Tale of journalist mistakenly held as al-Qaeda chief

Mauritanian journalist temporarily arrested in Senegal after being mistakenly identified as fugitive al-Qaeda terrorist.

Journalist Cheikh Ould Salek
Journalist Cheikh Ould Salek

Mauritanian journalist Cheikh Ould Salek was temporarily detained when he boarded a flight from Senegalese capital Dakar to Dubai on January 3 after he was mistakenly accused of being a terrorist mastermind.

Ould Salek, who works for Sky News Arabia in Dubai, told Al Jazeera that he boarded a flight from Dakar and was planning to get some sleep on the 10-hour flight to Dubai when he realised he was in a lot of trouble.

On board the Emirates airline, Ould Salek heard his name called and had three Senegalese police officers come to his seat to escort him off the plane.

“I knew then that something had gone wrong,” he said. “When I looked outside the plane, I saw more than 30 police cars flashing their lights and tens of police and army officers were awaiting me,” he added.

Once on the ground, Ould Salek was handcuffed and placed in a police car which sped off to a police station.

“At that point, I could hear the counterterrorism agents congratulating themselves for apprehending the very dangerous terrorist Cheikh Ould Salek.”

Once at the police station, I told the ranking officer that I was not the man they thought I was.

“I told him, I am not the terrorist they think I am, and that I am a journalist.”

Shocked but not amused, the police officer started flipping through Ould Salek’s passport only to find out that the man in their custody had travelled wide and far with several European visas and an active US one.

At that point, the ranking officer told another officer to take the handcuffs off Ould Salek and they began to treat him more courteously.

But still, they would not release him just yet. They interrogated him for long hours, asking him how and why he had come to Senegal.

He told them that he was visiting a sick aunt and that if they checked their airport computer systems, they would find that he had come to Senegal directly from Dubai, not through Mauritania where the terrorist suspect would have travelled from.

Ould Salek’s ordeal was not over just yet: The counterterrorism officials told him that he would spend the night in police custody until counterterrorism officials from Mauritania arrived in Senegal to validate his true identity.

In police custody, Ould Salek claims that he endured an all-night attack by bugs and insects that deprived him of sleep. In the morning, two Mauritanian officials came to see him and asked him several questions about his identity and his whereabouts on the previous days.

“Luckily for me, one of the officers knew my family back home and validated my true identity. I was ordered to be released from police custody 24 hours after I was arrested.”

The journalist’s ordeal coincided with the flight of the real al-Qaeda terrorist mastermind, Cheikh Ould Salek, from his prison cell in the Mauritanian capital Nouakchott, where he was facing a death sentence for a 2011 failed assassination attempt on the country’s President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz.

“The whole time I was being interrogated and jailed  – only because my name was identical to the name of a dangerous terrorist – my mind was thinking about the many innocent people who got entangled in the mistaken identity quagmire but were not as lucky and ended up either in jail or even getting killed.”

Al-Qaeda terrorist Cheikh Ould Salek is still at large.

Follow Ali Younes on Twitter @ali_reports

Source: Al Jazeera