MANILA, Philippines - The Philippine National Police (PNP) is tracking the movements of foreigners suspected to have links with terrorist groups as part of heightened security for the arrival of Pope Francis this week.
The move is being implemented amid a global security alert following the terrorist attack on a newspaper office and Jewish supermarket in Paris last week that left 17 people dead. A lone wolf attack last month in Australia also killed two captives in a coffee shop.
A highly placed source told The STAR that the PNP-Regional Investigation and Detection Management Division (RIDMD) has issued a memorandum to all police district offices nationwide to submit a report on the number of foreign suspects in their custody and the status of the cases.
The order was issued to monitor and track down possible terrorist cells and “sleepers” who might create trouble during the papal visit, the source said, adding that monitoring is focused particularly on citizens of one Asian nation.
Sleepers are persons who remain dormant members of a terrorist cell but are ready to act on short notice.
“Some of these people could be here as students or businessmen. Whatever their cover might be, we will be thoroughly checking them out as part of our measures,” the source said.
He said the intelligence community is also in constant contact with different government agencies, particularly the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA), in relation to the security measures being prepared for the visit of Pope Francis.
At least five police chiefs in different cities in Metro Manila denied having knowledge of the memorandum or if they were ever sent one by Camp Crame.
Even Northern Police District director Chief Superintendent Jonathan Miano, reportedly part of the brain trust for security preparations, denied there was such a memo.
A document obtained by The STAR, however, showed that the memorandum, dated Jan. 5, was addressed to all police chiefs nationwide.
The source said the denial of all police officials concerned was understandable, considering the magnitude of the security measures being laid down to avoid any incident that would cause embarrassment to the country.
The Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) earlier said that the 12,000-strong military is on high alert, while Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin noted that the government is “well prepared” and on top of the situation for the papal visit from Jan. 15 to 19.
The terror attack on French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo sparked fears of similar acts of violence by local terrorist groups like Abu Sayyaf and the Khilafa Islamiyah Mindanao, which have links to al-Qaeda and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
Avoiding a repeat of Oplan Bojinka
The PNP also resolved not to take any chances and do everything it could to protect Pope Francis during his five-day stay in the country to avoid a repeat of the 1995 Bojinka plot, the source told The STAR.
Oplan Bojinka was a large-scale three-phase plan hatched by extremists Ramzi Yousef and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed to assassinate Pope John Paul II, then visiting Manila for the celebration of World Youth Day; to bomb several airliners flying to the United States; and to attack the Central Intelligence Agency by crashing an airplane on its headquarters in Fairfax County in Virginia.
Yousef and Mohammed, believed to be members of terrorist group al-Qaeda, initially planted bombs in a shopping mall in Cebu City and another in a movie theater in Makati in December 1994 to test the workability of the improvised explosives. While the bombing in Cebu caused only minor damage, the explosion in Makati injured scores of people.
Another bomb was planted in a Philippine Airlines plane, which led to one fatality and about 10 casualties and causing nearly enough damage to destroy the aircraft.
The Bojinka plot – supposedly a precursor to the 9/11 attack in the World Trade Center in 2001 – fizzled out after a fire broke out on Jan. 6, 1995 at the six-story Doña Josefa apartments in Malate where Yousef and Mohammed were billeted.
Pope John Paul II was then scheduled to arrive in the country on Jan. 12, 1995.
According to reports at the time, a certain Abdul Hakim Murad started the fire shortly before 11 p.m. in the kitchen of Room 603.
The police then decided to investigate the situation, having been suspicious due to the recent wave of bombings, and eventually discovered evidence such as fake passports, street maps of Manila with routes plotting the papal motorcade, and some chemicals.
The PNP will ensure that “none of this kind will occur during the visit (of Pope Francis),” the source told The STAR.
“The problem, however, is that monitoring these people is like looking for a needle in a haystack. But we are relying on the intelligence community, including of course the AFP and the Filipino people,” he said.
He added that ordinary citizens could help protect the pontiff by reporting any suspicious characters in their areas to the police.