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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 24 June 2018

South African kidnapped by al Qaeda recounts ordeal: ‘You’re not sure who you can believe’

Stephen McGowan was freed last month after being kidnapped while on a motorbike tour in Mali

Stephen McGowan with his father Malcolm McGown, left, and wife Catherine, during a media conference in Johannesburg, South Africa. Credit: Themba Hadebe/ AP Photo
Stephen McGowan with his father Malcolm McGown, left, and wife Catherine, during a media conference in Johannesburg, South Africa. Credit: Themba Hadebe/ AP Photo

A South African man kidnapped by al Qaeda as he toured Mali on a motorbike has described the moment he was released by his captors.

Stephen McGowan was freed on July 29 after being held hostage for more than five years.

Mr McGowan, who made his first appearance at a press conference in Johannesburg on Thursday with his wife and father by his side, said he did not believe his captors when they said they were going to free him.

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Read more:

Al Qaeda frees kidnapped South African after five years in captivity

Al Qaeda-linked Mali extremists release hostage video

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“They then called me over and said well, you may not know but your fellow prisoner he’s now been released, he’s gone back to Sweden. Hopefully, you’ll be going home soon. I said I’ve heard this story many times,” he said.

“There have been so many ups and downs over the last five and a half years, you’re not sure who you can believe and who you can’t believe.”

Mr McGowan was taken hostage by al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (IQIM) in Mali in November 2011, along with Swedish national Johan Gustafsson and Sjaak Rijke, a Dutch citizen.

They were abducted from a restaurant in the central city of Timbuktu along with a German friend, who was immediately killed when he refused to comply with militants’ demands.

Mr McGowan revealed he converted to Islam while he was held hostage. Credit: Gulshan Khan/ AFP Photo
Mr McGowan revealed he converted to Islam while he was held hostage. Credit: Gulshan Khan/ AFP Photo

Mr McGowan, who had worked for Investec bank in the UK, had embarked on a “final adventure” of biking through Africa before returning to his home country.

He revealed that he had converted from Catholicism to Islam during his captivity, which had helped him during the experience.

The South African said: “I’m a God-fearing person so I do believe. They [IQIM] did not force me to enter into Islam. I see many very good things in Islam, many things that I like.

“I’ve learned everything in Arabic, so I probably have big gaps in my knowledge. I see many good things in Islam but I see also many things that do not make sense to me. So I will continue reading up.”

Upon his release, Mr McGowan was told that his mother had passed away the year before.

IQIM began life as a spin-off from an Islamist movement that fought Algeria's government in the 1990s.

It was pushed into north Mali the following decade, where it pledged allegiance to Osama bin Laden's movement and built a network of fighters across the Sahara.

They have been responsible for dozens of kidnappings of Westerners and attacks on security forces across west Africa.