Six Years a Hostage
Captured by Islamist Militants in the Desert
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This is the incredible story of Stephen McGown's capture at gunpoint by Islamist militants in Timbuktu, in Mali, and how he was held hostage in the Sahara Desert for nearly six years before finally being released.
Stephen was making a once-in-a-lifetime trip by motorbike down through Africa, returning home from London to Johannesburg in South Africa. But in Timbuktu, he was abducted, along with a Dutch and a Swedish national, by Al Qaeda. Stephen was viewed as a particular prize because of his British passport. He was held hostage, constantly being moved around the desert while the fighting between French and Malian forces and Al Qaeda ebbed and flowed.
Life as Steve had known it changed in an instant. He had nothing to bargain with, and everything to lose. For the next six years, facing the constant risk of summary execution, he had to engage in what he came to see as the greatest chess game of his life.
Thousands of kilometres to the south, in Johannesburg, the shock of Stephen's capture struck the McGown family and his wife, Cath, with whom he had, until recently, been living in London. They immediately began efforts to secure Steve's release, through official channels and in any other way they felt might help to get Stephen freed.
But as the months of captivity became years, Stephen was compelled to go to extraordinary lengths to survive, both mentally and physically. He made returning home alive his sole objective. Realising that he would have to do everything he could to raise his status in the eyes of his captors, he taught himself Arabic and French and converted to Islam, accepting a new name, Lot. Stephen also found solace, despite everything, in the beauty of the desert, and its resilient wildlife.
Stephen holds the unenviable record of being the longest-held, surviving hostage of Al Qaeda. While he was always a prisoner, constantly at risk of death, through the long years he spent in intimate proximity to his captors, Steve got to see the Islamist militants as few other Westerners have ever seen them.
Six Years a Hostage is not only a remarkable story of mental strength, physical endurance and the resilience of the human spirit, but also, significantly, a unique and nuanced perspective on
one of the world's most feared terrorist groups. Steve did not merely survive his terrible ordeal; he emerged from the desert transformed - a stronger, more positive human being.
STEPHEN McGOWN worked as an investment banker in Johannesburg, South Africa, before spending seven years doing similar work in London. While in London, he met his wife, Cath, who shared his desire to return to South Africa to manage his family's farming business and start a family. It was his life on a farm that had inspired Steve's passion for the outdoors and his desire for adventure: in this case, to ride his motorbike from London down Africa back to Johannesburg. But he was abducted in Timbuktu, along with a Dutch and a Swedish national, by Islamist militants of Al Qaeda and held as a hostage, due to his British passport, in many different locations in the Sahara Desert in north-west Africa for nearly six years.