Terror Suspects Planned Vatican Attack, Claims Italian Prosecutor, As Police Target Al Qaeda-Linked Group

An Italian prosecutor has said that individuals currently under investigation may have planned a terror attack on the Vatican. Two of the 18 people targeted in raids Friday are thought to have been close aides to Osama bin Laden. Prosecutor Mauro Mura claimed to a press conference in Cagliari, Sardinia, that the suspects had made preparations to bomb the Vatican in 2010. Mura claims that the plan was initially uncovered using wiretaps, but that — although a suicide bomber had arrived in Rome — the plan never went further. It was not known why the bombing was called off.

The police rounded up nine suspects on Friday, in co-ordinated raids across Italy that targeted 18 members of a network believed to have links to al Qaeda. The suspected spiritual leader of the group is in custody, but the authorities believe that seven other members fled the country to evade capture, while two are still at large in Italy. Officials emphasized that the planned Vatican attack had not been verified. “We don't have proof, we have strong suspicion,” Mario Carta, head of the police unit spearheading the investigation said, when asked for further details. Wiretapped conversations between the suspects mentioned a “big jihad in Italy,” and suggested the Vatican could be a target.

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“In a wiretapped conversation, one of them ... boasted that Bin Laden sent him personally to Italy,” Carta told NBC News. “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.” The two detainees believed to have been intimately acquainted with the terror chief are thought to have been bin Laden’s bodyguards while he was in hiding.

Counterterrorism officials had earlier reported that the group was allegedly planning attacks in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and may already have financed a 2009 bombing in Peshawar. They characterized the detainees as members of a “very well-structured terrorist network” that had operated from Sardinia since 2005. Earlier Friday, Carta confirmed that all the suspects are Pakistanis or Afghan nationals. “This was one of the most important operations we ever conducted,” he told NBC. “We are talking people with connections with al Qaeda at the highest level.”

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Police also claimed that the group was involved in people smuggling: helping illegal immigrants leaving Pakistan and Afghanistan to enter foreign countries as political refugees. Their overall aim, the police suggested, was to foment an armed uprising against the Pakistani government. Police surveillance of the group was maintained between 2005 and 2012, after which communication between the members petered out — perhaps because they realized they were being watched.

The Vatican has so far not shown much concern over the ostensible threat. “From what it appears, this concerns a hypothesis that dates from 2010 which didn’t occur,” Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi said in a statement. “It has therefore no relevance today and no reason for particular concern.” In 2010, the seat of the Catholic Church was presided over by Pope Benedict XVI.

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Earlier this year, Italy expressed concern over ISIS as the extremist group gained ground in Libya — just a short, often lethal boat ride from Italian shores. “ISIS is at the door,” Italy's Interior Minister Angelino Alfano told La Republica in February. “There is no time to waste.” At the time, 21 Egyptian Christians had just been beheaded in Libya, in the first glaring incursion of the terror group so far west.

In his Easter address this year, Pope Francis denounced the persecution of Christians worldwide — referencing the victims of Kenya’s Garissa College attack and the fate of many Christian communities in Syria and Iraq. Only this Sunday, French police foiled a planned attack on churches in the suburbs of Paris.

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