On December 14, 2008, Robert Fowler’s life took a terrifying turn. The long-serving Canadian diplomat and then-United Nations special envoy to Niger was traveling through the African country when he and his aide were taken hostage.
Fowler had arrived in Niger with fellow Canadian diplomat Louis Guay just a few days earlier. They were there on a mission to help initiate peace talks between Tuareg rebels and the government. He remembers almost every detail of his abduction, now chronicled in his book “A Season in Hell.” Fowler, Guay and their driver were heading to a gold mine the day of his abduction, hoping to learn how the mine’s profits could help facilitate a peace accord.
They didn’t make it to destination: about 40 kilometers into their trip, a pickup truck “appeared out of nowhere” and quickly overtook them. The truck swung in front of the diplomats’ car, blocking their path and forcing their driver to slam on the brakes.
Two men jumped out of the truck, assault rifles in tow, and forced everyone out of the car. Fowler, Guay and their driver were thrown into the truck, which promptly pulled a 180-degree turn and sped off to an unknown destination.
Initial reports named the Tuareg rebels as Fowler’s captors. But soon after the diplomats were taken into hostage, al Qaeda’s North African franchise took responsibility. Fowler says when he was told his captors were members of al Qaeda, “the bottom fell out of my world.”
Fowler had good reason to be scared. His abductors, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) are a much-feared militant group in North Africa. They are responsible for numerous abductions and bombings, including the suicide attack that killed 16 soldiers and two civilians at an Algerian military academy in August 2011.
The diplomats and their driver were held captive for 130 days. During this time, they made three proof-of-life videos and were allowed one phone call to their families on day 87. Happily, the threesome was released on April 21, 2009. They had not suffered any serious harm during their captivity.
The Canadian government denied paying a ransom in exchange for the safe return of Fowler and Guay, but a recently leaked U.S. State Department cable revealed that money did, in fact, change hands. The cable did not specify the amount of the ransom.
Just a few weeks before Fowler was kidnapped, another Canadian was taken hostage.