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Is Terrorism Behind Mysterious Crop-Duster Crashes in Philippines?

Five crop-duster planes have crashed on the terror-plagued island of Mindanao in a short period of time. Annie Jacobsen says that while it may feel like Mindanao is half a world away, the island's plantations are linked to the international food supply chain. Is it time to start worrying about what's being sprayed on your bananas?

by
Annie Jacobsen

Bio

December 21, 2007 - 1:00 am

There have been five crop-duster plane crashes on the terrorist-plagued island of Mindanao in the Philippines in a 90-day period. The most recent incident happened on December 6. Three of the five crashes occurred on the same day, November 19-and in the same, early morning hour. One incident involved two crop-dusters that collided in mid-air. All five crop duster crashes occurred within a 50-mile radius of one another (in a region called Davao del Norte), and all five involved privately owned aircraft used to spray chemicals on food.

Mindanao is a terrorist stronghold, with three major terrorist organizations-two Islamic groups and one communist group-running training camps there. The Islamic terror groups are Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF); the communist terror group is called The New People’s Army. In 2005, US Ambassador to the Philippines, Joseph Mussomeli, called Mindanao the “new Mecca for terrorism,” and warned that the area was so lawless and porous it ran the risk of becoming “like Afghanistan.” In July 2007, the two Islamic groups ambushed 80 Filipino Marines on nearby Basilan Island, killing 14 and beheading ten.

The U.S. Department of State currently sponsors a program on the island of Mindanao called “Arms to Farms.” The program aims to help members of the Islamic terrorist organizations to lay down their arms and farm bananas instead. The bananas farmed on Mindanao make their way to U.S. households, often in the form of banana chips, according to the U.S. Consulate website.

Mindanao is the Filipino production headquarters for multi-national agricultural giants like Dole and Del Monte; both corporations have major plantations on the island. Dole Food Companies-the world’s largest producer and marketer of fresh fruits and vegetables-employs 5,000 workers in Mindanao. According to the Global Business Coalition, Dole’s banana production accounts for “approximately 30% of the country’s banana industry.” The first of the five crop duster crashes occurred on a plantation owned by Dole.

Most people in the Untied States are familiar with the concept of the crop duster threat-that spray planes could be used to disperse chemical or biological agents into the food supply chain. Only a few days after 9/11, the FBI learned that Mohammed Atta and other Middle Eastern men had visited an airport in rural Florida to inquire about crop dusters. The men returned several times over a seven-month period. Information about crop dusters and chemical agents was also found on the computer of convicted terrorist Zacarias Moussaoui (he emailed the University of Minnesota inquiring about a “short course you offer to become a crop-duster.”) To date, the FBI has interviewed more than 3,200 crop duster owners and operators in the U.S. through a program called “Operation Tripwire,” which aims to identify sleeper cells.

But back to Mindanao and the crop-duster crashes there. On November 20, 2007, the Air Transportation Office (ATO)-the Philippines’ equivalent of the FAA-suspended the use of all crop dusters on the island pending a probe into what happened. A few days later, officials determined the crashes were accidents. “Sabotage is impossible,” ATO official Frederick San Felix, told The Philippine Star. Then a fifth crash happened, on December 6, 2007. Officials have yet to comment.

Here’s a rundown on the Mindanao Island crop-duster crashes as they were reported in newspapers in South East Asia, China, and the Middle East.

September 6, 2007, 7:30 a.m: a crop-duster plane explodes and crashes in the remote village of Barangay Talomo. Sun Star Philippines reports:

A pilot from Davao City was killed when the plane he was flying crashed…According to a report aired over GMA News Davao, the incident happened at around 7:30 a.m. in Barangay (village) Talomo while the plane was spraying chemicals at a banana plantation owned by Dole-Stanfilco.

According to eyewitnesses on the ground, the plane was “engulfed in smoke and explod[ed] in mid-air before falling to the ground.”

November 19, 2007, 8:00 a.m: a crop-duster aircraft “crashes and explodes” in the remote village of Magatos. Arab News reports:

Emmanuel Antonio, of the Air Transportation Office, said the aircraft crashed while spraying pesticide in the village of Magatos in Davao del Norte’s Asuncion town at around 8 a.m. “The plane exploded on impact and we have received reports that its pilot, Captain Rico Cajucom, was killed in the crash,” Antonio told the The Manila Times.

Also on November 19, 2007, 8:00 a.m: Both Cebu City News and Asian Journal Online report that two crop-dusters collided midair in the remote village of Kapalong.

[T]wo crop-duster aircraft collided in mid-air, killing one of pilot and seriously injuring the other, said Chief Superintendent Atilano Morada, director of the Aviation Secretary Group, in a phone interview. Frederick San Felix, Davao area manager of Air Transportation Office (ATO), said the two spray planes collided while spraying chemicals on the banana plantation of Alberto M. Soriano in the village of Maniki in Kapalong town at past 8 a.m.

December 6, 2007, 7:50 a.m: a small crop-duster plane crashes in the village of Compostela. Chinese News Agency Xinhuanet reports:

Police said the plane was spraying fungicides at a Compostela plantation when the accident occurred. The victim’s body was retrieved three hours after the incident. [Police] identified the fatality as Capt. Mario Reyes.

Dr. Zachary Abuza, Professor of South East Asian Studies at Simmons College -and resident expert on terrorist organizations in that region for the Counterterrorism Blog-is concerned. “These crop duster crashes are troublesome,” Abuza told this reporter in recent interview. “Abu Sayaff and MILF [Moro Islamic Liberation Front] train in Mindanao, yes. But I’d be inclined to think these [crop duster crashes] are the work of the New People’s Army, the communist [terror group] and not necessarily the Islamic groups. The New People’s Army are ideologically opposed to everything the agro business stands for. They’d like to threaten the agricultural industry, that’s their goal.”

That five crop-duster planes have crashed in a region plagued with terrorism -and in such a short period of time-should send up red flags with the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). The FBI did not answer specific questions on the Mindanao crop-duster crashes for this article. Through its press office in Washington D.C., Bureau spokesman Neal Schiff stated that FBI was “not in a position to comment on whether FBI agents were in [Mindanao] or not.”

While the plantations in Mindanao may seem half-a-world away, they are linked to the international food supply chain. Efforts to convert Islamic terrorists in Mindanao-or anywhere else in the world-into peaceful farmers may be a noble idea but its effectiveness has yet to be proven. In the meantime, that five crop-duster planes have crashed on a terrorist haven of an island raises a lot more questions than Philippine officials are able to provide answers for.

The world’s banana consumer would be wise to wonder, what’s being sprayed on my banana?

Annie Jacobsen writes about aviation security and homeland security for a variety of newspapers, magazines and blogs. She is the author of the book, Terror in The Skies, Why 9/11 Could Happen Again.

Annie Jacobsen writes the "Backstory" blog (http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/back-story/) for the Los Angeles Times Magazine.
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