Bob Fowler’s descent into al-Qaeda hell

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A Season in Hell
By Robert R. Fowler
HarperCollins Canada
342 pp; $32.99

In a scrap book on a shelf in the basement I have a picture taken on March 20, 1986. It is a standard group shop, mostly of men in suits and a few women in office dress staggered in informal lines. It was supposed to be a relaxed moment at the hotel during a very hectic state visit by then Prime Minister Brian Mulroney to Washington, D.C.

As I recall it, no one was relaxed that morning. We were still waiting to see if and how the story would break that Sondra Gotlieb, wife of Canada’s then Ambassador to the U.S., Allan Gotlieb, had slapped her social secretary on the steps of the residence in front of the press the night before. It was the return hospitality dinner by the Prime Minister for then Vice-President George H.W. Bush and many D.C. power brokers.

What became known as “the slap heard round the world” went viral, before that term came to be understood as it is today. It was unpleasant business. In my job as assistant to the ambassador, I was spectator and paper jockey waiting in the wings to be useful. On this one, no one could really help. This was my first and last posting as a Foreign Service Officer during my four-year stint with External Affairs that ended later that summer.

This trip down memory lane was prompted by reading the extraordinary tale, A Season in Hell:  My 130 Days in the Sahara with Al Qaeda, by retired Canadian diplomat, Robert Fowler, who was kidnapped in December 2008 by al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) with his colleague, Louis Guay. Fowler had been tasked as Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General for Niger to get the government and rebels to negotiate peace.

Among the various Canadian power brokers in that 1986 photo is the smiling face of Bob Fowler, already then a high-ranking official working in the Privy Council Office as the Assistant Secretary to the Cabinet for Foreign and Defence Policy. I remembered him because he was decent and friendly, even to a lowly Third Secretary.

I briefly renewed my slight acquaintance with Fowler on June 9, 2008 at a meeting of the Africa Study Group in Ottawa. On that night, Fowler was front and centre in the discussion between Ambassador (ret.) Bethuel Kiplagat from the Africa Peace Forum, our Ploughshares partner in Kenya, and various serving and retired officials who had long-standing ties to Africa. Six months later in December 2008, I was following the news with everyone else about Fowler’s descent into hell as a kidnap victim of fundamentalist mujahedeen in the Sahara.

Fowler’s story has the expected kidnap victim’s accounts of deprivations and bouts of abject fear. You learn how a reasonably fit Canadian man in his sixties with a bad back copes with 40 C daytime temperatures, cold nights, periodic sandstorms and pelting rain, with a jerry-rigged tarp for shelter. Eating poor food and drinking dirty water over months result in the kind of internal problems you don’t want to read about. The analytical Fowler gives enough detail to convey the meaning of steadfastness and ingenuity in adversity.

The stereotype of Canadians as boy scouts in a dangerous world gets a thorough working over as Fowler confronts the dread of being executed at any moment, mixed with the longing and worry for his family. A mind challenged by a lifetime of engagement in politics and diplomacy at the highest levels must deal with being stranded with little to read and gaping periods of time to while away in the blazing sun.

Within this deeply personal account of his impressions of his captors and the changing but always dangerous landscape as they move from camp to camp, Fowler periodically stops to puzzle over the fused religious and political ideology that animates AQIM’s jihad against the near enemy—apostate Islamic countries—and the far enemy—Israel and European and North American liberal decadence. Fowler fends off the interminable invitations to forsake apostasy and become a Muslim by trying to remain respectful, and buying time with feigns of interest; a pragmatic approach to the AK-47 toting hard men on whom he is dependent for survival. No Stockholm Syndrome here. Fowler looks back and says he never came close to recognizing his own life having meaning in their words.

Fowler confronts at least one of the weaknesses arising from his homeside’s culture and ideology in the broader “clash of civilizations,” a phrase he tentatively endorses. Some evenings were set aside for laptop shows of al-Qaeda propaganda loops. Clips of successful firefights with the enemy and explosions and beheadings that kill the infidel are interspersed with teachings of various Imams. Always on the menu are pictures and videos of Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq and Guantanamo in Cuba where Western human rights standards were sacrificed on the altar of the “Great War on Terror.” Fowler bitterly detests and denounces these violations of fundamental human rights from the vantage point of being a shoe firmly on the other foot in the Sahara.

Knowing that Fowler and Guay survive the ordeal does not lessen the anxiety experienced while reading their progress from capture to freedom many months later. The book ends with synopses of heroes and villains who worked for their release behind the scenes in Canada and in Africa. Roses and brickbats are served up with the economy and aplomb of a man who earned his way in diplomacy through a gift for deft analysis married to an inquiring and gregarious personality.

Among those pictured in my 1986 scrapbook D.C. photo are people, most now retired, who went on to play key international roles for Canada as ambassadors and deputy ministers. Only an Ottawa insider would remember most of them. Fowler himself became Deputy Minister of the Department of National Defence in the 1990s and served as Canada’s Ambassador to the United Nations in New York, including a two-year stint when Canada was last on the Security Council.

While I read Fowler’s kidnap account I kept asking myself how the rest of those people in the 1986 photo would have survived the ordeal that Fowler went through as a retiree. Most, I concluded, would not even have put themselves in the position Fowler did so that he could be kidnapped by al-Qaeda. And, frankly, neither would I.

Fowler is extraordinary, and this book is worth reading, because he accepted the UN assignment in the first place. He believes in Africa, its potential, and the role that the international community can play in assisting Africa in finding a more peaceful and prosperous path. Fowler also believes in the kind of active Canadian diplomacy that makes a difference in the world, a belief now in short supply in official Ottawa as Canada hustles to be no more than a bit player in international military coalitions intervening in remote lands.

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