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Kidnapped by al Qaeda: 130 days in hell

August 7th, 2012
04:13 PM ET

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.

soundoff (39 Responses)

    Let them test what our founding fathers test during slave trade and colonialism

    August 7, 2012 at 6:35 pm | Reply
  2. kerry

    Like 'Locked UP Abroad' show on National Geo.

    August 7, 2012 at 8:27 pm | Reply
  3. C

    And now we are arming the same Al Qaeda groups in Syria, the same Jihadist from neighboring nations, who are involved with the FSA. How about you mention that? Or are you too concerned with your career? How about telling the American people the truth?

    August 7, 2012 at 9:36 pm | Reply
    • pianki

      You are so correct.

      August 8, 2012 at 4:43 am | Reply
  4. baritone

    story says that it was a stable country and that suddenly this spring it imploded. there's no mystery about it. the rebels were always there. the military always opposed to the rebels. as long as gaddafi was around, things were in check. as soon as he went, the rebels went out of control, so the military took over to check them

    August 7, 2012 at 11:17 pm | Reply
  5. Mark

    Why have we made no attempt to figure out what al-qaeda want? I am not asking to negotiate with anyone, maybe its time we sit and question it all. Is this war on terror necessary, is there really any terror – no, this group only wants freedom and withdrawal, nothing else.

    August 7, 2012 at 11:18 pm | Reply
    • Nick

      @Mark, you're brain-dead

      August 8, 2012 at 10:19 am | Reply
  6. baritone

    mark, it wants less and more. first, they want money. hence the kidnappings. they are not in a position to be as rich as they want and they prey on poor muslims and fill them with dreams of material rewards or rewards in the after life. but they won't stop there. ultimately, they are like the european conquerors who followed a system of religious conversion. they want to convert the whole world, convert everyone to islam. only then they will be happy. and a very extreme form of islam at that

    August 7, 2012 at 11:28 pm | Reply
  7. McIver3

    The Ottoman Turks overthrew Constantinople in 1453, taking it from Christianity to an Islamic nation. The Muslims have continued their war on the world, trying to fulfill the Muhmamadan prophecy and promise of universal Islamization. The Muslims won't stop.

    August 7, 2012 at 11:59 pm | Reply
    • JC

      Yeah, okay. And maybe in a 100 years from now the Christians will invade Turkey and reChristen Istanbul as Constantinople. Or maybe the Buddhists will finally become militants and destroy every other religion in the world

      August 8, 2012 at 2:37 am | Reply
    • mjm

      McIver3, You should understand Islam in detail, not by comments and websites. The Media communicates the wrong message in the most ugliest way to readers. Your detailed understanding on Islam will show you the beauty of it and the peace in it. Communicating the message in the best possible way is my concern. Accepting or not accepting it is of your concern, whilst guidance is always from God alone. Realize it before its too late pen pal. Cheers!

      August 8, 2012 at 3:14 am | Reply
      • chr

        Dear mjm, why do we need to understand the message from the Islam, when the rezults from the Islam religion are so wrong?

        August 8, 2012 at 4:41 am |
  8. mjm

    Sadly people believe everything the Media says whilst all of them are Jewish Supporters hence Terrorists of all time. Ban the Illuminati. Americans should wake up from controversies which have vested all over their minds. Bombing for Peace is like ***** for Virginity.. Terrorists are Jews who have nothing in mind but to corrupt the world and mislead everyone.

    August 8, 2012 at 3:03 am | Reply
    • anar

      i'm jewish and i want to corrupt you


      August 8, 2012 at 3:16 am | Reply
    • Maon

      MJM, you are exactly why muslims are crazy terrorists. You people live 24 hour conspiracy theories. Illuminati? Muslims are the grandest scale of brain washing in the history of mankind. Islam is unwielding, unrelenting and uncompromising. All other religions and people attempt to live harmoniously in this world, aiming for peace and harmony. Muslims only aim to create chaos and strife, hoping to hump 40 virgins after they blow themselves up.
      MJM, muslims are the evil of this world. Not Jews. Unfortunately, muslims will never accept this and will always want war and death, wherever they are in the world.

      August 8, 2012 at 5:51 am | Reply
  9. RLTJ's

    Since they are what what pearl say they are then they must be demons set loose on this planet.

    We look forward to the day when none of them is around. And by that time we will have a United Nations whose people can go anywhere on earth respected, can go in and out of any camp unharmed.

    Right now we are hell.

    August 8, 2012 at 3:44 am | Reply
  10. RLTJ's

    You know, I have my little theory about demons. They are mischievous creatures that not even Satan himself can control.

    Maybe only God can send them back to the little hole of big hell where they all came from. But maybe God requires a little help from humans. After all it is their problem not his.

    August 8, 2012 at 3:53 am | Reply
  11. RLTJ's

    And somebody discovered long ago that it was humans that summoned them, actually..." When you think of the devil, the devil appears".

    August 8, 2012 at 4:05 am | Reply
  12. Pete

    They're simply deranged, corrupted by human construct. The only way to free the world of their insanity is to invade and take them all out. The U.N. shouldn't sit back and watch the madness unfold. They must show some damn initiative and eradicate this plague of barbarianism.

    August 8, 2012 at 4:44 am | Reply

      I think that nor Jews or Chrisians know what is the purpose of Islam at this real moment, is uprooting jews from the place and they don't belong to , Palestine is the issue . Palestinians hate Israel not for its democracy that is unprrecedented by western views, but because the devil himself is ashamed of how they killed many children with no reason but they are Palestinians , the Media is deviated to Israel and the whole world believes it , and when they see the bombing all around they say terrorist oh ,,,, what about giving the palestinians their rights. JEWS won't I know because what is taken by force never return without force.

      August 8, 2012 at 8:52 pm | Reply
  13. Eusebio Manuel Vestias Pecurto

    A comunidade internacional devem criar uma solução pacifica para acabarem com esta praga da barbárie dos cidadãos do mundo são os valores da paz

    August 8, 2012 at 6:43 am | Reply
  14. Sammy

    All you need is drones...

    August 8, 2012 at 8:28 am | Reply
  15. Ottoman

    al Qaeda is not a islamic group. terrorism is forbidden in islam. these words may be sounds intresting, but this is truth. Quran saying that killing a inocent person is the same as killing all people in the world. That is the İslam we believe, and real one..

    August 8, 2012 at 9:35 am | Reply
  16. Pete

    These are the kinds of people behind 9/11. The war on terrorism IS a war that needs to be fought. You cannot allow these people to fester in the depths of the desert, murdering innocent people and spawning future attacks. I'm all for justice and peace. BUT the only way that'll ever be possible is by wiping these militants off the map.

    August 8, 2012 at 9:56 am | Reply
  17. Pete


    Islam spawns terrorism. They just interpret it different to you. All religions are human constructs. Just look how they poison our society.

    Instead of using modern wisdom, religious people use the wisdom of people of thousands of years ago. People IGNORANT to the world as we NOW know.

    All I can do is shake my head, so many stupid people. Ugh.

    August 8, 2012 at 10:00 am | Reply
  18. Ottoman


    Islam does not spawn terrorism as i sad before. People is hiding behind name of the islam, and they are doing horible things to achieve their goals, and provide their satisfaction. There are many examples in the history like these fake islamic groups, but the groups living real islam they always want world peace.

    Also you called modern wisdom, what is it actually? There are more pains in the world than before. Why can not be wisdom of people of thousands of years ago is better than present wisdom. Actually it is not wisdom of people of thousands of years ago, it is wisdom of Allah..

    August 8, 2012 at 10:57 am | Reply
  19. Osarenren Ihaza

    I'm glad He's safe. These al Qaeda folks seriously have to go. How about drones?

    August 12, 2012 at 9:19 am | Reply
  20. ernie meyer

    I assume then these characters don't believe in freedom of religion? Yet they want to be free to control people through their religion. There is some real screwed thinking there. Totally fifteenth century.

    January 17, 2013 at 11:44 am | Reply
  21. Caliph Braide.

    Wisdom of people of thousands years ago, and the wisdom of the people today have all rather aided and abated skirmishes with terrible experience of wars and killing of innocent souls due to greed of some few people in the global society. Though weapons negates morals, on the other hand and morally, weapon is neutral depends on the user and how it is used. Come to think of the power that be and the nations that made up the united nations. The slogan and the symbolic statue in the head quaters premises of the UN. Unfortunately, the prevalent activities of the nations and the Umbrella body are quite a big contrast. Comparing with the slogan, and I quote " Beat their swords into Plowshares and their Spears into Pruning shears". Simply means, instead of manifacturing weapons. The nations will invest in Agriculture and remove all unnecessary things against betterment in the global society. And nation will not lift up weapon, against nation neither will they learn war-(Micah 4 vs 3). Learn from United states which is today lamenting and crying over spilt milk consequently upon irrational policy on Gun use act lately.

    January 18, 2013 at 5:12 am | Reply
  22. Douglass Smigiel

    India is the world's largest producer and consumer of milk, yet neither exports nor imports milk. New Zealand, the European Union's 27 member states, Australia, and the United States are the world's largest exporters of milk and milk products. China and Russia are the world's largest importers of milk and milk products...":

    Have a good weekend

    July 10, 2013 at 7:31 am | Reply
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