Church Questions Report about Al Qaeda Plot to Assassinate Pope

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:12 PM EDT

Pacific Rim Bureau ( - Pope John Paul II had no plans to visit the Philippines in 1999, the Roman Catholic Church in that country said Tuesday, casting doubts on a weekend British news report saying that al Qaeda had planned to assassinate the pontiff there that year.

The Sunday Times said Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, a Kuwaiti suspected by the U.S. of being a key figure in the Sept. 11 terror plot, had been involved in conspiracies to kill the Pope in the Philippines on two occasions - in 1995 and again in 1999.

The 1995 plot, aborted after an accidental explosion in Manila blew the terrorists' cover, has been documented before - by Osama bin Laden biographer Yossef Bodansky and others - but until now there has been no indication that al Qaeda planned a second attempt.

The UK paper said the 1999 attack "never took place because the Pope called off the visit in 1999 through ill-health."

The cancellation had come "at the last minute," it said, adding that "the disclosure has increased concern for his safety as the Pope prepares for a visit to the Philippines early next year."

In fact the Pope never planned to visit the Philippines in 1999, and next January's planned visit evidently was cancelled months ago.

The assistant secretary-general of the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines, Msg. Gilbert Garcera, was "surprised" by the news report, a spokesman said Tuesday.

"There were no such plans [for a papal visit.] I don't think that article is true."

The spokesman also confirmed reports from last August that the Pope's plan to visit the Philippines early next year - to attend the World Meeting of Families - had been called off, "for health reasons."

According to the Catholic World News news service, Vatican officials have confirmed that there had been credible threats of a plot against the Pope in the Philippines in 1995.

Mohammed is on the list of 22 terrorists "most-wanted" by the U.S. authorities, who have offered a $25 million reward for information leading to his capture. His current whereabouts are unknown.

The FBI describes him as a bomb expert who apparently was trained in Afghanistan.

Media reports last June cited U.S. intelligence officials as naming Mohammed as playing a pivotal role in the Sept. 11 plot, saying the information had been confirmed during interrogation of captured bin Laden lieutenant Abu Zubaidah.

Among the Manila plotters in 1995 was Mohammed's nephew, Ramzi Youssef, who was also instrumental in the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center - the same building al-Qaeda targeted and destroyed eight years later.

The Philippines-based terrorists had planned other attacks too, including the murder of President Clinton during a visit to Manila in 1994, and "Project Bojinka" - plans to variously blow up 12 U.S. airliners in Asia, or to hijack and then fly aircraft into U.S. public buildings.

Their cover was blown when Youssef and his colleagues had a work accident while mixing explosives in a safe house in Manila in January 1995, according to bin Laden biographer Bodansky.

Police reportedly found pipe bombs and a map of the route the Pope's motorcade was to take later that same month, along with a large amount of bomb-making equipment.

Youssef fled to Pakistan, where the government, under massive pressure from Washington, handed him over for trial in the U.S.

He is now serving a life sentence in the U.S. for his role in the 1993 World Trade Center attack.

See also:
Backgrounder: Is Bin Laden Linked to Philippines Mayhem? (May 9, 2000)

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Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow