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Jeffrey Simpson (Brigitte Bouvier For The Globe and Mail)

Jeffrey Simpson

(Brigitte Bouvier For The Globe and Mail)

Jeffrey Simpson

Kidnapped: al-Qaeda and triumph in the Sahara Add to ...

If Canada had a robust feature film industry, producers would be beating a path to Bob Fowler’s door.

Mr. Fowler, a former Canadian ambassador to the United Nations, and fellow Canadian diplomat Louis Guay lived a dramatic, horrific, courageous tale with a happy ending scripted for the movies. Kidnapped by al-Qaeda in Niger in 2008, the two men were held hostage for 130 days in the Sahara, before money changed hands somehow, somewhere, and their release was secured.

Mr. Fowler’s book, aptly named A Season in Hell, renders his account of their ordeal. It’s a page-turner from beginning to end. Anyone who has read the newspapers knows how their story ends, but that doesn’t stop the telling of the tale from being riveting.

Not many people kidnapped by al-Qaeda have lived to talk about it. For understandable reasons, the two Canadians often thought during their captivity that they would join the beheaded and otherwise murdered.

Not only were they Westerners – apostates and infidels to their fanatical Muslim captors – but they had been on a United Nations mission when they and their driver were seized. Al-Qaeda hates the UN for its godlessness, for being a tool of Western interests and for trying to bring peace and understanding. Al-Qaeda, of course, thrives on chaos and violence, and their hatred explains their attacks on UN installations and personnel.

Few people get the chance to spend extended periods of time with al-Qaeda. Messrs. Fowler and Guay never wanted their extended exposure, but through hours of conversations, prolonged attempts to convert them to Islam and four months of observation, they came to know their captors.

The portrait Mr. Fowler paints of these militants is sobering, even scary. He had spent a career talking, negotiating and seeking compromises – in short, what diplomats are trained to do. But negotiation and compromise – even finding a smidgen of common ground – were impossible with his captors.

They came from such different religious and political spaces and they were consumed by such hatred of things Western that they couldn’t be reasoned with. They knew only brute force, supported by a narrow reading of the Koran. And they had large ambitions.

A Season in Hell should disabuse anyone who believes that the struggle against jihadi terror is over. Mr. Fowler argues persuasively that the centre of jihadi action has shifted to some extent from the Middle East and Afghanistan to the vast swath of sub-Saharan Africa stretching from Mauritania in the west to Somalia in the east. It threatens all the states within that swath and some of those adjacent to it, such as Ghana, Kenya and Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country.

What makes Mr. Fowler’s book such a gripper is not the geopolitics, important as they are, but the human drama of two individuals catapulted into an unknown world.

The two were never physically assaulted, but they were often deprived of decent food, sanitary conditions and proper clothing. They lost considerable weight. Mr. Fowler suffered from a bad back and various bowel ailments. They slept outdoors in a desert with snakes and scorpions. They were often cold, often very hot. They were shouted at, made to record videos, proselytized, watched constantly. For a while, it looked as if the militants would kill Mr. Guay but leave Mr. Fowler alive. They both grasped, as any human would, at straws of information and fleeting impressions to guess their fate.

Mr. Fowler writes that, near the beginning of his ordeal, since he and Mr. Guay were trained in diplomacy and international affairs, they knew the territory, the countries involved and something about al-Qaeda. No scenario they could construct had a happy ending.

This one did. How that ending came about we don’t discover. Machinations and negotiations went on for months involving many governments. Money changed hands, although the Canadian government insisted it didn’t pay.

What exactly freed Messrs. Fowler and Guay is the yet untold mystery in a tale of courage and human triumph.

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