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On the trail of Robert Fowler and Louis Guay. CBC reporter David McGuffin speaks with Tuareg men by a well in northern Mali. (Stephanie Jenzer/CBC)


In a dark, cluttered office in the Malian capital Bamako, a senior government official leans back in his black vinyl chair, barking questions into a cellphone. As he listens to the answers, he takes sips of sweet black tea.

His phone has been switched to speaker so we can listen in. On the other end are a series of government agents working in the desert expanses of northern Mali, a region traditional nomads now share with al-Qaeda, drug smugglers and kidnappers.

All those he reached by phone are connected to the efforts to free Canadian diplomats Robert Fowler and Louis Guay. "The Canadians are in this area," the official tells us with unswerving confidence. He names an area near Mali's border with Algeria. "They are on Malian soil."

Fowler and Guay are now out of Africa, freed last week (April 22) from the clutches of al-Qaeda and four months in captivity.

But several weeks ago, before their release, we travelled to this desperately poor West African nation to try and get a better understanding of who had taken them, as well as the harsh terrain and conditions they were being held in.

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A Tuareg "village" about 20 kilometres north of Timbuktu, part of a vast expanse of unpoliced desert where a small band of al-Qaeda has taken root. (Stepanie Jenzer/CBC)

At the time, we had been instructed by news directors at the CBC not to report what we discovered about the kidnapped Canadians in case it caused them any harm.

In his office, the Malian official pauses from his calls to tell us of the shocking climax to hostage talks he led in 2003 to free some European kidnap victims. In the middle of the desert, it all came down to one night and some cool heads. The hostages were lined up in front of the negotiators, a mock execution was carried out — a final, terrifying negotiating tactic — before a safe and successful end to that crisis.

The phone calls continue and soon the official has the name of one of the key mediators in the Fowler and Guay case.

David McGuffin is the CBC's main Africa reporter, based in Nairobi, Kenya.

Stephanie Jenzer is a CBC producer and documentary maker based in Jerusalem. 

He tells us it is the same Arab-Malian businessman he had worked with six years earlier. "If this man is involved, it will be resolved," the official said confidently. "Events are proceeding rapidly."

Constantly thirsty

Mali was given the lead in negotiating the release of the hostages, but both Canada and the UN were clearly holding intensive investigations of their own.

We frequently interviewed people who had met with Canadian investigators, often just the day before. Senior Canadian diplomats and security officials arrived from Ottawa and from foreign  missions as far away as Istanbul. 

On the UN side, its top security expert for Somalia was flown in and the news magazine Jeune Afrique reported that the head of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, Jim Judd, visited Bamako for meetings with the Mali president as well as with Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi.

Robert Fowler and Louis Guay, Canadian diplomats with long histories in Africa even before their months in the clutches of an al-Qaeda cell, will surely have an incredible story to tell when they are ready.

Until then, Canadians must make do with those first precious images taken of the men soon after their release.

While those pictures of two men sporting long white beards and sunglasses speak to gruelling months in captivity, they also surely understate the true extent of their ordeal in a part of the world that is as forbidding as can be imagined.

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Released Canadian hostages, former diplomat Robert Fowler (in sunglasses) and his UN aide Louis Guay in Mali on Thursday, April 23, 2009, in their first public appearance after being kidnapped by militants four months earlier. (CBC)

Timbuktu is the hub of northern Mali, a city that retains its ancient mystique.

An important centre of Islamic learning in the Middle Ages, it is now a dusty outpost for intrepid Western tourists on the southern edge of the Sahara. With the help of a local guide, from the nomadic Tuareg tribe, we set out north into the desert.

We were met with daytime temperatures that approached 40 C. Our guide described this as cool.

We were as prepared as we could be for this. But the heat felt like it was pounding down on us and we were constantly thirsty.

You could only imagine what Fowler and Guay went through during a period that was much hotter and much more than punishing than we encountered.

Vast terrain

The terrain of northern Mali is unimaginably vast and lawless. In Timbuktu and Bamako, we constantly heard about the equally colossal challenges of policing such an expansive frontier.

"We are talking about a region that is maybe twice the size of France," said Adam Thiam, a political confidant of Malian leaders and a columnist for the privately-owned daily Le Republicain.

"It is very difficult for a Malian army, 40,000 troops, ill-equipped, and with very poor knowledge of northern Mali."

The head of the Gendarmerie Nationale for Timbuktu region just sighed when we asked about his resources. "Not even ten vehicles," he told us, "And no helicopters. We even have to buy our own GPS units."

Captain Hassan ag Mahdy pointed to the barren landscape outside his window and added, "al-Qaeda could be behind that sand dune over there and we couldn't do anything about it."

No surprise then as we ventured forth over the endless rolling dunes that we encountered virtually nothing save for a bit of brush and the sting of wind-swept sand. The closest "village" to our base in Timbuktu was more than 20 kilometres away and was made up of little more than four pitched tents, a few goats, and some women and children.

Further into the desert, we found a few men and boys watering their camels by a well.

The Tuareg are accustomed to travelling the desert's immense, unforgiving terrain and they were optimistic about the fate of the foreigners held prisoner in the desert. "People can adapt to the desert very quickly," one man told us.

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Reporter David McGuffin with Mali President Amadou Toumani Toure at the presidential palace. (Stephanie Jenzer/CBC)

As for the shelter this region provided the hostage takers. "You can travel for 1,400 kilometres north of here, it is wide open. You will never see any security," one nomad said. "There is no one to ask for your documents or where you are going."

Buried in the sands

It is into this vacuum that the group known as al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghrib (AQIM) has emerged.

This group, responsible for holding Fowler and Guay hostage, had its origins in neighbouring Algeria in the fight to establish an Islamist state.

Forced out of the country by the Algerian military about a decade ago, they began to move into the almost empty and relatively safe confines of northern Mali.

In Timbuktu we met another source, a former leader of Mali's Tuareg rebellion in the 1990s, now peacefully resolved. He is involved in humanitarian and disarmament efforts in the region. He would only talk with us in our hotel room, away from prying eyes and on the condition of anonymity.

"They are here," he says, referring to al-Qaeda. "They are well armed, two or three hundred kilometres north of here, men with big beards."

He says that al-Qaeda leaders in northern Mali, such as the Algerian Moktar Belmoktar, the man believed to have held Fowler and Guay, are so well established they have even married local women.

"They're always moving," this man tells us. "They're well organized, well equipped and have lots of money. All their supplies — gas, medicine, food — are buried in the sands of the Sahel in Northern Mali, Niger, Algeria, all placed with precise GPS coordinates."

Another Timbuktu source, a local elder, also speaking anonymously, tells us of meeting al-Qaeda members in nomadic camps on his journeys through the desert.

"If you are not very well informed, you will not know they are al-Qaeda people," he tells us in a darkened room. "But they are there and doing their job and they are very intelligent. They know how to get the sympathy of local people."

More like mobsters

The number of al-Qaeda in the region is estimated at around 300. Not huge, but given the lack of Malian control in its north, enough to be a significant problem for the government.

It is a problem Mali's president, Amadou Toumani Touré, admits to. But he says it's as much an issue of organized crime that he is up against as violent Islamists.

"There is one threat across the whole Saharan-Sahel region from Mauritania to Darfur, the trafficking of arms, the trafficking of men and women, they are trying to bring them through the desert to Europe. It's these people who say they are affiliated with al-Qaeda," he tells us when we meet in the Presidential Palace in Bamako.

To his credit, Touré has been pushing, almost alone, for a meeting of leaders of the Sahel region — Algeria, Mauritania, Morocco, Niger and Nigeria — to discuss ways of cooperating on border control and fighting back against AQIM. That meeting still hasn't happened. Cooperation remains almost non-existent.

Several people we spoke to described AQIM and leaders like Belmoktar as being as much more interested in making money than in pushing anti-Western Islamic ideals.

Kidnapping, which has earned them millions, possibly tens of millions, of dollars since 2003 is just the latest sideline.

We never heard a firm number on the ransom demanded for Fowler and Guay. But officials and elders we spoke with estimated it could be more than $10 million.

Based on previous Malian hostage cases, the ransom scenario would have Mali pay the demand while Canada and the UN would reimburse the Mali government "in kind," possibly through increased aid donations.

Still, the biggest earner for AQIM and its imitators is narcotics, which also came into the region about five years ago.

Cocaine from Latin America lands on the Atlantic coast of Mauritania and is then transported through Mali on its way to the Middle East and on to Europe.

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A Tuareg girl, north of Timbuktu in northern Mali, a sprawling region where diplomats Robert Fowler and Louis Guay were believed to be held hostage. (Stephanie Jenzer/CBC)

One northern Malian elder laments its affects, "You can earn as much $40,000 dollars for one shipment across northern Mali," he tells us. "There are so few jobs in the north, you can imagine the attraction. All of a sudden these young people can afford cars, guns. It gains them a sort of respect."

Loss of respect

The drug culture is also turning society on its head. As in Somalia, Congo, Darfur and Afghanistan, when young, newly wealthy, well armed men begin to gain power, they do so at the expense of traditional elders and structures, which is when you have the beginnings of a failed state.

"We are in real danger. We don't want to become the next front in the war on terror," Ibrahim Ag Yusuf tells us. Another Malian elder from the north, he recently returned from a mission as an African Union envoy to Darfur and knows something of how badly things can go.

His solution is to bring more humanitarian aid and development to northern Mali, to give young people an alternative to the Islamic extremists and smugglers.

But with the rising threat of AQIM, aid agencies have actually backed out of the north. The number of non-governmental organizations working in northern Mali has dropped from 80 to 20 in the past five years.

Canada gives about $90 million a year to Mali in aid, making it one of the biggest donor nations here.

But the Canadian money essentially ends up in the south, which is the most populous and the easiest region to access.

"People need to understand you have to make a lot of effort to reach areas that are poor," Ag Yusuf says. "If you don't, you risk turning disparities into inequities." And that is the perfect breeding ground for al-Qaeda.

In the desert north of Timbuktu, Tuareg nomads tell us they, too, are concerned about drug running, al-Qaeda and the kidnappings.

"If this kidnapping continues, it will change things, no one will come anymore," one tribesman says. "The people of Timbuktu live on tourism and if there are no tourists, there will be no work, it will be terrible."

Several Malian officials told us there was evidence that Fowler and Guay, along with another group of European hostages, were traded up at least twice before being sold on to AQIM.

This, they pointed out, is a disturbing turn of events as it likely means that locals are now becoming actively involved in kidnapping themselves.

But elders in the region do see some possible benefit coming from this. "The one good thing about the kidnapping of Fowler and Guay is that it has highlighted the problems of northern Mali," one says, while another adds: "Liberating the Canadians is good, but liberating the community is the best one because that would benefit everyone."