Cagliari Chief Prosecutor Mauro Mura told reporters that as well as planning to launch attacks in Pakistan and Afghanistan, as earlier reported, the suspects may also have been aiming to target the Vatican and a suicide bomber had arrived in Rome but later left for unknown reasons.
Police conducted raids across Italy yesterday, targeting 18 people suspected of links with al-Qaeda. Some were arrested, including the group’s suspected spiritual leader, but others were believed to have left the country.
“We don’t have proof, we have strong suspicion,” said Mario Carta, head of the police unit leading the investigation said when asked for more details on a possible attack against the seat of the Catholic Church.
He said that, in intercepted telephone calls, investigators had heard the suspects say they would launch a “big jihad in Italy,” conversations that also suggested a target might be the Vatican.
All the suspects are Pakistanis or Afghans, Carta told Reuters earlier, adding that the operation was still in progress.
The attack was believed to have been planned for in 2010.
Mura told a news conference in Cagliari, Sardinia, that wiretap evidence included the arrival of a suicide bomber in Rome. He eventually left Italy, Mura said, although it wasn’t clear why.
At the time of the suspected plot to bomb the Vatican, Pope Benedict XVI was still reeling from the effects in the Muslim world of a 2006 speech in Regensburg, Germany, in which he quoted a Byzantine emperor who characterised some of the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad as “evil and inhuman,” particularly “his command to spread by the sword the faith.”
While relations with the Muslim world were eventually repaired, tensions flared again in 2011 when Cairo’s al-Azhar institute, the pre-eminent theological school of Sunni Islam, suspended interfaith talks with the Vatican after Benedict called for greater protections for Egypt’s minority Christians.
More recently, Italian officials have made clear they take seriously the threat of the Islamic State group to conquer Rome and the seat of Christianity. Security has been beefed up at the Vatican and the head of the Swiss Guards has said they are ready but that they have no information about an imminent threat.
Pope Francis himself has said he realises he may be a target but that he fears mostly for the innocent crowds who come to see him every time he’s in public.