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A Season in Hell: My 130 Days in the Sahara with Al Qaeda

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For decades, Robert R. Fowler was a dominant force in Canadian foreign affairs. In one heart-stopping minute, all of that changed. On December 14, 2008, Fowler, acting as the UN Secretary General’s Special Envoy to Niger, was kidnapped by Al Qaeda, becoming the highest ranked UN official ever held captive. Along with his colleague Louis Guay, Fowler lived, slept and ate wi For decades, Robert R. Fowler was a dominant force in Canadian foreign affairs. In one heart-stopping minute, all of that changed. On December 14, 2008, Fowler, acting as the UN Secretary General’s Special Envoy to Niger, was kidnapped by Al Qaeda, becoming the highest ranked UN official ever held captive. Along with his colleague Louis Guay, Fowler lived, slept and ate with his captors for nearly five months, gaining rare first-hand insight into the motivations of the world’s most feared terror group. Fowler’s capture, release and subsequent media appearances have helped shed new light on foreign policy and security issues as we enter the second decade of the “War on Terror.” A Season in Hell is Fowler’s compelling story of his captivity, told in his own words, but it is also a startlingly frank discussion about the state of a world redefined by clashing civilizations.


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For decades, Robert R. Fowler was a dominant force in Canadian foreign affairs. In one heart-stopping minute, all of that changed. On December 14, 2008, Fowler, acting as the UN Secretary General’s Special Envoy to Niger, was kidnapped by Al Qaeda, becoming the highest ranked UN official ever held captive. Along with his colleague Louis Guay, Fowler lived, slept and ate wi For decades, Robert R. Fowler was a dominant force in Canadian foreign affairs. In one heart-stopping minute, all of that changed. On December 14, 2008, Fowler, acting as the UN Secretary General’s Special Envoy to Niger, was kidnapped by Al Qaeda, becoming the highest ranked UN official ever held captive. Along with his colleague Louis Guay, Fowler lived, slept and ate with his captors for nearly five months, gaining rare first-hand insight into the motivations of the world’s most feared terror group. Fowler’s capture, release and subsequent media appearances have helped shed new light on foreign policy and security issues as we enter the second decade of the “War on Terror.” A Season in Hell is Fowler’s compelling story of his captivity, told in his own words, but it is also a startlingly frank discussion about the state of a world redefined by clashing civilizations.

30 review for A Season in Hell: My 130 Days in the Sahara with Al Qaeda

  1. 5 out of 5

    Thalarctos

    It was an OK read, although I found myself putting it down and reading other things several times. The author did have an adventure, but told it in a fairly unemotional manner that failed to engage me.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Margaret

    The account of the kidnapping and 130 days of captivity of two Canadian diplomats, Robert Fowler and Louis Guay, by Al Quaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). Fowler was special envoy of UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon to promote peace negotiations in Niger when he, Guay, and their driver were abducted. The Good As Fowler states in the preface, this book is not an academic treatise on Al Qaeda or Islamic fundamentalism. Consequently, very little of the geopolitical issues surrounding the kidnappi The account of the kidnapping and 130 days of captivity of two Canadian diplomats, Robert Fowler and Louis Guay, by Al Quaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). Fowler was special envoy of UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon to promote peace negotiations in Niger when he, Guay, and their driver were abducted. The Good As Fowler states in the preface, this book is not an academic treatise on Al Qaeda or Islamic fundamentalism. Consequently, very little of the geopolitical issues surrounding the kidnapping are touched on here. Instead, Fowler focuses on the daily experience of his and Guay's time in captivity: their diet, their daily routine, their bathroom habits, their movements from place to place, are all told with a wealth of interesting detail and a sprinkling of dry wit. The Bad The superficial handling of the political aspect is, however, a weakness. Fowler states that his book is not "a primer on how Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) can become better kidnappers. As a result I will refrain from offering detailed comments on what the jihadists did or did not do well". This is certainly understandable, but a story about being kidnapped by Al Qaeda is missing something when the author can't really talk about Al Qaeda. And as has recently emerged, a ransom of approximately 700 000 euros was paid for Fowler and Guay. But throughout the book, Fowler repeatedly states that he does not know whether the Canadian government paid for his release. Again, it is understandable that the Canadian government would want to uphold the impression that it does not pay ransom to terrorists. But one is left to wonder whether a seasoned civil servant such as Fowler truly did not know. Did he not even suspect? It's things like these that made me give this book only three stars. It felt a bit like eating a blt sandwich with the bacon left out. In spite of the interesting personal elements, sometimes if you can't tell the full truth it's better not to write a book at all.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Kristine Burr

    A Season in Hell offers a frank account of the ordeal experienced by Robert Fowler and Louis Guay during a lengthy kidnapping in the Sahel desert. I found the book gripping and would recommend it to anyone interested in getting a better understanding of Al Qaeda and its adherents. Written with the benefit of close exposure to their captors, it offers an excellent - and sobering - description of the commitment and strong belief that motivates these terrorists. Mr. Fowler also poses some interesti A Season in Hell offers a frank account of the ordeal experienced by Robert Fowler and Louis Guay during a lengthy kidnapping in the Sahel desert. I found the book gripping and would recommend it to anyone interested in getting a better understanding of Al Qaeda and its adherents. Written with the benefit of close exposure to their captors, it offers an excellent - and sobering - description of the commitment and strong belief that motivates these terrorists. Mr. Fowler also poses some interesting questions for all of us in the West about how Western government actions may or may not fuel the recruitment of jihadist warriors in North Africa and elsewhere. One gets the feeling that policy makers everywhere should be taking note of what he has to say.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Rae

    RTC

  5. 5 out of 5

    Sandra

    I found this a very good read; The dispassionate approach makes it more factual and a lot easier to swallow. I know this part of the world and could rely on my own (very different) experience of the desert and the problems plaguing this area. Mr. Fowler's analysis of the situation is very relevant; what is more amazing to me is that he could and can separate these facts from his emotion. Very interesting. I found this a very good read; The dispassionate approach makes it more factual and a lot easier to swallow. I know this part of the world and could rely on my own (very different) experience of the desert and the problems plaguing this area. Mr. Fowler's analysis of the situation is very relevant; what is more amazing to me is that he could and can separate these facts from his emotion. Very interesting.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Ross Pennie

    I was riveted by this book, which I read on my way to the west coast of Africa. I was impressed by the clarity of the story's details and the refreshing lack of bitterness from the author. It gave me disturbing, vivid dreams that repeatedly interrupted my sleep. I couldn't put it it down. Fowler's criticism of the actions of our RCMP leadership fit well with most Canadians' view of a force that needs to be completely revamped from the top down. I was riveted by this book, which I read on my way to the west coast of Africa. I was impressed by the clarity of the story's details and the refreshing lack of bitterness from the author. It gave me disturbing, vivid dreams that repeatedly interrupted my sleep. I couldn't put it it down. Fowler's criticism of the actions of our RCMP leadership fit well with most Canadians' view of a force that needs to be completely revamped from the top down.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Lauren

    Fascinating, easy read on what is a terrifying topic. Especially enjoyed the discussion of the rapport and interactions between Mr. Fowler and Mr. Guay and their captors.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Anne Frances

    I truly enjoyed this book and started really liking Fowler - and I see why I am in the minority here on Goodreads for giving him a 5 star rating. I found that Fowler provided all angles of his capture quite well. I found the details that he provided were humorous and endearing. But I can tell how it could annoy someone else and seem to run on and on. I give this book a 4 1/2 star rating. I decided that his openness helped me round up 4 1/2 stars to give him five stars. He really didn’t need a se I truly enjoyed this book and started really liking Fowler - and I see why I am in the minority here on Goodreads for giving him a 5 star rating. I found that Fowler provided all angles of his capture quite well. I found the details that he provided were humorous and endearing. But I can tell how it could annoy someone else and seem to run on and on. I give this book a 4 1/2 star rating. I decided that his openness helped me round up 4 1/2 stars to give him five stars. He really didn’t need a second appendix, but I appreciated all of his maps. I have recently finished Samantha Power’s recent memoir, which I did not enjoy. Both Power and Fowler were ambassadors to the UN: it was drawing a comparison between Power and Fowler that I truly liked Fowler’s book.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Linda

    Fowler, a UN official, tells his harrowing story of captivity in the Saharan desert. His insights into Muslim fundamentalism are striking. His candor about politics and the people who worked for his release is wonderful.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Jim Stanko

    A book that never seemed to pick up pace. I'd read 10-15 pages at a time, then put it down & just forget about it for a while before heading a bit further into it. In the end, I'm glad I read it and got a sense for what it must've been like for a late-60s Canadian captured by AQIM in the Sahara. A book that never seemed to pick up pace. I'd read 10-15 pages at a time, then put it down & just forget about it for a while before heading a bit further into it. In the end, I'm glad I read it and got a sense for what it must've been like for a late-60s Canadian captured by AQIM in the Sahara.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Renee

    Good read of a very traumatic experience.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Susan

    The enema bag was the true MVP

  13. 4 out of 5

    Karen

    Okay book. Two individuals taken by terrorists. Describes times in captivity, fear of death and life of rebels. Interesting from their take on religion/faith. Ex - 1000 virgins not really a thing.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Julia

    Glued to this book.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Steven Langdon

    Robert Fowler has been at the heart of Canadian foreign policy for several decades -- as "sherpa" at the G8 Summit in 2002, Canada's ambassador to the UN when this country was on the Security Council, and a key public servant in the Defence Department. When he was kidnapped by Al Qaeda forces in West Africa in late 2008, it was almost the equivalent of former US ambassador to the UN Madelaine Albright being captured by Osama bin Laden -- except that the AQIM (Al Qaeda in the Magreb) that seized Robert Fowler has been at the heart of Canadian foreign policy for several decades -- as "sherpa" at the G8 Summit in 2002, Canada's ambassador to the UN when this country was on the Security Council, and a key public servant in the Defence Department. When he was kidnapped by Al Qaeda forces in West Africa in late 2008, it was almost the equivalent of former US ambassador to the UN Madelaine Albright being captured by Osama bin Laden -- except that the AQIM (Al Qaeda in the Magreb) that seized him seemed not to really understand the stature of their prize catch. They thought of him as a UN official to be held as a ploy against the UN, rather than as a senior figure in the defence and foreign policy establishment of the alliance battling against Al Qaeda. In his 130 days of captivity, Fowler suffered considerably -- but he also gathered remarkable first-hand impressions, up far too close, into the nature of the movement that is now exercising harsh control over northern Mali. This insightful, powerful book conveys these perceptions -- and the human dimensions of the hellish experience Fowler endured. His account, Fowler says, will "perhaps allow readers to come to their own conclusions regarding the issue that often seems to be on their minds: how would I fare in such circumstances?" This is a very grim experience that is described -- 130 days of constantly shifting camps, sleeping on the ground in the middle of the Sahara, surviving on meagre food, fighting ill health and natural dangers, and confronting constant arbitrary hostility and potential execution. All this persists amid shifting hopes and fears about outside intervention, with videos being recorded where one is never sure whether communication is the goal or beheading is likely to occur. It takes a special sort of personal honesty yet analytical detachment to treat cogently such difficult months, and Fowler somehow achieves this -- making this a remarkable volume about a vividly harsh time. Yet the author also manages to stand back from this ordeal. He presents very careful profiles of the various AQIM personnel with whom he interacted, thereby providing a discerning picture of a frighteningly effective and fanatic organization. He also conveys valuable details about their operational methods and the focus they place on building community support in their region. "I no longer," he also concludes, "have any time for political correctness and circumlocution." And Fowler therefore criticizes bluntly the RCMP for its unforgivable failure to keep his family informed during the kidnapping -- the leaders of Niger for in effect handing him to AQIM -- and his own Department of Foreign Affairs for its abdication of responsibility during the whole affair. Fowler's combination of personal honesty and trenchant criticism makes this book an immersing read, with much to tell the reader about human endurance, the challenges facing Africa and the fundamental political conflicts at an international level. As Canada and the rest of the world consider how best to respond to the AQIM takeover in northern Mali, Bob Fowler's insights are a profoundly helpful guide.

  16. 5 out of 5

    Jennifer

    I raced throught this book, captivated from the very beginning. It was important to me to know that both the author and his companion, Louis, make it out alive. I might not have been as interested if the story came to a more tragic end. The author's descriptions of his experience, his captors, his mental process of analyzing the siutation facing him is fascinating - if at times, a look into the darkness of the human soul. I found some of the author's character trait's annoying. At times, I wante I raced throught this book, captivated from the very beginning. It was important to me to know that both the author and his companion, Louis, make it out alive. I might not have been as interested if the story came to a more tragic end. The author's descriptions of his experience, his captors, his mental process of analyzing the siutation facing him is fascinating - if at times, a look into the darkness of the human soul. I found some of the author's character trait's annoying. At times, I wanted to condemn him for his negativity and tendency to replay the worst-case scenerios. But, I appreciated immensely his analysis of his own state of mind and could not say if I would face the same issues and react in the same way. I also appreciate the historical information about the Islamic Magreb and the gradual expansion of Al Qaeda in the region. Their committment to an ancient form of Islam and belief in a traditional calue system was fascinating.

  17. 5 out of 5

    John Ison

    I have to admit I only read this book because of the Canadian content and the author (and subject) is the godfather of close friend. However, it is a very well written, fascinating inside look at Al Quaeda in the Maghreb (AQIM). I mean very inside, Fowler spent 130 days as their hostage in the remote Sahara. I am amazed that the victims survived 130 days in hell at all much less relatively in tact physically and mentally with no experience or training to help. The story line is good, the detaile I have to admit I only read this book because of the Canadian content and the author (and subject) is the godfather of close friend. However, it is a very well written, fascinating inside look at Al Quaeda in the Maghreb (AQIM). I mean very inside, Fowler spent 130 days as their hostage in the remote Sahara. I am amazed that the victims survived 130 days in hell at all much less relatively in tact physically and mentally with no experience or training to help. The story line is good, the detailed experiences brutal and the insights fascinating. Fowler paints a credible and frightening picture of the AQIM jihadists ... they are devoted, committed, hostile, brutal, tough, incomprehensible. How to you combat terrorists for whom loosing is winning?

  18. 5 out of 5

    René

    Quite refreshing after having read Ingrid Bettencourt's similar hostage story in the first person. This book has perspective and puts the author's very personal situation in the larger scheme of things. It also provides a solid criticism of the RCMP's role, as well as of DFAIT's and PAFSO's total lack of care and attention to the personal needs of the families who suffered through this ordeal. Well worth reading. Quite refreshing after having read Ingrid Bettencourt's similar hostage story in the first person. This book has perspective and puts the author's very personal situation in the larger scheme of things. It also provides a solid criticism of the RCMP's role, as well as of DFAIT's and PAFSO's total lack of care and attention to the personal needs of the families who suffered through this ordeal. Well worth reading.

  19. 4 out of 5

    Doriana Bisegna

    Robert Fowler writes in detail about his harrowing 130 days of captivity in the Sahara Desert. This was written a few years ago and I'm sure his fate would have had a totally different outcome if he would have been kidnapped recently. He writes about the inner workings of how his release came to be and it was both eye opening and mind blowing. It is not a simple process. I now have a better understanding of the complicated web that needs untangling before anyone is released. Robert Fowler writes in detail about his harrowing 130 days of captivity in the Sahara Desert. This was written a few years ago and I'm sure his fate would have had a totally different outcome if he would have been kidnapped recently. He writes about the inner workings of how his release came to be and it was both eye opening and mind blowing. It is not a simple process. I now have a better understanding of the complicated web that needs untangling before anyone is released.

  20. 5 out of 5

    Iva

    This was a pretty good book but a little long winded. The explanations of al quaeda's presence in africa was confusing and very complicated. It lost my interest and I ended up skipping chunks of chapters. It could have been written in more layman's terms. Nonetheless it was an important story to tell and it was a powerful story of survival and perseverence in the face of adversity. This was a pretty good book but a little long winded. The explanations of al quaeda's presence in africa was confusing and very complicated. It lost my interest and I ended up skipping chunks of chapters. It could have been written in more layman's terms. Nonetheless it was an important story to tell and it was a powerful story of survival and perseverence in the face of adversity.

  21. 4 out of 5

    Claudia Casper

    Easy read, page turner, almost like an adventure book. Fascinating look into the everyday life of members of Al Queda in the magreb from the proximate outside. Because Fowler is clearly an atheist, his kidnappers remain opaque to him.

  22. 4 out of 5

    Kay

    While it was overall an interesting look into the harrowing experience of someone held hostage by al-Queda, it included too much minute, repetitive detail. I skimmed quite a bit. I enjoyed Fowler's reflections on al-Queda, national security, and international cooperation, but they were very few. While it was overall an interesting look into the harrowing experience of someone held hostage by al-Queda, it included too much minute, repetitive detail. I skimmed quite a bit. I enjoyed Fowler's reflections on al-Queda, national security, and international cooperation, but they were very few.

  23. 4 out of 5

    Sheri Robinson

    Riveting. This is a book that every Canadian needs to read. Robert Fowler and a co-worker are taken hostage by terrorists and survive the horrible ordeal. Fowler describes not only the worst and scariest parts but also the mundane routine of everyday life in captivity.

  24. 5 out of 5

    Doug

    It was pretty interesting, sometimes exciting, but also a little long-winded and dry in parts, particularly all of the political details and commentary. Overall, though, a good story.

  25. 5 out of 5

    Emily

    Good insights on history, motivation, and organization of AQIM

  26. 5 out of 5

    Crazyanneca

  27. 5 out of 5

    Ross Ferguson

  28. 4 out of 5

    Phyllis Ference

  29. 5 out of 5

    mary michelle quinn

  30. 4 out of 5

    Ieva

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