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His Plan: Ride Across Africa. He Was Captured in Timbuktu

The story of Johan Gustafsson's nearly 6 years with al-Qaeda
By Kate Seamons,  Newser Staff
Posted Sep 25, 2017 9:37 AM CDT

(Newser) – Johan Gustafsson spent more than five years learning Arabic, French, and local African languages. The alternative might have been going mad. Gustafsson was abducted from his hotel terrace in Timbuktu, Mali, on Nov. 25, 2011, reports the Local. The then-36-year-old had been in the city just 24 hours, as part of a motorcycle quest through the African continent. Instead of making it to South Africa, he lived as a hostage until June 26 of this year. He described his time as one of the "Timbuktu Three" (Sjaak Rijke of the Netherlands and Stephen McGown of South Africa were also seized) being held in the Sahara desert by the branch of al-Qaeda found in North Africa: al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. As the New York Times recounts, Gustafsson says he and the others stopped counting the number of times they were moved once that count hit 100.

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They were initially blindfolded, bound, and forced to make ransom videos in Guantanamo-style orange jumpsuits. That all changed four months in once the men decided to convert to Islam. For their remaining time in captivity (Rijke was released in April 2015, McGown in August), they lived alongside their captors in a situation Gustafsson likened to "a prison sentence and Robinson Crusoe." He tried to escape once, and spent two nights walking through the desert before being recaptured. Sweden's foreign minister says diplomatic efforts eventually prevailed; a source disputes that, telling the Times $4.2 million made its way to the captors via a South African charity. Gustafsson describes his time as a hostage with a bit of wonder: "I'm going to miss the desert, the vastness, the night skies. You know how the storms move. All of this is just so majestic." (Read more hostage stories.)

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