Yet it is clear that Mr. Ould Sheik has a good relationship with the terrorists. He spoke often to their Algerian leader, Mokhtar Belmokhtar, whom he defends as “not a bad man.”
He said he carried an “Ordre de Mission” to prove that he was representing Mali's President in the negotiations, and the kidnappers respected him. “These people know that I won't lie to them,” he said.
Back in Mali's capital, Bamako, he held many meetings with Canadian diplomats and other officials. At their request, he brought emergency supplies to the hostages, including medicine and clothes, he said.
In the beginning, he said, the kidnappers were interested mostly in money – lots of it. But later they became obsessed with seeking the freedom of several al-Qaeda members who had been arrested and jailed in Mali. “It would have been a stain on their names if these men were imprisoned,” he said. “It's okay for them to die in battle, but not to be imprisoned.”
Mr. Ould Sheik brought back at least two videos from the kidnappers to prove that the Canadian hostages were still alive. The first video was made just five days after the Canadians were captured.
In the second video – made on Feb. 3, about seven weeks after the kidnapping, and recently viewed by The Globe and Mail – the two Canadian diplomats sit on the floor of a tent while four kidnappers stand behind them, holding machine guns and masking their faces with black turbans. Also on the tent floor is their United Nations driver from Niger, who was later released. Behind the kidnappers is an Islamic jihad banner, in black and white, proclaiming “God is Great” in Arabic.
In the video, Mr. Fowler and Mr. Guay speak in French, explaining that they have been captured by the terrorist group known as al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). They thank their families, and Mr. Guay expresses regret at missing the birthdays of his children, while Mr. Fowler praises his “magnificent” family.
“I regret that I caused them such pain, and I am eager to see them very soon,” he says. “We live in the desert, the conditions are not easy, but we are treated very well.”
One of the masked kidnappers, standing behind Mr. Fowler, holds a sword in his hands. But their attempt to appear menacing is undercut when a bandolier of bullets slips off the shoulder of one kidnapper in the middle of the video, tumbling to the floor with an embarrassing clatter.
In a third video, some weeks later, the atmosphere is much more terrifying. The Canadians are blindfolded, with their hands behind their backs, while the kidnappers recite a long ultimatum, threatening to execute their captives. Mr. Fowler later said he wasn't sure if he would live or die.
Mr. Ould Sheik was impressed by Mr. Fowler's courage as the death threat was made, and he said the kidnappers were impressed that he did not cry or show emotion. “He faced this terrible time as a real man. Even they recognized that this was a real man.”
Mr. Ould Sheik confirmed Mr. Fowler's own assessment that about 100 AQIM fighters were involved in the two terrorist cells that captured the two Canadian diplomats and four European tourists in December and January. The leaders were Algerian, and their food and vehicles came from Algeria, but their rank-and-file members included scores of recruits from Senegal, Ghana, Nigeria, Mauritania and Benin, he said.
Mr. Ould Sheik was reluctant to talk about specific details of the negotiations or say much about the involvement of Canadian officials. Several Mali government sources have confirmed that the final deal with the kidnappers, negotiated in mid-April, included the release of three AQIM members from Malian prisons, along with a cash payment of several million dollars.
Also freed at the same time as the Canadians were two women tourists from Germany and Switzerland who had been kidnapped in January. But for AQIM, it was clear that Mr. Fowler and Mr. Guay were the most valuable prize. The two women were in poor health, and the kidnappers feared that they might die if they were not released, Mr. Ould Sheik said.