By Robert Fowler
March 11, 2012
describes his Niger ordeal
In December 2008, I
was making my third trip to Niger as the United Nations Special Envoy,
attempting to broker a peace between the government and Tuareg rebel factions
in the north.
One Sunday, two weeks
before Christmas, my colleague, Louis Guay, and I were returning to the
capital, Niamey, in a UN vehicle when a truck passed us, slewed in front and
forced us to a stop.
Two AK47s were aimed
at the face of our driver, and within the blink on an eye all three of us were
torn from our seats and thrown into the back of their truck. The whole grab
took perhaps 40 seconds.
Thus began our 56-hour
descent into hell, a 1,000km off-road nightmare into the middle of the Sahara
desert. Twelve hours into that appalling journey, we stopped for a couple of
As I paced back and
forth, the sentry, a young Senegalese, looked up from where he was making tea
and asked, "Have you figured out who we are yet?"
acknowledge the dawning reality, I shook my head and he spat: "We are
al-Qaeda," enjoying the effect as the bottom fell out of my world.
Three days later, we
were ushered toward a large, dark tent, and when I saw the assembled video equipment,
I despaired at the thought of my family watching a YouTube video of our
beheading. Instead, we recorded a message, in which I stated that we had been
captured by al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), and urged the UN and the
government of Canada to bend every effort to secure our release and - as
instructed - warned them to avoid violence in any effort to win our freedom.
We then settled
uncomfortably into the rhythm of our desert captivity, but from the outset it
was made excruciatingly clear by the 31 members of the group which held us,
that as representatives of the hated United Nations, we were "prisoners of
war" and not some random targets of opportunity.
We had spent five days
reaching their operations area deep in the desert, remained in the first
"camp" for 56 days and then spent the final 68 days shuttling vast
distances among 23 different camps. A camp, though, was simply a place in the
sand where a thin tree might offer a little shade from the unrelenting sun. We
were always held in the open: no buildings, tents, furniture, or lavatories.
There were venomous
snakes and scorpions and wild dogs, hyenas, and a variety of biting insects,
and awful food; but the greatest threat to our lives was so evidently from the
two-legged monsters who held us. Indeed, there was hardly a moment when I
didn't anticipate it would end with my head being sawn off.
They were the most
single-minded group of young men I have ever encountered. Our captors had no
desire for cool sunglasses, no interest in aping the antics of film stars or
footballers, no passion for sports or music; their only concern was pleasing
their jealous and stern God. They would often explain how the Prophet had said
that 99 out of 100 would not make it to paradise, but their place beside those
rivers of milk and honey was assured for they were fighting Allah's fight and
would soon, they hoped (as did I) be occupying the house of the mujahedeen in
paradise. At one point one of them thrust his rifle at me, saying: "Kill
me now, I'm ready for paradise."
Westerners have fuelled debate among securocrats as to whether our AQIM captors
might simply be bandits flying an Islamic flag of convenience. I know that to
be the wrong answer. Our kidnappers were utterly focused religious zealots who
believed absolutely in their cause. They sought to expel Western infidels from
Muslim lands and to destroy what they saw as apostate Western-stooge
governments who were usurping God's purposes across the Muslim world. The
concepts and ideals we hold most dear were anathema to them: liberty, freedom,
justice, democracy, human rights, equality between the sexes - all matters
which they considered to be the exclusive province of Allah.
Our kidnappers were
certain, they would prevail, but whether it took 20, 200 or 2,000 years was of
no consequence. God's will would be done.
Their objective was to
establish a 7,000km wide caliphate, stretching from Nouakchott in Mauritania to
Mogadishu in Somalia, to be ruled by stern Allah-fearing Islamic sages who
could be relied upon to understand and execute God's will. AQIM believes that
by replicating across the Sahel the chaos and anarchy caused by their Al
Shabaab colleagues in present day Somalia, they will be creating the perfect
growth medium in which their vision will flourish.
In the face of the
murderous rampage of Boko Haram in Nigeria over the past year, which included
the bombing of Nigerian police headquarters in Abuja and the destruction of UN
headquarters, many hundreds have been killed (thousands over the past decade).
There seems, though, to be a reluctance to believe that it is all part of the
same Jihadi movement. Many want to believe that Boko Haram is different,
somehow less dangerous than al-Qaeda's other African affiliates. While I
understand the reluctance to acknowledge that al-Qaeda might have won a solid
foothold in Africa's most populous and important country, again, I know that to
be the case. One of my captors was a young Nigerian from Kano; clearly what we
would call an exchange officer.
The threat to the
stability of the northern half of Africa posed by militant Jihadi Islam is
present and real. It has been exacerbated by the fallout from our Libyan
adventure, which has caused weapons in untold quantities to spew across one of
the most fragile parts of the world. Not only do al-Qaeda's predations endanger
the development gains of the past half-century in the upper part of Africa, but
chaos there will very directly impact Western Europe as human emergencies of
immense proportion bloom, and illegal refugee flows multiply by orders of
magnitude. Our African friends need help to defeat such a scourge, and we,
throughout the West, need to get a lot more serious - and very quickly - about
discouraging the Saudis and Gulf states from their generous funding of radical
Salafist madrasas across the world, and most immediately in Africa where they
are providing the recruits to al-Qaeda's African franchises.
diplomacy on the part of all manner of regional players, Louis and I were freed
after 130 days of captivity, along with the two female members of a group of
European tourists who had been kidnapped by a separate AQIM faction. Six weeks
after we returned to Canada, another of that group, the Briton Edwin Dyer, was
killed by his captors. Louis and I are very lucky to be alive and we owe our
lives to a great many fine, imaginative and hard working people who made it
I welcome this
opportunity to extend my deepest sympathies to the families of Chris McManus
and Franco Lamolinara, who were not so fortunate. They were murdered this past
week following their kidnapping in north-western Nigeria last May. So often
during my captivity did I worry about the risks of a rescue attempt, only to
fear that it might not be made, so I also extend my empathy to the brave
professionals who made the attempt, for I know the extent of their distress at
the failure of their enormously risky mission.
Robert R.Fowler is a
former Canadian diplomat and UN official.