By Michael Petrou - Tuesday, February 12, 2013 - 0 Comments
The House of Commons foreign affairs committee met today to discuss Mali, where France is currently engaged in war against al-Qaeda and other Islamist groups who had taken control of the northern half of the country. Canada has loaned France the use of a transport plane.
Robert Fowler, the former Canadian and UN diplomat who spent 130 days as a hostage of these same Islamists in northern Mali in 2008 and 2009, testified to the committee.
Fowler argued that Canada should contribute more to the French-led mission, including military assets such as intelligence officers, air power and special forces. He said millions of people in northern Africa are in “significant peril” from the Islamist threat and that no Canadians — indeed no Westerners at all — are safe in large swaths of the Sahel where these Islamists hold sway.
There can be no negotiations with them, he said, because there is no middle ground between what they want and what we might be prepared to give. He recalled his captors bragging about the millions of dollars they had obtained through kidnapping and smuggling, and yet they dressed in rags. They didn’t care about material possessions, only jihad and entering paradise as a martyr in God’s war against the infidels. Economic development, in other words, isn’t going to convince them to put down their weapons. They don’t want jobs; they want to die. And they must be killed — “diminished” is how Fowler put it. Continue…
By Michael Petrou - Friday, January 25, 2013 at 9:30 AM - 0 Comments
Michael Petrou on why this war may be unavoidable
Robert Fowler got to know the Islamists now battling French and Malian troops in northern Mali pretty well during the 130 days he spent as their hostage in 2008 and 2009. Then the UN secretary general’s special envoy for Niger, he and fellow Canadian diplomat Louis Guay were kidnapped by al-Qaeda’s African franchise and lived with them in desert camps until they were freed.
Fowler describes men more single-minded than any he had previously encountered. Their devotion to Islam was constant, as were their attempts to convert them. They showed no interest in the usual concerns of young men: music, sports, fashion, sex. “The mujahedeen seemed perfectly content to talk and chant about Allah and their servitude to Him endlessly,” writes Fowler in a memoir. Life on Earth was a blink of the eye, and death was nothing when you would live in paradise forever. They hoped to die soon in the service of jihad, or holy war. Around the campfire, young recruits listened with wide-eyed wonder to stories of battles against Algerian soldiers that left a battlefield strewn with their apostate enemies’ blackened limbs—proof, if it was needed, that God was on their side. And yet for all their spiritual obsessions, Fowler’s al-Qaeda captors had practical strategies about how Islam’s victory in this world might be achieved. Continue…
By Michael Petrou - Sunday, December 16, 2012 at 7:00 AM - 0 Comments
A Michael Petrou report: Islamist terrorists spread chaos and fear in Africa while the West dithers
When Robert Fowler, who spent 130 days as an al-Qaeda hostage in the Sahara Desert, is asked how he’s doing, he often says he’s doing fine, then adds: “So are my former captors.” In December 2008, Fowler, then the UN Secretary General’s special envoy for Niger, was kidnapped along with his colleague, Louis Guay, in Niger and spirited to northern Mali. The two Canadian diplomats lived in punishing conditions and under the threat of execution for more than four months, until their freedom was negotiated—in exchange, it seems, for a ransom and the release of al-Qaeda terror suspects.
Fowler is now safely back in the embrace of his family in Ottawa, and he sometimes has the bizarre experience of watching YouTube videos of Omar, one of the men who kidnapped him, brandishing a Kalashnikov and issuing hyperbolic threats against France, the United States and all the countries in NATO.
Omar has a lot to gloat about these days. Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), along with affiliated Islamist groups, controls the northern two-thirds of Mali, an area roughly the size of France. Their territory consists mostly of desert, but also contains several cities, including fabled Timbuktu, whose ancient Muslim shrines and monuments al-Qaeda has destroyed because of the supposed affront they present to its rigid interpretation of Islam. While American drone strikes have decimated al-Qaeda’s leadership in Pakistan, it is comparatively unmolested, and flourishing, in Africa.
By John Geddes - Monday, February 13, 2012 at 10:00 AM - 0 Comments
Former high-ranking civil servants are outspoken critics of the Harper government
For a particular set of policy wonks—generally identifiable by the telltale pallor and redness around the eyes that come from too many hours scouring spreadsheets—the recent news that Philip Cross is leaving Statistics Canada was big. The 36-year stalwart of the federal number-crunching agency, most recently its chief economist, has long been a prized source of analysis on questions from the depth of recessions to the problems of productivity. But Cross’s exit, prompted in part by his frustration with the Conservative government’s controversial 2010 decision to cancel the long version of the Canadian census, fits a pattern that has political implications beyond arcane economic debates. He is only the latest in a string of top former public servants to join what amounts to an extra-parliamentary unofficial opposition.
In policy disputes over deficit financing or defence procurement, the government’s stance on the Middle East, or its response to an aging population, the most cogent criticism increasingly comes from independent-minded lapsed bureaucrats. Unlike university professors or think-tank researchers, former mandarins bring insider intelligence on how federal policy is really made. The civil servant colleagues they leave behind keep them up to speed on new developments. All of that can make their critiques more intriguing to the media and, for beleaguered politicians, harder to dismiss. In past eras, retirement often cut them off from timely information sources and avenues for disseminating their views. No longer. “We now have the Internet and blogging and tweeting,” says Scott Clark, a former deputy minister of finance. “All that stuff allows people to do it so easily.”
By “it,” Clark means the kind of probing analysis that he and another top former finance official, Peter DeVries, produce for their website, 3D Policy. As two of the most seasoned budget-makers in Ottawa before they left the public service a few years ago, their typically unsupportive appraisal of Stephen Harper’s approach to taxing and spending resonates in official circles. Last month, for instance, they posted a detailed deconstruction of the Prime Minister’s claim that Old Age Security was “unsustainable.” Not according to Clark and DeVries. They pointed to the government’s own projections showing that restraint already imposed on big spending items like defence and health would allow OAS to go untouched without threatening federal finances. Cross has plans for his own online newsletter, to be called Inside the Numbers.
By macleans.ca - Monday, October 3, 2011 at 10:00 AM - 0 Comments
Saudi Arabia grants women the right to vote, U.S.-Pakistani relations deteriorate further
Steps in the right direction
The king of Saudi Arabia has granted women the right to vote, acknowledging they can make “correct opinions.” This in a place where females can’t travel without a male’s permission, and where one woman who drove, despite a ban, was sentenced to 10 lashes. King Abdullah’s decision also permits females to run for Shura Council. Meanwhile, in Afghanistan, President Hamid Karzai has approved draft regulations allowing women’s shelters to remain independent from government, and receive donations without state intermediation.
It was an exciting week in space news: NASA’s Upper Atmosphere Research Satellite, deployed by the space shuttle in 1991, fell from orbit. A troublemaker on Twitter, armed with some Orson Welles quotes, managed to spread rumours worldwide that UARS had fallen near Okotoks, Alta. Fortunately, it appears the satellite crashed harmlessly somewhere in the Pacific Ocean. A few days earlier, space geeks were titillated with another report: physicists think they saw neutrinos travelling faster than the speed of light, which, if conﬁrmed, would disprove Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity.
By Michael Petrou - Friday, February 4, 2011 at 8:12 PM - 4 Comments
Robert Fowler and Louis Guay were held captive by al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb for five months before they were released. Stephen Harper denied that Canada paid a ransom. He did not deny that other countries might have on Canada’s behalf. The Globe has the WikiLeaks story. I reported similar details in April 2009. Here and here.
By Aaron Wherry - Tuesday, December 28, 2010 at 9:49 PM - 10 Comments
One of the three most popular Beyond the Commons posts of the last 12 months was this video of Bob Rae addressing the House on a quiet Friday afternoon this month. For whatever it’s worth, 162 readers recommended it to their Facebook friends, more than anything else posted to this corner.
You could draw any number of conclusions from such a reaction, but I’ll lay claim to one in particular: an enduring interest in long-form eloquence. We have may long ago lost our patience for hours-long addresses, but there remains a certain craving for the sight and sound of a politician speaking resoundingly, passionately and at length. The media culture may prize the soundbite, but the quip does not satisfy us. We want to hear our leaders speak. That’s how we know who they are.
And on that note, several other performances worthy of note. Continue…
By macleans.ca - Friday, November 5, 2010 at 8:00 AM - 0 Comments
Margaret Thatcher beats out Oprah, Ozzy Osbourne’s Neanderthal roots, and a very special seeing-eye dog
It just isn’t Brett Favre’s year
Despite being hobbled by two fractures in his foot, the Minnesota Vikings quarterback started in his 292nd consecutive NFL game. It was a bittersweet affair for fans, who saw Favre throw a costly interception, draw two penalties and leave the game with an eight-stitch cut to his chin in a loss to the New England Patriots. Then there are his alleged follies off the field: the married QB reportedly sent texts and lewd photos to TV personality Jenn Sterger.
The Parti is hungry
There are a few constants in life in Quebec: good food, cold winters, and infighting within the Parti Québécois. But knowing this can’t allay the worries of Pauline Marois, who after three years at the helm of the sovereignist party is facing restive ranks. A group of 50 young sovereignists recently signed an open letter criticizing her. That came on the heels of a Radio-Canada interview in which Jacques Parizeau chided Marois and complimented Bloc leader (and one-time PQ leadership hopeful) Gilles Duceppe for his “remarkable clarity” on the sovereignty issue. It seems the party that eats its leaders—Marois is the sixth in 10 years—is licking its chops once again.
By Aaron Wherry - Monday, November 1, 2010 at 3:51 PM - 0 Comments
“The civic and political literacy of young Canadians is appallingly low,” the former Canadian ambassador to the United Nations told a group of University of Ottawa graduates Sunday. “Your age group’s involvement in the political process, at all levels of government, stretches any reasonable definition of apathy.”
… Fowler, 66, said it was “intellectually dishonest” for those who’ve “collectively ignored their civic responsibilities” to moan about the abysmal standards of political leadership in Canada … ”You seem to be enthusiastically disqualifying yourselves from any right to demand good government in your own country and effective Canadian engagement abroad,” Fowler said. “Surely you are going to fix that.”
By Peter C. Newman - Monday, April 5, 2010 at 2:39 PM - 91 Comments
PETER C. NEWMAN: The Liberals begin building a template for the next election
Ramrod straight, white-bearded and enunciating each word as if he were reciting the Psalms, Robert Fowler, a 38-year veteran of nearly every senior posting that counts in the federal civil service and Canada’s diplomatic corps, last week delivered his sour benediction at the Montreal Liberal thinkers’ conference. His double-barrelled rant left the audience—consisting in part of mandarins toilet-trained in deference—troubled and bewildered. That was obvious from their body language; none came up to congratulate Fowler for his courage.
The heroic Canadian bureaucrat unexpectedly took advantage of his position as an equal opportunity inquisitor by blasting both Stephen Harper, his Conservative rescuer, and his Liberal host. He accused Michael Ignatieff’s party of being “in danger of losing its soul,” and Stephen Harper, who helped secure his release from terrorist capture in North Africa, of sponsoring a foreign policy designed strictly to gain domestic votes from ethnic communities.
Appointed by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon as his special envoy to bring peace and stability to Niger, where Tuareg rebels were ﬁghting the government over mineral rights, the Canadian bureaucrat had been kidnapped in December 2008 and held for ransom—until he was set free four hair-raising months later. Fowler’s appearance at the Montreal Liberal conference reminded some delegates that there was one other witness to international violence and double-dealing in the hall, namely the not-so-freshly-minted-anymore Liberal leader, who had survived forays into similarly dangerous venues while researching his elegant essays on Third World tinpot potentates and their slutty attitudes on human rights.
By John Geddes - Sunday, March 28, 2010 at 12:05 PM - 107 Comments
Given that Canadian diplomat Robert Fowler was kidnapped in Niger and held in Al Qaeda’s rough hands for four months before being released last spring, his speech at the Liberal thinkers’ conference in Montreal this morning might well have been entirely coloured by his recent ordeal.
Instead, Fowler delivered a fierce, proud address anchored, not in that personal drama, but in his professional experience through three decades as a federal public servant, a diplomat-mandarin. When he did remind his audience of the kidnapping, it was to deftly accent his broader point.
And that point was barbed. Fowler charged the Liberals in the room with standing for little or nothing when it comes to foreign policy. He was even harder on the absent Conservatives, accusing their government of abandoning a Canadian legacy in the world, and, more specifically, of adopting an “Israel, right or wrong” policy that has undermined Ottawa’s credibility abroad. He asserted that there’s an “iron-clad link” between a failure to push for a fair resolution the Israel-Palestine problem and the rise of Islamist terrorism.
By Aaron Wherry - Sunday, March 28, 2010 at 8:38 AM - 96 Comments
Greetings from Montreal, where, for the next three days, we’ll be hanging around the Liberal party’s Canada 150 conference. Herein a running diary of the proceedings. Day 1’s diary is here. Day 2 is here.
8:33am. Good morning again. The lights are now blue and the subject is The World. Up first is Robert Fowler, the former Canadian diplomat who spent a few months in 2009 as a hostage in Niger. Mr. Ignatieff is briefing his caucus by phone at noon and is then due to speak here at 2:30pm, with a press conference to follow.
8:39am. I arrived at about 8:15am and the tables reserved for media were empty except for three bloggers. Bloggers are like journalists who’ve not yet lost the ability to be genuinely interested in things.
8:42am. Liberal partisan John Mraz argues, quite rightly, that one shouldn’t make too much of yesterday’s carbon tax discussion. Indeed, he says pinning the policy on the Liberal party now would be “somewhat akin to having held Stephen Harper to account for the maddeningly hateful babblings of Ann Coulter.” Unfortunately, the Liberals tried to do exactly that last week.
8:48am. Mr. Fowler is here, officially, to speak about Africa, but he is now spanking the Liberal party. “I believe that the Liberal party has lost its way … and is in danger of losing its soul.” The Liberals don’t stand for principle, they stand for anything that will return them to power. “It’s all about getting to power and it shows.” He applauds this conference as a step in a better direction. Continue…
By Cathy Gulli - Thursday, December 10, 2009 at 2:00 PM - 0 Comments
Tigers Woods, Tim Hortons, and others made their big comeback this year
He sank a 15-foot birdie to bag the Arnold Palmer Invitational golf tournament in the spring, making it his 66th PGA victory. It had been nearly a year since the super-athlete had enjoyed a big win, and Woods was ecstatic: “It’s been a while, but God, it felt good.” You can bet his competitors didn’t share the feeling.
Tims is officially a Canadian company again. The coffee giant has moved its operations base to Oakville, Ont., from Delaware—where it had been registered since Wendy’s burger chain bought it in 1995 (and spun it into an American subsidiary). But the move isn’t motivated by patriotism. Tim Hortons is taking advantage of Canada’s low corporate taxes. Canuck love comes cheap.
Robert Fowler, Louis Guay and Amanda Lindhout
After four months in al-Qaeda captivity, Canadian diplomat Robert Fowler and his aide Louis Guay were released. The pair had been working in Niger, where Fowler was a UN special envoy. The president of Burkina Faso helped negotiate their freedom, and some speculate a hefty ransom was paid. Another big payout was demanded for Alberta journalist Amanda Lindhout, who was held by Somalian fighters for 15 months. She was freed in November. Her family raised money to appease her abductors.
After battling drug addiction and getting a divorce, Whitney Houston has a new album called I Look To You. But all eyes have been on her: the American Music Academy gave Houston the international artist award in recognition of her global diva status. She also recently opened the new season of The Oprah Winfrey Show, where she belted out a moving rendition of Diane Warren’s I Didn’t Know My Own Strength to a blubbering audience. Houston told Winfrey that she got back into singing because “I needed my joy back.”
Belgian tennis player Kim Clijsters came out of retirement to win the U.S. Open. She quit two years ago because of injuries, then got married and had a baby. But Clijsters was invited to the tournament as a wild card. She nabbed the US$1.6-million prize, and became the first mom to take the championship in 29 years. “It’s the greatest feeling in the world being a mother,” Clijsters told the crowd when her 18-month-old daughter ran onto the court for a post-match celebration. Clijsters had planned nap time that day so they could be together. After all the excitement, mom must need a rest too.
Can a car whose top-selling days were in the 1980s and ’90s really return Ford to its glory days? CEO Alan Mulally believes the new and improved Taurus will do just that. Among the perks the company touts are that it has more durable paint than a Lexus, a “blind spot information system” that uses radar to detect nearby cars, and an “EcoBoost” engine that delivers more power without chewing through extra fuel. If only Ford could make gas 50 cents a litre again.
For the first time in 90 years, Fabergé—maker of those intricate Easter eggs for Russian royalty—has issued a collection of jewellery. It features a marine theme: there is a seahorse broach, shell earrings and a water-lily bracelet. The 100 gem-encrusted pieces range in price from $46,000 to $11 million. They can only be purchased online or at the Fabergé store in Geneva. CEO Mark Dunhill balks at the idea of multiple retail outlets: “If you are thinking of spending $1 million for a bracelet, why not have the designer come to you and show it to you on your yacht?”
She’s more famous than ever, thanks mostly to the Hollywood hit Julie & Julia. The film has catapulted Julia Child’s 752-page tome, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, to the top of the best-seller lists, 48 years after it was first published. Her other culinary bible, Julia’s Kitchen Wisdom, has been reprinted six times and is the second-bestselling cookbook in the U.S. An autobiography called My Life in France has been reprinted nine times, which makes going for seconds seem restrained.
Horses on Parliament Hill
The RCMP are once again allowed to ride horses in front of the Peace Tower on Parliament Hill. The clip-clopping was banned in 2007 for fear tourists would wind up hurt by suddenly spooked animals. Before that, Mounties on horseback were an Ottawa highlight for 30 years. Now, one officer stays in the saddle while another walks alongside the horse. If only we could control question period so easily.
Travelling music festival Lilith Fair will be resurrected next summer, a decade since the last all-female tour. Canadian crooner Sarah McLachlan, who founded the concert in 1997, is behind its revival. No word yet which celebrity songstresses are on the bill, but this time there’s a new angle, the “Lilith Local Talent Search,” to find upcoming stars. Women’s work is never done.
They were the best of times, and they were the worst of times. Here is what’s back: the Winter Olympics in Canada; Petro-Canada’s commemorative Olympic glasses; Michael Jackson’s music; and a remake of The A-Team. But many other remnants of that decade would be better forgotten: provincial deficits, shoulder pads and skinny pants. Thankfully, acid wash has not made a resurgence. Yet.
By Aaron Wherry - Sunday, October 11, 2009 at 2:10 AM - 59 Comments
With confirmation that four al-Qaeda prisoners and several million dollars were exchanged for Canadian diplomats Robert Fowler and Louis Guay, here again is the transcript from the Prime Minister’s press conference on the afternoon of April 22, announcing Fowler and Guay’s release.
By Michael Petrou - Wednesday, September 9, 2009 at 11:32 AM - 1 Comment
Robert Fowler, the Canadian diplomat who, along with fellow Canadian Louis Guay, was held captive for four months by al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb before his release in April, has spoken to the CBC’s Peter Mansbridge. The conclusion of his two-part interview runs tonight. Fowler says he doesn’t know whether a ransom was paid or if prisoners changed hands to secure his freedom. He also says he would not reveal such information if he did know, so as not to affect future hostage negotiations.
In fact, as I reported in April, and despite Stephen Harper’s carefully-worded fudging on the subject, Fowler and Guay were released as part of a deal that involved a ransom paid by Germany and Switzerland, and the release of al-Qaeda prisoners by Mali and Niger. Details can be found here and here.
By Michael Petrou - Thursday, April 30, 2009 at 12:29 PM - 5 Comments
I’ve just spoken with a source who is familiar with the negotiations that took place for the release of Canadian diplomats Robert Fowler and Louis Guay from the Canadian and British side. He or she confirms they were sprung because of a ransom and prisoner exchange.
This information now comes from multiple different sources and cannot be discounted as speculative. J. Peter Pham, an Africa specialist at James Madison University, has it from senior officials in the government and security services of Mali and Niger that a prisoner swap was in the works, and he later spoke to an Algerian security source who said that Germany and Switzerland paid a ransom of about US$8 million. Al-Qaeda itself has confirmed in a statement that a prisoner exchange took place. Two separate Algerian newspapers, Ennahar and El Khabar, confirm aspects of the deal. Steven Edwards at Canwest News Service cites a “North African al-Qaeda observer with close links to people involved in the effort to free the Canadians,” who also confirmed the prisoner exchange and provided some details about the terror suspects Mali released.
All this raises an important question: If, as Prime Minister Stephen Harper claims, it is Canada’s policy not to pay a ransom or release prisoners in exchange for hostages, why is it okay for other countries to do so on our behalf?
By Michael Petrou - Wednesday, April 29, 2009 at 3:51 PM - 0 Comments
I have an article in tomorrow’s print edition of Maclean’s about al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, the Islamist group that held Canadian diplomats Robert Fowler and Louis Guay, along with some details about how they were freed.
I’ve learned more since our magazine was sent to the printers – most notably that Germany and Switzerland paid a US$8 million ransom to spring their kidnapped nationals and, unofficially, to free the Canadians as well. The new info in online here.
By Michael Petrou - Wednesday, April 29, 2009 at 3:28 PM - 0 Comments
Senior Algerian security official says US$8 million ransom helped spring Robert Fowler and Louis Guay
Germany and Switzerland paid al-Qaeda’s North African branch a ransom of approximately US$8 million for the release of four hostages, including Canadian diplomats Robert Fowler and Louis Guay, according to a senior Algerian security official who spoke to J. Peter Pham, an Africa specialist at James Madison University.
In an interview with Maclean’s, Pham said the Algerian security official told him yesterday that the ransom was officially only for the two European hostages–a Swiss and a German–but that the amount paid was double what would have been necessary to free them. The extra cash was meant to cover the release of Fowler and Guay, the security official said, while still leaving Canada able to deny it paid a ransom.
The Algerian security official also confirmed that a member of Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi’s family–his son, Saif al-Islam, according to other news reports–played a key role in negotiating the hostages’ release.
Relations between Switzerland and Libya have been strained ever since Swiss police detained Hannibal Gadaffi, another of Muammar’s sons, along with his wife, for allegedly beating two of their staff at a Geneva hotel last summer. Switzerland is now beholden to Gadaffi, who will, in the words of the Algerian, extract his “pound of flesh” at a later date.
Prior to the hostages’ release, Pham was in contact with highly placed members of the governments and security services in both Mali and Niger. These officials told Pham that negotiations had stalled because Canada and the United Nations refused to pay a ransom to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). The kidnappers wanted the governments of Niger and Mali to release AQIM prisoners in their custody, while Niger and Mali were reluctant to release prisoners without getting something in return.
Pham has no proof, but he suspects a “package deal” was struck that would see Mali and Niger receive some sort of political or financial compensation in exchange for releasing prisoners to AQIM.
Kory Teneycke, Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s press secretary, told Maclean’s Canada did not make any concessions to the governments of Mali or Niger to persuade them to exchange prisoners with al-Qaeda. “The government of Canada did not give any money or considerations as part of a deal to get these two hostages released,” he said.
News reports out of Algeria have since alleged that four Islamist terror suspects held by Mali were released as part of a deal to free the Canadian and European hostages. Al-Qaeda made the same claim in a statement released Sunday. It is unlikely that Mali would agree to release prisoners without compensation, or the threat of losing something if it refused. Canada has recently focused its foreign aid on only 20 countries. Mali is one of them.