Why did the cargo plane stop in Thailand? And where was it going?

More details on the recent seizure here in Bangkok of a cargo plane carrying arms from N. Korea (previous posts are here and here.):

A snippet from a Dec. 14 CSM story:

The cargo plane stopped to refuel Dec. 9 in Bangkok on its outward journey, Mr. Panitan says. It was empty and wasn’t searched at the time.

Observers say it’s unclear why the crew would make multiple refueling stops if they were carrying illicit cargo. Moreover, Thailand has a history of cooperating with the US on high-profile interdictions, making it a risky stopover for a plane carrying 35 tons of North Korean weapons.

These interdictions include the arrest and rendition in 2003 of Hambali, a senior al-Qaeda operative in Southeast Asia. Last year, the US Drug Enforcement Agency lured Viktor Bout, a Russian businessman and alleged arms dealer, to Bangkok in an elaborate sting operation. In August, a Thai court rejected a US extradition request against Mr. Bout. An appeal is pending.

“I think the whole thing was stage-managed from start to finish,” says Paul Quaglia, director of PSA Asia, a security consultancy in Bangkok and a retired CIA official. He said the crew may have been part of the set-up and was likely to be quietly deported once the fuss dies down.

The fact that the flight refueled at a military-run airport in Bangkok, a hub for US intelligence gathering, suggests a degree of complicity in a seizure that will humiliate North Korea’s leadership, claims Mr. Quaglia. “It’s a little bit hard to swallow that they just stopped for gas,” he says.

And there’s this snippet from a Dec. 14 WSJ story:

Intelligence experts said the use of a transport plane rather than a ship, and the decision to land in Thailand — a country known to cooperate heavily with U.S. intelligence services — indicates this may have been an unusual or hastily planned delivery.

Flying into Bangkok “was certainly a high-risk mission,” said Rohan Gunaratna, a security expert at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University. That could signify “there was an urgent need to move” to get the weapons to an active conflict zone, he said.

And finally, some graphs from a Dec. 15 AP piece:

Thai government spokesman Panitan Wattanayagorn said the flight plan indicated the aircraft was headed for the Sri Lankan capital, Colombo.

However, investigations into weapons trafficking shows that documentation such as a flight plan “doesn’t mean anything,” said Siemon Wezeman, a senior fellow for the Arms Transfers Project of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.

The types of arms reported to be on the aircraft — intended to add firepower to defend against planes and tanks, which are usually in the arsenal of government forces — were typical of those used by insurgent movements, and raised suspicion that they could be headed for an African rebel group, Wezeman said.

Christian LeMiere, editor of the London-based Jane’s Intelligence Weekly, said the range of the Il-76 and its apparent flight path suggested it may have been headed to Africa, where there are groups ready to buy North Korean weapons.

They included Sudan, which might pass the weapons to rebel groups in Chad, and Eritrea, which might keep them for its own arsenal or pass them on to warring factions in Somalia.

(All emphasis mine.)

By Newley

Hi. I'm Newley Purnell. I cover technology and business for The Wall Street Journal. I use this site to share my stories and often blog about the books I'm reading, tech trends, sports, travel, and our dog Ginger. For updates, get my weekly email newsletter.

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