WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The North African nation of Mauritania says it has detained a Canadian citizen linked to two other Canadians who died while fighting with militants during an attack on a natural gas plant in Algeria in January.
The confirmation that Mauritania is holding the man, Aaron Yoon, follows a Canadian Broadcasting Corporation report that, before his arrest, Yoon had studied the Koran there with unidentified Americans and Europeans.
Bernard Colas, Mauritania’s consul in Montreal, told Reuters on Friday that Yoon, from London, Ontario, was arrested months ago - before the Algeria attack - and is being held in connection with an investigation into “serious” matters. He declined to be more precise.
Colas said that Yoon was in good health and was being well treated. He said that Yoon had been visited by Canadian diplomats based in Morocco and that a lawyer was soon expected to be appointed to help Yoon prepare his defense.
Western security officials said it is likely some English-speakers from the United States and Europe, including Britain, had gone to North Africa to fight with militants.
Ray Boisvert, until recently a top official of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, said North Africa was the “latest hot spot” to attract the interest of aspiring Western militants, not least because local militant groups are “awash with weapons and money.”
Security officials say Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, the most prominent North African militant group, has accumulated a large war chest by kidnapping westerners for ransom and engaging in other criminal activity, including drug trafficking.
While it is known as one of the countries where AQIM has operated, Mauritania also is the home of well-regarded Islamic seminaries where students can acquire a serious religious education. Such schools are not generically regarded by Western security agencies as training grounds for militants.
Confirmation of Yoon’s detention comes a day after Canadian authorities confirmed the identities of two other English-speaking Canadians from London, Ontario, who took part in the January attack on a remote natural gas facility in Algeria, which investigators believe was led by notorious militant Mokhtar Belmokhtar.
About 70 people, including the two Canadians, died when Algerian troops stormed the Tigantourine desert gas plant.
The Royal Canadian Mounted Police identified the two as Xristos Katsiroubas and Ali Medlej.
The CBC said Yoon went to school with the two dead men, and that Yoon, who was raised a Catholic, converted to Islam before graduating from high school. Canadian reports said Katsiroubas had converted from the Greek Orthodox faith to Islam.
London’s Daily Mail newspaper reported in December that a British student, Ahmed Shaheen, had been detained on the border between Mauritania and Mali as he tried to cross the desert to join the ranks of AQIM.
The number of English-speaking would-be fighters who travel to French-speaking North Africa is thought to be much smaller than the number of English-speaking militants recently traveling to other conflict zones, notably Syria and Somalia.
Reuters reported recently that officials say that between 70 and 100 recruits from Britain, and others from the United States, are currently in Syria fighting President Bashar Assad. Many are aligned with Al Nusra, a group which Washington says is a front for the group Al Qaeda in Iraq.
Editing by Warren Strobel and Eric Walsh