Italian police said Friday they had dismantled a network of individuals — including two former bodyguards of Osama Bin Laden and the suspected authors of one of Pakistan's deadliest terror attacks — who authorities said may have been planning to bomb the Vatican.
In a move that followed a six-year investigation into an illegal immigration racket run from Sardinia, police on the Mediterranean island targeted 18 people — with suspected links to Al-Qaeda — in coordinated raids across Italy. Some were arrested, including the group's suspected spiritual leader, but others were believed to have left the country.
The arrest warrants accused the suspects of belonging to "an organization dedicated to transnational criminal activities inspired by Al-Qaeda and other radical organizations pursuing armed struggle against the West and insurrection against the current government of Pakistan."
All the suspects are Pakistanis or Afghans, Mario Carta, head of the police unit leading the investigation, told Reuters, adding that the operation was still in progress.
Carta said that in intercepted telephone calls, investigators heard the suspects say they would launch a "big jihad in Italy," conversations that also suggested a target might be the Vatican.
Prosecutor Mauro Mura told a press conference in Cagliari, Sardinia, on Friday that wiretaps indicated the suspects were planning a bomb attack at the Vatican in 2010, and that a suicide bomber had arrived in Rome. But he said the attack plans never went further and that the suicide bomber left Italy, though it wasn't clear why. Mura said the wiretaps gave "signals of some preparation for a possible attack."
The intercepted telephone calls have also led Italian authorities to believe that two of the men arrested had been part of Bin Laden's security detail at some point prior to the late Al-Qaeda leader's killings by U.S. special forces in Pakistan in May 2011.
Some of the men arrested or being sought are also suspected of involvement in the October 2009 bombing of the Meena Bazaar in Peshawar, Pakistan, which left more than 100 people dead and over 200 injured.
According to police, the Sardinia-based group's main activity was smuggling Pakistani and Afghan nationals into Europe through Italy, either by securing temporary visas via contacts with corrupt businessmen or helping applicants fraudulently present themselves as victims of ethnic or religious persecution who should be granted asylum in Europe.
Funds raised from this activity were allegedly sent back to radical groups in Pakistan.