Six Years with Al Qaeda
While riding his motorbike through Mali, on his way home from London to Johannesburg, Steve McGown was taken captive in Timbuktu by Al Qaeda. Life as he knew it, changed in that instant.
While riding his motorbike through Mali, on his way home from London to Johannesburg, Steve McGown was taken captive in Timbuktu by Al Qaeda. Life as he knew it, changed in that instant. Driven deep into the desert with two other prisoners, Steve, who had just qualified for his British passport before leaving on his trip home, was now a valuable pawn in Al Qaeda’s geo-political operations.
With nothing to bargain with and everything to lose, for the next six years Steve became reluctantly engaged in what he refers to as, “the greatest chess game of my life.” Thousands of kilometres away in Johannesburg, the shock of his kidnapping hit his wife Cath and the rest of the McGown family. Working every option they could find, from established diplomatic protocols to the murky back channels of the kidnap game, they set to work on trying to free Steve.
As the months turned into years, Steve had to adapt or depression and despair would overwhelm him. With no control over his future and no end to his open-air incarceration in sight, he knew that he would have to go to extraordinary lengths to survive both his prison and his prisoners. His sole focus was to make it back home to his wife and family, so to raise his status among Al Qaeda, improve his quality of life in the desert sands and to give himself some form of structure and hope, Steve converted to Islam and accepted a new name, Lot.
Teaching himself French and Arabic, as the years passed and the prisoners and their captors moved from camp to camp to evade the Malian and French forces, Steve took it upon himself to get to know and understand Al Qaeda. To this day he holds the unenviable record of Al Qaeda’s longest held prisoner and while the captive-captor dynamic was always there, by virtue of the long years he spent with them Steve got to see what no Westerner has ever seen before.
He lived in their world and came to understand where they came from and what led them to jihad. He saw boys grow in to men, he watched as mujahedeen stuck up their hands for suicide missions and a ticket to heaven and saw the organisations success strategies and weaknesses, their victories and their losses.
Six Years With Al Qaeda is not just an incredible story of mental strength, physical endurance and the resilience of the human spirit, but also a unique, nuanced perspective on one of the world’s most feared terrorist organisations. Not only did Steve McGown survive his ordeal, but in many respects he came out of the desert both a changed man and a stronger, more positive human.