LONDON – A British man has been charged in the kidnapping of two Western journalists in Syria, police said Tuesday, adding to growing concerns about foreign extremists traveling to the civil war-stricken Arab state and posing a future threat to the West.
Shajul Islam, 26, was arrested on suspicion of terror offenses on Oct. 9 at London's Heathrow Airport after arriving on a flight from Egypt alongside a 26-year-old British woman. The woman, who has not been named, was released without charge earlier Tuesday.
Islam was accused of working with others to "unlawfully and injuriously imprison" two photographers, Briton John Cantlie and his Dutch colleague Jeroen Oerlemans, against their will between July 17 and July 26 in Syria, police said. He was remanded in custody and expected to appear in a London court on Wednesday.
The abduction of the veteran journalists raised concerns that British Muslims might be slipping into Syria to join extremists. The photographers said after their week-long ordeal that some of their captors spoke with British accents.
Oerlemans, a prominent Dutch photographer who was shot twice during a failed attempt to escape from his captors, told The Associated Press last week that the ages of Islam and the released woman appeared to be consistent with the ages of the people who held him hostage shortly after he entered Syria on July 19. But he said there were no women involved in the kidnapping.
Police have declined to comment on British press reports that one of the pair picked up at the airport may be a British National Health Service doctor believed to have been involved with an Islamist terror group in Syria.
Cantlie, who had worked for the Sunday Times newspaper, had said that none of his captors were Syrian.
"They were from anywhere but Syria. They were from Bangladesh, they were from Pakistan, they were from the U.K., they were from Chechnya, the Caucuses — a real mix," he told the BBC in an interview.
Cantlie also said that one of his captors claimed to be a British medic who said he had taken a sabbatical from his work so that he could treat wounded fighters in Syria.
"I asked for his help as we were both from London, but he refused to even send a text to my girlfriend to say we were alive. He said he would be beheaded if he did," Cantlie was quoted as saying in the Daily Mail.
European intelligence officials had said there is evidence that foreigners — including British and French nationals — have joined the fight against Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime, but the number of foreign extremists involved in the conflict remains unclear.
British officials have said fewer than 100 nationals or people with links to Britain are thought to have traveled to Syria to fight against Assad's regime.