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Protecting the Pope in US Will Be Challenging, Officials Say

Jeffrey Bruno/ALETEIA
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Possible ISIS-inspired plot against Pontiff disrupted in Philadelphia

The FBI arrested a teenager near Philadelphia after learning of his aspirations to carry out a plot against Pope Francis during his US visit later this month.

“The minor was inspired by [ISIS] and sought to conduct a detailed homeland attack which included multiple attackers, firearms, and multiple explosives, targeting a foreign dignitary at a high-profile event,” according to a joint intelligence bulletin by the FBI and Department of Homeland Security issued to law enforcement across the country on Aug 14. Sources told ABC News Tuesday that the “foreign dignitary” is Pope Francis.

“The minor obtained explosives instructions and further disseminated these instructions through social media,” according to the joint intelligence bulletin, ABC said:

The boy has been charged with attempting to provide material support to a terrorist organization and attempting to provide material support to terrorist activity, the bulletin added.

But sources familiar with the case emphasized that any threat from him was not imminent, and that the boy’s plans were “aspirational.” Additionally, the sources said, there are questions about the boy’s mental health.

In addition, despite repeated threats from ISIS and other groups to target the Pope and the Vatican more broadly over the past year, there is no specific, credible threat to the Pope during his visit to the United States next week, law enforcement officials said Monday.

“The FBI is working closely with the United States Secret Service and our federal, state and local partners in advance of the papal visit to ensure the safety and security of all,” a spokeswoman for the FBI’s field office in Philadelphia said in a statement. She would not comment on any specific cases or threats.

The supposed attack might have been planned for Philadelphia, but the Pope’s visit to New York City, just before the Pennsylvania stop, is being seen as an even greater security challenge. New York has hosted four previous papal visit, but none at a time when international terrorism is such a concern as it is today. And, since Francis’ visit coincides with the United Nations General Assembly, where heads of state from about 170 countries are expected to attend, terrorists would get an extraordinarily large bang for their buck, were they able to pull something off.

In addition, although Pope St. John Paul II took an unscripted stroll down 51st Street after exiting St. Patrick’s Cathedral in 1995, no pope has enjoyed being in crowds as much as Francis, and that worries security planners.

The Bishop of Rome will have ample opportunity to mingle with New Yorkers, taking part in a procession through Central Park and visiting a neighborhood school in East Harlem.

As part of preparations, Mayor Bill DeBlasio and officials from 48 city, state and federal agencies held a drill Monday that tried to look at a number of emergency scenarios. Sitting in a room at police headquarters, they received “reports” of successive explosions near a Times Square theater and a Broadway hotel, where casualties included two foreign dignitaries.

For the purpose of the exercise on Monday, none of the situations involved the Pope directly, according to the Police Department, the New York Times reported. The exercise was followed by a press conference, where the NYPD showed off specialized equipment and personnel, including a bomb disposal robot, a pair of police dogs and heavy weapons belonging to a new police tactical unit. The Times reported:

The mayor described the preparations for the papal visit and the General Assembly as “unprecedented,” but added: “We welcome it. We embrace it. We look forward to it.” …

During a 15-minute window in which a reporter was permitted to observe the tabletop exercise, the mayor stood in a tight circle with the police commissioner, William J. Bratton; the head of the New York office of the Secret Service, Robert J. Sica; the head of the New York office of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Diego Rodriguez; and the Police Department’s deputy commissioner for intelligence and counterterrorism, John J. Miller.

“The idea is we can see the stretching of our resources,” Mr. Miller told the mayor, who nodded. “A lot of wheels turning at once.”

In Washington, D.C., meanwhile, federal, local and transportation officials plan to close several roads in order to protect the Pope when he arrives Sept. 22. District Department of Transportation personnel will be dispatched to 70 intersections, Fox 5 reported. And D.C. Circulator buses will be rerouted from the National Mall to the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception for the Mass in which Pope Francis will canonize Blessed Junipero Serra.

But at least one expert still sees the Philadelphia leg of the Pope’s American sojourn as the most challenging, relatively high number of outdoor events, with three of them attracting huge crowds.

“Philadelphia is the venue where there’s gonna be the most people. It’s the venue where if things can go wrong, it would be here because it’s outdoors and because there’s going to be millions of individuals,” security analyst Jack Tomachio told ABC 6 in Philadelphia.

 

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