Review: Vivien Horler
Six Years with Al Qaeda – the Stephen McGown story as told to Tudor Caradoc-Davies (Maverick 451)
When Steve McGown and his wife Cath decided to return to South Africa after some years in London, Steve saw an opportunity to realise a life-long dream: to ride a motor bike through Africa.
He bought a Yamaha XT, and started studying routes. The east coast route, covered by Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman in Long Way Down, put Steve off; they had, he figured, “made it look like vanilla”.
There was also a central route, through Algeria and into Niger which was well known, but had a reputation for bandits and danger. Since Steve had “zero interest in being kidnapped”, that was out.
This left the west coast route: Morocco, Mauritania, Mali and into Burkino Faso. He was particularly interested in the equatorial countries further south where he could see amazing birds, fish in rivers off the beaten path, admire giant trees and ride along jungle tracks.
But the desert was as far as he got.
Cath gave him six months for his adventure – he promised to reach Joburg by March 31, 2012, the couple’s fifth wedding anniversary. The six months turned into almost six long years.
On October 13, 2011 Steve set off for Morocco via Gibraltar. At campsites he would meet other overlanders, including Dutch couple Sjaak and Tilly in their Land Rover and Swedish bikers Tommy and Johan. Seeing they were all taking a similar route, they banded together, and were staying in the same guesthouse in Timbuktu when their lives changed forever.
It had been a last-minute decision to go to Timbuktu – other overlanders told them how fabulous it was, and that it was safe; although Al Qaeda was active in Mali, there had been no attacks or incidents in the city.
Well, there’s always got to be a first, and Sjaak, Johan and Steve – and another tourist, Martin from Germany – were it.
Armed men came into the courtyard of the guesthouse and marched four of the men out to their bakkie at gunpoint. When Martin yelled and struggled, he was shot dead in the street. This was a powerful incentive for the other three to shut up and do as they were told.
They were tied up and driven north-west to a remote desert region. One of the worries torturing Steve on that frightful drive was his brand new British passport.
And he was right to be concerned: when Al Qaeda discovered it, they clearly felt they had hit the jackpot. You got a lot more publicity for kidnapping a Brit, and Britain had been involved in too many incursions in Muslim countries such as Libya and Iraq to make members of Al Qaeda warm to them.
To this day Steve believes the fact that his captors saw him as British – even though he had been born and raised in South Africa – was one reason he became Al Qaeda’s longest-held hostage.
The first few months were a nightmare. Actually it was all a nightmare, but the early months were among the most terrifying, as Steve and his fellow prisoners never knew if they would be summarily executed, shot as Martin had been, or beheaded. Even the odd child in the camp would approach the prisoners with sly grins and draw their fingers across their throats.
Being terrified every day for six months does strange things to your body and mind. Johan converted to Islam, and was immediately treated better. Steve didn’t know if conversion would save his life, but even though it was a tough decision, it was worth a try.
The Muslim name suggested to him was Lot, and Steve thought: “Wasn’t Lot the guy whose wife was turned to salt and he never saw her again?” Was the choice of name a hint that he would never go home?
But now life changed for the better: he was now seen by his captor as a brother. “I was still a prisoner, but now I was human and had a basic right to dignity and respect.”
And so the years dragged on. The three prisoners never gelled as friends. Johan was very bright, and contemptuous of everyone around him, or as Steve puts it, he was all IQ and zero EQ. Sjaak, who was about 20 years older than the other two, was easier to get on with, but in Steve’s opinion became increasingly unhinged.
Steve/Lot taught himself to speak and write Arabic, which made life a bit more bearable. He also learnt many skills not needed in an urban life: how to slaughter animals, how to milk camels, how to weave a rope from grass, track and hunt rabbits, and make sundials to tell the time.
Understandably, Steve suffered from constant anxiety and depression. But he realised he needed to make the best of the hand he’d been dealt, and not be ground down. So he tried hard to find joy and meaning in every day.
Meanwhile on the outside, the families worked unceasingly to get the prisoners freed. The McGowns were supported in part both by the British and the South African authorities, but it took the involvement of Imtiaz Sooliman and Gift of the Givers to really get things moving.
In July 2017 he was finally released, and flew home to Joburg to find his mother had died just weeks previously.
This book was very much better than I had expected. Stephen McGown is a thoughtful man, and his reactions are rarely kneejerk. He was determined, if at all possible, both to survive and come out of the ordeal a better person. His reflections on one of the world’s most feared terror organisations are perceptive and nuanced.
And he found a sensitive, sympathetic writer in Tudor Caradoc-Davies. This is a thoroughly worthwhile read.