By Samuel Burke, CNN
“I thought it would end in a tent with a knife, like Daniel Pearl,” Canadian diplomat Robert Fowler tells Christiane Amanpour about his 130 days being held captive by al Qaeda in Mali in 2008.
“Every time I went into a tent, the first thing I did was look on the ground to see if there was plastic,” he recalls. “I figured they wouldn’t want blood all over their rugs in the middle of the desert where there was no water.”
Fowler and another Canadian diplomat were kidnapped when they were in neighboring Niger, where Fowler was a representative of the U.N. Secretary-General. He was on his third trip to the region when he and his group were grabbed by Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and held by thirty of its members—deep in the Sahara Desert in Northern Mali.
For more than twenty years, Mali has been an anomaly – a stable democracy despite a long history of poverty and drought in Western Africa. And then this spring, Mali imploded. A military coup overthrew the elected government, just as rebels took over the northern part of the country.
As Mali sank into chaos, AQIM– the same group that kidnapped Fowler– took control of the northern part of the country and instituted Sharia law.
“They've been fighting for 20 years, under different names,” Fowler says. “They took up the al Qaeda franchise formally in January of 2007. But they've been the Islamic Front [and] the Group Armée Islamique.”
Fowler says the group isn’t actually interested in governing the country. As he puts it, “They want God to govern. They don't think men should govern. And they hate all our favorite terms. They hate democracy. They hate liberty. They hate freedom. They hate human rights. These are all things they believe are the province of God and not of man.”
Fowler says the kidnappers were the most focused group of young men he had ever seen in his life. “There are no women. There's no slinking off for R&R on the weekends. They are totally focused to Jihad; to dying in their cause. They believe that the prophet said that 99 out of 100 shall not pass. But if you die in Jihad, you get a free pass to those rivers of milk and honey. And that's what they want.”
To cope with the situation Fowler and his partner agreed to certain terms with each other. “Our most wonderful rule was no talking about bad stuff after lunch. And the theory there was if we got wrapped around the difficult discussion, we wouldn't sleep. And if we wouldn't sleep, we'd get more depressed. So it was trying to keep hope alive. It never totally eluded us, but it came very close.”
After intensive negotiations from international governments, Fowler and his colleague were freed in April 2009 following 130 days of captivity.
Now, the U.S., Europe and Mali’s African neighbors are in a somewhat similar position as Fowler, trying to figure out how to deal with AQIM. The last time they controlled a country was in Afghanistan under the Taliban.
Fowler says now what worries him most about the group who once kidnapped him is how little the world is paying attention them.
CNN’s Ken Olshansky produced this piece for television.