Go to the Globe and Mail homepage

Jump to main navigationJump to main content

(Tom Sharina/CBC News)
(Tom Sharina/CBC News)


Fowler relives gritty details of kidnapping Add to ...

Robert Fowler says he was betrayed. And that he gave himself less than a 5 per cent chance of survival after learning his kidnappers were terrorists.

"What is the government of Canada going to do vis-à-vis al-Qaeda?" the former federal diplomat recalled thinking in his darker hours. "What's the West going to do?"

In an interview by the CBC's Peter Mansbridge broadcast Tuesday night, the veteran envoy relived the months he spent as hostage of the group al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). It was Mr. Fowler's first in-depth remarks since being freed last spring, and he revealed that at low points, he was all but certain that he would be beheaded.

But he survived to tell the tale, a blow-by-blow account that shed rare insights on both regional politics in Northwest Africa and the inner workings of AQIM. Along with a fellow retired Canadian diplomat, Louis Guay, he had been dispatched on a low-key United Nations mission to negotiate piece with rebel Tuareg tribesmen in Niger.

It was those talks that led to the diplomats' sudden capture and mysterious release nearly five months later, neither event ever officially explained.

"I know somebody shopped me," Mr. Fowler told the CBC. "Who could it be?"

He speculated that it could have been "the government of Niger" or some sort of "al-Qaeda sympathizer" in the UN who gave him up. "All of them had my agenda - my itinerary."

But Mr. Fowler made a point of saying that "the president of Niger, whose name is [Mamadou]Tanja - it was clear from the first time I met him in August that he was offended, annoyed, embarrassed by the fact that the Secretary-General of the UN had seen fit to appoint a special envoy for his country."

Shortly before Christmas Mr. Fowler was abducted during a visit to a Canadian mine site, in a border region about a half-hour outside of the capital. He insists that the area was marked as a safe zone on his UN map and that he was not being foolhardy by travelling with just Mr. Guay and a driver.

Yet, along the country's main highway, a truck jetted out in front of theirs, forcing them to stop. "He's not a Lamborghini, he is a truck. ... What's wrong with this picture, you know?," Mr. Fowler told CBC.

It all happened in 30 seconds, he said, adding the vehicles hadn't even braked before the gunmen got out.

"One guy is vaulting over the edge with his Kalashnikov high and the other guy is aiming with his Kalashnikov, aiming from the back of the truck straight at the driver," he said. He recalls being forced under a "smelly, oily blanket," in the captors' truck bed, sat upon by kidnappers as he was spirited away.

They stopped before dawn, he said, as his guards told them to rest by the side of the road. Mr. Fowler said his heart sunk as he struck up a conversation with a guard making tea.

"He says: 'We are Al-Qaeda,'" Mr. Fowler recalled. "And the bottom of my world fell out."

The veteran diplomat said his mind always sets about to calculating odds. His prognosis of survival at the time? Grim. "I figured 5 per cent, because lower was too depressing," he said.

But AQIM - which actually did execute a British hostage captured around the same time as Mr. Fowler - has a reputation for negotiating ransoms that end up paying for its arms and attacks. When Mr. Fowler got back into the truck and headed further north, he was given a modicum of hope.

They told him: " 'Listen, my mission was to capture you. If my mission had been to execute you, you'd be dead.' "

After more than two days of driving, Mr. Fowler and Mr. Guay ended up somewhere in Mali, shuffled to several insurgent camps where they were guarded by rebels. He says he wore out his shoes in the weeks that came and kept track of days by notching his belt.

He never got used to what passed for entertainment within the AQIM crowd.

"As night falls they take three spare tires and pile them one on top of the other, haul out their nifty laptop, plug it into the engine, to the cigarette lighter in the engine compartment, and fire it up and we watch what we call TV night," he told CBC.

The footage showed Islamist fighters in action who "popped the heads off GIs in Iraq and Afghanistan," Mr. Fowler said, as well as "endless IEDs blowing up Humvees and trucks and conveys," and "lots of suicide bombers crashing through gates blowing up."

The veteran diplomat said he found the technology a strange contrast with al-Qaeda's stated goal of returning the world to a state of puritanical Seventh Century Islam.

"I mean it's just a total contradiction of these guys festooned with sat phones, cellphones, GPSs, walkie-talkies, video cameras and laptops - whose minds are 15 centuries away," he said.

The CBC interviews continue Wednesday.

Report Typo/Error

Next story




Most popular videos »

More from The Globe and Mail

Most popular