. He stands up, walks towards the door, but never reaches it.
The fireball that had been Malaysian Airlines MH370 blots out the early morning sun. Within seconds JFK Airport ceases to exist. But that is only the beginning of the devastation.
This time there was no smoking gun. Only a mushroom cloud.
Author’s Note: The above work is, of course, fictitious. No one knows the whereabouts of Malasia Airlines Flight MH370. It may, or may not, be at the bottom of the Southern Indian Ocean. Nevertheless, I believe the scenario detailed above is feasible. If not MH370, then in the future, with some other commercial aircraft.
I’m no aviation expert. My research has been as thorough as I can make it. There will be ‘experts’ out there who will say, “That’s not possible,” or, “With today’s technology, they’d never pull it off,” or, “The whole idea is preposterous.”
To them I would simply say, cast your minds back to September 10th 2001. Would not the idea of Islamist terrorists hijacking American jets from American airports and crashing them into the Twin Towers and the Pentagon, have seemed equally preposterous on that day?
In today’s technological world anything can be possible. There are numerous experts throughout the world ready and willing to solve any technological problem, given the price is right. Right-wing, politico/religious ideology is a powerful incentive.
Islamic State is no rag-tag band of ruffians. It is powerful, well-funded, and well armed. We, in the west, need to face their threat squarely while we’re still in a position to do so.
R J Adams Copyright 2015 (Amended 2018).