LONDON — British police are investigating Wednesday whether a British man and woman arrested on suspicion of supporting terrorism offenses in Syria were part of a group that held two veteran war journalists hostage in Syria in July.
The abduction of photographers John Cantlie and Jeroen Oerlemans highlighted concerns that British Muslims might be slipping into Syria to join extremists. Both said after their week-long ordeal that some of their captors spoke with British accents.
Police seeking clues in the case searched two east London properties Wednesday — one day after the two 26-year-old suspects were arrested at Heathrow Airport after arriving on a flight from Egypt.
Oerlemans, a prominent Dutch photographer who was shot twice during a failed escape attempt, told the Associated Press Wednesday that the ages of the two suspects was consistent with the ages of the people who held him hostage shortly after he entered Syria on July 19.
“There wasn’t any woman anywhere, so that surprised me,” he said of the Heathrow arrests. “But that doesn’t mean it’s not one of the guys in the camp. They were all 20-somethings so it might just well be the kidnappers.”
Police would not comment on British press reports that one of the suspects may be a British National Health Service doctor believed to have been involved with a terror cell inside Syria. Cantlie had told the British press earlier 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 badly injured fighters in Syria.
Most of those fighting the regime of President Bashar Assad are believed to be ordinary Syrians and soldiers who have defected, having become fed up with the authoritarian government, analysts say. But increasingly, foreign fighters and those adhering to an extremist Islamist ideology are becoming involved in the Syrian conflict.
Syrian rebels concerned about alienating Western supporters have downplayed the newcomers’ impact on the struggle to dislodge Assad.
“It’s exaggerated, the role and the numbers,” said George Sabra, spokesman for the Syrian National Council. He blamed in part the international community for using the issue as a way to back out of commitments to help the Syrians opposing Assad.
He said the foreign fighters do not present long-term problems.
“They say they’ve come to help the Syrian people and they’ll return home again,” he said. “We’re not worried because they’re an external phenomenon and they’ll remain one.”
European intelligence officials said the issue of foreign fighters joining the Syrian conflict is complex. There is evidence that foreigners have joined the fight against the Assad regime, but the number of foreign extremists joining the fight remains unclear.
“We know there have been British, French and other Western nationals joining this fight in Syria but we’re not seeing enough evidence to indicate there is a groundswell of foreign extremists on the battlefield. On the contrary, it seems that some of these fringe groups are waiting for an opportunity to come after the battle is over,” said a European security official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to reporters.
Officials have said unlike Libya, it’s harder to track individuals getting into the conflict area since there are multiple entry points.