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ROME — Italian police busted an al Qaeda-inspired terror network with possible ties to Osama Bin Laden that planned an attack on the Vatican and financed terror operations in Pakistan, officials said Friday.
Counterterrorism officials said a vast operation had dismantled a "very well-structured terrorist network" composed of Pakistani and Afghan 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," Mario Carta, the counter-terror police official leading the raids, told NBC News. "We are talking people with connections with al Qaeda at the highest level."
Two members of the cell were believed to have been close aides to Bin Laden and protected the terror leader in hiding, according to Carta, who said some of the suspects arrested also were believed to be involved in a 2009 bombing on a Peshawar market which killed more than 100 people.
He said that 18 arrest warrants had been issued across seven provinces for cell members, who were apparently tied to al Qaeda but also had links to the Taliban. Nine people have been arrested while two were still at large in Italy, he said, adding that seven of the warrants' targets were believed to be in Pakistan.
"In a wiretapped conversation, one of them...boasted that Bin Laden sent him personally to Italy," he added. "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."
Wiretaps also gave "signals of some preparation for a possible attack" at the Vatican, prosecutor Mauro Mura told a news conference in Sardinia. That included the arrival in Rome of a Pakistani suicide bomber, Mura said, according to The Associated Press. The Pakistani eventually left Italy, Mura said, without explaining why, the AP added.
A police statement said the group "preached armed struggle against the West," had "plenty of arms and many followers," and had been involved in trafficking migrants.
That included smuggling illegal immigrants out of Pakistan and Afghanistan and helping them fool immigration officers into thinking they were political refugees, the statement added.
Mura said the group had been fundraising across Italy and then smuggling the money into Pakistan to finance terror operations there.
Mura told a press conference in the Sardinian capital of Cagliari that investigators wiretapped the group's phone and computer conversations between 2005 and 2012. After that, he added, it appeared that the group's members realized they were being monitored because communications slowed or stopped entirely.
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.
- Claudio Lavanga and Alexander Smith
Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report. Alexander Smith reported from London.