Search for Mystery Men Aboard Missing Jetliner Leads to Iranian Middleman

Your News Companion by Ben Mathis-Lilley
March 10 2014 3:56 PM

Search for Mystery Men Aboard Missing Jetliner Leads to Iranian Middleman

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Two Malaysian Airlines planes are seen obscured by haze on the tarmac at Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KLIA) in Sepang, outside Kuala Lumpur on March 9, 2014

Photo by Mohd Rasfan/AFP/Getty Images

The ongoing search for the Malaysia Airlines flight that went missing over the weekend has provided little to suggest officials are any closer to determining the exact whereabouts of the vanished airliner, but authorities and journalists appear to be making progress on another front: That of two men who boarded the missing plane with the help of stolen passports. Here's the Financial Times with the latest:

Josh Voorhees Josh Voorhees

Josh Voorhees is a Slate senior writer. He lives in Iowa City. 

The Thai travel agent who booked the tickets for the men told the Financial Times on Monday that she had been asked to arrange the travel by an Iranian contact. ... Benjaporn Krutnait, owner of the agency Grand Horizon Travel in Pattaya, Thailand, said the Iranian, a long-term business contact who she knew only as “Mr Ali”, first asked her to book cheap tickets to Europe for the two men on March 1. Ms Benjaporn initially reserved one of the men on a Qatar Airways flight and the other on Etihad.
But the tickets expired when Ms Benjaporn did not hear back from Mr Ali. When he contacted her again on Thursday, she rebooked the men on the Malaysia Airlines flight through Beijing because it was the cheapest available. Ms Benjaporn booked the tickets through China Southern Airlines via a code share arrangement.
A friend of Mr Ali paid Ms Benjaporn cash for the tickets, she said, adding that it was quite common for people to book tickets in Pattaya through middle men such as Mr Ali, who then take a commission. Mr Ali could not immediately be reached for comment on a Tehran mobile number provided by Ms Benjaporn. She added that she had known Mr Ali for about three years, during which time he spent a lot of time in Pattaya and booked travel for himself or his contacts at least once a month on average.
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Unidentified intelligence sources tell NBC News that Ali contacted authorities shortly after he learned that his customers had become subjects of the global investigation into the missing flight, and explained how he bought the tickets and also detailed "other assistance" he provided them. Ali is currently believed to be in Iran and has not yet been in direct contact with U.S. authorities, according to the network.

Authorities haven't ruled out a terrorism link in the plane's mysterious disappearance, but that appears largely to be a result of the fact that there is so little concrete evidence that they haven't been able to rule out much of anything. As the Associated Press put it this morning, aviation experts say any number of things could have happened on board flight MH370, including: "an explosion, catastrophic engine failure, terrorist attack, extreme turbulence, pilot error or even suicide."

News of the stolen passports immediately sparked terrorism fears, but authorities and experts have stressed that stolen travel documents are more often used for things like illegal immigration or drug smuggling. Those theories would appear to be supported at least somewhat by the fact that the travel agent says that Ali did not specifically ask for tickets on the Kuala Lumpur-Beijing flight but had instead simply requested the cheapest route to Europe. (Also working against terror theories: No group has come forward to take credit for the plane's disappearance.)

The two mystery men—who have been described vaguely as "Mediterranean looking"—began their journeys in Qatar and eventually ended up in Thailand, according to NBC's sources. They then used the Iranian middleman to buy their tickets in Thailand for the roundabout route from Kuala Lumpur through China and on to Europe. (The two men were ultimately booked through to Amsterdam, at which point their flight itineraries diverged to a pair of other European cities.)

The FBI is now expected to try its hand at IDing the two men with the help of their thumb prints that were recorded prior to their departure, and from surveillance footage at the Kuala Lumpur airport that captured the two men on camera.

***Follow @JoshVoorhees and the rest of the @slatest team on Twitter.***