Even before this week’s horrific murder of Father Jacques Hamel by Islamist terrorists while he celebrated Mass in a French church, concerns were present about possible security threats to World Youth Day pilgrims in Poland.
Poland considerably increased its security for World Youth Day and the visit by Pope Francis — detailed security checks were set for each main event. Yet Europe is also still reeling from the horrific July 14 terrorist attack in Nice, France, which saw 84 people mowed down by a 19-ton truck driven by Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel. The Islamic State group (ISIS), also known as Daesh, took credit for the attack. The killer’s link to them and a handful of co-conspirators is coming to light as police continue to investigate.
In March, Islamists on a suicide mission detonated several bombs in the Brussels airport, killing 35 and wounding more than 300.
On Nov. 13, 2015, an Islamist terrorist cell struck Paris, including the Stade de France and the Bataclan music venue. One hundred and thirty-seven were brutally killed and 268 wounded.
But Poland is prepared. According to the Catholic Herald on July 25, World Youth Day organizers indicated that officials from the Vatican were satisfied with the level of security for the papal Mass that will be held July 31 to close the festival, which is expected to draw upwards of 2 million pilgrims.
“I would be surprised if ISIS was to follow the Pope around the globe to strike him, said terrorism studies authority Kacper Rękawek, a researcher at the Polish Institute of International Affairs, told the Register via email. “In my view, Rome — the Vatican — is what they want: the city, the symbol, the basilica, which they use in their ‘target’ iconographies.”
At the same time, Rękawek warned that, after the Nice attack and earlier Daesh and al-Qaida attacks in Europe, it would be unwise to say that WYD isn’t a target.
“A massive international event, from ISIS’ point of view, is a huge gathering of crusaders,” he said.
Professor Anthony Glees, director of the Center for Security and Intelligence Studies at the University of Buckingham, England, agrees.
“It must make sense to regard World Youth Day as a potential target. We know that the Pope is considered a prime target by Daesh, and Pope John Paul II was, of course, almost assassinated by what we would today call an Islamist. And we know that Islamists like to target ‘trophy’ events. There was, I understand, specific credible intelligence suggesting Euro 2016 matches were a target.”
According to Rękawek, however, the external operations wing of ISIS has been more focused on Middle Eastern and North African targets. And in Europe, France, Belgium, Germany, Sweden and the Netherlands have been at the top of their list.
“Central Europe is way further down their list,” he said. “They have very few people who know the region. They may not even be that aware of the World Youth Day [event].
“It is not that they cannot or would not strike here, no — but more an end result of the combination of factors directing them to other targets in other countries.”
He added, “In my view, it [this threat] will be with us for years to come.”
A specially convened meeting and press conference of government ministers and WYD organizers was held on July 15 in response to the Nice terror attack.
Speaking after the meeting, Mariusz Blaszczak, Poland’s minister of interior and administration, said there was no elevated terrorist threat and that Polish border services were equipped to carry out checks on terrorism suspects.
National Defense Minister Antoni Macierewicz added that everything possible was being done to ensure Poland’s safety. “Poland is safe, and Poland is not at risk of these types of attacks,” he said.
According to the official media center for WYD, Pope2016.com, which reported on the press conference following the Nice attack, 76 million Polish zloty ($19 million) have been allocated to beef-up security at WYD, including 20,000 police officers, 2,400 firemen, 1,500 border guards and 800 Government Protection Officers, who are specially trained to provide protection to government ministers, diplomats and state buildings.
Several thousand soldiers are looking after infrastructure, logistics, transport communications, safety and public order. They will also offer medical backup.
On July 19, Marian Banas, the deputy minister of Finance, revealed that 30 kilograms of drugs, 40 million cigarettes and 23 pieces of pneumatic weaponry had been confiscated in the run-up to WYD, thanks to strengthened customs controls.
“A word that … is often repeated is ‘insecurity.’ But the real word is ‘war,’” said Pope Francis to journalists during his in-flight press conference en route to Krakow.
“When I talk about war, I’m serious — but not a war of religions. There is war for money, for resources, for nature, for dominion. This is war. Some may think it’s a religious war. No. All religions want peace. Others want war.”
Daniel Blackman writes from London.