Terrorist cell 'was planning attack on Vatican'
Dismantled extremist network included Bin Laden bodyguards
Italy dismantled an alleged Islamist terrorist network with links to al-Qa'ida yesterday, claiming the extremists had planned to attack the Vatican.
Italian authorities said the network included two men who were bodyguards of Osama bin Laden before he was killed in a raid by US special forces in Pakistan in 2011.
Early morning raids were carried out across the country. Nine suspects were arrested, while another nine were being sought, three of whom were believed to be in Italy. All were Pakistanis and Afghans.
Investigators said the suspects belonged to "an organisation dedicated to transnational criminal activities inspired by al-Qa'ida and other radical organisations, pursuing armed struggle against the West and insurrection against the current government of Pakistan".
The arrest orders were the culmination of a 10-year investigation that began with an inquiry into illegal immigration on the island of Sardinia, more usually associated with expensive villas, white sandy beaches and turquoise waters.
But the people allegedly involved in the trafficking, in which Afghans and Pakistanis were smuggled into Europe, also had sympathies with Islamist extremism, investigators said. The money earned from people trafficking was allegedly sent to extremist groups in Pakistan, including the Taliban and al-Qa'ida.
The principal members of the network were allegedly Khan Sultan Wali, a shopkeeper and long-term resident of the Sardinian port of Olbia, and an unidentified imam who lived in Brescia in northern Italy.
The extremist network may have been planning to launch a suicide bomb attack against the Vatican in 2010, when Pope Benedict XVI was head of the Roman Catholic Church, said Mauro Mura, a prosecutor in Cagliari, Sardinia.
Police intercepted telephone conversations between the suspects which gave "signals of some preparation for a possible attack" against the Holy See, he said.
In the wiretaps, the suspects discussed launching "a big jihad in Italy", said Mario Carta, a senior police officer. They also used the word "baba" - a possible reference to the Pope.
The purported attack may have been called off after police in Sardinia conducted a raid on the home of one of the alleged al-Qa'ida sympathisers in March 2010, possibly scaring off the extremists.
The Vatican said that since the alleged attack plan dated back five years, it had no particular concerns about the security of Pope Francis, who succeeded Pope Benedict two years ago.
Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil) has released several videos in which it says it aims to conquer Rome, enslave Christians and raise the black flag of the caliphate over St Peter's Basilica.
While authorities say the videos are melodramatic propaganda, they acknowledge that the Pope has made himself a target with his comments on behalf of Christians being persecuted in the Middle East and his qualified support for air strikes against Isil in Syria and Iraq.
Pietro Paroli, the Vatican secretary of state, said: "We are all exposed and we are all afraid but the Pope is very tranquil in this. The biggest fear is that innocent people may be affected. But I don't seem to perceive great concern in the Vatican, although of course you have to be careful." (© Daily Telegraph, London)