Media chatter can be deadly for kidnap victims: Fowler

“They came to get me because I was worth something to them. But they were anxious to monitor the media and find out how much,” Canadian diplomat Robert Fowler told Toronto Star reporter Olivia Ward in a recent interview. Silence is safest in kidnap situations, according to Fowler, who was kidnapped in northern Mali at the end of 2008 and held for 130 days.

They are primitive desert dwellers, scrambling through sand dunes in the remote Sahara, ready and willing to ambush and kill. But they are as tuned to the world of cyberspace as executives in urban highrises.

The Al Qaeda captors of Canadian diplomat Robert Fowler held him in the desert of northern Mali for 130 days, starting last December. But despite their archaic views and lifestyle, he says, they are sophisticated readers of the political barometer thousands of kilometres away.

“They live in the 7th century but they’re technologically savvy,” Fowler told the Star. “They were following the Internet, and one even showed me a cellphone picture of me at the UN that I’d never seen before.”

That electronic age expertise, says Fowler – kidnapped while he was a United Nations special envoy to Niger – convinced him that media chatter can be deadly for kidnap victims. And that silence is safest in a world where inflammatory diatribes circulate freely, and truth and lies are magnified and distorted by ruthless terrorist groups.

“Anything could inflame or excite them,” he says. “When the media hyped my CV, the price went up.”

Fowler will speak Tuesday at a Canadian Journalism Foundation panel, News Blackouts Save Lives, at Innis Town Hall in Toronto.

The experiences of Fowler, and fellow kidnap victim Louis Guay, were a dramatic example of how Al Qaeda operations have spread from Afghanistan to the Middle East, to northern Africa, as electronic communications connect militant groups and spawn franchises and wannabes.

The Islamic Maghreb wing of Al Qaeda in North Africa, AQIM, said it was holding the two men, as well as four Western tourists kidnapped separately in northern Mali.

While sporting satellite phones, cellphones, GPSs, walkie-talkies, video cameras and laptops, the militants led a grim, spartan existence that their ancestors would have recognized – living on rice, pasta and dried camel meat with water drawn from wells.

But their electronic contact with the outside world kept them in instant touch with global events, and hungry for any mention of their hostages.

“They came to get me because I was worth something to them,” Fowler says.

“But they were anxious to monitor the media and find out how much.”

The resulting publicity fuelled a surreal stock-market mentality: “One way of determining (value) was column inches and air time. Another was how much the government was subjected to pressure. In a bizarre way it was quite sophisticated.”

So was its media operation, with its own spin doctor, Fowler says: “He walked up to us in our little patch of shade and said `Hi, I’m the media guy.'”

But as the militants scanned the Internet, news of the hostages could set off bursts of rage, if they were portrayed in a questionable light.

“When there were reports about my visit to a (Niger) gold mine, they wanted to know where the gold bars were,” Fowler says.

To fuel emotions in Canada, they drove Fowler and Guay to a huge sand dune near the Algerian border, where they could get cross-border cellphone signals and call their wives. When they failed to reach them on first try, the kidnappers recharged their phone from a car battery, and reloaded their phone card through a laptop computer.

During their long ordeal, Fowler and Guay were also subjected to “movie nights,” when the militants would play violent DVDs on their laptop, featuring the killing of coalition soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan, sent from Al Qaeda’s media operation. And they were filmed in four videos by their captors.

On April 21, the ordeal came to an end, when representatives of the presidents of Mali and Burkina Faso came to collect them, after negotiations that have never been made public.

But even news of their release was a potential danger, Fowler says, tipping off other gangs in the area to the transfer of valuable assets.

“I was never sure how it would end,” he says, adding he has felt no post-traumatic stress from the months of fear and uncertainty – so far. “I’m fine now,” he says. “But the doctors say it can happen in months or years.”

Olivia Ward is a foreign affairs reporter for the Toronto Star.

This article was originally published in the Toronto Star.