Robert Fowler's case for taking on al-Qaeda in Mali

As the UN and a number of African states make plans to take military action against al-Qaeda militants in Northern Mali, there's a Canadian who knows more than he ever wanted to about them: Robert Fowler, who spent three months as their captive in 2008.

The UN and several African states are planning to take military action in the region

Mitt Romney put Mali on the world's political map during Monday night's presidential debate, when he said, "Mali has been taken over, the northern part of Mali, by al-Qaeda type individuals."

And as the UN and a number of African states make plans to take military action against these militants in northern Mali, there's a Canadian who knows more than he ever wanted to about them: Robert Fowler, who spent three months as their captive in 2008.

One-hundred-and-thirty days he and colleague Louis Guay were held by al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), which was until recently an unremarkable splinter group loosely associated with Osama bin Laden's organization and specializing in kidnappings around West Africa.

The al-Qaeda kidnapper nicknamed "Omar One" by his Canadian prisoners liked to rant to them that his goal in life was a glorious death, preferably by detonating a suicide vest inside the United Nations on a day it's discussing equality between the sexes.

Fowler, the former Canadian ambassador to the UN, says he hopes Omar never gets that grisly opportunity. But on the wider point, he says with sober flourish, "helping Omar get to paradise would be a fine thing." The words of a man clearly untroubled by Stockholm syndrome.

Robert Fowler (left), and Louis Guay (second from left) meet Malian President Amadou Toumani Toure (right) on April 23, 2009, after their release by kidnappers. (Harouna Traore/AP)

Now that Mali is in the crosshairs, I rang Fowler to ask about his thoughts on the virtues of going after al-Qaeda there. 

What followed was an articulate voyage with stops for The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Pogo the cartoon possum, and back to Omar One, whose enduring good health and cyber-presence clearly annoys the former ambassador. 

"One of the things that is most bizarre to me in this day and age, is I can see many of my captors on the internet. There are all kinds of film clips emerging from northern Mali, emerging from Tombouctou and Gao and Kidal, of the people who took me," Fowler says. "Principally, Omar One, the guy who grabbed me on the road by the capital of Niger — Niamey — that Sunday afternoon on December 14, 2008. 

"And he is there telling you, telling the internet viewer, what he would tell me again and again and again, day after day. What it was all about and what his purpose was. And what they're doing in Mali is fulfilling that purpose that they explained to Louis and me."

Mali, Libya and the Touaregs

Something surprising happened to AQIM on the way to imposing its death-by-stoning version of Shariah law in northern Mali.  And it has Moammar Gadhafi in part to thank for it.

Moammar Gadhafi, the Libyan leader killed during the country's uprising, had employed Touareg fighters. (Richard Drew/AP)

He liked Mali's Touaregs. Berber people with a fearsome reputation for desert fighting, they didn't mind firing into crowds.  And for their part, the money was good, rumoured to be as much as $1,000 US a day toward the end. 

But when Gadhafi's Libya went south, the Touaregs did too, getting out of town in a great big hurry. Many raced back to Mali, armed to the teeth and hungering for a homeland. 

Mali's military wasn't up to their separatist challenge. A series of bloody encounters drove it to mutiny last March, and Mali's 20-year-old reputation for robust democracy that made it a darling of the West proved to be tissue-thin.     

In a matter of months, AQIM would hijack the nascent revolution, according to Mark Schroeder, vice-president of Africa analysis with Stratfor Global Intelligence, a subscription-based provider of geopolitical analysis based in Austin, Texas. 

"Al-Qaeda in that part of Africa basically co-ordinated and co-operated along with these Touaregs, but quickly usurped the Malians and planted themselves as the superior armed group in northern Mali, and that's where we stand today."

Heading for a bitter battle

AQIM controls nearly half a million square kilometres of mostly vast, remote and inhospitable terrain. And the cities and settlements in it, subject now to AQIM's bloody rules.

'It'll be, at the very least, a campaign that goes on for some time. Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb is a group with nowhere else to go.'—Mark Schroeder, Stratfor Global Intelligence

It's going to be hard to root out, Schroeder says.

"It'll be, at the very least, a campaign that goes on for some time. Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb is a group with nowhere else to go. I mean, their home is in this part of Africa, the Sahel region and the Maghreb region, up in North Africa.   

"It's not like they can flee to some other distant corner of the world. They have roots here. They will fight to defend themselves … they are a very fluid and very nimble fighting force."   

That's the challenge confronting battle planners with the 54 states of the African Union in general, and the Mali's nearest neighbours in particular — the 15 members of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). UN states will provide them logistics, but they'll be the ones at the sharp end when the shooting starts, because Mali alone can't match AQIM's firepower. It needs help and knows it. 

That's why it lobbied the United Nations to declare Chapter 7, the provision that allows it to support actions ranging from sanctions to military intervention against acts of aggression.  It has only been invoked 15 times in the UN's 70-year history, most recently in 2011 for Libya, to the eventual chagrin of China and Russia. 

Its adoption two weeks ago started a clock and African states started planning an al-Qaeda campaign last weekend in Mali's capital city of Bamako. The UN gave it 45 days to come up with a strategy — longer than some expected — prompting speculation the UN is a little nervous about this one, and wants to be absolutely sure there's enough time to come up with a bulletproof strategy.

UN action

As far as Fowler is concerned, the whole process has taken too long to get this far. And while he doesn't consider himself a UN-basher, he believes it has been too tentative to this point. 

When I asked Fowler why he thinks that is, he cited Ponce de Leon Montgomery County Alabama Georgia Beauregard Possum, a.k.a. Pogo the possum from the funny papers, who famously quipped, "We have met the enemy and he is us!" 

"The UN is us," says Fowler. "It is the 194 countries of the UN that elected Australia to the United Nations Security Council, and didn't elect [Canada] a couple of years ago. It's not the UN. It's not a bunch of bureaucrats.  It's the other countries, and the other countries have hugely different views on everything.

"I think China and Russia were pretty heavily stung by Libya and probably left that table muttering, 'Never again!'  Well, with regard to northern Mali, they have agreed to let it happen. So I think that's progress." 

But how much progress can a small, multi-state military hope to make against a wispy foe in the wilds of Mali? 

Mark Schroeder of Stratfor says the ECOWAS is expected to send in about 3,300 peacekeepers. Mali itself will muster slightly less, for a total of something like 6,000. 

Six-thousand. To police a territory the size of France and Belgium. 

Given the numbers, he says, they won't be able to rout AQIM. That would require a larger force that nobody has an appetite for creating. The most they can hope to do is deny it the freedom of movement it now enjoys. 

"A strategy can be articulated to try to contain al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb by having Malian and West African forces establish outposts in northern Mali where right now it's entirely absent," Schroeder says. 

The forces would then need to work with other militaries in the region, such as the Algerians, the Mauritanians and the military of Niger, to set up blocking positions to contain the spread or the flow of al-Qaeda elements, he says.   

"And then behind that, western support to really provide more specialized operations; intelligence gathering and aviation assets to really be able to pin down movements of al-Qaeda. That's the role you'd likely look to the French, the United States, other western European allies to really play a part in. 

"And the Canadian Department of Defence has also had officials in the region to keep their eye on what's going on. It certainly goes back to when Ambassador Robert Fowler was kidnapped in Niger by these elements. That has not been forgotten by the Canadian government."

Canada's role

Canada doesn't appear to have a defined role in the battle planning and execution that lies ahead. Former Ambassador Fowler believes it should. 

'We've invested hundreds of millions of dollars in development assistance in those countries, and surely it's in our interest to protect that investment.'—Robert Fowler

"We have lots of very fine friends in that area of the world. Friends that we've been working with for 50 to 60 years. We've invested hundreds of millions of dollars in development assistance in those countries, and surely it's in our interest to protect that investment."

Fowler says al-Qaeda is a big threat to that investment.

"To say nothing of the downside … if al-Qaeda is allowed to do what it said so clearly to me that they want to do — and that is to establish a 7,000-kilometre-wide and 1,000-kilometres-deep band of chaos and instability from Nawakshot in Mauritania on the Atlantic, to Mogadishu in Somalia on the Indian Ocean — and that in that band of chaos and destruction their jihad will be nurtured. I mean, that is their stated plan. Should Canada wish to ensure that not happen? You betcha!" 

France, with six of its nationals presently in captivity because of AQIM, doesn't want that to happen. Along with the U.S. and Britain, it has pledged logistical help in the coming campaign in its former colony. That could include airlift, intelligence-gathering and electronic warfare. 

Former Ambassador Fowler says he wouldn't be surprised if western "logistics" even extended to aerial bombing. "I think it could happen, yeah."

Rime and reason

Asked whether he's been able to put his captivity behind him, Fowler quotes from Coleridge's epic poem about a sailor returned from a parlous sea voyage. 

"You'll recall that said Ancient Mariner 'stoppeth one in three to tell his tale.' So that's what I'm doing. I keep telling my tale," says Fowler. "I'm certainly recovered, I think. It was certainly a pretty stunning piece of my life. Every now and then it comes back to me when I see somebody else kidnapped, or hear of the predations of these guys. 

"They hate everything we stand for. They hate freedom. They hate liberty. They hate equality. They hate choice. These are all things they believe are God's province, and not Man's."


Rick MacInnes-Rae

World Affairs

Until his retirement in July 2014, Rick MacInnes-Rae was the World Affairs Correspondent for CBC News. A former Europe Correspondent and host of Dispatches, his 37-year- career with the CBC has taken him across much of the globe.