When the kidnappers freed Robert Fowler and Louis Guay after a gruelling 130 days of captivity this spring, Prime Minister Stephen Harper expressed his gratitude to a long list of people: presidents, diplomats, allies, even the United Nations.
But he omitted any mention of the most important man of all: the mysterious negotiator from the wilds of the Sahara who brokered the deal that bought the freedom of the Canadian hostages from their al-Qaeda abductors.
It was a crucial omission, and it revealed the distrust and controversy that still swirls around the shadowy negotiator. Did he walk away with some of the money himself? Is he playing both sides? Is he a little too close to the terrorists with whom he bargains?
The questions are unanswered. But every insider admits that the negotiator, Baba Ould Sheik, was the essential man for the job. Since his first hostage deal in 2003, he has been the region's go-to man, the wheeler-dealer with the connections and toughness to haggle with heavily armed terrorists in the sand dunes of the Sahara.
I don't regret that I fought for Fowler's liberation, but I'm not happy with Canada. Baba Ould Sheik
Until now, he has never spoken publicly of his pivotal role in freeing Mr. Fowler and Mr. Guay. He is a man who has always preferred the shadows. But now, in an interview with The Globe and Mail, he describes how he brokered the deal, how he communicated with to the terrorists, how he shared his carpet in the desert with Mr. Fowler, and how he drove through a sandstorm to get the Canadians back to safety.
He also says that he was never thanked by Canada for his three months of work to free the Canadians, and was never compensated for his substantial expenses. Yet he acknowledges that even his own colleagues assume that he was paid – and are accusing him of failing to share the money.
Mr. Ould Sheik, who wears a white robe and a brown turban, speaks in a polite matter-of-fact voice as he relates his story. He is a wealthy businessman and Arab community leader from northern Mali whose only official title is mayor of Tarkint, a district in the Sahara. But in elite circles in Mali, he is famed for his ability to negotiate with terrorists, a role he has been playing for the past six years, beginning with helping to free 14 European hostages in Mali in 2003.
After the two Canadian diplomats were kidnapped in Niger last December, it quickly became clear that they had been smuggled across the border into Mali's northern deserts. Mali's President, Amadou Toumani Touré, repeatedly asked Mr. Ould Sheik to help negotiate with the kidnappers. He says he refused twice, then finally agreed after the third request, which came in January.
Within the Malian government, the mood shifted when Mr. Ould Sheik agreed to take the assignment. “If Baba Ould Sheik is involved, there will be a happy ending,” one government official said. “He is a very efficient man.”
Mr. Ould Sheik formed a delegation of eight respected community leaders to meet the kidnappers. As time went on and the work became tougher in the Sahara's fierce heat and wind, only two or four of them would do the negotiating, always led by Mr. Ould Sheik.
It was difficult for him to contact the terrorists, who never kept the same satellite phone number for more than a couple of days. Sometimes he had to drive for days through the desert, then wait at a designated location for three or four days until someone came to him with a phone number for him to call, and then he would be told of another meeting point. Sometimes he had to drive nearly to the Algerian border, a distance of some 700 kilometres through the Sahara from his base in the northern town of Gao.
Negotiating with the radical kidnappers was equally hard. “Sometimes I had to explain to them that what they wanted was not possible,” he said. “Sometimes I had to beg them to accept what we were offering.”