Peter Mansbridge: Well it’s been a couple of months now since the ordeal ended. how are you?
Robert Fowler: I think pretty good. I just heard a story yesterday from the UN of a guy who was taken about the same time as we were in Pakistan and Baluchistan, and he was, thought he was pretty good and five months later, without any notice, fell into pieces. So I have to give you a, a rather immediate and temporary answer, saying so far, so good.
Mansbridge: Do you still though you know have moments every day, every couple of days, where you think of – unprompted? In other words, nobody asks you, you just suddenly start thinking about it?
Fowler: I do. And all kinds of things trigger it. The, perhaps the strangest moment, and I was talking to my pal, Louis Guay, who was in this with me, the other day and we both have exactly the same reaction. It’s, it’s unreal. I mean did it happen? Was it really like that? Or am I, am I imagining some of the stuff? And then suddenly, you’ll get another memory that will remind you that it was exactly like that.
Suddenly there’s a truck passing us. We’re going really fast and he’s going faster, and he’s not a Lamborghini, he is a truck. That’s not – what’s wrong with this picture, you know? So he –
Mansbridge: You knew there was something wrong with the picture?
Fowler: No, not yet. No, except – well I remember – what, you know? He goes by and immediately slices across the road, right in front of us. I mean whoa, I mean really dangerous, scary and our driver and immediately swings out to pass him, at which point he swings out again. Then I knew we were in trouble. And I – was that maybe it’s taking five or six seconds, and this is not good. Before we had quite stopped, maybe what, 3-4 metres apart, the two guys, African faces, in the back of the truck, the pickup truck are vaulting over the edge. 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, from 4 metres away.
Mansbridge: So you know at this point there’s no doubt what’s happening...
Fowler: There’s no doubt what’s happening, and I think this is – this is the greatest damn cliché of all time, and how can this be happening to me? I mean you know, how can this be happening to me? I mean I’ve spent a lot of time in Africa. This is – this is the safe 8% of the country. This is where the embassy has their picnics on Sunday. Why this is not right. What’s happening? Anyway, in very fast order – I think, I’ve kind of gamed it out, you know, since then. And I think the thing took from 35 to 45 seconds from beginning to end.
Mansbridge: From the beginning –
Fowler: From as soon as I realized this is not a, you know, idiots on the road, this is something else.
Mansbridge: This is the real thing happening.
Fowler: To our being in the other truck, forced to lie down under a very smelly, oily blanket with, with these two guys sitting on top of us, the car having done 180 degree turn and streak in the other direction. That was 45 seconds.
Were, was, how well was this thing set up? And there are indications it was very well set up.
I, I have to admit, it was also very efficiently executed. I mean it was – Louis, the offside rear door was torn open. Louis was being sort of frog-marched behind the driver in front. Both of those were sort of being thrown into the car in front. Louis was sort of raked across his eyebrow and eye with a, the foreside of an AK. I was on the other side, on the inside. And wondered if I should, could make a run for it. Would they shoot if I made a run for it?
What would that – would I be abandoning Louis and the driver if I did? By the time I’d, I’d articulated the questions, I was in the back of that truck and, and we did this sort of screeching 180. And as I was being forced down, I remember going now the other way, looking and seeing our car there and being 100% certain that there’d be one of their guys about to leap into it and drive it off. A very valuable asset. I mean as we now know, as I found out only when I got out, they left the car there, 7 hours on the road, with 3 of its 4 doors open, the engine running and the blinker on.
How Did They Know?
Mansbridge: One of the questions that sort of has nagged some about the moment of capture is why there were just you, Louis Guay and the driver in the vehicle, and why there wasn’t some protection.
Fowler: Right, yeah.
Mansbridge: You’ve been around and you’ve been a senior levels of the bureaucracy and with the UN. You’ve obviously had training on these things. I appreciate that this particular area was somewhat considered safe, but you would have been a profile target. Why was there no security?
Fowler: Sorry. It wasn’t – it wasn’t considered somewhat safe, it was safe. It was –
Mansbridge: But it wasn’t.
Fowler: Well no, it wasn’t. And, and let’s get to that. But, but – the, the Canadian embassy had been picnicking there the week before. The entire government was going up that road in two days. There were police posts along the road and it was in the 8% of the country that was green on the UN security map. I have been in, in less safe circumstances with no protection. The deal – well with the UN and really with countries as well is you leave security to the host country. And the way – the way we would do the itinerary is that we, we send that to the UN office, in, in which we said here’s, here are the things we want to do and sort of you know, over the weekend, we want to get out in the countryside a little bit and we want to go to this mine. Provided that to the UN, to the UN offices. UN then provides that to the government, and they – I guess because of the speculation, you talked about it. I checked when I got back and I got the emails from the UN office saying yes, further to your question, I can confirm that we have passed your itinerary to all the appropriate people. So there’s no doubt they had. I don’t know if this is right, Peter, but I think I’m probably the most senior UN creature that they have seized.
Mansbridge: But the issue becomes if they knew who they were grabbing, which you became convinced and we’ll get to, that they were. If they knew who they were grabbing, they’d find you know exactly where you are.
Mansbridge: And the other people who know that are everybody or a lot of people, I guess at the end of the day, who got the UN itinerary?
Fowler: You got it.
Mansbridge: And you’ve got a government that probably didn’t like too much the whole idea of why you were there in the first place.
Fowler: They hate – they hated my mission.
Mansbridge: Because it could only be a cost to them in the long run. Any deal would be a cost to them.
Fowler: Yeah. The president of Niger, whose name is 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. In fact, some of the stuff I’ve read since I got out, with Niger government spokespeople talking about my mission. They said I was there to see if I could get hold of illicit arms trafficking, which was not my mission. My mission was to get the government to make peace with the rebels. As long as there was no peace with the rebels, the enemy was at the gate, right? If Al-Qaeda is taking people on the outskirts of the city, the enemy’s really at the gate. And governance of national security makes sense, right? So I don’t know who shopped me. I know somebody shopped me. Who could it be? 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 secretary – secretariat building in New York. All of them had my agenda – my itinerary.
Mansbridge: Did you have your passport with you?
Fowler: No, I had nothing, which drove them crazy. Drove them absolutely crazy. One guy – I mean gave me hell. I mean it’s irresponsible to go out without your documents. Who do you think you are? I mean. So anyway,
Mansbridge: Did you tell him who you were?
Fowler: Yes, immediately I told them who I was, and they were not –
Mansbridge: And why you were there?
Fowler: No, we didn’t get into any of that.
Mansbridge: No, but I mean when you said "I’m Robert Fowler, I’m the UN special representative?"
Mansbridge: You said that.
Fowler: I said that. They asked me who I was and I said that. And they were – they were unsurprised by that. And then Louis had his UN laissez passer with him, which is the UN passport, and my laissez passer and my Canadian passport were sitting in my hotel safe.
They took Louis’s watch and his stuff in his pocket. They for some reason didn’t take my inexpensive travelling watch. Made for muggers.
Mansbridge: They could tell a knockoff..
Fowler: Yeah, that’s right, exactly. Yeah, but I always dying for a knockoff would be a terrible thing. So they do this and they’re kind of milling around a bit. And I have a moment, just a moment, and I said Louis, tell them the truth. No matter what happens, tell them the truth. You don’t have anything that is so important to protect that it’s worth your life.
Mansbridge: Now why did you say that?
Fowler: Because if you – because I said if you start telling lies, you will get caught up in your own webs and you will lose any ability – I didn’t say all that. That’s what was in my mind.
Mansbridge: But were you saying that because that’s Bob Fowler thinking, or were you saying that because that’s the training you get?
Fowler: No, that’s me thinking.
Mansbridge: Because you must have had training.
Fowler: Nobody’s ever trained me in being a hostage.
Mansbridge: The senior levels that you were at never had any training like that?
Fowler: No, never. But that was reading spy books and watching movies. And maybe good sense.
Who Were the Captors?
Fowler: Somewhere very late, I mean four or five in the morning, we, we stop. A blanket is thrown on the ground and we’re told ‘rest,’and the driver gets out of his car, crawls under the truck to rest. One of the soldiers rests, and the other one is the sentry on guard, and he’s making tea. I can’t lie down on the rug because my back hurts too much. And I then walk towards this guy and he’s crouched over this tiny fire, making his tea and he looks up and says, have you figured out who we are yet? And I very tentatively and with no conviction at all said well, I mean are you the MNJ? And he gives me a disdainful look and says, in effect, I mean what would I be doing hanging around with those turkeys, you know? I’m Senegalese. I have nothing to do with Niger politics. I mean he didn’t say all that, he just said I’m Senegalese, I’m Senegalese. And I said oh.
And then he says: We are Al-Qaeda. And the bottom of my world fell out.
And…I’m a guy who is constantly sort of running stupid statistics in his mind, you know? I mean will that light change before I count to ten? And what are the odds of my doing something before the first snow flies or you know, that sort of thing.
So what are the odds I’m going to come out of this alive was obviously a big one. And at that point, I figured 5% because lower was too depressing. So, but we are Al-Qaeda, and there then, Peter, begins all your calculations earlier. So they’re Al-Qaeda, and what is the UN going to do vis a vis Al-Qaeda? What’s the government of Canada going to do vis a vis Al-Qaeda? What’s the West going to do?
Mansbridge: Did they want you because you were UN or because you were Canadian?
Mansbridge: Did the Canadian issue come up at all?
Fowler: No, I think it was an added bonus for them. But they – but I think this all goes back to, to their mission and whether or not we were a target of opportunity or a targeted mission.
So, so it was a big UN guy is what, is what they grabbed. After we are Al-Qaeda, and I’m – we’re, we’re travelling more and more, bang, bang, bang, bang, ever further northward, and no doubt feeling low, damaged and not very courageous, I asked the driver, is it your intention to execute us?
I don’t know why I asked that. I’m not sure I really wanted the answer. But nevertheless. But he reacted with very satisfying anger, sort of saying nah, I mean – he said listen, my mission was to capture you. If my mission had been to execute you, you’d be dead. So don’t give me any more of that crap sort of, I mean was – was the idea, which again I found rather – a rather happy response, but –
Mansbridge: You believed him?
Fowler: Oh, boy that’s a big question then and at any future point. I certainly wanted to believe him, so that, that would do for a while. Yeah. ...
Mansbridge: Tell me about movie night.
Fowler: 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.
They would have video cameras slaved to sniper rifles as they sort of popped the heads off GIs in Iraq and Afghanistan, endless IEDs blowing up Hummies and trucks and conveys in Iraq and Afghanistan. Lots of suicide bombers crashing through gates blowing up, some buildings, some were other, and every time this would happen the audience would scream Allahu Akbar, and wasn’t that great.
Mansbridge: This was the same, every time there was a TV night they’d play the same?
Fowler: Oh no, sometimes they had new, Al-Qaeda central would send them a new hot DVD that one guy came actually the only time I saw real excitement, a guy running in from with a new DVD. Boy you know we have a bestseller tonight. And they would, it was clearly these were propaganda films, rather good production values. I mean they were well made.
And, um, it was to pump up the boys. I mean to remind them of what it was all about, and they were Mujahadeen and death in the calls is what it’s all about and we will prevail.
I eventually refused to go to TV night, but created a bit of an issue, but not a huge issue, a bit of an issue. I said I had seen the twin towers come down 400 times. I don’t need to see them again.
Mansbridge: Now you became featured in videos yourself.
Mansbridge: There were three in total?
Fowler: Four actually.
Mansbridge: Four. And now the idea initially was proof of life videos?
Fowler: Yes that’s certainly what I thought. They’re not all the same. But the first one we did on day 5. We were ushered into a tent. The only time we were ever in a tent was to make videos. I didn’t like tents.
Every time I walked into a tent I remembered Daniel Pearl and wasn’t a good memory.
Um, the first one, each one was different, very different. The first one was what I kind of expected to be; it was proof of life. I’d seen the movies. I knew that that’s what had to happen and I knew that that meant my family would know that I was captured and they were not going to be real happy about the Al-Qaeda part of it.
I mean I think I was suggesting to you they’re not, they’re not technically incompetent. I mean just a total contradiction of these guys festooned with sat phones, cell phones, GPSs, walkie-talkies, video cameras and laptops – whose minds are 15 centuries away, whose weapons are a couple of generations old, and who really wish they didn’t have rifles and could get back to the days of the scimitar and saber. Strange contradictions.
Video 3 was very different. Somber. Uh um no backdrop when we got in there. Hands behind our back. Blindfolded for the first time. And we’re told don’t speak. You have no speaking role. Don’t speak. And all I know of that video was I guy in toning behind me a long screed in Arabic with lots of references to Al-Qaeda, Jihad, Muhjahadeen, uh Allah and Allahu Akhbar and blindfolds came off, we were taken out of the tent, taken back to our tree and left alone, absolutely alone. Nobody talked to us, nobody came near us.
And I did not feel happy about that. I didn’t know what had happened. I guessed um and does it happen I think I guessed absolutely accurately, what it was, was a death threat, an ultimatum.
Mansbridge: Food, water... What did you eat? What did you drink?
Fowler: We drank all the water we wanted. The water was from desert wells. Only once did we ever camp at a well, and that was only on part of that crash north and for a couple of hours.But obviously wells are where other people come, and they didn't want that.
It's where their enemies might be looking for them, and they didn't want them. So they would send a water mission out and come back with usually 45-gallon drums and plastic things filled with water, often tasting of whatever had been in the drum, and many of the drums have that nice triangle with the skull and cross bones. And there were more than a few occasions in which I couldn't drink the water.
Mansbridge: Because of the taste?
Fowler: Yes. I would gag and it would come up.I mean, now and then you'd see little things swimming in the water. That didn't bother me. I thought, one can deal with that, and it wasn't the fact that it was poisonous. It was the fact that I couldn't get it down. And then you'd go Oliver-Twist-like and say, please sir can I have some other water?
Food —we didn't eat, see a fruit or a vegetable in one period of 85 days. We ate rice and pasta —short, dried pasta.
Mansbridge: Not like the pasta you saw when you were ambassador to Rome?
Fowler: Not quite, no. Not quite. We, there would be often a single can of tomato paste for 28 of us in the pasta.
Mansbridge: So you were all eating and drinking the same?
Fowler: Not in the same place, but the same. They would not eat with us as infidels, which of course suited us just fine. So, rice or pasta, sometimes a sheep or a goat. Once a camel that we ate for 17 days. They'd immediately dry it and hang strips on the trees and in that climate it would dry instantly.
Mansbridge: How did that taste?
Fowler: Camel, it was actually pretty good. Mind you, any meat was pretty good. We knew that we desperately needed protein and we just weren't getting it.
So the food— at one point they gave us a sort of a lentil soup, and I, hoping to encourage better behaviour, said, wow, that was good. That was really good lentil soup, and they snarled at me and said, "We eat to survive, not for pleasure."So they weren't a very joke-y crew.
Mansbridge: At no point in the four-plus months did they torture you or try to torture you beyond the fact that they were holding you at gunpoint?
Mansbridge: There was nothing like that?
Fowler: They did not. They, I, I had absolutely no doubt that there wasn't one of them who would have slit our throat at the order. But up until that point, we were not abused.
Mansbridge: Did you ever feel any attachment to these guys, you know what I'm getting at?
Fowler: Stockholm stuff and…
Fowler: Uh, no, but there was, no. There was very little connection. I mean they lived in a world that I can't understand. I can understand it intellectually, as I've been trying to explain, but none of those values are values that I could, could get close to, could— I mean there was no fun, there was no love, there was no joy.
At one point, Louis and I, after we had talked about everything we could have conceivably talked about, um, we decided to sing and we are both not singers! But we sang songs, remembered songs and they came running over, "You stop that right now. We're not going to have any of that happy singing. It's unacceptable."
What I guess I'm saying to answer your question, there wasn't, there wasn't, there wasn't enough common ground to be friendly.
The phone call home
Fowler: It was without a doubt the most dramatic moment, the most emotionally acute moment of the thing. But basically we were told on day 85 that we would be able to speak to our families.
Mansbridge: Had you been asking for this, or this just came out of the blue?
Fowler: Out of the blue. No, we had not been asking for it. They clearly had an agenda and their agenda was, uh, tell your families to mobilize interest in support for and get things moving, and they were very explicit about that's what they wanted out of this call. And I was perfectly happy to, I think I would have agreed to anything to speak to Mary.
And I, at this point we're at day 85, 87, I wasn't at all sure we would ever come out of this at all and I wanted to say goodbye, I wanted to say the things that were important.So they said you're going to speak to your wives. It's all been arranged.
We then drove 19 hours to the biggest damn sand dune you have ever seen, 40 kilometres on the Algerian border. And we made stops along the way, and this was late at night, which I hadn't planned on.
There are four cars down at the bottom on the dune, lights on, heavy machine guns mounted on the four points, and then along the razorback dune are standing six of us with Belmokhtar, the head of the group according to various websites, you know, the king of al-Qaeda in the southern Sahara, and Omar, the kind of hostage liaison was there and, and they have their cellphones.
So the trick is we're not using the [satellite] phone, which they know can be located, they're using a cellphone catch, from the height to catch the Algerian cell net. So, we we're up there and I'm first and I can phone Mary. My first thought is I couldn't remember the phone number. I couldn't remember any phone numbers. But I did, so I called here and there was no answer with my miserable voice saying, "Leave a message!" So then I called Mary.
Mansbridge: Did you leave a message?
Fowler: I did leave a message actually! I did. Then I called Mary's cellphone, and I saw, I saw in my mind her rummaging through her pit of despair trying to find the damn cellphone and I knew she wouldn't before I got her message saying leave a message.
Then some, one of them said, "Send her an SMS so she has it." She can show you. So I got out the thing and I did: "Darling, Mary, I love you." I hacked out the SMS and sent it, which she got. And she, her first thought was, he's free. I mean I didn't say I was free, darling Mary, oh please call this number, because I'd asked them, "Listen, instead of leaving these messages, tell me, let me leave a message saying call this number." They said we don't know what this number is! So I don't know if that's true or not, or whether it's security; we don't know. But it doesn't matter anyway, because your phone will show …
Mansbridge: On the SMS.
Fowler: … the number. I didn't, by the way. But please call this number. So Mary got that and terribly frustrated, etc., there. But I'd struck out for three. Louis calls. Louis calls home, leave a message. Calls Maya's cell phone, leaves a message. They say, "Oh! oh! No more power. The phone's dead, no more power."
So the phone gets trotted down the hill, plugged into the battery and they're reviving up the phone, recharging the battery. They bring it back up saying, wonderful, we got the phone. I start dialing the number again and the thing comes up and says there's no more credits in the phone.
Phone goes back down the hill, the media guy gets onto his laptop and he calls his buddy, I mean he emails his buddy somewhere in Nigeria saying take up the phone. So this guy then buys the appropriate credits with whatever credit card so that this phone gets re-, and then up, up it comes again.
Mansbridge: You must have thought you were in the middle of a comedy here?
Fowler: It was so…
Mansbridge: Were people laughing?
Fowler: Uh, no.
Mansbridge: I mean in spite of the situation.
Fowler: No, they weren't. There was a lot of frustration going on, on all side, on all sides. So anyway the phone comes back up with a charge and with new credits. I phone again and I get Mary and I say what I have to say, and then I say then— and Mary was absolutely fantastic —and then I was getting into the goodbyes and she gave me hell. She said, "What do you mean goodbye? You're coming home. We've got lots of things to do. Don't give up, don't be silly." And I said, "Well, you know, I mean our grandson's birthday was day 100," which worked out was in two weeks. They said, we'll have you home by then, and I course knew that she is a remarkable woman but it is not necessarily within her power to bring me home from there in 13 days!
But nevertheless it was, it was great, her straightening me out.
The power of hope
Mansbridge: If somebody had told you before this had started you were going to be there for that many days under those kinds of conditions …
Fowler: Would I have thought?
Mansbridge: That you could do it?
Fowler: If they had told me you're going to be there for that long under those conditions and it will be all right in the end, the answer is yes. I think, yes.
Mansbridge: But you had to believe — with very few exceptions from what you tell us — that it was going to be all right.
Fowler: No. If I've said that, I've misled you.I was never convinced it would be all right. I wasn't convinced it wouldn't be all right, except for the couple of instances I mentioned. But I never felt confident that this will work out well.
Mansbridge: But you were hopeful?
Fowler: Of course I was hopeful, and there were days when the hope was strong, and there were days when the hope was weak.
Mansbridge: But you never gave up hope?
Fowler: No, I never gave up, but I was, but there were deeply depressing moments when, I don't know, is a depressing moment a place where hope fades rather sharply.
Mansbridge: Did you pray?
Fowler: I'm not a praying guy, Peter, personally. Louis is a religious guy, and every now and then I'd ask him if there were any messages for me, but, uh, you know you think about what's important. You think about family, you think about, you know, all of the things that you didn't do that you would have done and you should have done, and wished you had done. And you think you know what a crazy end. But no, I never gave up hope.
Mansbridge: Why did they let you go?
Fowler: I'm in the very happy position of saying, I don't know. And also of course, being there, back to Louis, I wasn't involved in the negotiations. So, while at least in theory I could speculate on how I might have got out, I'm not going to do that. I did say earlier, I didn't get out because I was a nice guy. And they are not in the business of humanitarian gestures.
Fowler: So, but, beyond that, who did what? How? Where and for whom? I don't know.
Mansbridge: But we assume going into this that they were looking for recognition and that an organization like that needs money.
Fowler: Yes. And the Internet is full of discussion about them wanting prisoners released. So, I think you've got the elements of the issue there and what, which, beyond recognition if any of those elements that were satisfied, I don't know.
Mansbridge: But would it surprise you if any or all of those were met? In fact, at the end of the day, they gained?
Fowler: I, would it surprise me if they gained? I mean, they got something. I don't know from whom or how.Prime Minister Harper has said very clearly that Canada paid no ransom. I have absolutely no reason to believe he was misstating the fact.
Mansbridge: But you know how money can move around through any number of different drops to get up?
Fowler: Yeah. But Peter, I will not speculate on that.
The war on terror
Mansbridge: Did this experience, Bob Fowler, living with al-Qaeda, did it change the way you see our role, Canada's role?
Fowler: I don't know if, you know, but I'm on record prior to this adventure on Afghanistan, and I don't, I cannot object to the objective in Afghanistan, but I just don't think in the west that we are prepared to invest the blood or the treasure to get this done.
Mansbridge: Did this reinforce that view?
Fowler: Yes, it did. And it's more than blood and treasure, because it's also, it's not just commitment and the wasting of our youth and the enormous, enormous cost in difficult financial times, it's to get it done we will have to do some unpleasant things. I mean some deeply hard, this isn't, this is not a nice war.
Mansbridge: But is it worth doing?
Fowler: That's the issue. I mean, I have, I think in other places and times, I have pointed out, I can show you a lot of places in this world where you can put girls in schools without killing people. It's a noble objective, Afghanistan, but a lot of people have tried it before.
I mean, if you in the abstract, Peter, asked me to define a more complex, challenging mission, I couldn't do it. Afghanistan is about as far as Canada's ken as anything I can think of. The culture is as foreign to us as anything you can imagine.
There isn't enough to go around and in our 6 billion there are a billion happy rich people and there are a billion desperately miserably poor people and 4 billion people in the middle who are a lot closer to the bottom billion than the top. We don't have nearly enough money and energy to deal with a tiny proportion of that misery. And therefore it strikes me as rather extreme that one goes out and looks for particularly complex misery to fix. There's lots of things to fix that can be done more efficiently and probably more effectively.
Mansbridge: We're going to leave it on that. Thanks very much.
Fowler: Not a bit, not a bit.
Postcript: Robert Fowler is now at home with his family in Ottawa, writing a book and still wondering whether he'll ever travel to Africa again. Louis Guay is preparing to return to work at the Department of Foreign Affairs.