[An interview with]

Robert Fowler

Jan 13, 2012

artwork by Carl Christensen

 Celine Dion has a huge international following…So, it isn’t surprising that a Senegalese man would know of, and admire, her. But, to have this come from an Al-Qaeda captor in the Sahara Desert, some weeks into our captivity, was so bizarre.”



Anyone who can use the words “Celine Dion,” “Al-Qaeda,” and “captivity” to describe a moment in their life must have experienced something extraordinary. Robert Fowler has a tale to tell and it is, indeed, extraordinary.

As a senior diplomat for the Canadian government for 38 years, Fowler had experienced his share of thrills. With posts including the Canadian Ambassador to the UN, and the personal representative to Africa for several Prime Ministers, Fowler honed his skills and interest on the continent of Africa. Whether it was trips to war-torn Somalia, Darfur, or the Congo, he was often in danger.

Nothing, however, could have prepared him for the events of December 14th, 2008.On that day, Fowler was wrapping up his work in Niger for the United Nations. He had been sent as part of special envoy to broker peace between a rebel group and the national government. The trip was coming to an end, and after finishing his work for the day he headed back to the capital, Niamey, in his UN vehicle. He never made his destination.Instead, a truck with several armed men pulled over his vehicle and proceeded to forcefully kidnap him, his UN colleague Louis Guay, and their Nigerien driver, Soumana. For 56 hours they were driven across the rugged terrain of the Saharan desert, and brought to a holding camp.

Along the way they learned a horrible truth – their captors were members of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).For the next 130 days they were held in captivity in various camps across the desert. The experience was like a roller coaster of the most extreme of emotions. Their lives were threatened, they were forced to make “proof of life” videos, they were proselytized at to no end, and they were falsely promised freedom several times.The entire captivity Fowler and Guay lived in close quarters with the captors – they socialized predominantly with each other, but also interacted frequently with the AQIM members.

In a complicated, and convoluted, series of events the captor’s began to negotiate with the President’s of Niger and Mali, and the government of Canada for their freedom. Finally, on April 21st, 2009 they were set free. Some of the details of why they were released, and for who, still remain a mystery to this day.

Their survival is a story of unimaginable fortune – many don’t make it out of captivity alive.

Since the ordeal ended, Fowler has worked hard to write a book to tell his side of the story. His time in the desert gave him a priceless opportunity to study one of the world’s most infamous terrorist groups. In October of 2011 he released A Season in Hell: My 130 Days in the Sahara with Al-Qaeda.The book is entirely his perspective of the ordeal. Fellow captor Louis Guay continues to work for the Canadian government and did not partake in its writing.

As well as writing the book, Fowler has continually voiced his concerns on Canada’s foreign policy in Africa, and the Middle East. He is highly critical of Canada’s foreign affairs, and openly speaks on what he thinks could be done to improve Canada’s policies and actions.

In December of 2011 Fowler received the Order of Canada. The award “recognizes significant achievements and remarkable service.”

There is much I WANNA KNOW about Robert Fowler’s ordeal and his life since captivity. I caught up with him over the phone from his home in Ottawa.

From his time with Al-Qaeda, to life after the ordeal, to his return to Africa, to Celine Dion, to his assessment of the region today, we cover it all.

Ryan Kohls: Congratulations on your Order of Canada award. What does this award mean to you? And, were you surprised to receive this based on your outward criticisms of Canada’s foreign policy? 


Robert Fowler: Well, I think given what you just said, it demonstrates quite clearly that democracy is alive and well in Canada. The Order of Canada was instituted in 1967 for our centenary, and was one of the later moves towards complete independence in Canada. It’s structured to be a national award that recognizes Canadian achievement. It recognizes people in all walks in life, and any Canadian can nominate any other Canadian for the award, and there’s an independent body that examines the nominations. I guess it really is independent. I’m very proud to have been chosen.


RK: When you look back at your ordeal in Niger and Mali, do you think you could have survived, mentally and physically, without the companionship of Louis Guay?


Malian President Amadou Toumani Toure greets Louis and Robert

RF: I’ll never know the answer to that question, but there is absolutely no doubt that it would have been enormously more difficult, and it was difficult enough as it was. So, I think Louis and I were extremely important to each other. Certainly he was hugely important to me. In the book, I mention that we were separated for three days during an interrogation phase, and that was among the more difficult periods simply because we were separated and couldn’t rely on each other, or talk with each other.

RK: In the book you were careful to mention that he had no role in its writing. How did he react to the book, and what is your relationship like with him today?


RF: I think what I said was that Louis chose not to participate in the creation of the book. That relates to the different attitudes he and I have to the experience. Basically, I’m more like the poem in the book, the Ancient Mariner, it’s about a man with a remarkable tale that he can’t stop telling. That’s me, and Louis has taken a different approach. He feels like he’s been there done that, and doesn’t want to open that door again. Yes, it’s also true that he was also a public servant when he returned and it would have been inappropriate for him to participate in the creation of such a book. But, he wasn’t inclined to do so anyways.


As to our relationship, it is excellent. I happen to live near the foreign service ministry, which meant that Louis and I could have coffee on numerous occasions, normally once every two weeks. We remain very close, and our families remain very close. I think there are few friendships that are rooted in such an experience as is ours.


RK: What has been the fate of Soumana? Have you kept in touch with him?


RF: Soumana is a citizen of Niger, and he was an employee of the United Nations. When I mention in the book that I saw him for the last time, it was the following day that we was taken to be released. He was released a month before we were. He went first to Mali where he was interviewed by the security services, then he was returned to Niger and his family. He continued to work for the United Nations. I believe he initially worked not in Niamey but in a town called Tahoua. But, I have just heard that he has just moved back to Niamey where he continues to work for the UN.


The last time I spoke with him was in the desert. I think it’s important to remember that Louis and I only met him the day before our capture. We met him 36 hours before we were kidnapped. I don’t want that to make it seem like I thought he was anything other than a very friendly, professional person.


RK: In the book there was a real roller coaster of emotions, from thinking you were going to die, to thinking you were about to be released. At other points things seemed quite calm. For example, you played 20 questions with one of the captors. Were you ever struck by the absurd nature of sometimes feeling “relaxed” while being a prisoner? 


AQIM members

RF: Sorry, if I left you that impression in the book then I didn’t write very well. It was never, not for an instant, ever relaxed. I don’t think we ever had a good time. I think I mentioned in the book that on a couple occasions Louis and I laughed about something, and then had a discussion if we should even be laughing. I mean, some of the situations were so absurd that the irony of it made us laugh. But, we were never relaxed. The 20 questions was with this fellow called Hassan, and he was among the most dangerous, difficult, and smart members of our captors. One could never be relaxed with Hassan, and let ones guard down. Even in the context of what appears to be a game, all the same stakes remained on the table.


RK: Your treatment while in captivity seems to be quite lucky. Do you think your comparably civil treatment was more a factor of a “kind” bunch of AQIM members, or was your value as a bargaining chip too much to risk for them?


AQIM members

RF: That’s a very good question. First of all, I know that the fellow I called Omar 2 said to us on a number of occasions, “we would like to cut you up into little pieces, but you were lucky to be captured under Belmokhtar, because there are others who would have allowed us to do just that.” So yes, we weren’t very lucky to be kidnapped, but if we had to be kidnapped in the southern Sahara it seems very clear that our captivity was less brutal than those captured by Abou Zeid.


In regards to are we alive because our guys were nicer than the other guys? I don’t think so at all. Our captivity was different because our principle captor Belmokhtar had a reading of the Qu’ran that required him to act a certain way to us that was different than other cells of Al-Qaeda. I also think I said in the book that it would have been all too easy to change his attitude, and we worked very hard to make sure their attitudes didn’t change. The bottom line was the bottom line though, and I believe it would have applied to any captors: they had to get enough.


RK: Are the exact details of your release still a mystery? Do you know what role the Canadian government played? 


RF: I do have questions, but not really about that. There are lots of press reports suggesting that money was paid, and prisoners were released, but not by, or from, Canada. I don’t think I need to know a lot more than that.


RK: Are you still searching to uncover who set you up?


RF: No, because I think I know. I believe it was the government of Niger, and I still believe that, and so do many others. The rebellion that I was sent to stop was inconvenient for the government of the day because they wanted to keep governing past their constitutional limits. They felt if the enemy was at the gate it would be an excuse to do that.


Africa loves Celine

RK: One particularly surreal moment in your ordeal was when one of your captors told you he admired Celine Dion. What was that moment like? And, what is it about this woman that has captured the heart of so many Africans? 


RF: (laughs) It was utterly surreal. Celine Dion has a huge international following, and particularly in the French speaking world. So, it isn’t surprising that a Senegalese man would know of, and admire, her. But, to have this come from an Al-Qaeda captor in the Sahara Desert, some weeks into our captivity, was so bizarre.


RK: The entire book I found myself anticipating your reunion with your family. Is it possible to describe what that moment was like? 


RF: No, it’s not really describable. It is everything you think it would be. It was a huge, important, moment but perhaps a more important moment was knowing it was going to happen. In other words, as soon as we got to the governor’s residence in Gao, I knew I would see my family again and we would have a life together. Frankly, whether that happened in two days or two weeks didn’t matter that much, just that there was a future and we would have one together. Eventually, falling into her arms was the icing on the cake, if you will.


Robert and his wife, Mary, on vacation before the ordeal

RK: For many, events like the one you experienced can often be highly spiritual. However, in the book you consistently write about your sustained atheism during the ordeal. In a sense, were you looking for an epiphany of that nature? Or, did the whole event further confirm your disdain for religion? 


RF: You’ve said it perfectly. I don’t know if you’re familiar with this expression, “Was God in your fox hole?” but that’s born really of the two World Wars. There are all sorts of stories of people having religious moments in the horrors of both of those Wars. Probably, in every conflict there has ever been this happens. I was almost abstractly curious to know that in those extremely fraught months I spent expecting to be executed whether I would have one of those religious epiphanies. I didn’t, and I’ve got to say I wasn’t surprised. It just clearly was not going to happen to me. I don’t regret that fact, it just is reality. Despite the enormous pressure of thinking I was going to be killed, that was not enough in my case to bring about a fundamental change in my religious outlook.


RK: On the other hand, how has it shaped your general perception of the religion of Islam, and specifically its fundamental factions?


RF: This whole story is about Islam, or rather about a very particular corner of Islam. My captors would say repeatedly that 72 out of 73 Islamic sects are wrong, and that they were the only ones that were right. I’ve had something to do with Christian and Jewish fundamentalists and what I was hearing from these guys was quite similar to both of them. Basically, they weren’t interested in debating religion because they knew with absolute certainty that they were right. They were not anxious to debate points but anxious that we accept their version. So yes, was it interesting to me as a geo-strategic analyst to see militant Islam upclose? It was fascinating. I thought it might also kill me though.


RK: Has the whole experience added a sense of paranoia to your everyday life? I’d imagine in Ottawa it is less likely, but what about when you travel abroad?


RF: The big issue is would I return to Africa? The short answer is that precisely a year ago I did return to Africa and there were some diffcult moments frankly. Not in the very pleasant Western-style hotel I was staying in, but when I walked through the streets and travelled through the back country and the car I was in was suddenly forced to stop much of it came back, and it was unpleasant. But, am I generally paranoid about such things re-occuring where I am? No, I’m not.


RK: I was going to ask if you had been back to Africa. Where did you travel to a year ago when this happened?


RF: I was in Senegal not very far from Dakar. I was staying there and ranging about 100 km’s around Dakar.


RK: You’ve had such a storied history with the continent of Africa. Did the kidnapping change your perception of the continent in any ways? 


RF: No, it has not. Look, there are nasty people everywhere, and Africa has no monopoly on that. My affection, and engagement with that continent and those billion people, remains exactly as it was.


RK: Do you often daydream back into that desert? 


Fowler photographed shortly after his release

RF: I do, and it occurs in the strangest circumstances and times. It might be a calendar event. The time of year we are at presently, particularly Christmas and New Year’s Eve, were traumatic moments based on what was going on during my capture on those days. I could not go through Christmas or New Year’s without remembering quite a lot about what it was like out in the desert during those times. Obviously, the 21st of April is an important date, that was the date we were told we were free. April 11th is important, that the day we were told we would be free.


There are also just thoughts that suddenly come out of nowhere, and my reaction is either, “God, did it really happen?” It’s such a radically different experience than my day-to-day life these days that you kind of almost have to slap yourself in the face. There will also be moments of just straight, “My God, I’m lucky to be alive because it was such a close thing.”


RK: When you look back on all you’ve learned and gained from the experience, would you change that happening to you if you could? Or, do you think you’re better off because of it? 


RF: I have to separate those questions if I can. I would not wish that experience on anyone, even myself. In other words, there’s no part of me that could say I’m happy I had that experience. It was just simply too traumatic to be therapeutic. That said, I say in the book that I think I probably live life more fully these days than I would have if I had not had that experience. Does that make the experience worth having? I don’t think so.


I am no doubt, to the dismay of many people, sometimes including my family, more outspoken than most people. I’m sure a number of people find that pretty tiresome.


RK: Speaking of your outspoken nature, you’ve been vocal recently about a lot of things. First, I’m wondering what your assessment is of Al-Qaeda’s threat today? With Bin Laden gone, do you believe they are still powerful?


AQIM continues to roam the Sahel

RF: I think it’s still an enormous threat. I’m not going to worry about the loss of Bin Laden. I think the world is probably a better place without him. That said, Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb is the largest faction in the world. In a six week period this past summer, between early July and late August, AQIM launched 32 different attacks in Algeria. My captor’s objective was crystal clear: to transform the Sahel region into one sprawling, anarchic, Somalia, 7,000 km’s wide. That was the medium through which their message of jihad would best flourish. I think they are acheiving significant parts of that vision. Al-Shabaab is reaching into Kenya and Uganda. AQIM is reaching deep into Nigeria, in co-operation with Boko Haram. Boko Haram destroyed central Nigerian police headquarters in July, and then destroyed the UN headquarters in August killing 23 and wounding 80. Over Christmas Day some 250 to 300 were slaughtered along the Muslim/Christian divide in Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country. It strikes me that AQIM is very much alive and well despite the elimination of their great Emir.


RK: You strongly support the idea of launching attacks on Al-Qaeda’s cells in the Sahel region. Why are you so passionate about this route?


RF: Well, I am worried they will achieve their objective. The thought of Nigeria embroiled in a large religious civil war is simply appalling to me. The impact that would have on the entire Northern half of Africa would be cataclysmic. Therefore, I don’t believe any friends of Africa could be passive about any such possibility. There are something like 150 million Nigerians, there have been something like 15,000 Nigerians killed along that religious divide over the past 10 years. If something like that got out of hand it would wipe out everything we’ve done in that region, in terms of development, since independence. The toll on people would be catastrophic. How could I, or anyone else, look with equanimity at a bunch of people who are trying to cause such a cataclysm?


RK: Kidnappings in the Sahel and sub-Saharan Africa seem to be very frequent these days. Do you think this is having an impact on Africa’s reputation and economy? I myself would be hesitant to go to certain countries in the Sahel. 


Kenyan police comb a beach in Lamu for a kidnapped tourist. 2011.

RF: Good. I’m glad you are. A great friend of mine told me that the thing he most wanted to do was go to the great mosque made of mud in Timbuktu (Mali), and I told him not to do it.


It pains me enormously because I’ve seen the impact of this in Northern Niger, and Timbuktu. One of my favorite places in Kenya is the region around Lake Turkana, it is devastatingly beautiful, but I would sternly urge no Westerner to go there now. That is terrible for Africa and for it’s economy. It is terrible for Kenya’s striving tourist industry. I regret hugely that I would give such advice, but I wouldn’t change it.


When you asked me a moment ago how often, and in what manner, thoughts of my experience return, well, one of the things that causes relapses is when I hear of these kidnappings. I think of those four guys taken from the Uranium mine in Niger in September 2010 who have been in captivity for 14 months, do I ever feel for them. It must be simply horrible. There has been, as you point out, many more since then.


The discussion were having right now is what my captor’s want to achieve. They want to rid the area of the “defiling presence of infidels.” They want us to stay home. By “us” I mean Westerners, NGOs, church groups, etc. They are very anxious to see that there actions will discourage us from going there.


RK: What is your assessment of Canada’s actions in Africa? What is the government doing wrong, do you think?


Fowler unveils the Will to Intervene campaign with Romeo Dallaire and others

RF: I have spoken out about aspects of foreign policy from our current government that I don’t like, but I’ve also spoken out about, which receives little attention, aspects that I do like. Our current government has been hugely supportive of a number of multi-lateral organizations like the World Food Programme, bringing us up to the number three donor. We are effectively feeding millions of starving people each year. Our government has unfortunatley not agreed to increase aid funding, and not agreed to continue to strive to reach the goal set by Mike Pearson of 0.7 per cent of GDP, but they have retained significant sized aid program’s in Africa, and they are focusing their aid in countries like Ethiopia, Ghana, Mali and Senegal; which are all countries at risk to the things we’ve been talking about. I would like to see them do more, but we are doing a a hell of a lot, and we’re doing it well.


RK: There are many critics out there of foreign aid’s role in Africa. Many feel it hurts more than helps. You don’t support those theories. Why do you think foreign aid is so important for Africa?


RF: It is only one of the right paths. I’ve been very clear that Africa needs aid, but aid is becoming an ever smaller component of the economic matrix that Africa needs. Africa desperately needs investments, and we Canadians, I’m happy to say, are investing a great deal, particularly in the mining industry. I know there are those in our country that think mining is intrinsicly evil, but they forget that our country was founded on mining investment. Canada is the country it is today because foreigners invested in mining here. Mining jobs may not be the best, but they’re jobs and they produce economic activity, and produce revenues that allow government’s to govern. I think Africa needs remittances, it needs foreign investment, and it needs carefully modulated development assistance. I’m not somebody who’s saying the answer is development. But, development is a key component of the package Africa needs.


RK: What else do you want to accomplish in your career? Is there anything left that you want to dig your teeth into?


RF: I’m very happy that I’ve written my book. I frankly never thought I would write a book. People have been asking me if I will write another one, and I tell them I certainly don’t think so. I enjoy teaching and I enjoy working with kids, and I enjoy being with my family. That’s enough.


1) Read his book A Season in Hell: My 130 Days in the Sahara with Al Qaeda


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