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Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Pilot of Missing Jet Expressed Interest in Democracy and Atheism on Social Networks

A do-it-yourself instructional video about air-conditioning posted on YouTube last year by the pilot of the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370.

As my colleagues Chris Buckley and Michael Schmidt report, in the absence of any solid information about what happened to the Malaysia Airlines flight that went missing March 8, Malaysian authorities are looking for clues in the deleted memory of the flight simulator that the plane’s pilot, Capt. Zaharie Ahmad Shah, kept in his home.

Friends of Captain Zaharie, however, cast doubt on the theory that he might have used the simulator to plan a hijacking, pointing out that he was so open about his use of it as a hobby that he posted images of the unit on Facebook and recorded a do-it-yourself YouTube video about fine-tuning an air-conditioner while casually sitting in front of the simulator.

Post by Zaharie Shah.

The discovery of the pilot’s social network accounts also led journalists, bloggers and amateur detectives to look for evidence in his posts that might help to piece together a portrait of the man who was at the controls of the missing jet. The picture that emerges, of a man interested in electronics and technology, but also Malaysia’s democratic opposition and discussions of atheism, is consistent with what Captain Zaharie’s friends told my colleague Kirk Semple, that he showed no signs of religious or political extremism that might have motivated a hijacking.

On YouTube, he uploaded five short clips, all offering tips about how to tune or repair electronic systems, like air-conditioners and ice makers. Among the dozens of videos shared by other users that he “liked” on the platform, most concerned software fixes, comedy or pop music, but four were interviews or documentaries in which prominent atheists explained their reasons for not following any religion. One of the clips tagged as a favorite by a man described by friends as a moderate Muslim was a television version of “The God Delusion,” a book by Richard Dawkins. Captain Zaharie also subscribed to the official YouTube channel of the Richard Dawkins Foundation or Reason and Science. Another of his subscriptions was to the channel of Eddie Izzard, a British comedian who is an outspoken atheist himself.

On Facebook, Captain Zaharie made it clear that he opposed terrorism and supported the democratic opposition to Malaysia’s ruling coalition, which has governed the country since independence in 1957.

Post by Zaharie Shah.

Post by Zaharie Shah.

Captain Zaharie made no secret of his desire to see the opposition People’s Alliance, led by Anwar Ibrahim, win power. That political stance, and the pilot’s evident disappointment with the results of the May 2013 election that Mr. Ibrahim said was marred by fraud, were initially characterized by some conservative journalists and bloggers as evidence of Islamist extremism. That misperception was perhaps fueled by an unnamed investigator’s description of Captain Zaharie as a “fanatical” supporter of the opposition.

As William Dobson observed in Slate, however, hearing that someone is a “fanatical supporter of Anwar Ibrahim does sound scary â€" as long as you know nothing about” Mr. Ibrahim, who is not a zealot but a committed democrat.

In one Facebook comment posted in the run-up to that election, Captain Zaharie even referred sarcastically to Hishammuddin Hussein, the Malaysian defense minister who is now overseeing the investigation into the missing jet, as a “real joker!”

In a photograph posted on Instagram by a friend and fellow political activist, Peter Chong, the pilot wore a T-shirt that appeared to refer to the May 2013 date of the election the opposition claimed was stolen, alongside the slogan “Democracy Is Dead.”