Italy began an anti-terrorist operation against a network inspired by al Qaeda and issued arrest warrants against 18 suspects, officials said Friday. Some of the suspects were believed to be involved in the 2009 bombing of Meena Bazaar in Peshawar that killed over 100 people.
Mario Carta, the lead investigator of the counterterrorism operation, told NBC News, that some of the suspects were businessmen from Pakistan, who were funding al Qaeda under the cover of conducting regular business operations. Carta added that the group was also suspected of plotting an attack against Pope Benedict XVI at the Vatican in 2010. The network also wanted to carry out an attack against Pakistan's government and U.S. forces in Afghanistan, Reuters reported.
The targeted group had "an abundant amount of weapons and numerous faithful willing to carry out acts of terrorism in Pakistan and Afghanistan before returning to Italy," Italian police said, according to Reuters, adding that while some of the accused, including the group's spiritual leader, were arrested, many had fled the country.
The investigation is being conducted by Italy’s anti-terrorism DIGOS (General Investigations and Special Operations Division) police branch, which arrested the religious leader from the northern city of Bergamo, Reuters reported.
The members targeted in the operation had also provided logistical support to Osama Bin Laden, al Qaeda’s former leader, who was shot dead in Pakistan by American forces in 2011, CNN reported.
"In a wiretapped conversation, one of them ... boasted that Bin Laden sent him personally to Italy," Carta said, according to NBC News, adding: "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 group was reportedly supporting the "armed struggle against the West" and planned on inciting a rebellion against the Pakistani government.
“The organization supplied logistical support and finance to undocumented migrants, guaranteeing them: defense regarding immigration office experts, instructions on the statements to make to obtain political asylum, equipping them with phones and sim cards, personal contacts,” the police said, according to the Local.