Pope Philippines visit ‘security nightmare’

Country prepares for Francis on backdrop of two previous popes targeted in assassination plots while visiting Manila.

Officers of the Armed Forces of the Philippines prepare for this week's papal visit [Reuters]

Manila, Philippines  On November 27, 1970, just minutes after arriving in Manila, Pope Paul VI escaped an assassination plot when Bolivian artist Benjamin Mendoza slipped through airport security in a priest’s robe and slashed the leader of the Catholic church with a dagger, barely missing his throat.

Almost 25 years later in 1995, Pope John Paul II dodged a bomb attack during his second visit to the Philippines when the explosive detonated prematurely. Ramzi Yousef, later convicted for the 1993 World Trade Center attack, was identified as the mastermind. He had rented an apartment near the Vatican embassy and bought priestly vestments as part of the planned attack.   

As the Philippines prepares for the visit of Pope Francis on January 15, efforts have been stepped up to prevent a repeat of the security breaches during previous papal visits. An estimated 37,000 police and military personnel are being deployed to secure Francis, in what the top military commander Gregorio Catapang Jr described as “the biggest security nightmare” of the government.

Pope Francis aims to build stronger ties with Islam

Amid threats against the pontiff in recent months, and the reported pledge of allegiance by armed groups from southern Philippines to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), the Philippines has been placed on “full alert status” for the duration of the pope’s five-day visit that starts on Thursday. 

Catapang said security measures are being carried out to ensure that “no enemies of the state” can exploit the event.

Aside from the Vatican’s Swiss Guards, twice as many special forces, regularly assigned to Philippine President Benigno Aquino, will help protect Francis.

Several flights have been cancelled and a no-fly zone has been declared to ensure the papal plane’s safety upon arrival. Even camera drones have been banned, and attendees of the pope’s mass were told not to bring bags and umbrellas.

In Manila, where the pope is expected to spend most of his time, police have set up barricades in some areas to prevent a surge of people from getting too close. During John Paul II’s visit in 1995, an estimated five million people attended one of his masses, setting a world record for the biggest Catholic gathering.

Because of the expected large crowd, the capital Manila has declared a five-day holiday during the pope’s visit. An estimated six million people are expected to attend the papal mass in Manila next Sunday.

Home-grown threat

Former top military general Alexander B Yano, who had overseen combat operations against Muslim rebels in southern Mindanao, told Al Jazeera there have been no specific threats reported against the pope.

“The government has prepared the biggest security coverage for the the pope, and so far there is no serious threat monitored,” Yano said.

But the recent attack in France has drawn attention to individuals sympathetic to the armed group Abu Sayyaf, or the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), who could operate on their own and under the security radar.

“Threats are emanating from various violent extremist groups,” Rommel Banlaoi, head of the Philippine Institute for Peace, Violence and Terrorism Research, told Al Jazeera.

Last year, former Philippine President Fidel Ramos said as many as 100 young Filipino fighters have gone to Iraq and Syria to fight with the ISIL. Several videos have also emerged of Abu Sayyaf and BIFF fighters pledging their support for ISIL. 

Security preparations are adequate, although no preparation is enough to thwart a terrorist act.

by - Jose Torres, journalist

Abu Sayyaf was previously affiliated with Jemaah Islamiyah, the Southeast Asia wing of al-Qaeda. BIFF is a splinter group of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, which has signed a peace agreement with the Philippine government.

About the same time Ramos issued the statement, Iraq’s ambassador to the Vatican, Habeeb al-Sadr, told the Italian newspaper La Nazione there were “credible” reports of an ISIL plan to kill the pope during one of his overseas trips.

Pope Francis’ trip to Turkey and Albania went on without incident.

On a prayer

Filipino journalist Jose Torres, who is flying with the pope from Rome, said any group in the Philippines now “is not capable of doing harm to the pope, or have any reason to do so”.

“There is a lot of noise, mostly from security people,” Torres, who has also covered the violence in Mindanao, told Al Jazeera.

“It is their job to create noise, to pre-empt any real threat, and to ensure that all possible scenarios are considered. Security preparations are adequate, although no preparation is enough to thwart a terrorist act,” he said.

President Aquino, a devout Catholic, has also appealed to the public to be vigilant during the pope’s visit, saying “the people are the key so it will be orderly and peaceful”.

Marciano Paynor, a former diplomat and military official who is heading the committee for the pope’s visit told the Philippine media that preparations are “adequate”, and his team has done its job to secure the Philippines for Francis’ trip.

“The rest is prayers,” Paynor said.

Source: Al Jazeera