Italian authorities have arrested two suspected members of an Islamic State (Isis)-linked jihadi cell who allegedly planned attacks in Rome and London. Police found images of potential targets, including shopping malls and luxury hotels in the British capital, on mobile phones belonging to the pair.
"The group carried out preliminary inspection of locations, taking photographs and videos, to prepare terrorist attacks at airports, ports, security forces buildings, shopping centres and hotels, as well as other unspecified attacks in Italy and England," prosecutors in the southern Apulia region said.
The two arrested have been identified as Hakim Nasiri, 23, and Gulistan Ahmadzai, 29, both from Afghanistan. Police are hunting for three more suspects, two Afghans and one Pakistani national.
Detectives said evidence indicates weapons were available to the group, adding they retrieved a photo of Nasiri holding a M16 semi-automatic rifle. The picture was taken in the UK, police said.
Among the sites scouted by the cell were the Colosseum in Rome, Bari's Karol Wojtyła Airport (named after the late pontiff John Paul II), London's West India Quay and several hotels near Canary Wharf and the City Airport.
In particular the pair had pictures of the high-end Sunborn Yacht Hotel, located inside a luxury boat moored at Royal Victoria Dock, the Ibis Styles London Excel, the South Quay Footbridge connecting Canary Wharf to West India Dock, and the Premier Inn hotel in Stratford.
Prosecutors said the images "had no touristic value", leading detectives to believe they had been taken during surveys of presumed targets. The investigation was launched in December 2015, after a police patrol noticed the four Afghans filming a large shopping centre in Bari.
An inspection of their phones revealed that that one of them often downloaded jihadi propaganda material, including images of mutilated US soldiers and of a senior Taliban leader, from a renowned Taliban website.
The 30-year-old suspect took a flight back to Afghanistan with another alleged member of the cell aged 28 only two days after the group was stopped by police. Both men were regularly living in Italy and are currently wanted by police that are issuing an international arrest warrant.
The two at large are facing charges of criminal association with the purpose of international terrorism or subversion of the democratic order along with Nasiri and Ahmadzai. The latter, along with a 25-year-old Pakistani national, are also accused of aiding illegal immigration.
The group, which police said had ties both to IS (Daesh) and al-Qaeda, was also active in Hungary, and France where Ahmadzai had an address in the migrant hotspot of Calais.