al-Qaeda’s North African wing has threatened to kill a British tourist taken hostage in the Sahara unless the radical cleric and terrorism suspect Abu Qatada is released within 20 days. The kidnapped man was among four European tourists seized in January after their convoy was ambushed near the border of Niger and Mali, where they had been after attending a Tuareg festival.

Abu Qatada, once described by a Spanish judge as “Osama bin Laden’s righthand man in Europe”, is being held in Britain pending deportation to his native Jordan, where in 1999 he was convicted in his absence of conspiracy to cause explosions and sentenced to life imprisonment. The charges related to bombings at the American school and the Jerusalem hotel in Jordan. He was convicted a second time in 2000 over a plot to bomb tourists. Abu Qatada is one of the highest profile terror suspects held in Britain today, and when Jacqui Smith, the home secretary, signed his deportation order on 18 February she said: “I am keen to deport this dangerous individual as soon as I can.”

“We demand that Britain release Sheikh Abu Qatada, who is unjustly [held], for the release of its British citizen. We give it 20 days as of the issuance of this statement,” the group al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) said in a posting on an Islamist website yesterday. “When this period expires, the Mujahideen will kill the British hostage.”

The issue highlights the difficulty how to deal with dangerous Islamist prisoners and with al-Qaeda threats from outside Europe, while maintaining security in the UK and without endangering any hostages.

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