PALERMO, Italy — Italian counter-terrorism operatives issued arrest warrants for 18 men and arrested nine across Italy on Thursday. They are thought to be part of an al Qaeda terrorism ring based on the idyllic Mediterranean island of Sardinia. Among the plots officials say they’ve uncovered: a suicide bombing attack against the Vatican.
During a press conference in Cagliari, chief prosecutor Mauro Mura said investigators have been monitoring conversations among the men for several years, some since 2005. He said at least two of the suspects served directly under Osama bin Laden as part of his protective forces in Pakistan and escaped to Sardinia when he was killed in 2011. Two others apparently were still in contact with members of bin Laden’s family and affiliates of his network.
Also arrested was Khan Sultan Wali, the imam of the Islamic community of Olbia in Sardinia, who was apprehended as he was boarding a ferry from the island to Civitavecchia on the Italian mainland, implying that he might have been aware of the impending arrest.
Wali had apparently organized the use of the building site of the former U.S. Naval and NATO operations base on the tiny Sardinian island of La Maddalena, which was decommissioned in 2008. The prosecutor said it had become a weapons cache for “an abundance of arms were kept for attacks” by the jihadists. Americans had used the base for 35 years.
Police are working on the assumption that the men were able to navigate the Mediterranean sea freely from Sardinia. The Sardinian base was apparently a place where tired terrorists came for a “change of scenery,” according to sources quoted in the Italian newspaper La Repubblica.
Among the men arrested is also a former Taliban member who was granted political asylum in Italy two years ago.
Many of the men wanted and arrested had recently entered the illegal migrant trafficking trade, said a spokesperson for Italy’s defense minister, who added that the arrests were made after intelligence pointed to a new strategy among traffickers.
A number of Italian businessmen are also under investigation for supplying false work contracts to help facilitate fake asylum contracts for Pakistani and Afghanistan men posing as migrants. Police say that people from seven provinces in Italy were involved in the cell.
Police also say that among those arrested are several who were involved in bloody attacks in Pakistan, including the October 2009 attack at a market in Peshawar that killed more than 100 people.
According to the Italian newspaper Il Sole 24, two main methods of money movement was used. Several men who worked with Italy’s customs department have been implicated for making fake customs declarations for people moving large sums of money on their person, but then destroying the forms if the carriers got through customs. In one case, according to the newspaper, $60,000 was moved by someone from a flight from Rome to Islamabad, though the carrier never made the declaration in person.
The Sardinia cell also helped facilitate transactions using the so-called hawala method which is like an unregulated Western Union system whereby trusted money men move cash to and from receivers upon request, even though no actual funds are transferred and no paper records are registered.
The attack against the Vatican was first planned in 2010 and would have involved sending two suicide bombers into St Peter’s, according to local media, but it was thwarted by Italian security. A spokesman for the Vatican said the Holy See had never been informed of such a threat.
Authorities say they expect more arrests to be made.
The announcement came one day after the United States apologized for accidentally killing Italian hostage Giovanni Lo Porto during a drone attack on al Qaeda targets four months ago.
Italy’s interior minister Angelino Alfano said the arrests prove that counter-terrorism works. “Our system is functioning,” he said. “It’s working.”