Stephen McGown, a captive or member of Al Qaeda?

Islamist and pro-jihadist websites are busy in projecting South African national Stephen McGown as a hero, because, he was with Al Qaeda for six years and left Christianity and embraced Islam. Although website are projecting McGown as a “survivor of Al Qaeda captivity”, in my opinion, he has joined the radical Islamic terrorist group willingly and later converted into Islam possibly with his new assignment of working as a sleeper cell member of the notorious jihadist outfit. As we know, any foreign national or traveler captured by Al Qaeda or Islamic State (ISIS) would face merciless death. Two other foreign nationals, named Martin a German national captured by Al Qaeda in Timbuktu, Mali was murdered in presence of McGown.

Following his so-called release from “Al Qaeda captivity”, Stephen McGown detailed his own “ordeal”, and that of Sjaak Rijke — a Dutch national, and Johan Gustafsson — a Swede to various media outlets and writers, thus giving a false impression of him being also held captive by the Islamist militancy group. He also has written a book titled ‘Six Years With Al Qaeda’. Praising this book, an Islamist website wrote: “

The opening of the book sets the scene for the death of the German and for the six-years-long life in captivity of the Timbuktu Three. McGown’s triumph is multifaceted. Physically, he survived execution by Al Qaeda, even though his British passport rendered him a prized catch for a symbolic killing by the extremist group. He survived harsh desert conditions, treachery by a fellow captive and constant trekking with his captors over the desert landscape to elude their enemies”.

It further said:

Among the most astonishing episodes of McGown’s tale are his meticulous records and notes of his travels, revealing a remarkable presence of mind and powers of observation amid a life-changing crisis. Then there is his acquisition of diverse survival skills in the desert, skills that not only preserve life, but which helped build his character.

And of course, there is McGown’s love of and extraordinary relationship with animals. He was deeply affected by Al Qaeda’s slaughter of goats and camels, the lone presence of a giant tortoise in the middle of nowhere, tales of snakes, geckos and frogs and the migration of swallows.

However, his survival ultimately speaks to his mental and spiritual growth. This enabled him to achieve a typical personal life goal, namely to emerge from his ordeal a better person. This, above all else, is the abiding moral of McGown’s story.

In the early period of captivity, McGown was confronted with the very real fear of death at the hands of his captors. And then there was anxiety, panic, depression, loneliness, boredom and a host of conditions that tested his mettle beyond mere physical resilience. The chapter “Oasis of the Mind” offers deeply profound reflections, and some context and valuable insight into his “self-imposed rehab” in the desert.

McGown had struggled with anxiety and depression in London, well before his rendezvous with Al Qaeda. But captivity compelled him to make a very conscious moral choice that had little to do with the innate drive for physical self-preservation. It was a moral choice between imploding into lifelong bitterness and cynicism or embracing his reality and transcending it with a view to achieving transformation and personal growth. It demanded deep introspection and reflections on the meaning of life and the nature of existence. Ultimately, he rehabilitated himself and emerged a man who conquered his lower self.

McGown does not quite treat his psychological journey in Mali as one that is distinct from his spiritual journey. One must concede these are not mutually exclusive aspects of his experience. However, for the purpose of grasping a seemingly counterintuitive spiritual response to his captors and their faith, it is useful to consider his spiritual development independently.

The intuitive response was that of Gustafsson. The latter embraced Islam exclusively as a survival tactic. He had no sincere faith, no conviction or any sincere commitment to Islam. It was understandably all sham and expediency. Yet for Gustafsson, this response was perfectly intuitive. He was never a religious person to start with and had no reason to genuinely believe or be truthful to captors who would not hesitate to kill him.

For McGown it was fundamentally different, and counterintuitive. It was so much more than a survival tactic. It was, on the one hand, an affirmation of the faith he already cherished as a Christian. On the other, it was the inherent appeal and convergence of fundamental spiritual truths shared by the two faiths. And for McGown these truths superseded the doctrinal differences between Islam and Christianity. He gravitated towards — and premeditatively sought — the virtues of Islam.

So after his release, McGown sustained his counterintuitive approach. He did not disavow Islam after again becoming a free man. He is now free to enter into his faith completely, minus the duress of captivity. Alternatively, he may exercise his right to practice his faith as a Christian. It is another phase in his ongoing journey, one of introspection as a free man to independently assess the merits of either faith and to wholeheartedly embrace that.

One of the ironies of his Malian odyssey is that a Muslim NGO played a significant role in facilitating his release. The Gift of the Givers assists all people in need, irrespective of faith, and they went where no government could go in reaching out to Al Qaeda. McGown appears to recognise in this irony, and in several other instances, that he must make the vital distinction between his misguided captors and their faith. Extremism is not consistent with the creed of Islam.

McGown, an admirer and propagandist of Al Qaeda

In his book, Stephen McGown has praised the Al Qaeda men for their “good character”. He even said, he was held prisoner but was never tortured or beaten. McGown explains his special sympathy for Al Qaeda as “expansion of his vast capacity for forgiveness”. For those who are believing lies of Stephen McGown and considering him as a victim of Al Qaeda’s captivity is totally wrong. They must remember, a person who was held in captivity for over six years – never beaten or executed – and finally released by Al Qaeda is for sure a member of this notorious group. He is no survivor of captivity. Instead, he certainly is a member of Al Qaeda’s sleeper cell and might be continuing notorious activities in favor of this outfit under the disguise of a survivor.

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