The FBI is expected to analyze thumbprints of two men who used false passports to board the Malaysia Airlines plane that disappeared en route to China and see if they can find a match in their massive database, NBC News has learned.
Airport security took the prints from two men who boarded Flight 370 to Beijing at the Kuala Lumpur airport on March 8 using passports stolen from an Italian and an Austrian tourist. The plane, which had 239 passengers and crew aboard, went missing after take-off and is now the subject of a multi-nation hunt.
The FBI is currently waiting to receive the prints from Malaysia officials. U.S. officials say they are not leaning toward or away from terrorism as a motive for the two men, but are attempting to piece together as complete a travel itinerary as possible. Malaysian officials have already circulated photos of the two men who boarded the plane to foreign intelligence agencies.
Intelligence sources told NBC News that it appears the two men -- described loosely as "Mediterranean looking" -- began their journey in Qatar and at some point then made their way to Thailand. They used an Iranian middleman to purchase tickets for them in Thailand for the circuitous route from Kuala Lumpur through China to Europe.
It is a route, officials note, that is favored by budget travelers, as it is a very cheap, if slow, way to Europe. From China the two passengers intended to travel through Amsterdam, at which point their paths would have diverged, with one heading to Copenhagen and the other to Frankfurt.
The middleman, an Iranian referred to as "Ali," paid cash for the tickets. Shortly after Ali learned that two of his customers were the subjects of a worldwide investigation into the doomed flight, he came forward and told authorities how he purchased the tickets and detailed other assistance he provided the two men. The middleman is currently believed to be in Iran and U.S. authorities have not been in direct contact with him, sources said.
NBC News confirmed information reported in the Financial Times and other news outlets that the tickets were bought through the Grand Horizon travel agency in Pattaya, Thailand.
The Financial Times also quoted the agency’s owner, Benjaporn Krutnait, as saying the Iranian had asked her to book the two men to travel to Europe on March 1, specifying only that she find them cheap tickets.
She initially booked them on two separate flights -- one on Qatar Airways and another on Etihad Airways -- but the tickets expired before she heard again from the Iranian, she said.
He contacted her again on Thursday, and again did not specify a flight. She rebooked the men on the missing Malaysia Airlines flight, which was also marketed as a China Southern Airlines flight under a codeshare agreement. This time a friend of the Iranian paid in cash, she said. Benjaporn then arranged for a larger agency, Six Stars Travel, to issue the tickets, according to Thai police.
First published March 10 2014, 12:06 PM