Italian police raided several locations today throughout the country, arresting eighteen people in an effort to shut down a “very well-structured” al-Qaeda finance and operations network. The ring had targeted the Vatican in 2010 and again just recently, and had also worked to raise money through human-trafficking operations. Even with that, though, the ring predates the post-Qaddafi surge in refugees, and was comprised mainly of Pakistanis, not North Africans.
Two of the men arrested had worked at one time as bodyguards for Osama bin Laden:
NBC News has video of the raids:
Mario Carta said counterterrorism officers had dismantled a “very well-structured terrorist network” mainly composed of Pakistani nationals that had been operating out of Italy’s Mediterranean island of Sardinia since 2005.
“This was one of the most important operations we ever conducted,” he told NBC News. “We are talking people with connections with al Qaeda at the highest level.”
Carta said the operation was targeting 18 people across seven provinces — mostly Pakistanis businessmen who appeared to be conducting normal affairs while in reality financing al Qaeda in Pakistan.
“In a wiretapped conversation, one of them…boasted that Bin Laden sent him personally to Italy,” he said. “We believe they were in touch with people who knew the whereabouts of bin Laden, to the point that they would frequently ask over the phone about his health while he was in hiding.”
Officials also suspect the network planned but never carried out an attack against Pope Benedict XVI at the Vatican in 2010, Carta said. Police also said the group “preached armed struggle against the West” and had been involved in trafficking migrants.
The Associated Press reports that the plan to attack the Vatican re-emerged, although for some reason it didn’t come off:
Prosecutor Mauro Mura told a press conference in Cagliari, Sardinia, on Friday that wiretaps indicated the suspected terrorists were planning a bomb attack at the Vatican and that a suicide bomber had arrived in Rome.
Mura said the attack plans never went further and that the suicide bomber left Italy, though it wasn’t clear why. He said the wiretaps gave “signals of some preparation for a possible attack.”
There had been recent rumors of significant terrorist threats against the Vatican, but most presumed it came from ISIS. Pope Francis has been outspoken about the need for the world to unite to stop the genocides occurring in ISIS-controlled areas, and ISIS groups have bragged about their presence in Libya being just a few hundred miles from the center of Western Christianity. AQ’s long-term strategy to conduct an attack on the Vatican may come as a little more of a surprise; they had aimed in the past more at political targets, especially on transportation and governmental assets of Western nations arrayed against them in war.