Italian police said Friday they were conducting a major anti-terror raid aimed at 18 Al Qaeda-linked suspects who had planned an attack against the Vatican.
The expansive raid, carried out in seven provinces, highlights the threat of “sleeper” militants who live double lives in Europe. Mario Carta, the lead investigator, told NBC News that it was a "very well-structured terrorist network" that had been operating out of the island of Sardinia since 2005.
All the suspects are Pakistanis or Afghans, and two of the men were purported to be former bodyguards for Osama bin Laden, the slain Al Qaeda leader, the Associated Press reports.
"This was one of the most important operations we ever conducted," Mr. Carta said. "We are talking people with connections with Al Qaeda at the highest level."
He also confirmed reports that the suspects had planned a suicide attack against the Vatican in 2010.
It is still unclear how many of the targets have been taken in, though an imam, suspected of being the spiritual leader of the group in the northern city of Bergama, was arrested. He had been collecting funds purportedly for religious purposes from Pakistanis and Afghans in Italy, police said.
Following the Paris attacks that left 17 dead in January, Europe has carried out anti-terror raids against suspected sleeper cells and militants in countries including Belgium, France, and Germany. These raids indicate a willingness by police to act more aggressively to preempt any potential threats. The Wall Street Journal reported:
European authorities have in particular been on heightened alert for attacks against police, members of the military and other authority figures.
The attacks in France have increased the sense of urgency. Western law-enforcement officials who met in their wake agreed to redouble their efforts to tighten border controls and improve international cooperation as well as to combat Islamist propaganda and recruitment efforts.
Alongside foreign threats, Europe is increasingly concerned about young disillusioned Europeans who leave to gain battlefield experience in the Middle East and then may return home to act as sleepers or terrorists. The men in Italy seem to have led normal lives, mostly as businessmen, but allegedly were financing Al Qaeda in Pakistan.
The Italian investigation was carried out by the anti-terror DIGOS police branch and included wiretaps. In his interview with NBC News, Mr. Carta said the men talked of bin Laden often, and one of them boasted he had been personally sent to Italy by bin Laden himself.
"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."
More details will be released at a press conference on Friday afternoon.