Pontiff seen as most vulnerable during Leyte visit
Pope Francis will be “most vulnerable,” security-wise, during the Visayas leg of his trip in January, a top government investigator said on Friday.
Government forces must double their efforts to protect the pope when he sets foot in Leyte, the official, who spoke on condition that he would not be named for lack of authority to speak on the matter, told The Manila Times.
The pontiff will visit Tacloban City and Palo, both in Leyte, on January 17 where he is scheduled to dine with Super Typhoon Yolanda victims.
Francis will be in the country from January 15 to 19. He will celebrate several Masses in Manila and Leyte.
The official said security will be a key issue because the pope refuses to ride a Popemobile, a bulletproof vehicle first introduced after an attempt on the life of the Pope John Paul 2nd.
“He is most vulnerable there [Visayas]. It is going to be a security nightmare,” said the source, who was involved in the investigation of the attempt to kill Pope John Paul 2nd when he visited Manila in 1995.
The official, who is still active in the service, was involved in preparing the report on Oplan Bojinka, an ambitious operation by al-Qaeda operatives Ramzi Yousef and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed involving a plot to assassinate the pope, planting bombs on 11 airliners flying from Asia to the United States and crashing a plane into the headquarters of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in Virginia.
The plot unraveled after a fire gutted an apartment building in Manila on January 6, 1995, where Yousef and his associates were preparing bombs and other explosive devices.
Before the plot was disrupted, Yousef had detonated test bombs in a mall and theater, injuring scores of people, as well as on Philippine Airlines Flight 434, killing one person and blowing a hole in the plane’s fuselage. Despite the damage, the aircraft landed safely in Cebu City.
The Times source on Thursday warned that reports on the possible terrorist attack on Pope Francis should not be taken lightly.
“My gut feel, and I have always trusted my instincts in matters such as this, is that they [terrorists]might try it again. Therefore, nobody should take this [threat]lightly and be complacent. We don’t want to be blamed if anything wrong happens,” the source said.
“They tried it before. They might give it another shot,” he added.
The officer claimed that many areas in the Visayas are known bailiwicks of other armed groups identified with local communists.
The warning came as the Philippines placed ninth among countries affected by terrorism as reported in the Global Peace Index 2014.
The country got the worst rank among its Asian neighbors such as Thailand, Myanmar, Malaysia, Indonesia, Cambodia, Singapore, Laos and Timor Leste.
The country’s ranking dropped by a notch over an increase in the number of incidents involving local armed militants.
The US government has issued a travel advisory for its citizens traveling to Mindanao, where armed groups such as the Abu Sayyaf and the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters and new groups that have pledged allegiance to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) operate.
In Malacanang also on Friday, deputy spokesman Abigail Valte said they would like to see more details of the Global Peace Index report to determine which areas they should improve.
“We are trying to see what incidents have been counted because we saw the difference from the incidents in 2011, 2012, 2013 and the most recent year. We’d like to see what those incidents are and compare it with the data that our law enforcement agencies have. But certainly, I think everyone is unified in the goal that we want to lessen these incidents,” Valte told reporters.
She said President Benigno Aquino 3rd himself is particularly concerned about the ISIS.
“You’ve seen also the President talked about ISIS in the past few days. We have been coordinating and cooperating with our neighbors just to make sure that the Philippines will remain free from any ISIS recruitment and we’ve said this in the past couple of days. In fact, yesterday [Wednesday], we were asked about some information that a Filipino was involved in the beheading of some Syrians in the most recent ISIS video,” Valte added.
“The military is endeavoring to check the veracity of that particular video. But, so far, we still do not have any confirmation of the nationality of that person,” she pointed out.
Valte said the government is also making “significant security preparations” for the coming year.
“As you know, the country is hosting an APEC [Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation] meeting. We have the pope coming over to visit in January. We also have some other events that we have lined up for 2015 and as such, we have taken the necessary, we are taking the necessary security precautions,” she added.