Threat Intelligence Blog

Posted September 9, 2015

Pope_francis_koreaBy: Hans Mathias Moeller and Marc Larson

In just a few weeks, Pope Francis is visiting Philadelphia for the World Meeting of Families. Since so many people will be attending this event, our analysts took a look at potential physical security concerns to see how attendees and businesses in the area may be affected.

Overall, our analysts suggest the Papal Visit could cause moderate to high area disruptions for organizations in the area. The Pope’s presence will likely attract 1 to 2 million people to Philadelphia, and the restrictive security measures the City of Philadelphia has put into place are anticipated to cause travel disruptions, large crowds, and protests, as well as the unlikely, yet plausible, potential for terrorist actions.

Travel Disruptions: Mass Transit & Road Closures

The Papal Visit will greatly affect mass transit, cause road closures, and increase foot traffic from both tourists and transportation authorities. Businesses located in and around Center City should expect to experience the most disruptions.

Though the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) plans on doubling its operating capacity, only 31 of its 281 of stations will be in service. Everyone using the Regional Rail – including those commuting to work – must have a special One-Day Regional Rail Pass purchased through a lottery. Each station is granted a pre-determined number of lottery tickets. Individuals awarded lottery tickets will be able to travel at one of two planned travel time slots: 5:30 – 8:30 AM, or 8:30 AM – noon. Increased use of mass transit could lead to disruptions, as seen during Pope Francis’ visit to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in July 2013 when the metro system broke down for several hours.

Road closures also pose a problem to businesses and commuting employees, especially those located in Center City. Philadelphia will be divided into three restricted access areas: the traffic box, secure-vehicle perimeter, and event perimeters. No one is allowed to enter the “traffic box” during the weekend, and no traffic – except for designated vehicles – will be permitted in the “secure-vehicle perimeter.” All vehicles in this area must be removed from the street (or public garages), and only those parked in closed garages will be permitted to remain.

Papal Visit


Additionally, businesses should be aware of airport-like checkpoints with magnetometers at “event perimeter” entrances, as well as large digital screens being placed around the city for viewing purposes. Both will create mass crowds, which could lead to disruptions around facilities and pose problems for employees commuting to work.

Pope Francis is known to deviate from his announced schedule and make unplanned stops. Depending on the location and time, such unplanned stops could severely affect employee travel.

Potential Public Unrest

While protests in Philadelphia are historically peaceful, the ones that have caused problems have resulted in localized disruptions. Additionally, low-level scuffles between police and protesters have occurred in recent months, resulting in a small number of arrests.

Numerous social movements have expressed intentions to stage protests during Pope Francis’ visit. Protest flashpoints to be aware of include City Hall, Love Park, and the SEPTA entrance. Protesters have also been known to march along Market Street, JFK Boulevard, Benjamin Franklin Parkway, and Locust Street.

Likelihood of Terrorism

The chances of a terrorist attack during the Papal Visit are low due to the extensive defensive anti-terrorism measures – traffic free zones and concentric rings of protection consisting of fences and screenings – the City of Philadelphia has put into place for this event, but risks still remain.

While no specific threats have been made towards the Pope’s visit to Philadelphia, terrorist groups have expressed intention in the past to attack Pope Francis, as well as the Vatican. During Pope Francis’ 2015 visit to Manila, Philippines, a terrorist group allegedly planned to assassinate the Pope by detonating an improvised explosive device on the papal convoy. The seriousness of the threat allegedly resulted in cellular signals being cut off at times to prevent triggering any explosive devices in areas where Pope Francis visited.

Businesses are not direct targets of terrorism, per se, but in the event of a real terrorist attack, hoax, or increased alert level, business will be indirectly affected.


  • Schedule deliveries for September 25 to last through the weekend
  • Employees commuting via SEPTA should pre-purchase the Special One Day Regional Rail pass with the correct departure and arrival stations
  • Employees should plan back-up travel routes and be prepared to walk long distances
  • Security staff should be aware of laws regarding trespassing and use of force to protect corporate facilities
  • Train employees and security personnel to understand how to respond to protest tactics and how to act in scenarios involving active shooters
  • Assess buildings and sites nearby that could be targeted by terrorists or activists
  • Update and practice contingency plans to maintain high levels of readiness among employees
  • Maintain emergency contact numbers to local police precincts, fire departments, and local hospitals

The City of Philadelphia is not providing security for individual businesses. Businesses operating in affected areas should take whatever extra steps they think are necessary for their particular business to ensure the safety of employees and customers.

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