NYPD Counterterrorism Bureau Terrorism Threat Analysis Group Assessment of Threats during NYC Papal Visit

Text of the NYPD Counterterrorism Bureau Terrorism Threat Analysis Group Assessment for the September 24, 2015-September 26, 2015 visit of Pope Francis to New York.


There are currently no open source reports indicating a credible threat to Pope Francis during his visit to New York City from September 24 – 26, 2015. However, given the symbolic value that the death of the Pope would have and the fact that malicious actors have previously expressed a desire to kill him, Pope Francis’ visit to New York City may be seen as an opportune time to carry out an assassination attempt. Pope Francis’ schedule has been posted online since June, meaning that those seeking to target him know when and where he will be at all points during the trip.

A number of actors – including the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, the Italian mafia, Jemaah Islamiyah, al-Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb, right-wing extremists, white supremacists, and extreme Christian activists – have expressed varying levels of interest in attacking the Pope. Some of these threats have existed since the beginning of his papacy, while others have emerged in recent months.

Historically, the Papacy has been the target of assassination attempts. Pope John Paul II was targeted twice by assassins. In March 1981, he was shot two times in St. Peter’s Square at Vatican City by a lone gunman, but survived the attack. In January 1995, two Islamic terrorists planned to have a suicide bomber dressed as a priest detonate an explosive as the Pope’s motorcade drove by in the streets of Manila, Philippines. The plot was disrupted when a chemical fire drew the attention of the Philippine National Police to a bomb factory over a week before the planned attack.

Religious sites and figures also continue to be attractive targets for terrorist groups. In addition to directly targeting the Pope, terrorists may choose to attack houses of worship in other parts of the city or to target other religious figures while the Pope is in New York. Such an attack would allow terrorists to capitalize on the increased media presence in the city and garner a significant amount of attention while avoiding areas of high security.

It is also worth noting that the Pope attracted crowds numbering in the thousands during his trip to Latin America and in the millions in the Philippines; his visit to New York City is likely to attract similar numbers of followers. While most of the events will have limited access due to the need for people to obtain a ticket or invitation in order to attend, large crowds congregating outside event locations and using public transportation can be attractive targets for individuals and groups looking to carry out attacks. Moreover, even if the Pope is well protected, these crowds may be vulnerable to a group or individual seeking to capitalize on the high level of attention that the city will be receiving. These events are also likely to draw dignitaries and high-profile individuals, who may become targets themselves.

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