An al-Qaeda terror group was paid $1.1-million for the release of captured Canadian diplomats Robert Fowler and Louis Guay four years ago – a price approved by a rogue terror leader over the wishes of his counterparts, a newly released document suggests.
The document, obtained by the Associated Press, is the first to attach a precise dollar figure to the release of the diplomats, whose capture spawned an extensive Canadian rescue effort. It doesn’t say who paid the ransom, and once again raises questions about Canada’s role in their release and whether the Canadian government paid any or all of a ransom.
Mr. Fowler has said he believes a ransom was paid, but doesn’t know for certain. The Canadian government has said it does not pay ransoms, but has never stated clearly that no other country paid for the diplomats’ release after 130 days in captivity.
A spokesman for Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird declined to say Tuesday whether Canada had known about a ransom payment. “Canada does not negotiate with terrorists. We also do not discuss operational details that might compromise the safe return of someone else in the future,” spokesman Rick Roth said.
A ransom payment would not be surprising, but it could have come from other governments or intermediaries, said Wesley Wark, a national security expert and visiting professor at the University of Ottawa. “I think everybody was pretty clear that money had been paid,” he said. “…I think the most likely thing is that the Canadian government, possibly with some of its allies, facilitated payment. But they would have tried to make sure that it was untraceable, which they seem to have done so far.”
The AP document, recovered in Mali and published Tuesday, is a lengthy chronicle of a bitter split between a major terror group, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), and one of its prominent leaders, Mokhtar Belmokhtar, who led the capture of Mr. Fowler and Mr. Guay. In the letter, AQIM leaders lament Mr. Belmokhtar’s “unilateral behaviour” and say the diplomats were let go “for the most meagre price” of “700,000 Euros,” or about $1.1-million Canadian at the time.
AQIM leaders thought the abduction was handled “poorly” and blamed Mr. Belmokhtar. “Rather than walking with us in the plan we outlined, he managed the case however he liked, despite our repeated insistence that the case should be under the administration of the organization. He chose to step outside the organization and reach an agreement in his own way,” says the letter, translated from Arabic by the AP.
Mr. Belmokhtar’s ties with AQIM are described in the letter as a “wound.” Last year, he formed his own splinter terror group, the al-Mulathameen brigade, that is thought to have staged a January hostage-taking at an Algerian gas plant. Two young Canadians, Xristos Katsiroubas and Ali Medlej, died in that attack.
Mr. Fowler and Mr. Guay were captured in December, 2008, while on a United Nations mission to Niger. They were held in Mali and eventually released in April, 2009. Details of the release have trickled out since.
U.S. State Department cables obtained by WikiLeaks cited the “two Canadian officials who were recently released in return for a ransom payment,” a fee that “only increased the strength of al-Qaeda” in the region. Another WikiLeaks cable showed American envoys noticed “an enormous influx of cash” in the region after the Canadians’ release.
Mr. Belmokhtar is a veteran Algerian-born militant who rose from the ranks of jihadi fighters in Afghanistan – he lost an eye there – and has since been being involved in a series of kidnappings and a sprawling smuggling network. “He was approaching kind of legendary status, at least to the outside world and to terrorism officials, if not within his own movement,” Prof. Wark said. Earlier this year, the Chad government claimed it had killed Mr. Belmokhtar. Mr. Fowler, at the time, expressed cautious optimism, but said the terrorist’s death had been falsely reported before.