Stephen McGown shares how he found his superpower in the Sahara Desert


As the longest-held al-Qaeda captive, Stephen reveals that self-control was the best tool in his arsenal.

On 11 May, finance professionals attending CFO Day were taken on an emotional journey as Stephen McGown shared the story of his captivity as a war prisoner in Mali.

Stephen started his story in South Africa, after he had obtained his degree in finance. “I worked in some of the large South African banks for seven years before deciding to relocate to the United Kingdom, where I met my wife, Catherine.”

Having both grown up in South Africa, Stephen and Catherine were both set on returning to the country to start a family of their own and to take over Stephen’s family farming business. And when the time came for them to head home, Stephen decided to do it via motorcycle, while Catherine flew back.

“Since the age of 15 I’ve wanted to ride a bike through Africa and this seemed like the perfect opportunity for me to live my dream,” he explained.

He chose the route less-travelled, along the West of Africa, and was accompanied by kindred spirits Martin, from Germany, Sjaak Rijke, a Dutch national, and his wife, Tilly, and Johan Gustafsson, a Swede. However, on 25 November 2011, a trip that was supposed to take six months, turned into six years when the men were kidnapped from their overnight stop in Timbuktu.

“I was sitting outside with Sjaak and his wife, Tilly, discussing the plans for the next week. Johan was asleep in the hostel. None of us had any idea that our lives were about to turn upside down,” Stephen said.

When there is no control, find it in yourself
An Arab man walked into their camp with an AK47 in hand, followed by more men. When Tilly saw the man, she screamed and ran to hide in one of the hostels. “We all climbed under the table with our feet sticking out from under the table. This man walked up to us and one by one dragged us out from under the table into the street, where they had parked a cruiser,” he recalled.

Stephen, Sjaak and Johan were handcuffed and put in the back of the vehicle, while Martin was still putting up a fight in the street. “Five metres from where I was lying in the vehicle, Martin tripped and fell. As he hit the ground, one of the soldiers raised up their AK47s and shot him in the head.”

The three remaining men in the cruiser, now prisoners of war, were driven into the Sahara desert by the Al Qaeda terrorists. “Fortunately one of my hobbies in school was stargazing and I remember looking up at the sky and using Orion to try and figure out which direction we were going in,” Stephen told attendees.

He recalled the quiet of the desert, filled only by the sound of the driver changing gears as the cruiser fought the sand.

The following morning, they stopped in a camp surrounded by black mountains. “It was incredibly beautiful, but I was no longer a tourist. I was a prisoner of war.”

The three men were pulled off the vehicle and dragged under a small bush. It was at this camp that the three men were given pink, red and orange shirts “to try and humiliate them”, and they recorded their first proof-of-life video with a message to their families and governments.

“I remember that everything was out of control then, I was bleeding away energy asking a thousand questions, none of which had any answers,” Stephen said. “I eventually realised that I had to stop giving away all of this energy, or I wouldn’t survive. I had to pull myself together, step up and try to be objective about the situation.”

He explained that what he learned during his time in captivity was that, through all the uncertainty in life, the only thing you can truly control is yourself – where you spend your energy, your behaviour, the way you conduct yourself, the way you interact with people, and the choices you make.

Don’t be complacent
After a week at the camp, the group made their way further into the desert, and for the next year they would change camps every two months. “We were outdoors permanently,” Stephen recalled. “That first winter was so incredibly cold, and all we had was a very thin blanket that the wind kept blowing off. We would even spoon each other to try and keep warm some nights.”

Stephen found sanity amongst the stars at night, while everyone else was asleep and the world around him was quiet.

His capturers would go to a well once a week and return with 200 litre drums that used to store diesel filled with water. This would be the prisoners’ drinking and washing water. The Al Qaeda would also catch whatever wildlife they could find and feed that to the prisoners.

During his captivity, Stephen got sick from stress. He was sunburnt and beaten blue by the sandstorms, the rides on the back of the cruiser, and from sleeping on the sand. However, in 2012 he noticed that he had peculiar sores on his arm and back and started worrying. “My sport back in school was swimming, so I was always in the sun, and had to go to the dermatologist a lot to get things cut out of my skin,” he said, adding that the sores on his arm and back were about the size of a R5 coin and kept bleeding.

He quickly realised that if he didn’t step up and do something about the sores, the mental anxiety would slowly kill him. “I begged for a scalpel, but the first aid kit only had some antiseptic, so one of the young men in the camp gave me their razor blade,” he explained.

Stephen boiled the razor to sterilise it, and asked Johan to help him. He curled up in a ball with his back facing Johan, who went to work cutting the sore out. They then took one of their toothbrushes, stuck it in the fire and used it to cauterise the wound. “This experience taught me that we’re all tougher than we give ourselves credit for,” he said.

He added that it also taught him to deal with things today instead of becoming complacent. “When I was working in the banking industry, I realised that when life gets busy, you start to give away the smaller choices in life and give it to someone else. “With these decisions, we slowly give ourselves away too.”

Taking ownership of your decisions
2012 was an interesting year. It was the tail end of the credit crunch, the Arab spring, Gaddafi had just been killed and a group of his soldiers were holding up Mali, where Stephen was being held. Al Qaeda wasn’t happy about this and declared war on the group. A few months later, Al Qaeda took Mali away from this rebel group and not long after there was a coup d'etat, taking away Stephen’s last hope of negotiating with a government for his release.

He explained that, one afternoon, the Al Qaeda soldiers were listening to the radio and it kept repeating news about Britain, Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Somalia. “Every time they said Britain on the news, the soldiers would turn around and look at me with hate in their eyes, because I had a UK passport.”

Eventually, a young kid walked up to me and pulled his finger across his throat. “That night I went to bed with a gun pointed at my head and I was counting down from 10, thinking that it was my last 10 seconds to live. I was on the brink of insanity.”

Stephen explained that, when he opened his eyes again, still alive, he had to pick himself up again. “I realised that I had a responsibility to my family to come home, and that if I were to return home then I would have returned mentally broken. So I had to become the best version of myself that I could be, because tough times are not about me, it’s about all of us.”

He added that he also realised the importance of taking ownership of decisions. “My first big decision there in the desert was to convert to Islam. It was a big decision, because I had no idea what I was stepping into. But my decision allowed me to start to live.”

Stephen told attendees that, because of his conversion, he was taken out from under the bush where he was held and started to interact with Al Qaeda. “Each morning I would go sit with Al Qaeda and I’d begin to learn how to speak and read Arabic, and how to cite the Quran. I learned about 34 of the 114 prayers.”

He also helped Al Qaeda in the kitchen, fixed their radios and cars, taught them maths. “I placed myself closer to them whenever I had the opportunity to, because I knew that if they liked me, maybe they would let me go.”

Stephen explained that, during this time, he realised the importance of attitude, and that it’s something you choose. “You can’t blame anyone else for your attitude, and it’s the attitude you choose that separates you from the people around you.”

Free at last
On 21 July 2017, Stephen was the last of the hostages to be released following various negotiations and appeals by the South African government. “We did a very long drive, changed cars a number of times, and eventually ended up at the Mali airport, where I was flown back to South Africa.”

He was the longest al-Qaeda prisoner in history, being held captive for almost six years.

Stephen told attendees of CFO Day that the most profound lesson he learnt in the desert was that the strongest tool in any person’s arsenal is positive thinking and self-awareness.

Related articles