Book Reviews

A Season in Hell Book Cover

A Season in Hell Book Cover

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

by Robert R. Fowler
Toronto: Harper Collins Publishers Ltd., 2011
342 pages, $36.95 HC
ISBN-10: 1443402044

Print PDF

For more information on accessing this file, please visit our help page.

Reviewed by Rich Nessel

 Canadian Ambassador Robert Fowler tells his story of captivity at the hands of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) of North Western Africa.  A Season in Hell: My 130 Days in the Sahara with Al Qaeda is Fowler's personal, almost-daily account as a hostage of AQIM.  Fowler breaks his 2008 - 2009 kidnapping into five distinct parts.  Part One is "The Descent into Hell," chronicling his special mission to Niger, and his eventual capture. "Prisoners of Al Qaeda in the Sahara," Part Two, provides a detailed description of his captors and their mode of survival in the foreboding desert. Within Part Three, "The Middle Game," the author recalls the glimmer of hope presented at 80 days into his captivity when he finally receives word from the outside world. In  Part Four, "The End Game," Fowler summarizes the prolonged process leading to his ultimate release. Finally, "The Aftermath" chronicles Fowler's personal reflections upon his own captivity, intertwined with new up-to-date revelations made available at the time of this book's release in 2011. Each part of this book describes a set of emotions or like occurrences, giving the book less of a feel as a survival diary, and more that of a summary of experiences.

What makes Fowler's book significant is the account of the day-to-day operations of an Al Qaeda affiliate. Western academics and intelligence services have posited for years their hypotheses of the inner workings of AQIM.  Fowler gives a detailed first-person account that serves to better inform the theorists with respect to the realities of AQIM. An example is the notion that the Southern forces of AQIM were independent and not strongly tied to the AQIM of Algeria. This opinion was and still is strongly held by both the British and US military intelligence services. One theory is that AQIM is just a bunch of bandits and opportunists, and they are not really focused upon the religious cause of jihad, as posited by renowned AQIM researcher Jean-Pierre Filiu in his article "Al-Qa'ida in the Islamic Maghreb: A Case Study in Opportunism of Global Jihad." Still other theorists believe that AQIM is an expanding regional threat that has changed its focus from an Islamic Algerian state to the ‘Islamisation’ of the Sahel; as proposed by Modibo Goita in "West Africa's Growing Terrorist Threat."  Fowler rebuts all of these claims in detail.

During his captivity, he meticulously observed his captors, and he provides some insights into AQIM itself. First, he posits that AQIM's leadership is entirely Algerian, while the Sahelians of AQIM are relegated to "enlisted" or subordinate roles. The racial tension is noticeable within the AQIM ranks, specifically against the black Africans.

Fowler's story is unique, because of his background. As Canada's longest serving diplomat to the UN and as the former Deputy Minister of National Defence, he provides astute geopolitical context to his personal plight. Fowler was assigned by the Secretary General of the United Nations, Ban Ki-moon, as the UN Special Envoy to Niger, and this was a selection based upon Fowler's depth of experience in African affairs. This experience allowed the author to describe the historical implications and the political intricacies involved in his capture. These political ramifications are brought even further to light in the "Aftermath" and appendices, which are not to be missed.

Another highlight of A Season in Hell is its relevance to hostage training and non-governmental detention. It is apparent that Ambassador Fowler had some hostage training, and he relied upon it for his survival. In this manner, Fowler's book reads similar to Colonel Nick Rowe's Five Years to Freedom, or Out of Captivity, authored by the Northrop Grumman contractors held by the FARC until 2008. Fowler's ingenuity, demeanor, and unwavering efforts to guarantee his own survival and sanity are noteworthy. Furthermore, they are useful for study and emulation.  A Season in Hell should be added to the reading lists of hostage training courses, specifically for diplomats, military personal, and civil servants who serve worldwide.

Ambassador Fowler's book does, however, have its shortcomings. This book is not written for academic purposes, because Fowler has chosen to write about his own personal experiences, observations, and opinions, rather than providing the requisite supporting references that would withstand academic rigour. He wanted this to be his story, a therapeutic exercise to get this experience committed to paper. Given Fowler's long civil service, which include being the foreign policy advisor for three Prime Ministers of Canada, his personal opinions carry a great amount of weight.

With only minor discrepancies, Fowler's text is readable, and it provides a never before seen look inside the underworld of Al Qaeda, and its affiliate, AQIM. Further, this book can be used as a foundation for additional research. Chapter Nine in Part Two, entitled "Us and Them," breaks down the fundamental core beliefs and composition of AQIM. The broader implications of this book are cause for re-analysis of our assumptions of the fledging AQ affiliates and their very real Islamist ideology. As Ambassador Fowler discovered, his captors were not merely, "bandits, opportunists, thugs [or] psychopaths... [but] deeply committed religious zealots.” Fowler's observation serves as a warning, yet it sets the stage for a renewed campaign to snuff out the remaining embers of Al Qaeda's global jihad. 

Major Richard Nessel is a US Army Special Forces officer with several deployments within North Africa under Operation Enduring Freedom Trans-Sahara, specifically targeting Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).