Italian police say they have taken down a terror cell comprised of businessmen who financed al-Qaeda from Sardinia. Counterterrorism agents arrested 18 Pakistani and Afghan nationals in seven provinces today in "one of the most important operations we ever conducted," the lead investigator tells NBC News. "We are talking people with connections with al-Qaeda at the highest level" who police say intended to stage terror strikes in Pakistan and Afghanistan and funneled money to Pakistan using an ancient trust-based transfer system called hawala. Most of the businessmen appeared to be leading normal lives, but two are believed to have once been part of Osama bin Laden's network of guards, Reuters reports.
In a wiretapped conversation, another claimed bin Laden personally sent him to Italy. "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 investigator says. Some members had allegedly planned an attack against Pope Benedict XVI at the Vatican in 2010—which never came to fruition—while police say others were involved in a 2009 market bombing in Peshawar, Pakistan, which killed more than 100 people. The cell, headquartered in Sassari, Sardinia, reports CNN, allegedly had "an abundant amount of weapons" and wanted to support attacks that would erode the Pakistan government's support of US forces in Afghanistan. A press conference is scheduled for later today. (Read more Italy stories.)