British student arrested in North Africa for ‘trying to join terror group threatening to take control of entire Sahara’
10:44 GMT, 29 December 2012
A British student is under arrest in North Africa accused of trying to join an Islamic terrorist group threatening to take control over the entire Sahara.
Ahmed Shaheen, 26, from London, was detained on the border between Mauritania and Mali as he tried to cross the Sahara on foot to reach the desert stronghold of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).
The Islamic militants have established a brutal regime in the ancient desert city of Timbuktu and introduced Shariah law, ordering death-by-stoning and limb amputations as punishments.
Vast: A British student has been arrested in the Sahara on suspicion of trying to join a terrorist group
Last night the Foreign Office said it was seeking further information about the whereabouts of the Briton.
A spokesman said: ‘We are aware of reports of the detention of a British National in Mauritania and are seeking further information.’
Shaheen, who is described as of Asian origin and wearing a beard, had been staying with a nomad family in the small oasis town of Walata, some 700 miles from the Mauritanian capital of Nouakchott, posing as an expert in traditional communities.
He had attended prayers at the ancient mosque but was reported missing when he disappeared, after saying he planned to ‘walk to across the desert to Timbuktu’.
He was stopped by nomad tribesmen some 12 miles into the sand on Christmas Day and taken to security services operating in the border area who arrested him.
Shaheen is alleged to have told the Mauritanian Police he was trying to reach Timbuktu, in Mali, on foot, to join the AQIM jihadist struggle.
In demand: The terror group Shaheen is thought to have been joining has long campaigned for the release of Abu Qata
Jihadists from various countries, including instructors from Pakistan, have been flocking to northern Mali to fill the ranks of AQIM ahead of an armed assault by UN-backed a multi-national force to oust the militants, according to Mauritanian news agency Sahara Media.
The Islamists took control of Timbuktu in April this year after a military coup left Mali’s army in disarray. They now control almost all of Mali’s Saharan territory and have spread their influence across the desert as far as Nigeria.
Timbuktu was an important centre of Islamic learning from the 13th to the 17th centuries, at the time of the great cross-Saharan camel caravans.
The ancient city was classified as a Unesco world heritage site in 1988.
However the religious fanatics have vowed to destroy the city’s historic monuments which they consider idolatrous.
Public floggings have become common-place and amputations and death-by-stoning have become routine as the Islamic warlords implement a harsh interpretation of Shariah law.
AQIM have held British tourist Stephen McGown hostage since November last year after he was kidnapped in Timbuktu.
The terror group offered to set him free in May this year in return for the release of hate preacher Abu Qatada to an ‘Arab Spring’ country rather than his native Jordan, where he faces trial.