130 days in captivity

A detailed account of Robert Fowler's four months in the hands of al-Qaeda. He was kidnapped while working as a UN Special Envoy to Niger in the summer of 2008.

Canadian diplomat reveals details of his harrowing time in captivity

Louis Guay, left, and Robert Fowler, centre, talk with Malian Foreign Affairs Minister Moctar Ouane at a reception the day after their release in Bamako, Mali, on April 23. ((Harouna Traore/Associated Press))

Robert Fowler, his aide, Louis Guay, and their driver were headed back to the Niger capital of Niamey on Dec. 14, 2008, from a visit to a Canadian-operated gold mine when it happened. 

The mission to Niger

Robert Fowler was no stranger to Africa or conflict when he accepted a request by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to be the UN's Special Envoy to Niger in the summer of 2008. He had spent nearly 40 years as a top bureaucrat and diplomat in Canada and around the world before retiring from public service in 2006.

His mandate in Niger was to help end a dispute between Touareg rebels and the Niger government over the rights to natural resources.    

The Touareg lay claim to lands in northern Niger and to royalties generated by a uranium mine in that region. Most of the royalty money currently goes to the Niger government. 

At about 5:30 p.m., having just ferried across the Niger River, they were speeding along the country's only paved highway, the N1, and expected to be home by dinnertime. Suddenly, on the otherwise empty road, a truck raced up behind them. It quickly overtook their vehicle, swerved in front and braked hard, forcing Fowler's vehicle to a standstill.

Men with AK-47 assault rifles jumped out and onto the road. One aimed his gun at Fowler's driver as the others grabbed Fowler, Guay, and then the driver from the vehicle. Within seconds, all three were thrown into the back of the other truck, covered with a tarpaulin and sat upon by the gunmen. The truck then turned around and sped off, leaving behind the trio's Toyota Land Cruiser — doors open, signal light ticking, with Fowler's jacket and camera left in the back seat.  

What followed was a 56-hour off-road journey for hundreds of kilometres. Fowler was jerked around so violently and repeatedly that one of his vertebra cracked. The pain was so severe that when the kidnappers stopped to rest, he could not bear to sit down.

Fowler figures that they ultimately travelled north into Mali and were in northern Mali throughout his captivity.

Who they were

The gang of 20 captors ranged from children aged seven and 12, to a man apparently in his 60s. They all had guns and they always stayed near their hostages. 


The group was part of al-Qaeda's North Africa wing, based in Algeria but operating throughout the region. Its official name is al-Qaeda Organization in the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM. 

AQIM is believed to be trying to achieve two things in the area: It wants to establish itself as a force to be reckoned with and it needs funding. Kidnapping westerners, especially prominent ones, can help achieve both. 

At one point early on, one of their captors questioned Fowler, "Have you figured out who we are?" When Fowler said he didn't, the man revealed they were with al-Qaeda. 

Fowler and Guay quickly came to understand their captors were all hardcore believers in the version of Islam espoused by al-Qaeda. It was the only thing they ever talked about.

To celebrate al-Qaeda "successes," the gang would regularly stage what Fowler and Guay dubbed "movie night." 

At night, a laptop computer would be plunked on top of a stack of spare tires, jumper cables from the truck providing power. Into the laptop would go a DVD. 

The show? Visuals of the World Trade Center crashing down and point-of-view shots of al-Qaeda snipers firing at U.S. soldiers on the streets of Baghdad. This played to much applause and shouting from their captors.

Life during wartime

Robert Fowler is shown during captivity in this cellphone picture.

In Fowler's four months of captivity, he and Guay were moved around often. They nicknamed the places "camps" since they were always outdoors and often in river valleys. The terrain was kind of like a moonscape — mostly sharp rocks and barren landscape, with the occasional sand dune.

Water was plentiful but dirty and often dispensed through hoses used also for oil and gas. Food was rudimentary, mostly bland and absent of vegetables. Sometimes Fowler and Guay would be taken on expeditions in which gang members would fire AK-47s out the truck window at antelopes. A camel was once also killed, cooked and eaten.

Fowler and Guay convinced their captors to let them walk small circles within the camps, an exercise which would grow into daily marches of up to four kilometres.

Show and tell

Watch Robert Fowler show Peter Mansbridge some of the objects he brought back from his ordeal as an al-Qaeda hostage in Africa, such as a handmade wooden toothbrush and the belt he used to track the days.

The pair also agreed on a number of rules for their conversations. For example, there would be no "What if?" discussions and no negative talk after noon, to reduce the likelihood of having bad dreams. 

Fowler used a thorn to mark notches in his belt — five short notches followed by two long ones for the seven days of the week.

They considered escape but quickly realized it would be futile. The terrain was too tough, they had nowhere to go and wouldn't know which way to run. 

Sandstorms were frequent and daytime temperatures often rose above 50 C.

Proof of life

Al-Qaeda made four videos of Fowler and Guay, none of which has been seen publicly.

Ramstein & ransom

After their release, Fowler and Guay received medical attention at the U.S. military hospital in Ramstein, Germany. Except for lost weight and a few scrapes, Fowler was (and is) in fine shape physically and psychologically.

Long after his release, the question remained: was a ransom paid for their release? Fowler's response is succinct: He doesn't know whether money or prisoners changed hands to secure their freedom. 

But even if Fowler knew, he says he wouldn't reveal the information, out of concerns for current and future kidnap victims. 

The first two videos were made expressly to prove Fowler and Guay were still alive and contain images of the two speaking directly to camera. The third four-minute video was execution-style: Fowler blindfolded and on his knees inside a tent with gunmen to his back, weapons drawn, chanting Islamic slogans.

The fourth was made at their eventual release and was apparently simply to document the handover.

But there was another way al-Qaeda wanted their prisoners to prove they were still alive — by cellphone. One day in February, Fowler and Guay were allowed to call home. They were instructed to tell their families to press the Canadian government into giving in to al-Qaeda's demands. But Fowler had something else he needed to say.

That night, using an untraceable mobile phone and with his captors at his side, Fowler reached his wife, Mary, and later also his eldest daughter, Linton. Both were extremely emotional conversations in which Fowler relayed not only the kidnappers' message but also said his goodbyes. He knew his survival was only a possibility.

End game

At some point in April, Fowler and Guay started to sense that their release might be imminent. Their captors had become agitated and the cellphone calls increased both in number and in the level of excited chatter following each call.

The others

One of the two women released with Fowler and Guay, Mariane Petzold, 72, of Germany was extremely ill at the handover. She’d suffered dysentery for weeks and had broken her arm when kidnapped.

Fowler feared she would die on the trip back as she was thrashed about in the rescue vehicle over extremely bumpy terrain. At one point, the woman hit her head on the vehicle’s ceiling and it started to bleed. They eventually tied her down with a seat belt to prevent further injury.

Of the two men left behind, one would later be released unharmed. But the other man — a British expatriate from Germany — would be executed by his captors in June.

On April 22, they were abruptly told to pack up and get in the truck. Another lengthy, bumpy drive followed and at some point they met up with another group of kidnappers — those who had abducted four European tourists while Fowler and Guay were being held separately. 

This was the handover point.

With weapons again drawn, gunmen surrounded the two vehicles while last-minute talks continued with Malian government representatives. 

The second group of captors seemed frustrated and upset that hostages were being freed at all. They eventually agreed to release two women but kept the two others, both men. 

Fowler and Guay were then told to get in another vehicle with the two women and they headed off.

Some hours later, they arrived at the Malian capital, Bamako. Soon after that they were on a flight to a U.S. military hospital in Germany.    

Now home in Canada, Fowler is writing a book about his experience. It's expected out next spring.