The Pope as a High-Value TargetBy Fred Burton
For the past several days, Muslim governments and religious leaders from both the Sunni and Shiite realms have been expressing their outrage over Pope Benedict XVI's controversial speech at Regensburg University. Reactions have varied from strictly political moves, such as the recalling of ambassadors, to more emotional statements and acts: The pope has been burned in effigy in India and Iraq, publicly likened to Hitler in Turkey and made the subject of fatwas -- issued by some marginal radical leaders in the United Kingdom and Somalia -- calling for his death. Not surprisingly, al Qaeda in Iraq has pledged a war against the "worshippers of the cross" in response to Benedict's speech.
This last threat has little significance in and of itself, as al Qaeda long ago declared war against "crusaders," and its node in Iraq has been attacking American, British, Australian, U.N. and other foreign targets for the past three years. But the statement is nevertheless a valid representation of wider jihadist sentiment concerning the Christian world in general and the pope in particular.
Jihadist attacks against Christian targets can be expected to continue in Muslim lands. This was to be expected even had the pope not quoted a passage from history that described the teachings of Mohammed as "evil and inhuman" -- though the violence may have been a factor in Benedict's decision to include this quote. However, the risks to Christian and Catholic targets in Muslim lands, like the risk to the pope personally, likely has ticked upward in the wake of the comments at Regensburg.
Given the symbolism of his position, the pontiff -- whoever that individual might be at a given time -- was already in the jihadist crosshairs, but the recent speech likely has moved Benedict to the forefront of jihadist consciousness and up a notch or two on the target lists of al Qaeda, its sympathizers and grassroots jihadists. We anticipate that attempts will be made on Benedict's life and -- should plots actually reach the execution phase -- they will, given the nature of the pope's public activities, be quite bloody.
Criticism of the pope's speech has come from all quarters of the Islamic world. Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah, a Lebanese cleric who is Hezbollah's spiritual leader, said Sept. 15 that Benedict should personally retract his "false statements" about Islam. A Sunni leader, Sheikh Youssef al-Qardawi -- the head of the Islamic Scholars Association -- said, "We call on the pope, the pontiff, to apologize to the Islamic nation because he has insulted its religion and Prophet, its faith and Shariah without any justification."
Governments from Iraq to Indonesia have also expressed their anger. The deputy leader of Turkey's Justice and Development Party, Salih Kapusuz, compared the pontiff to Hitler and Mussolini. Malaysian Foreign Minister Syed Hamid Albar said Sept. 18 that Benedict's apology was insufficient and echoed Fadlallah's call for a retraction.
Toward the other end of the spectrum, some radical leaders have issued fatwas calling for the pope's death. So far, none have been issued by widely recognized Islamic scholars -- but since many radical religious leaders believe that insult to the Prophet Mohammed (and thus to Islam) is an offense warranting the death sentence, and it is widely held that the pope's words were in fact an insult to the Prophet and Islam, it seems only a matter of time before more prominent clerics and leaders issue similar fatwas. In the eyes of a radical jihadist, however, the issue of sourcing would carry little weight; the mere fact that a fatwa exists, regardless of who issued it, would likely be sufficient justification to act. Along these same lines, we would expect a statement from al Qaeda's senior leadership to be issued in the near future, likely transmitting a call for the group's supporters to strike at the pope or, possibly, a wider array of targets.
One of the fatwas -- issued by Sheikh Abu Bakar Hassan Malin of Somalia -- is worth examining. Malin said the pope's statement is as offensive to Islam as Salman Rushdie's Satanic Verses was, and called for Muslims to "hunt down" and kill the pope. The reference to Rushdie is a reminder of the lingering power of fatwas: Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's edict against Rushdie was issued shortly after his book was published in 1988 and remains in effect today. The author, of course, has maintained a high level of personal security since the fatwa was issued -- something the pope, as the leader of a billion Catholics worldwide, could never do.
The anti-papal backlash has encompassed violent acts as well as words. At least seven Christian churches were either firebombed or shot at in the West Bank and Gaza; another church was bombed in Basra, Iraq. And a nun who worked in a hospital in Somalia was shot and killed in the days following Benedict's speech.
Violent protests of the pope's statement thus far have not reached the magnitude of the cartoon controversy that erupted earlier this year. That said, it must be noted that the massive reaction to the cartoons lagged their initial publication in a Danish newspaper by several months; during the interim, groups of Muslims who had objected to the cartoons played up the issue in Muslim countries. In other words, using the cartoon controversy as a precedent, it is too early to judge the total reaction to Benedict's statements. It is possible that a second wave of responses, more violent than the first, could be set off.
Anti-pope demonstrations that are expected this week in numerous parts of the Middle East and South Asia could give important indications about the trajectory of the popular response. This trajectory could be in keeping with the tone of the initial fatwas -- which have been directed at the pope personally rather than more generally at Christians or Catholics -- or it could be more encompassing. It will be important to read the wording of any future fatwas carefully for indications of a change in emphasis or authorized targets.
A History of Violence
Whatever the future may bring, Christians living in Muslim areas clearly have been at some risk from jihadists for years. Jihadist attacks against Christians in places like Pakistan, Egypt, Indonesia, Bangladesh and the Philippines clearly predate the pope's speech and, in some respects, may have played into the motivations for giving it. This history also demonstrates that a certain threshold of risk would have persisted, independent of the pontiff's controversial statement.
There also is a clear history of jihadists having targeted the pope himself.
The most serious attack in recent memory, of course, came -- not from a jihadist, but from a Turkish gunman -- on May 13, 1981, when Pope John Paul II was shot twice in the abdomen as he entered St. Peter's Square, riding in an open-air convertible. There have been competing claims about the motives and actors involved in the assassination attempt: Some say it was orchestrated by the Bulgarian intelligence service because of John Paul's activism against communism; others claim the gunman, Mehmet Ali Agca, was associated with a Turkish nationalist group called the Gray Wolves. No definitive proof has ever been produced, however, that Agca was acting in conjunction with a group.
Another assassination attempt came almost exactly a year later: On May 12, 1982, an ultraconservative Spanish priest in Fatima, Portugal, approached John Paul with the intent of stabbing him with a bayonet. The priest, who later said he felt the pope was an agent of Moscow, was stopped and arrested before he could reach the pontiff.
Jihadists with links to al Qaeda also play a role in the history of plots against the pope.
In 1994 and early January 1995, a militant cell in Manila, led by Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and his nephew Abdel Basit, was planning a number of operations, including Operation Bojinka. Their plans came to light on Jan. 6, 1995, when a batch of improvised explosives they were brewing set their apartment on fire. Philippine authorities arrested Abdul Hakim Murad, one of Basit's co-conspirators, while he was trying to re-enter the apartment and retrieve a laptop computer. The computer, it was later found, contained a trove of information; the files and other evidence retrieved in the investigation brought Philippine authorities to the conclusion that the cell not only was developing an ambitious plot to take down multiple U.S. airlines, but also had plans in the works to assassinate U.S. President Bill Clinton and Pope John Paul II.
The pope was scheduled to visit the Philippines on Jan. 12, 1995.
It likely was no coincidence that the apartment where the fire broke out was situated only a few hundred meters from the Papal Nuncio in Manila (where the pope stayed during his trip) and along the route the papal motorcade logically would take to reach and depart from the nuncio. (The pope's visit took place as scheduled, but he traveled by helicopter rather than motorcade as a result of the findings.) Other evidence in the investigation showed that the suspects had collected garb worn by Catholic priests, Bibles, rosaries, a large crucifix and a photo poster of the pope. From the interrogation of Murad and another cell member, Wali Amin Shah, it is believed that the group planned to kill the pontiff by placing a large bomb under the road, but the priestly clothing and other evidence indicates that a backup plan might have involved a suicide bomber or gunman disguised as a priest.
Philippine police reported that shortly after his arrest, Murad said there were "two Satans that must be destroyed: the pope and America." The statements of Osama bin Laden and other al Qaeda figures, with their frequent references to "Crusaders," is evidence that this mindset remains unchanged.
Hardened Targets and Collateral Damage
Following the assassination attempts in the 1980s, personal security measures for the pontiff were stepped up. For instance, travel in an open-air convertible was abandoned in favor of the so-called "Popemobile," a mobile, raised platform protected by bullet-resistant glass. This increased security against lightly armed assailants is likely what caused the Manila cell to consider using a large bomb in their later plot.
Security for the pope's residential quarters and around the Vatican as a whole also was increased in the 1980s, and further upgraded following the 9/11 attacks and growing recognition of the scope of the jihadist threat in Europe. Today, visitors who want to enter St. Peter's Basilica must pass through screening points equipped with magnetometers. Physical security measures have been visibly ratcheted up in the wake of last week's speech as well, with the addition of random bag searches for visitors.
Unlike many high-profile figures, the pope does not truly have the option of avoiding public appearances when he is believed to be under threat. And due to the nature of his office, he can be expected to draw large crowds whenever he makes a scheduled public appearance. As past assassination attempts have shown, it is at precisely these moments that the pope's movements are most predictable -- and therefore, when he is the most vulnerable to attack.
As the situation stands now, the increase in the pontiff's personal security measures means any serious attempt on his life would have to include steps to overcome security -- either by stealth or, more likely, with overwhelming force. That, combined with the notion that his appearance inevitably will draw large crowds, means that any actual moves to assassinate the pope likely would result in many collateral deaths -- a valuable secondary consideration, from a jihadist perspective.
An inflection point in the threat environment may come in November, when Benedict plans to visit Turkey. Presumably, tensions would be running high during this visit regardless of recent events: As Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, Benedict developed a reputation as a Vatican hard-liner who spoke out against Turkey's admission to the European Union. The papal security team would also be very mindful of the fact that John Paul's would-be assassin, Agca, is Turkish.
The reaction to Benedict's recent speech has done nothing but add to such concerns. Politically, it is never comfortable visiting a country whose ruling party has compared you to Hitler. And, in fact, Agca on Sept. 20 issued a statement through his lawyer, urging the pope to cancel his visit: "As someone who knows these matters well, I say your life is in danger. Don't come to Turkey."
This is not to say that the pontiff would be demonstrably safer if he confined himself to predominantly Christian or Western countries. As the plans discovered in the mostly Catholic Philippines showed, the jihadist threat can crop up in seemingly unlikely locales. This is true even for Italy. Since 9/11, Italian authorities have disrupted several jihadist plots. One of these, discovered last summer, reportedly involved plans to attack cathedrals in Cremona and Milan; another, thwarted earlier this year, allegedly would have targeted the Basilica of San Petronio in Bologna.
Clearly, jihadists are interested in hitting symbolic Catholic targets in a number of regions, and there is perhaps no target more symbolic than the pope himself. Benedict's statements and the media coverage and outrage they have generated might already have moved the pontiff higher on jihadist hit-lists, and the risk might increase still further if prominent Muslim leaders issue fatwas in the near future.
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