Retired Canadian diplomat Robert Fowler suspects a high-level leak served to guide his al-Qaeda kidnappers right to him, leading to his capture in Niger and a punishing four months in captivity.
"I know somebody shopped me," Fowler told CBC's The National in an exclusive interview, the first since his release on April 22.
Fowler was serving as a UN Special Envoy to Niger when he and his aide, Louis Guay, were taken hostage around 5:30 p.m. on Dec. 14, 2008, by a band of militants armed with AK-47s.
It would be 130 days — each marked by Fowler with a thorn-scratched tick on his leather belt — before the two Canadians were released along with two European tourists.
"Who could it be?" Fowler mused about the possible leak in an interview with chief correspondent Peter Mansbridge. "It could be the government of Niger. Could be an al-Qaeda sympathizer in the UN office in Niger. In the UN office in West Africa. In the … secretariat building in New York."
The Niger government, which was responsible for Fowler's security, knew his itinerary, as did the United Nations. Fowler, Guay and their government-issued driver were travelling without any security from a Canadian-operated gold mine back to the capital of Niamey when a truck overtook their Toyota Land Cruiser that Sunday, about 40 kilometres northwest of the capital.
Niger 'hated' the mission
Within seconds, the Kalashnikov-wielding men stuffed the three into a truck under a "smelly, oily blanket" and two men sat on top of them while the vehicle sped away from the scene. Guay was raked across his face with an AK-47, while Fowler's injury — a compression fractured vertebra — came in the following 56-hour bumpy drive.
In the months that followed, questions swirled about whether the Niger government — due to its unco-operative behaviour and resistance to the mission — was involved in the abduction of the two men, an accusation denied by government officials.
Resistance to the mission had become clear to Fowler on his second visit as special envoy, a two-week trip several months prior, when Niger President Mamdou Tandja appeared "offended, annoyed [and] embarrassed" by the UN's decision to send an envoy.
"They hated my mission," said Fowler, who was first appointed in July 2008 by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. The diplomat's mission in one of the world's poorest countries was aimed at resolving a resource fight between rebels and the Niger government by hammering out a royalty agreement — one that was sure to take a slice out of valuable revenues funnelling them only to government coffers.
A group of Touareg rebels, known as MNJ, short for the French equivalent of Niger Movement for Justice, laid claims to lands in northern Niger that included a uranium mine, one of only two operating mines in the country. The two Canadians were visiting a Canadian-operated gold mine the day of their capture, as part of a larger look at the resource issue.
Fowler says he felt safe, despite the lack of security officials in their vehicle for the intended five-day trip, because the area was designated as safe in a UN security report.
The site of the abduction, on the N1 Highway near the Niger River, was a popular location for diplomats to hold picnics, says Fowler.
"It wasn't considered somewhat safe; it was safe," Fowler responded, when asked about the lack of security.
'Valuable asset' left behind
The two men provided the captors — members of al-Qaeda's Algeria-based North Africa wing, al-Qaeda Organization in the Islamic Maghreb — with potentially profitable bargaining chips. Media reports at the time reported AQIM wanted prisoners in exchange. It's still unknown what they received for the diplomats' release.
Fowler sensed his captors — a group of 20 men and children, ranging in age from seven years old to 60 — were aware of his identity and his worth.
"They were unsurprised," when Fowler revealed his identity and position. "I think I'm probably the most senior UN creature that they have seized."
Strangely, he notes, the hostage-takers left a "very valuable asset" behind during the capture —the new Toyota Land Cruiser they were driving, a "desired object" in Africa for its durability in the harsh environment. It was equipped with duo generators, gas tanks and batteries, all left untouched.
That abandoned vehicle — with Fowler's camera and jacket in the back seat, three doors open and a turn light blinking - would be found hours later, serving as the only clues to the abduction.