Italian Terror Raid Busts Cell With Alleged Bin Laden Link – NBCNews.com

ROME — Italian police mounted a vast counterterrorism operation Friday against an al Qaeda-inspired terror network with ties to Osama Bin Laden, the lead investigator told NBC News.

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.

Some of the suspects arrested were also believed to be involved in a bombing on a market in the Pakistani city of Peshawar in October 2009, in which more than 100 people were killed, Carta added.

Officials believe the group also wanted to support attacks against Pakistan’s government and U.S. forces in Afghanistan, according to Reuters.

Police said a news conference would be held later Friday in the Sardinian city of Cagliari.

The counterterrorism operation comes two months after Italy warned that ISIS was at its doorstep, following a video in which 21 Egyptian Christians were beheaded, filmed just across the Mediterranean Sea in Libya.

Europe has been on edge when it comes to potential terror attacks after three days of shootings in and around Paris in January that left 17 people dead. Since then there have been large-scale anti-terror operations in France, Germany and Belgium.

Image: Italian Policemen detain a man suspected to be member of an armed organisation inspired by al QaedaHANDOUT / Italian Police via Reuters
– Claudio Lavanga and Alexander Smith

Reuters also contributed to this report. Alexander Smith reported from London.