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Ransom for Canadian diplomats helped rig African election, U.S. envoys say

Canadian diplomat Robert Fowler was held in captivity by an al-Qaeda faction for 130 days in the Sahara desert.

Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press/Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

West African negotiators who secured the release of two Canadian hostages used a cut of the ransom to rig a village election, U.S. diplomats allege in a leaked document.

Tarkint, a poor Malian village, suddenly found itself awash in "new-found affluence following the liberation of the Canadian hostages," according to a leaked U.S. cable that sheds light on the fallout from the deal to release Canadian diplomats Robert Fowler and Louis Guay.

The May, 2009, cable describes how a "combustible combination" of new funds and old rivalries led "bandits" to strong-arm voters on election day.

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The May, 2009, cable is a sly rebuke of governments that hire interlocutors to deliver ransoms to terrorists in areas riven by tribal tensions. In northern Mali, the lines between terrorists and politicians can be blurry – for example, one of the lead kidnapping suspects in the Canadians' abduction allegedly resurfaced as a hired thug during the village's election day.

"The timing of the Canadians' liberation, less than a week before Mali's April 26 local elections, may not have been a complete coincidence – given that many of the actors who stood to benefit materially from the crisis's resolution were also running for election," the leaked State Department cable says.

On Saturday, The Globe and Mail revealed that the U.S. ambassador to Mali named and shamed Canada for being part of a secret ransom-for-hostages deal. The Conservative government has denied paying into a ransom.

The deal likely saved the lives of Mr. Fowler and Mr. Guay, who were held captive by an al-Qaeda faction for 130 days in the Sahara desert. But the deal led American diplomats to express fears that the payments would have negative effects on regional security.

The cable yields a different perspective on how the ransom may have tilted a delicate balance of power.

Tarkint, a crossroads near Timbuktu, is obscure to most of the world but familiar to trafficking networks who traverse the West African desert.

Canadian officials dispatched to Mali never had any hope of direct dialogue with the kidnappers, so they turned to locals to broker a deal. This led them to engage Tarkint's well-connected mayor, Baba Ould Sheik, who led his tribesmen on more than a dozen trips to talk to terrorist kidnappers in the Sahara.

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"I don't regret that I fought for Fowler's liberation, but I'm not happy with Canada," Mr. Ould Sheik told The Globe and Mail after the deal. He complained that the Canadian officials had neither compensated nor thanked him.

Despite Mr. Ould Sheik's complaints, he appears to have benefited greatly from the ransom, whether directly or indirectly. Within two weeks of the hostage release, political rivals were telling U.S. diplomats that armed "militiamen" had showed up at Tarkint intent on "bullying the local population." This strong arming and ballot-box stuffing allegedly tainted the election in favour of Mr. Ould Shiek and his ethnic Arab faction.

"Tarkint is particularly nettlesome as it involves Malian Arab factions, offended Tuaregs, and an enormous influx of cash likely linked to the Canadian and European hostage crisis," the cable observed.

U.S. diplomats were even told that one of the election-day militiamen was a notorious figure – a terrorist-tied trafficker known simply as "Cheibani."

The cables describe Cheibani as being the Canadians' original kidnapper, the man who brought the hostages to al-Qaeda figures in the desert. According to the cables, Cheibani also killed a U.S. military official in 2000 and was at large until late 2009, when he was arrested on suspicion of gunning down four Saudis at the Mali-Niger border.

Following the tainted election, outraged locals told U.S. diplomats they were prepared to go "to war" against their winning ethnic rivals if the courts didn't overturn some of the alleged vote rigging.

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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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