Maverick Life


Six Years With Al Qaeda: The Stephen McGown Story

Screenshots of Al Qaeda are from Al Jazeera

In a few short weeks, the hotly anticipated Six Years With Al Qaeda: The Stephen McGown Story will be released. Here, for the first time, you can get a taste of what to expect from this incredible true-life story of courage and resilience. 

Image courtesy of Stephen McGown
Image courtesy of Stephen McGown

Action movies give you a false sense of what real life situations are like. It’s always binary – fight or flight, bravery or cowardice. There’s no grey area, no description of the paralysis of panic. When you’ve got people shouting at you, pointing guns at you, dragging, pushing and pulling you, it’s fucking terrifying. How you react is beyond your control. 

I remember walking. Every movement was very deliberate, I could feel each muscle moving, my foot placed where it was supposed to be placed as my knee lifted up my other leg for the next step. My body awash with adrenaline, it felt like I was wearing a heavily padded jacket and there was this tiny version of me right in the middle. I was aware of everything, from Adam hitting me with the flip-flop, to the contrast of the shade and the sun as I walked out into the street, but I didn’t truly feel it. The jacket muted all sounds and sensations. My visual memory of what I saw in those moments is not a high-definition single-take video, but a slideshow of skits. The Table Skit. The March to the Street Skit. The Being Bundled into the Truck Skit. 

The initial shock overwhelms you. There is so much new data rushing at your brain and your body; from the guys with guns to escape options, to the whereabouts of the others, the warp speed of what had just happened to our baking hot Friday afternoon as tourists in Timbuktu, and even thoughts about the afterlife. It was as if I had been hacked by a supercomputer, spitting out the unbelievable questions which I did not have the mental capacity to process and to which there were no answers anyway.

Screenshots of Al Qaeda are from Al Jazeera
Screenshots of Al Qaeda are from Al Jazeera

Where are they taking me? What will they do with me? What do they want with me? How will my family find out? Am I going to die? Will I feel pain? Will I hear the gun? What happens then? Where do I go? At this stage, heaven and hell become quite real considerations.

We all know we are going to die, but most of us are pretty confident it is not going to happen today. We envisage it as some future point with ever shifting goalposts the older we get. If it’s something out of our control, like getting hit by a car, well, that’s just really bad luck, but at least that kind of thing will happen quickly. Standing there with a gun against me and a guy screaming at me in a language I did not understand was like getting the spoiler for how a film ends.

I thought: this gun could go off in 10 seconds. Maybe that’s all I’ve got. A countdown of 10. Nine, eight, seven, I’ve got seven seconds of life left. It’s like running a 100m race. You spend all your life charging into the wind with all your might, but now there’s a finish line coming up on you very quickly. That final line is zero. When you cross it, it’s all over, lights out. 

Six, five, four seconds of life. 

We walked out into the street. On the left was a beige Toyota Land Cruiser truck, idling. The tailgate was down and the gunmen were putting Sjaak, now handcuffed, in the back, lying down next to the spare wheels. I was waiting in the street as if in a queue with my hands up looking confused. Once they had Sjaak how they wanted him, they handcuffed me. This was even more terrifying. I had never been handcuffed before and these things took on their own personality; the metal deliberate and uncompromising, their intent submission and control. I climbed onto the back of the vehicle and lay down immediately behind Sjaak. I felt more vulnerable and at the mercy of fate than ever before. Instead of lying from front to back across the bed of the truck, they had made Sjaak lie from left to right in front of the wheel arch. I was lying awkwardly squeezed between the two wheel arches. Then they brought out Johan.

When Johan heard Tilly screaming he came out to investigate. He left his bedroom, walked down the passage, turned the corner to the patio, and came face-first into the business end of a Kalashnikov. Like Sjaak and me he was marched out, down the stairs, across the sand and out to the Land Cruiser. He was handcuffed and forced to lie down in the back of the vehicle. There was some jostling for feet position – to fit between those wheel arches you would need to be four foot tall, and I had nowhere to put my feet. Both Johan and Sjaak were lying on their left hand sides facing the cab, but I was lying more on my back, looking upwards at the sky. I could not see the compound at that angle, but out of the corner of my eye I could see part of the street. By now I had figured out there were three gunmen and one driver.

Three seconds. Two seconds.

The next thing I saw were gunmen dragging Martin out of the Alafia. Martin was completely out of control. Three mujahideen were pulling at him and he was fighting them every step of the way, hitting their hands off him, pushing them away and walking backwards. He wasn’t saying anything but he was making a lot of grunting sounds. The mujahideen were grappling with him, while trying to control their AK47s, which were slung over their shoulders. I could see they were getting irritated because their guns, swinging around like unruly handbags, were getting in the way of their attempts to control Martin, who by now was about three meters from me. He was up against the side wall of the compound when I saw him stumble backwards into the street and disappear just below the tailgate flap of the truck. I lost sight of him, but he was right there, almost within touching distance.

One second.

At the exact moment Martin fell, the tallest of the three, whose name I later learnt was Ghanda Hari, had had enough. As the two other gunmen stepped forward as if to pick Martin up, Ghanda Hari simply stopped fighting the momentum of the AK47’s sling, allowed the gun to swing up into his hands and fired three shots. 


I couldn’t see what they saw, but the finality with which all three mujahideen turned and walked to the vehicle told me that Martin was dead. One of them gave the “A-OK” sign to the driver. The expression on Ghanda Hari’s face was one of mild irritation, like when you hit the enter key on your keyboard and it doesn’t register or you find your stapler is empty. A slight inconvenience. He didn’t look like he had just killed somebody. 

I said to Johan and Sjaak, who were facing the other way, “Shit, I think they’ve killed Martin.” 

I could hear Tilly on the patio screaming and shouting.

I felt a blanket and then a cargo net being dropped over us and secured.

I lost the light.

The driver revved the engine and the vehicle started to move.

I didn’t know it, but the longest journey of my life had just begun. DM/ ML


Letters are by Ben Burgh

*Six Years With Al Qaeda: The Stephen McGown Story is available for purchase here


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  • What goes wrong in a child’s upbringing that they should be attracted to Al Queda as a life choice?
    Especially when there are so many other more humanly beneficial choices around.