Transcript 1: Robert Fowler interview Sept. 8, 2009

Canadian diplomat tells Peter Mansbridge the story of his abduction, movie nights with al-Qaeda and his suspicions about what led to his demise

Canadian diplomat tells Peter Mansbridge the story of his abduction, movie nights with al-Qaeda and his suspicions about what led to the hostage-taking

The following is a transcript of Peter Mansbridge's interview with retired Canadian diplomat Robert Fowler, who was taken hostage in Niger while there as the UN Special Envoy. It is the first part of a 40-minute interview and aired Tuesday, Sept. 8. The second part aired Wednesday, Sept. 9, and can be read here.

Robert Fowler talks about how he was captured, what happened to him in captivity and how he was eventualy released in a CBC News exclusive. (Tom Sharina/CBC News)

MANSBRIDGE VOICE-OVER: Tonight, a National exclusive — a heart-stopping look inside a kidnapping by the world's most feared terrorist organization — al-Qaeda. 

This is the untold story of Canadian diplomat Robert Fowler, who for 130 days earlier this year, was held at gunpoint and under constant threat of execution. For those four and a half months, he was living, eating, traveling and sleeping with al-Qaeda while desperate behind-the-scenes negotiations took place to try to free him and his assistant, Louis Guay. Until tonight his story has been kept secret. Now, in his own words, Robert Fowler tells it.

MANSBRIDGE: Well, it's been a couple of months now since the ordeal ended. How are you?

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. He thought he was pretty good and five months later, without any notice, fell into pieces. So I have to give you a rather immediate and temporary answer: so far, so good.

MANSBRIDGE: Do you still, though, have moments every day, every couple of days, where you think of it  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.

MANSBRIDGE VOICE-OVER: Bob Fowler was no ordinary Canadian diplomat. For decades he was on the leading edge of this country's foreign initiatives. Regularly at the right hand of prime ministers, he had worked his way upward through the often treacherous paths of the Ottawa bureaucracy. His supporters praised him for his intellect and compassion.  His foes saw him as stubborn and controlling. Then, in 2006, at 62, he retired with honour and accolades.

But "retirement" wasn't really in Bob Fowler's vocabulary. Africa was. And it was to the continent — a career-long passion for Fowler — that the United Nations asked him to go. A nasty dispute over mineral resources between the government of Niger and the rebel movement MNJ as the mission. Finding peace was the challenge. 

But instead, on a lazy Sunday afternoon just before Christmas, along Niger's only paved highway, just 30 minutes outside the capital, Bob Fowler's world turned into a nightmare.

FOWLER: 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. What's wrong with this picture, you know?

MANSBRIDGE: You knew there was something wrong with the picture?

FOWLER:  No, not yet. No, except — well I remember — 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. 

Before we had quite stopped ... the two guys, African faces, in the back of 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 four 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 the greatest damn cliché of all time — how can this be happening to me? I mean I've spent a lot of time in Africa. This is the safe eight per cent of the country. This is where the embassy has their picnics on Sunday. Why? This is not right. What's happening? ... 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. 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 a 180-degree turn and streak in the other direction. That was 45 seconds.

How well was this thing set up? There there are indications it was very well set up.

I have to admit, it was also very efficiently executed. The offside rear door was torn open. Louis was being sort of frog-marched behind the driver in front. Both of [them] were sort of being thrown into the car in front. Louis was sort of raked across his eyebrow and eye with 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?

Would I be abandoning Louis and the driver if I did? By the time I'd articulated the questions, I was in the back of that truck and, and we did this sort of screeching 180 [degree turn]. And as I was being forced down, I remember going now the other way, looking and seeing our car there and being 100 per cent certain that there'd be one of their guys about to leap into it and drive it off. A very valuable asset. 

As we now know, as I found out only when I got out, they left the car there, seven hours on the road, with three of its four doors open, the engine running and the blinker on. 

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 in 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 let's get to that. 

But 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 eight per cent of the country that was green on the UN security map.

I have been in less safe circumstances with no protection. The deal with the UN, and really with countries as well, is you leave security to the host country. And the way we would do the itinerary is that we send that to the UN office in which we said here are the things we want to do and, over the weekend, we want to get out in the countryside a little bit and we want to go to this mine.

[We] provided that to the UN offices, the 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, they'd find exactly where you are.

FOWLER: Exactly.

MANSBRIDGE: And the other people who know that are everybody — 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 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 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 gave me hell. I mean it's irresponsible to go out without your documents. Who do you think you are?

MANSBRIDGE: Did you tell them 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.... 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 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. 

FOWLER: Somewhere very late, I mean four or five in the morning, we, we stopped. 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.

CBC News has obtained this cellphone picture. This is the first time an image of Robert Fowler in captivity has been made public.

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.

He didn't say all that, he just said '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 10? 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 five per cent because lower was too depressing. 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 their mission and whether or not we were a target of opportunity or a targeted mission. So it was a big UN guy is what, is what they grabbed.

After 'we are al-Qaeda', and we're travelling more and more — 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.' I mean that was the idea, which again I found a rather happy response.

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 would do for a while. Yeah. 

MANSBRIDGE VOICE-OVER: The chaotic first days stretched into weeks. After 56 hours of  brutal off-road driving, a trip that fractured one of Fowler's vertebrae, the hostages were shuffled from camp to camp in northern Mali.  All the while, he was held at gunpoint by 20 insurgents, one as young as seven.   

Camp life became routine. Fowler wore out his shoes through daily exercise, repairing them with thorns. And he secretly kept track of days by marking his leather belt. 

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 [a video view] of sniper rifles as they sort of popped the heads off GIs in Iraq and Afghanistan, endless IEDs [improvised explosive devices] blowing up Humvees, trucks and convoys in Iraq and Afghanistan. Lots of suicide bombers crashing through gates blowing up, some buildings … and every time this would happen the audience would scream and wasn't that great. 

MANSBRIDGE: Every time there was a TV night they'd play the same?

FOWLER: Oh no, sometimes they had new [movies]. Al-Qaeda central would send them a new hot DVD. Actually the only time I saw real excitement was 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. 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 it wasn't a good memory. 

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 think I was suggesting to you 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 three was very different. Somber. 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 intoning behind me a long screed in Arabic with lots of references to al-Qaeda, Jihad, Muhjahadeen, 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 — and does it happen I think I guessed absolutely accurately — it was a death threat, an ultimatum.

First of two parts.