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Niger officials likely set him up for kidnapping, Fowler believes

Robert R. Fowler is photographed at 444 Front Street W. in Toronto, Ont. on Nov. 1, 2011 with the belt he used to scratch a notch for each day he was in captivity . Fowler a former Canadian diplomat was taken hostage in Niger in 2008.

Kevin Van Paassen/Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail

Treachery by a now deposed African president likely led to the terrorist kidnapping of two Canadian diplomats, according to an explosive new memoir.

In a soon-to-be-released book, Robert Fowler writes that officials in Niger likely set him up to be kidnapped when he was a special UN envoy in that country by passing his itinerary to a terrorist faction known as al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). Mr. Fowler writes that he suspects the reason was to stop "the interference of a pesky foreigner" in that country's local politics.

The abduction of Mr. Fowler and fellow envoy Louis Guay in Niger in December, 2008, spawned one of the largest Canadian rescue operations abroad. Dozens of Canadian police, intelligence and military officials were sent to Africa to resolve the case.

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The two Canadians had been sent to Niger as special UN envoys in hopes of dampening tensions that had led to an uprising of the Tuareg ethnic groups there. Yet precisely how their troubles started – and suddenly ended 130 days later – remain mysterious.

"So who handed us to AQIM? … It had to be someone who had access to our itinerary," Mr. Fowler writes in the memoir, A Season in Hell. While he has lesser suspects, he concludes, that "I believe it is much more likely, however, that the government of president Mamadou Tandja arranged – however indirectly – for information relating to our movements to be passed to AQIM."

Mr. Tandja was deposed in a military coup last year as he tried to extend his term past a 10-year constitutional limit. After his fall from grace, he was jailed on allegations of embezzling millions of dollars, but the charges were dropped last spring.

Once AQIM militants grabbed the Canadian hostages, they whisked them deep into the Sahara desert and didn't let them go until a secret deal was brokered. The arrangement is believed to have involved a swap of jailed AQIM terrorists for the Canadians and some other European hostages, and the exchange of millions of dollars.

No country, including Canada, has admitted to paying a ransom, and Mr. Fowler's memoir does not delve into the mechanics of the deal. "At no point has anybody told me what really went on," he writes.

Mr. Fowler, who was once a senior bureaucrat in Ottawa, says that top officials played a role in resolving the case. Prime Minster Stephen Harper and United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon took an active interest. The memoir further credits some African leaders as key interlocutors: Mr. Fowler says the leaders of Mali and Burkina Faso took phone calls from his AQIM captors and even routed care packages from Canada into the terrorist hideaways in the Sahara.

Mr. Tandja, Mr. Fowler writes, was obstreperous toward his work in Niger from the get-go. He "had every reason to want my mission to fail or just stop," he writes. He argues that the president used continued rebellion as a pretext to give himself special security powers and the basis for his bid to stay in power past the expiry of his term.

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Leaked U.S. State Department cables obtained by WikiLeaks say that Niger was unhelpful in the hostage investigation. Mounties who were immediately dispatched to work with the Nigerien National Police on the abduction investigation complained of getting the cold shoulder.

U.S. diplomats in Africa expressed concern about Niger's "unwillingness to share information with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police" and their "lack of collaboration on the case." One cable stated that Mr. Tandja "will be stubborn and unhelpful in getting the [national police]to collaborate." One Canadian official confided "that the GON [Government of Niger]may intentionally be providing misinformation to the RCMP."

Whoever set him up, Mr. Fowler says, he is enormously grateful to the Canadian officials and African interlocutors who campaigned for his freedom. "Canada has many wonderful friends in this troubled world and perhaps some of them were also my friends," he writes. "To the extent that such friends may have facilitated our release, I cannot be anything but deeply in their debt."

"Had this not occurred," he concludes, "Louis and I would be dead."

A Season in Hell: A four-part series

Wednesday: Abducted

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Thursday: The Call Home

Friday: Captivity in the Desert

Saturday: Freedom

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About the Author
National security reporter

Focusing on Canadian matters during the past decade, Colin Freeze has reported extensively on the interplay between government, police, spy services, and the judiciary. Colin has twice been to Afghanistan to be embedded with the Canadian military. More

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