When the kidnappers freed Robert Fowler and Louis Guay after a gruelling 130 days of captivity this spring, Prime Minister Stephen Harper expressed his gratitude to a long list of people: presidents, diplomats, allies, even the United Nations.
But he omitted any mention of the most important man of all: the mysterious negotiator from the wilds of the Sahara who brokered the deal that bought the freedom of the Canadian hostages from their al-Qaeda abductors.
It was a crucial omission, and it revealed the distrust and controversy that still swirls around the shadowy negotiator. Did he walk away with some of the money himself? Is he playing both sides? Is he a little too close to the terrorists with whom he bargains?
The questions are unanswered. But every insider admits that the negotiator, Baba Ould Sheik, was the essential man for the job. Since his first hostage deal in 2003, he has been the region's go-to man, the wheeler-dealer with the connections and toughness to haggle with heavily armed terrorists in the sand dunes of the Sahara.
I don't regret that I fought for Fowler's liberation, but I'm not happy with Canada. Baba Ould Sheik
Until now, he has never spoken publicly of his pivotal role in freeing Mr. Fowler and Mr. Guay. He is a man who has always preferred the shadows. But now, in an interview with The Globe and Mail, he describes how he brokered the deal, how he communicated with to the terrorists, how he shared his carpet in the desert with Mr. Fowler, and how he drove through a sandstorm to get the Canadians back to safety.
He also says that he was never thanked by Canada for his three months of work to free the Canadians, and was never compensated for his substantial expenses. Yet he acknowledges that even his own colleagues assume that he was paid – and are accusing him of failing to share the money.
Mr. Ould Sheik, who wears a white robe and a brown turban, speaks in a polite matter-of-fact voice as he relates his story. He is a wealthy businessman and Arab community leader from northern Mali whose only official title is mayor of Tarkint, a district in the Sahara. But in elite circles in Mali, he is famed for his ability to negotiate with terrorists, a role he has been playing for the past six years, beginning with helping to free 14 European hostages in Mali in 2003.
After the two Canadian diplomats were kidnapped in Niger last December, it quickly became clear that they had been smuggled across the border into Mali's northern deserts. Mali's President, Amadou Toumani Touré, repeatedly asked Mr. Ould Sheik to help negotiate with the kidnappers. He says he refused twice, then finally agreed after the third request, which came in January.
Within the Malian government, the mood shifted when Mr. Ould Sheik agreed to take the assignment. "If Baba Ould Sheik is involved, there will be a happy ending," one government official said. "He is a very efficient man."
Mr. Ould Sheik formed a delegation of eight respected community leaders to meet the kidnappers. As time went on and the work became tougher in the Sahara's fierce heat and wind, only two or four of them would do the negotiating, always led by Mr. Ould Sheik.
It was difficult for him to contact the terrorists, who never kept the same satellite phone number for more than a couple of days. Sometimes he had to drive for days through the desert, then wait at a designated location for three or four days until someone came to him with a phone number for him to call, and then he would be told of another meeting point. Sometimes he had to drive nearly to the Algerian border, a distance of some 700 kilometres through the Sahara from his base in the northern town of Gao.
Negotiating with the radical kidnappers was equally hard. "Sometimes I had to explain to them that what they wanted was not possible," he said. "Sometimes I had to beg them to accept what we were offering."
Yet it is clear that Mr. Ould Sheik has a good relationship with the terrorists. He spoke often to their Algerian leader, Mokhtar Belmokhtar, whom he defends as "not a bad man."
He said he carried an "Ordre de Mission" to prove that he was representing Mali's President in the negotiations, and the kidnappers respected him. "These people know that I won't lie to them," he said.
Back in Mali's capital, Bamako, he held many meetings with Canadian diplomats and other officials. At their request, he brought emergency supplies to the hostages, including medicine and clothes, he said.
In the beginning, he said, the kidnappers were interested mostly in money – lots of it. But later they became obsessed with seeking the freedom of several al-Qaeda members who had been arrested and jailed in Mali. "It would have been a stain on their names if these men were imprisoned," he said. "It's okay for them to die in battle, but not to be imprisoned."
Mr. Ould Sheik brought back at least two videos from the kidnappers to prove that the Canadian hostages were still alive. The first video was made just five days after the Canadians were captured.
In the second video – made on Feb. 3, about seven weeks after the kidnapping, and recently viewed by The Globe and Mail – the two Canadian diplomats sit on the floor of a tent while four kidnappers stand behind them, holding machine guns and masking their faces with black turbans. Also on the tent floor is their United Nations driver from Niger, who was later released. Behind the kidnappers is an Islamic jihad banner, in black and white, proclaiming "God is Great" in Arabic.
In the video, Mr. Fowler and Mr. Guay speak in French, explaining that they have been captured by the terrorist group known as al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). They thank their families, and Mr. Guay expresses regret at missing the birthdays of his children, while Mr. Fowler praises his "magnificent" family.
"I regret that I caused them such pain, and I am eager to see them very soon," he says. "We live in the desert, the conditions are not easy, but we are treated very well."
One of the masked kidnappers, standing behind Mr. Fowler, holds a sword in his hands. But their attempt to appear menacing is undercut when a bandolier of bullets slips off the shoulder of one kidnapper in the middle of the video, tumbling to the floor with an embarrassing clatter.
In a third video, some weeks later, the atmosphere is much more terrifying. The Canadians are blindfolded, with their hands behind their backs, while the kidnappers recite a long ultimatum, threatening to execute their captives. Mr. Fowler later said he wasn't sure if he would live or die.
Mr. Ould Sheik was impressed by Mr. Fowler's courage as the death threat was made, and he said the kidnappers were impressed that he did not cry or show emotion. "He faced this terrible time as a real man. Even they recognized that this was a real man."
Mr. Ould Sheik confirmed Mr. Fowler's own assessment that about 100 AQIM fighters were involved in the two terrorist cells that captured the two Canadian diplomats and four European tourists in December and January. The leaders were Algerian, and their food and vehicles came from Algeria, but their rank-and-file members included scores of recruits from Senegal, Ghana, Nigeria, Mauritania and Benin, he said.
Mr. Ould Sheik was reluctant to talk about specific details of the negotiations or say much about the involvement of Canadian officials. Several Mali government sources have confirmed that the final deal with the kidnappers, negotiated in mid-April, included the release of three AQIM members from Malian prisons, along with a cash payment of several million dollars.
Also freed at the same time as the Canadians were two women tourists from Germany and Switzerland who had been kidnapped in January. But for AQIM, it was clear that Mr. Fowler and Mr. Guay were the most valuable prize. The two women were in poor health, and the kidnappers feared that they might die if they were not released, Mr. Ould Sheik said.
After the Canadians were freed about April 19, they had to wait in the desert for the arrival of the two Europeans, who were held by a different AQIM cell. Then the freed hostages and the negotiators, driving together in two pick-up trucks, embarked on the 700-kilometre journey through the Sahara to the northern town of Gao. There were no roads, just desert trails or wide-open sand. When they slept at night on the desert sand, Mr. Ould Sheik said, he shared his carpet with Mr. Fowler.
At one point, as they drove through the desert, a wind blew up and their vehicles were swallowed in a sandstorm. The Canadians were afraid that they would be lost.
"Even if you know the desert, there is always the wind," the negotiator said. "But when the wind stopped, I knew exactly where we were."
Mr. Ould Sheik insisted that he accepted the three-month hostage assignment because of his sense of duty to the President. He denies receiving any profits from the ransom. But several Malian officials laughed when told of his claim. There are even rumours that he might be arrested or snatched by U.S. special forces in their attempts to locate the AQIM cells.
"Since 2003, Baba Ould Sheik has been at the centre of all hostage releases in Mali," said Serge Daniel, a journalist in Bamako who is writing a book on the hostage dramas. "In every case, there is money involved."
Mr. Ould Sheik said the Canadian diplomats promised to give him a financial payment as a "gesture" for his expenses and his time. "They promised me many things, but to this day, I don't even have a piece of paper from Canada to thank me," he said.
"I don't regret that I fought for Fowler's liberation, but I'm not happy with Canada. I thought they would at least give me a letter of thanks. The Canadians said that since I had used many people in the negotiations, and many vehicles, there would be a gesture for everyone. But it never came, and this caused a conflict among us. Everyone understood that Mali is poor, but we thought that Canada would help us."
Even today, he said, his fellow negotiators are upset with him. "They think I was given something and didn't give it to them."