By: Zack Duvall
For Johan Gustafsson November 25, 2011 will forever be a day that will remain fresh in his mind, because that is the day that he was kidnapped by al-Qaeda related terrorists just hours after arriving in Timbuktu, Mali
Gustafsson was just one of three European and South African hostages, known as the ‘Timbuktu 3’, that the al-Qaeda linked group held captive for over 6 years.
French special forces rescued one of the 3 in April of 2015 during a pre-dawn military operation. During that rescue mission, French forces freed Dutch national, Sjaak Rijke, who had been kidnapped by the group in late 2012.
The final of the 3, and the second to be rescued, was South African citizen, Stephan McGown who was freed last August after “extensive work” of South African officials.
Gustafsson, who was set free in June but hasn’t gone public with his story until recently, was released by the extremist group under secrecy from both the Swedish government and the al-Qaeda group. With no details of the exchange and what led to it being released by any official in Stockholm.
Leading many critics to claim that a payment must have been provided to secure the safe exchange of the now 42 year old Gustafsson. Something the Swedish government vehemently deny.
“Mr. Gustafsson was released due to the persistence of Swedish efforts to make sure he was returned unharmed and in good health.” A statement from the Swedish Foreign Ministry said last month amid questions of the possible exchange.
“The only thing we know for sure is that not a single hostage has been released without payment. It’s not a charitable organization.” Magnus Manstorp, a counter-terrorism and security expert, said when asked about the official Swedish government’s version of events.
Public documents show that South African authorities initiated a payment of $4.2 million for the safe release of McGown.
Regardless of the facts surrounding his release, a lot is to be learned from what he now has to say about his time as an al-Qaeda hostage. Including the fact that, as he says, the group is “highly” organized and “well-funded”.
“They’re well funded nowadays. They say they didn’t used to be, but now they are, and it’s not difficult to figure out that it’s because of money sent by European countries.” Gustafsson said during an interview with reporters in Sweden this month.
He also said that the militants would often give vague references to the invasions of both Iraq and Afghanistan as well as the prison at Guantanamo Bay as some of their main reasons for their actions. But were unsympathetic to the fact that Gustafsson and the other captives weren’t Americans.
“I tried to explain to them I an Swedish. That we also think Guantanamo to be unlawful and counterproductive. It didn’t matter.” He told reporters who asked if his nationality helped or hurt his situation.
He says that for the first few months of captivity that they were blindfolded and shackled while being transported across the Mali desert multiple times as his captors conducted their movements.
In between the late night travel, he said the captives were forced to make ransom videos, and videos denouncing the West’s involvement in the Middle East and Africa while wearing orange jumpsuits, similar to the ones Guantanamo inmates wear.
As the months turned into years, he says that he converted to Islam in an effort to earn favor with the jihadists and improve his situation. A move that he credits for his safe return home.
“It was to save my life.” He said as he detailed ways in which his captivity improved such as no longer having to make ransom videos or remained shackled and bound from that point on.
“I see that as direct evidence that it actually helped save my life and change my situation.” Gustafsson said.
With only one plan to escape ever attempted during the 6-years he was a prisoner, he said that the terrain and landscape of Sahara Africa prevent any kind of real possibility of surviving without the right gear and equipment.
“I tried and almost walked to my death. The vastness and isolation along with the heat and wildlife made running impossible.” He detailed in the interview.
However, he maintains that had he been given the right opportunity he would have made an escape and that while he has a lot of mental and physical recovery to do, he will actually miss some parts of the experience.
“I’m not going to miss those guys, but I’m going to miss the desert, the vastness, the night skies.” He said.
Gustafsson was returned home on June 26 after being blindfolded and dropped off just outside of the French Embassy in Mali, The French are considered the leaders of European involvement in Mali, and provided care for Gustafsson while arrangements were made to return him to Sweden.