For all the verbiage about al-Qaida over the past decade, only a tiny number of Westerners are actually speaking from firsthand experience. Robert Fowler, a former Canadian diplomat and U.N. envoy, is one of them.
In December 2008, Fowler and a U.N. colleague were traveling through a remote stretch of southwestern Niger, near the border with Mali, when gunmen forced them from the road.
"We were thrown into the back of a truck, driven back the way we had come, our wrists were bound and we began what I call our 56-hour descent into hell," Fowler tells NPR Morning Edition host Renee Montagne.
Actually, the next four months weren't all that pleasant, either.
Yet Fowler and his colleague, Louis Guay, became two of the most prominent Westerners ever to survive capture by the extremist group, an experience Fowler has documented in the book A Season in Hell: My 130 Days in the Sahara with Al Qaeda.
The specific group that held them — al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb — has been in the news recently because it now controls of parts of northern Mali.
Mali's Stability Shattered
Mali was considered relatively stable until earlier this year. But in March, the democratically elected president was ousted in a coup in the capital, Bamako, in the country's south. Meanwhile, Tuareg rebels in the north captured several towns as part of their attempt to form a breakaway state. And now, in a second insurgency in the north, the Islamists of al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb are grabbing territory.
In 2008, Fowler was seized by the forces of Mokhtar Belmokhtar, an Algerian who is a top al-Qaida figure in the region and has been linked to violence throughout north Africa.
Fowler describes Belmokhtar as a hardened fighter whose battlefield experience dates back to the war by Islamic fighters against the Soviet troops in Afghanistan in the 1980s. Along the way, Belmokhtar lost an eye, received a "great scar across his face," and developed an uncompromising approach to his brand of Islam.
"I think they represent an enormous threat," Fowler says of Belmokhtar and his men. "This is the most focused group of individuals I have ever met."
Fowler, a career diplomat, says the U.S. and its allies have "massively failed" in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya. Over the past decade, authoritarian leaders have been ousted in all three countries, but the transitions that have followed have been messy.
"We have caused one of the most unstable regions in the world to become awash in weapons," he says.
No Prospect For Negotiations
Yet he sees no possibility of negotiation with al-Qaida based on members of the group he met during his captivity.
"You cannot discuss peace with the al-Qaida guys," he says. "They are simply not interested in any such discussions. The only thing they're interested in is ending the government of men and substituting it with the government of God.
"The al-Qaida guys are committed to fighting and dying for their cause. And I see no other way of dealing with the threat they pose than helping them die for their cause."
He sees al-Qaida's presence in Mali as particularly troublesome because the country is poor and its security forces have limited abilities. It's not difficult to imagine al-Qaida fighters becoming increasingly entrenched in the remote, isolated regions of northern Mali, he says.
"This is the first time that al-Qaida really has a country, a more or less secure base from which to operate," he says. "Certainly I would argue that allowing them to maintain that secure base represents a significant threat to Western interests, most immediately to European interests, but very soon after that, North American interests."
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Mali is seriously considering military options to win back its northern desert territory, taken over by Islamists linked to al-Qaida last spring. Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb has been destroying centuries-old shrines and imposing a harsh form of religious law. Just days ago it publicly stoned a young couple accused of adultery. That Islamist takeover has also led to tough talk in Washington. Assistant Secretary of Defense Michael Sheehan, made this comment last week.
MICHAEL SHEEHAN: We know we cannot allow al-Qaida to sit in ungoverned space and have a sanctuary and impunity. That's a really bad equation.
MONTAGNE: To learn how bad that equation really is, we called Canadian diplomat Robert Fowler. Three years ago he was UN peace envoy in the region on a journey with a colleague in the vast arid belt of land that stretches across much of North Africa. Their vehicle was forced from the road by gunmen.
ROBERT FOWLER: We were thrown into the back of a truck, driven back the way we had come, our wrists were bound and we began what I call our 56-hour descent into hell.
MONTAGNE: Those hours were spent traveling deep into the Sahara Desert where the two men were held captive by al-Qaida for months. Robert Fowler says the same group is now calling the shots in northern Mali. Ambassador, Fowler, thank you for joining us.
FOWLER: It's a real pleasure, Renee.
MONTAGNE: In your memoir about your kidnapping called "A Season in Hell," you write about meeting, in captivity, these men from al-Qaida who are now up there in northern Mali running things. Tell us about them.
FOWLER: The fellow who was in charge of the military unit that proceeded with our kidnapping is a kind of well-known al-Qaida guy, called Mokhtar Belmokhtar. He is known as an Afghan Arab. That's because he fought against the Russians in Afghanistan, lost an eye doing so, and has a great scar across his face. I mean, I know this is right out of a pirate story, but it was like that
A very serious fighter, he's been fighting against the government of Algeria for 20 years. A struggle which has caused 200,000 casualties, and he is generally known as the amir or the leader of the southern Sahara. So he's the main al-Qaida guy in the southern part of Algeria. His unit commander, a fellow who I speak of in the book as Omar I, any YouTube viewer can see many clips of him. And it is quite chilling, you can imagine, for me to watch on videotape my captor screaming and yelling all the slogans that he yelled in our face for 130 days.
MONTAGNE: Well, given your personal experiences with these men and others in that group, how big of a threat do you think they are there, in Mali, to regional security, but also international security?
FOWLER: Well, I think they represent an enormous threat, and of course your listeners will say, well he would, wouldn't he, because he was their captive. But this is the most focused group of individuals I have ever met. These were young men. There were 31 of them who held us. Their ages were between seven and 47. They were dressed in rags. They treated their weapons very carefully. They were constantly cleaning them. There was a lot of sand and dust around.
They were not interested in any material stuff. What they wanted was to get to paradise as expeditiously as possible. They believed, fervently, that if they died fighting God's war then they would get a free pass.
MONTAGNE: At least one leader of another West African nation has suggested that military intervention is inevitable. What form might that take, African troops, American drones?
FOWLER: Well, I'm rather conflicted about all this. I am no fan of what we set out to do and massively failed to achieve in any of Iraq, Afghanistan, or Libya. I believe that what we did in Libya proves the imperative of the law of unintended consequences, and by overthrowing Gadhafi in the way we did - by the way I was perfectly happy to see him overthrown - we have caused one of the most unstable regions in the world to become awash in masses of weaponry.
But you cannot discuss peace with the al-Qaida gang. They are simply not interested in any such discussion. The only thing they're interested in is ending the government of men and substituting it for the government of god.
MONTAGNE: Which brings us back to some sort of strong arm tactic, although you've suggested military intervention is always a bad idea, because it can lead to unintended consequences.
MONTAGNE: What else is there?
FOWLER: Vis-à-vis, al-Qaida, there is no other solution. The al-Qaida guys are committed to fighting and dying for their cause, and I see no other way of dealing with the threat they pose, than helping them to die for their cause. I've followed, very closely, the regional association of West Africa's attempts to put together a force of three-and-a-half-thousand African troops, and the UN has been very leery - or the UN Security Council - about passing a resolution endorsing such a thing until the UN Security Council can be convinced that there is some chance of success.
Most people foresee a sort of two-phased approach to dealing with this issue. Such a West African force, in phase one, would proceed to southern part of Mali, and help to restore order and stability in the south, the part that is not controlled al-Qaida. Once that is assured - and that is not the case today - once that is assured, then phase two would be throwing al-Qaida out of the north, and that is the one that gives everybody pause.
These are desert fighters. They know the desert. I only spent nearly five months there, but - and I saw what they can do in the desert, and it is pretty impressive. And so, yes, I do foresee an absolute necessity for aerial reconnaissance, for drones and probably attack helicopters and fixed wing. Meanwhile, media reports suggest that all kinds of foreign fighters are flowing into this region of northern Mali. I mean, this is the first time that al-Qaida really has a country, a more or less secure base from which to operate. And certainly, I would argue that allowing them to maintain that secure base represents a significant threat to Western interests - most immediately, European interests, but very soon after that, North American interests.
MONTAGNE: Robert Fowler is a former UN envoy, and the author of the memoir, "A Season in Hell: My 130 Days in the Sahara with al-Qaida." He joined us from Ottawa, Canada. Thanks very much.
FOWLER: It's a real pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.