Who hijacked Malaysia Airlines 653? Revisiting the mystery 43 years on

On December 4, 1977, Malaysia Airlines flight 653 crashed into a swamp in Johor state, killing all 100 people onboard in what was then the deadliest plane hijacking in history. 43 years later, while the identity and motivations of the person behind the crash remain a mystery, an unearthed report sheds new light on the tragedy

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October 21, 2020
Who hijacked Malaysia Airlines 653? Revisiting the mystery 43 years on

Before MH370 disappeared in the Indian Ocean, before MH17 was shot down over Ukraine, Malaysia Airlines was known for a different, equally mysterious tragedy: The hijacking and crash of flight MH653. 

A Boeing 737-200 on a short domestic flight from Penang to Kuala Lumpur, all 100 passengers onboard died in the tragedy. Who was behind the incident and why they crashed the plane remain unknown to this day, with discussion of the crash muddied for a long time by the fact that the Malaysian government never released the final report on the incident. 

That changed in 2019, when a Malaysian blogger found a copy of the report in a library in Singapore and republished verbatim its findings – including the cockpit voice recording, which was appended to the report. 

For the first time, a proper analysis of the crash can be conducted based on the raw details of what happened on board the ill-fated flight.

Part 1: The Flight

In the 1970s, Malaysia Airlines, then known as Malaysia Airlines System, operated most of its short domestic flights using the Boeing 737-200, a popular workhorse aircraft that could carry about 100 passengers. One such aircraft was used for flight 635, a short, popular route from the northwestern city of Penang to the capital, Kuala Lumpur, and then onward to Singapore. 

On 4 December, 1977, there were 93 passengers and seven crew on board, led by Captain G. K. Ganjoor and First Officer Karamuzaman Jali. Among the passengers were citizens of 14 different countries, including the Malaysian Agriculture Minister, two World Bank officials and the Cuban ambassador to Japan.

Armed Forces staff with polythene bags in search of bodies. Photo: Singapore National Archives
Officials inspecting the passenger’s belongings. Photo: Singapore National Archives
9M-MBD upon landing, nine months before the incident. Photo: Flickr

If the hijacker threatened to blow up the plane, the pilots were not only expected, but obligated, to let the hijacker into the cockpit if he wanted

Flight 653 departed Penang at 19:21 and climbed to its cruising altitude, where it remained briefly before beginning its descent into Kuala Lumpur. The descent was normal until around the time the plane passed through 4,000 feet, just minutes from landing. It was at that point that a commotion in the passenger cabin or the galley attracted the attention of the pilots.

Everything henceforth is quoted directly from the cockpit voice recording:

“What the hell is that,” Captain Ganjoor exclaims, followed moments later by: “What is going on there?”

Someone knocks on the cockpit door, and Ganjoor says, “Open, it’s open. Ask him to come in.” At that time, common wisdom held that a hijacker’s intention was to land the plane in another country in order to seek asylum or ransom the passengers, and pilots were expected to comply with hijackers’ demands. Especially if the hijacker threatened to blow up the plane, the pilots were not only expected, but obligated, to let the hijacker into the cockpit if he wanted.

The hijacker now enters the cockpit and says one word: “Out.”

Confused, Captain Ganjoor replies, “We are, er, you don’t want us to land?”

“Yes. Out,” the hijacker says. “Cut all radio contact.”

Before complying, to prevent collisions, First Officer Jali informs air traffic control (ATC) that flight 653 is leaving the traffic pattern and climbing away from the airport.

Captain Ganjoor assumes the hijacker wants to go to some third country, perhaps to seek asylum. Such hijackings were frequent in the 1970s. But this is a short domestic flight, and there isn’t much fuel on board.

Ganjoor tries to explain this to the hijacker: “Yes, but we don’t have much fuel sir to go anywhere. We – just enough up to Singapore, whatever you want.”

But the hijacker doesn’t reply. The pilots run through several procedures before Ganjoor again asks: “Anything you want us to do, sir?”

The hijacker replies with a chilling line: “Sorry, it’s time to put you two out. You are landing now.”

Ganjoor once again sounds confused. “No sir – er, you want us to land?”

“No, no,” the hijacker answers.

Ganjoor launches into a lengthy but courteous explanation of why he has to keep talking to air traffic control. The hijacker seems convinced, eventually saying: “Contact them, say you are going to Singapore.” 

After Ganjoor apprises ATC of his intentions, the hijacker chimes in again to ask – with a “please” even – to lock the cockpit door.

Eventually the hijacker agrees to let Ganjoor tell the passengers what’s going on, but then elects not to. A flight attendant enters the cockpit, and Ganjoor briefs them on his intentions. “Now, er, don’t say anything to the passengers, OK? And I don’t want any nonsense from the passengers, OK, and, OK, merely tell them that we are diverting to Singapore due to weather or whatever, OK?”

Shortly after this, the hijacker says, “You are landing now.”

“No sir, we are now – we have climbed to 21,000 feet, and then we are … ”

Ganjoor is here interrupted by the hijacker. “We are serious!” the man exclaims.

As Ganjoor reports his position over Malacca to ATC, the hijacker issues another ominous warning: “I think the two of you are getting out of hand.”

The situation seems to stabilise after a few minutes. “How many miles more?” the hijacker asks.

“About 70 miles, that’s Singapore,” said Ganjoor, possibly pointing out the window. It is important to note that by this time it was dark outside the aircraft with only surface lights visible.

“Are we travelling over land?” asks the hijacker.

The New Straits Times, 5 December 1977.

“Well, we’re almost near Batu Pahat – are you familiar with Batu Pahat?” Ganjoor says. “Now we are going in for Singapore landing.” At that moment, flight 653 begins to descend toward Singapore. Ganjoor again informs the hijacker that they will do whatever he wants, but they have to land in Singapore first. This is followed by a bizarre exchange as a flight attendant comes to the cockpit and apparently takes everyone’s drink orders.

The hijacker then says something unintelligible, to which Ganjoor replies, “Whatever you say, sir. Everything is alright, sir, you don’t – er, we’re not going to do anything funny, no, never.”

At that moment First Officer Jali announces that they are passing through 11,000 feet.

“What is this?” the hijacker asks. “You bluff us!”

About one minute later, the sequence of events takes a dark turn. A bang suddenly erupts in the cockpit as the hijacker fires a gun, which is followed by a groan, probably from the first officer.

“No, please don’t!” Captain Ganjoor exclaims. Another gunshot rings out, and Ganjoor screams, “No, please, no!”

The hijacker then fires his gun a third time, and Ganjoor says, “Please, oh, oh…” his words trailing off into a dying gasp. The transcript notes a loud thump.

Over the next approximately 40 seconds, no one speaks in the cockpit; the only sounds are an overspeed warning and a frantic banging on the cockpit door. But within a minute the overspeed warning stops, and then someone says: “It won’t come up!”

The transcript only notes that this is “not the voice of either pilot”, suggesting that it might not be the hijacker either. Who is in the cockpit?

“Still won’t come up!” someone says again. “It still won’t come up!”

The overspeed warning comes back on, then turns back off. There are several unintelligible lines, for which the transcript provides the annotation: “Two persons, possibly involved in a struggle.” This is followed by a low altitude alert, the sound of someone moving around, and an unintelligible utterance in an unidentified foreign language. 

The overspeed warning activates again, and then the tape abruptly ends as the plane and its passengers meet their grisly fate.

Part II: The Mystery

Flight 653 plunged out of the sky in a steep dive near the village of Kampong Ladang in Johor state, near the border with Singapore. The 737 slammed into a swamp at high speed and utterly disintegrated, triggering a massive explosion which spewed mangled debris over a wide area. 

Search and rescue teams rushed to the site to search for survivors, but they only found small pieces of bodies. It was obvious that none of the 100 passengers and crew had survived, making this, at the time, the deadliest plane crash in Malaysian history and aircraft hijacking.

From that point, there were two parallel lines of inquiry: One to establish the facts of what happened, and another to determine who was responsible. 

The inquiry noted several key facts, but notably, it could not conclude how many hijackers there were, who was controlling the plane at the end, or who was involved in the “struggle” after the hijacker shot the pilots. The report simply stated that the probable cause of the crash was the departure from controlled flight after the incapacitation of the crew, and left the rest to the criminal inquiry.

There is little evidence that criminal inquiry took place, and no one was ever charged in connection with the crash. But there are some clues in the hunt for the perpetrators. According to news reports, the air traffic controller stated that the pilot told him the hijacker was with the Japanese Red Army. 

The Japanese Red Army, or JRA, was a communist organisation which believed in bringing about worldwide revolution through terrorism. Prior to the crash of flight 653, the group had also hijacked three Japan Airlines flights, all of which landed safely. But the group is perhaps best known for executing the 1972 Lod Airport attacks in Tel Aviv, Israel, in which JRA terrorists with support from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine attacked travelers at Tel Aviv’s Lod Airport using guns and grenades, killing 26 and wounding 80. 

The JRA also stormed a Shell oil facility in Singapore, the French embassy in The Hague, the American Insurance Associates building in Kuala Lumpur, at which they took hostages including the US consul, and carried out an attack at Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport which killed four people. 

Malaysian authorities picked up this lead and ran with it publicly.

Despite the government’s statements, there is almost no direct evidence of JRA involvement. The cockpit voice recorder (CVR) transcript does not contain the exchange with ATC which reportedly contained the attribution to the JRA, nor is there anything in the transcript which would suggest a connection with any terrorist group. However, there were several segments of the conversation which were marked as “unintelligible,” and the possibility that these contained some statement of allegiance cannot be ruled out. 

Furthermore, there doesn’t appear to be any evidence the JRA claimed responsibility for the hijacking, which is one of the first things a terrorist group usually does after carrying out an attack. If the JRA was responsible, it wouldn’t have made sense to keep it a secret.

It’s also unclear who was the intended target. The JRA had no quarrel with Cuba, so the target probably wasn’t the Cuban ambassador, and none of the other high-profile passengers had connections to Japan. Although there was one Japanese citizen on the plane, there is no publicly available evidence which ties them to the JRA. Finally, Malaysia’s home minister denied the JRA was responsible and the prime minister stated that only one hijacker was involved, a point not consistent with an organised terrorist plot.

There was one gun already known to have been on the plane, and it belonged to the bodyguard accompanying Malaysian Agriculture Minister Dato Ali Haji Ahmed

One has to wonder whether the Malaysian government simply blamed the JRA because they were an uncontroversial culprit. This suspicion is reinforced by the identity of the most popular alternative suspect: The agriculture minister’s personal bodyguard.

Because of the total destruction of the cockpit area, the gun heard so clearly on the CVR was never found, so its owner couldn’t be traced. But there was one gun already known to have been on the plane, and it belonged to the bodyguard accompanying Malaysian Agriculture Minister Dato Ali Haji Ahmed.

Furthermore, it was rumoured the pair flew this route frequently, and the bodyguard and Captain Ganjoor already had bad blood between them. On a previous flight, Ganjoor allegedly asked to take the guard’s gun to the cockpit with him, since no one was allowed to carry guns in the passenger cabin. This resulted in an argument of unclear length and intensity.

Later, Malaysia Airlines allegedly issued a memo stating the agriculture minister’s bodyguard was allowed to take his gun on board without handing it over to the pilot. A Malaysian MP asked whether these allegations were true during a parliamentary hearing on the crash in 1978, but he received no definitive answer.

However, there exists no clear motive for the bodyguard to have perpetrated the hijacking. If he had a grudge against Captain Ganjoor, why play out a long, dramatic hijacking, only to kill everyone nearly an hour later? Besides, he had won the argument. Ultimately, there is too much missing information to say the guard was responsible.

Photo: Singapore National Archives

The perpetrator’s behaviour suggests that the hijacking probably wasn’t planned very long in advance, if it was planned at all. 

Firstly, the choice of flight was quite poor, as it did not have enough fuel to travel farther than Singapore. Second, the hijacker did not seem to know where he wanted the pilots to take him, except that he didn’t want to land in Kuala Lumpur. His desire to avoid landing in Malaysia bordered on desperation, but he had no alternative plan.

The hijacker didn’t seem keen on going to Singapore either, and it was clear that he accepted this destination only with great reluctance. Furthermore, he seemed agitated and unsure of what was going on. Unable to see anything outside the plane due to the darkness, he repeatedly asked where they were, and towards the end of the flight he expressed doubt that the pilots were telling the truth about their position. What did he think they were doing that set him off so violently? 

MAS inflight magazine, Wings of Gold. Photo: Singapore National Archives

The only definite demand he ever made was that they not fly to Kuala Lumpur, so the hijacker may have believed that the pilots were actually circling back to this airport, explaining why he became agitated. His fear of landing in Kuala Lumpur  – or of what awaited him there – was so intense that he opted to kill the pilots and himself rather than face that outcome. 

It’s unclear what exactly happened in the final moments of the flight. The hijacker definitely shot and killed both pilots, but it’s not clear whether the third shot was intended to finish off Captain Ganjoor, or whether he turned the gun on himself. The “struggle” heard later on the CVR suggests he could have remained alive. 

However, if the hijacker did not kill himself, it is difficult to explain why he would have said “It won’t come up”. If it was indeed the hijacker who said this, that suggests he didn’t intend to crash the plane, but accidentally lost control while attempting to redirect it somewhere else. 

Alternatively, the transcript’s annotations suggest this voice could belong to someone who was neither a pilot nor the hijacker. This could have been a flight attendant, or as another recent article suggested, an air marshal. The “struggle” involving multiple people could have been an attempt to move the pilot’s body out of the way. But if they ever gained access to the controls, they did so too late to recover, especially for someone who presumably had no knowledge of how to fly a Boeing 737.

These clues do not point to a specific person of interest, but they do suggest the likely culprit was neither the JRA nor the bodyguard. In previous hijackings, similar behaviour has been displayed by hijackers on the run from the law or a repressive government, such as in the case Ethiopian Airlines flight 961, where three hijackers who had escaped from jail exaggerated their numbers and demanded the pilots fly to a destination that was out of range. 

The hijacker of MH653 could have been in a similar situation: suffering persecution in Malaysia, he was desperate to get anywhere else, only to become convinced by his own paranoia that they were landing in Kuala Lumpur, and that death would be preferable to going back.

Although the clues we have are tantalising, there is no right answer to the question of the hijacker’s identity. There simply isn’t enough information. Perhaps one day Malaysian authorities will reveal that they knew who the hijacker was all along – or maybe his name will remain a mystery forever. 

Regardless, may the victims rest in peace.

Kylan Dempsey is an American graduate student who writes articles breaking down plane crashes for both professional and lay audiences. You can find a body of his work on his Reddit and Medium pages. 

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