ROME, Italy– Counterterrorism police conducted coordinated raids across Italy on Friday against an Islamist cell based in Sardinia and linked to al-Qaeda, arresting eight Pakistanis and an Afghan.
Of the nine arrested, three were taken in Olbia, two in Civitanova Marche and the others in Bergamo, Rome, Sora and Foggia. The terrorist organization was mainly active in Olbia and Lazio, according to police reports.
The ideological leader of the cell, a radical fundamentalist imam living in Bergamo, was among those arrested.
The alleged terrorists are being charged with various crimes ranging from the commission of terrorist acts abroad to abetting illegal immigration.
Two of those arrested have a history as supporters of Bin Laden, while others are wanted for numerous bloody acts of terrorism and sabotage in Pakistan, including the massacre at the market of Peshawar and the Meena Bazar in October of 2009, where more than one hundred people were killed.
Intercepted phone conversations revealed the presence in 2010 of two suicide bombers in Italy, whom investigators suspect were planning a bombing attack on the Vatican. The chief prosecutor of the Republic of Cagliari, Mauro Mura, who coordinated the investigation, stated that the alleged assault on the Vatican will not, however, be charged against those arrested.
Investigators reported that the suspects said they would launch a “big jihad in Italy” against a major leader, and that conversations suggested the target might be the Vatican.
“Get ready, the bombs will explode,” is a phrase that emerged from phone records reported Friday morning by investigators. But the organization apparently abandoned the plot, after the men drew the attention of law enforcement, and the two suicide bombers quickly moved on to Olbia and northern Italy, covering their tracks. During a search in Olbia, police found a sheet of paper with the “vow of martyrdom” of one of the terrorists.
Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi downplayed the threat, noting that the planned attack “dates back to 2010 and was not carried out.” Lombardi said the threat is no longer relevant “and is not cause for particular concern.”
The arrest warrants speak of a criminal organization “inspired by al-Qaeda and other groups of a radical matrix espousing armed conflict against the West and uprising against the current government in Pakistan.”
The cell had a stockpile of weapons as well as “many adherents willing to commit acts of terrorism in Pakistan and Afghanistan, after which to return to Italy.”
Italy’s Interior Minister Angelino Alfano said the successful blitz “means that our system works” and “that ours is a great country able to dismantle these plots.”
The investigation revealed intercepted calls showing that two members of the organization were part of the protective group surrounding Osama Bin Laden in Pakistan. In a wiretap one of those arrested asked a relative of Bin Laden “how is he doing?”
The cell also reportedly facilitated the illegal immigration of Pakistani and Afghani nationals into Italy. The police report states that the organization sought “to fuel the criminal network by allocating a portion of its resources to the phenomenon of the illegal introduction of Pakistanis or Afghans onto Italian soil, who in some cases were also destined to certain countries of northern Europe.”
According to the police, to evade the rules governing the entry or residence in the country of non-EU citizens, those arrested were using simple but tried-and-true methods. In some cases they “had recourse to labor contracts with compliant employers in order to obtain entry visas.” In other cases, the organization used “false documents and fraudulent claims to seek political asylum, passing off Islamists as victims of ethnic or religious persecution.”
The organization allegedly also provided financial and logistical support to illegal immigrants: ensuring their patronage at the competent immigration offices, furnishing instructions regarding the correct statements to be made to get political asylum, and providing telephones, SIM cards and personal contacts.
The unidentified spiritual ringleader of the group was a leader of the pietistic movement Tabligh Eddawa (Society of Propaganda). Operating between Brescia and Bergamo, the man proving to be an effective fundraiser among the Pakistani-Afghan community in Italy, thanks to his religious authority as an imam and teacher of Koranic studies. In one case, police discovered the transfer of 55,268 euros via courier on a flight to Islamabad from Rome’s Fiumicino airport.
More often, the imam employed the money transfer system known as “hawala,” a mechanism for the hidden transfer of funds based on a bond of trust widespread in Muslim communities in Europe. Hawala operates parallel to the traditional banking system allowing for the transferal of a sum of money abroad by delivering it to a money broker, called a “hawaladar,” and providing him with a code or password. The broker in turn contacts another hawaladar in the receiving country authorizing the disbursal of the sum, which the beneficiary then obtains by furnishing the agreed-upon password.
Known terrorists received money from the collections or donations raised by the activity of the imam arrested in Bergamo. Along with al-Qaeda, the associations “Theerek and Taliban,” “Theerek and Enifaz” and “Sharia and Mihammadi” were beneficiaries of his efforts.
The police still have nine pending arrest warrants for members of the terrorist cell. Of the suspected terrorists still at large, three are considered to certainly still be in Italy, while others are thought to have fled the country.
Follow Thomas D. Williams on Twitter @tdwilliamsrome