Al-Qaeda's longest-held hostage gives tips on how to survive coronavirus lockdown

South African Stephen McGowan urges people to keep busy and retain a sense of normality

Stephen McGowan was visiting Timbuktu as part of an epic motorbike journey from the UK to South Africa (BBC Web Grab)
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A former Al-Qaeda hostage who spent six years in captivity has urged people to remember that “tough times are only temporary” in an online video giving advice on how to survive the coronavirus crackdown.

Stephen McGowan, a South African who became the terrorist group's longest-held captive after being seized in 2011 in Mali, Africa, and released in 2017, said he had received many messages saying that social distancing must be a “doddle” for him.

Mr McGowan, 45, described the comments as flattering, saying that many lessons can be learned even in the most difficult times as he recalled his years in the Sahara with Al-Qaeda’s powerful Sahel branch.

“Life is actually completely out of control all the time,” he said. “Every single day we think we have control, we try and control the bits and pieces that we think we are in control of, but as a matter of fact life can change at any second, so we aren't really in control.

“I had to realise this in the desert. It was very apparent to me when I was handcuffed. I had this constant fear over my head, especially in the early days, never knowing if I’d actually make it through the day.

Malcolm McGowan, father of South African Stephen McGowan, who was kidnapped by al Qaeda from the Mali tourist town of Timbuktu in 2011 and has been released and is back home, chats to foreign minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane after a media briefing in Pretoria, South Africa August 3, 2017. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko
Malcolm McGowan, father of the kidnapped South African, with then foreign minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane. Reuters

“But one has to cope, one has to pick oneself up and one has to try and find the best in things, and look past these difficult situations,” he added in the post on Facebook.

Mr McGowan, a dual British-South African citizen, had been living for seven years in London where he was a banker in the City when he decided to ride his motorbike through France and Spain and onward to South Africa as an adventure.

He was kidnapped from the patio of his hotel in Timbuktu along with a Swedish and Dutch tourist. A German with them who tripped while being taken was shot dead.

Dutchman Sjaak Rijke was freed by French forces in April 2015 and Swede Johan Gustafsson was released in June 2017. But Mr McGowan was only let go in August 2017, allegedly after the South African government paid a multi-million-dollar ransom. He now lives in Johannesburg.

“Things that I found important were… I would do a lot of introspection to try and figure out who I was and who the people were around me, and what my situation was,” he said in the eight-minute video recorded in his back yard. “I would then try and see how could I work these things for my survival.”

He said he tried to retain a sense of normality and being human in order to keep going in the desert and “focus on survival”.

The South African said he would ask himself what his biggest stressors were, such as being killed or used for propaganda purposes, in an attempt to understand his situation and what he was going through.

Staying busy was also crucial, he said, so he learnt Arabic and French to put the time to good use and add purpose. “So, keep my brain moving, having tools, practical things to do. I also found doing a lot of exercise was very important. I think when you get the endorphins going, everything seems to start making sense.

“Even just to push your chest out and just tell yourself that you are on top of the situation does amazing things for you mentally, even if you aren’t. Bluff, just bluff - and it’s quite something how your mind sometimes believes you and goes along with it.

“Know what is stressing you,” he reiterated. “Puff your chest up and tell yourself you are on top of this situation even if you are not, just bluff. Talk yourself into a positive state of mind.”

Mr McGowan said it was important to keep things in perspective and remember that people in lockdowns or living under other coronavirus restrictions could still use the internet and go to the shops. Crucially, he said remember that there’s “always someone else who’s worse off than you are”.