MANILA, Philippines - The al-Qaeda-linked regional terrorist group Jemaah Islamiyah had plotted an attack against Pope Francis during his five-day visit to the Philippines, sources revealed yesterday.
But the massive security preparations made by the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) and the Philippine National Police (PNP) thwarted the JI terror plot that was monitored weeks before the arrival of Pope Francis on Jan. 15.
Sources in the security side of the Papal Visit 2015 said the terror plot was validated and confirmed by intelligence counterparts in the region.
Malacañang, however, maintained the government did not have to deal with any specific threats during the five-day papal visit.
Presidential Communications Operations Office Secretary Herminio Coloma Jr. said there was the normal procedure required to check every meter of the route that very important persons – like the pope – would pass through.
Coloma stressed the various armed groups in the national threat board were considered in the security preparations for the papal visit.
“We can only say that it’s part of our security preparations for the pope’s visit, ” he said.
AFP spokesman Col. Restituto Padilla also said they monitored no direct threat against Pope Francis.
He said the military and the police have considered everything in their security preparations for the Papal Visit 2015.
Sources in the intelligence community, on the other hand, declined to discuss in detail the foiled plot but they said the pope was informed of the prevailing security situation on the ground during his five-day stay.
Before leaving for Rome on Monday, the pope met with top military and police officials to personally thank them for keeping him safe.
One of the sources said there are things that are best left unsaid but admitted this monitored terror plot was very serious.
“It must not come from us. If there is any announcement to this effect, it should come from higher authorities,” another security official said.
There were reports that JI planned to detonate an improvised explosive device on the papal convoy. The plan reportedly failed because of the full cooperation and coordination of the authorities with the Swiss Guards in charge of the personal security of the pope.
This was the reason why cellular signals were cut off in areas where Pope Francis visited in Metro Manila and in Leyte.
The seriousness of the JI threat also triggered additional deployment of the military’s elite anti-terrorism force.
Elements of the US-trained Light Reaction Company (LRC) as well as the military armored assets were discreetly deployed in key areas, particularly during the concluding mass of Pope Francis in Rizal Park.
The risk was so high on Sunday that security forces had to adjust their security preparations around Rizal Park to confuse would-be attackers.
Nearly 40,000 soldiers and police were deployed to protect the pontiff during his five-day trip.
Attempts have been made to kill visiting popes twice before.
On the first papal visit to the Philippines in 1970, Bolivian painter Benjamin Mendoza donned a priest’s cassock and swung a knife at Pope Paul VI as he arrived at the Manila airport.
Paul VI was wounded but continued his trip without disclosing his injury.
Then, one week before John Paul II’s visit in 1995, police uncovered a plot by foreign Islamist extremists to bomb his Manila motorcade route.
Adding to the concerns, the 78-year-old Francis has insisted he will not travel in a bulletproof popemobile so he could be closer to his flock.
The Vatican also requested the local authorities in charge of Pope Francis’ route around Rizal Park last Sunday to make a last-minute change to allow the pope to bless as many people as possible.
Aside from a crowd potentially crushing the pope, the route would also make him an easy target for an assailant. – With Aurea Calica
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