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."