Fletcher Features

Prisoners of Time and Terror: Robert Fowler, Former al-Qaida Hostage, Speaks Out

Robert Fowler, former Canadian Diplomat and former hostage of Al Qaeda, speaks at The Fletcher School on Wednesday, March 13, 2013.

Not long after U.N. special envoy Robert Fowler was kidnapped just outside the capital of Niger some three years ago, he found himself pacing around in the Sahara desert night, when one of his captors was brewing tea over an open flame:

“He said, ‘have you figured out who we are yet? We are al-Qaida,’” Fowler said.

“That was not a great moment.”

Fowler survived a 130-day ordeal in the captivity of 31 desert-hardened fighters amid the sands and swelter of a northern African wasteland. He described it as an unforgettably terrifying experience and, as he relayed to dozens of faculty, staff, students and others at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, it yielded many insights into the minds of terrorists who stunned the world by nearly succeeding in creating an Islamic-law-ruled haven for al-Qaida in Mali last year.

“What was it like? It wasn’t nice,” he said in his March 13 talk titled “Sleeping with Al-Qaida: Lessons for and from Mali.”

“This is something you should worry about and care about.”

Fowler had worked as foreign policy advisor to multiple Canadian prime ministers and was Canada’s longest serving ambassador to the United Nations. In 2008, he was appointed special envoy to Niger, in an effort to broker a cease-fire between the embattled Niger government and Tuareg rebels. On Dec. 14, 2008, as he and his colleague were returning to the Niger capital Niamey, the car he was traveling in was cut-off and the two were seized at gunpoint and driven away.

Thus began his four-month saga, living a semi-nomadic existence in the wilds of the Sahara. The first five days they were in captivity, they were forced to make a video:

“They didn’t ask me to denounce everything we hold dear in the West. They simply said: ‘tell them who we are,’” Fowler explained. “There was some debate among them whether they should be called ‘al-Qaida in the Maghreb’ or ‘al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb.’”

However, it was clear that Fowler and his colleague were seized precisely because of who they represented.

“We were not some sort of tourist or prisoner of opportunity. They hated us as vile Westerners, and they hated us as invaders of their land,” he said. “They hated particularly that we were representatives of the United Nations. They believe that the UN was a creature of the Great Powers.”

Their days, he said, were spent often chasing the shade around a thin acacia tree, as temperatures soared to 130 degrees Fahrenheit, then dropped into the single digits at night. The water was horrible (collected from fetid desert wells); they ate rice and pasta cooked in powdered milk; occasionally there was meat, in the form of sheep or goat. They wore the same clothes until they fell off, and their captors eventually provided them with bits and pieces of other clothing. As days stretched from one into another, Fowler kept track of time by scratching marks onto his leather belt.

“The predominant activity of our captivity was fear. I was scared when I woke up in the morning. I was scared when I went to bed at night,” Fowler said.

He described how they spent 56 days at one particular location, and then the next 62 bouncing from one place to another. Among their captors, the decision makers were all Algerians and the foot soldiers were either Algerians or Africans from Sahel belt, such as from Cote d’Ivoire. They were extremely well-organized and extremely devoted to their cause: jihad.

They were unyielding in the certainty of their beliefs, he said. Negotiating with them may very well be pointless.

“They believed: ‘Only we are right, we have the answer, we know God’s will and we are achieving it,” Fowler said. “If they died in jihad they would be beside those rivers of ‘milk and honey’ in the mythic paradise conjured by Quran and elsewhere.”

“The only issue was that they would die and get to paradise and they hoped that would happen soon. They didn’t care if achieving God’s purpose would take a short time or a long time,” he added.

In the end, he and his colleague were released. He does not know the exact circumstances of his release and he does not know if a ransom was paid.

The events of the past year in Mali, Niger, Algeria and other neighboring countries are illustrative and should serve as a wake-up call for the world, he said.  The Malian government very nearly collapsed in the face of a combined al-Qaida/Tuareg rebel onslaught, and the capital, Bamako, would likely have fallen had France not mustered (“with unbelievable speed”) a military response that ultimately pushed the rebels out of Mali, scattering them to the desert, Fowler said.  

Though the terrorists have been scattered, the long-term danger remains. The governments of African Sahel are poor, poorly run and often lack popular legitimacy, he said. The danger is that al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb links up with other terrorist insurgencies like Boko Haram in Nigeria or Al Shabaab in Somalia.

“If we don’t stop this…if they were to take the anarchy and chaos of Somalia and spread it across the Sahel, 8,000 miles… In that chaos, jihad would thrive,” he said.  “If they achieve in that objective, it will make Darfur seem relatively benign.”

“We have to continue to be vigilant,” he said.

-Mike Eckel, MALD 2013 candidate

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