He was captured by insurgent group Al-Qaeda in Mali at the time Stephen McGowon was a Catholic. He was held for six years and only recently released on humanitarian grounds.
The South African tourist – now fully bearded, says he will keep his beard which he observed had become fashionable. He was, however, keeping his as a Muslim. “I’ll probably keep the beard. I see all of my friends are growing them. They’ve become funky,” McGowan told a conference in the capital Pretoria on Thursday.
Reverting to Islam, according to him was the best way that he was able to deal with the ordeal he went through at the hands of the insurgents. “I don’t believe they knew my nationality. It would have been first prize for them if I was British,” McGowan said.
“They kidnapped me just because I was non-Muslim,” McGowan, flanked by his father and his wife, recalled details of ordeal. He did not mention when he reverted to Islam and how nor did he disclose whether he had taken an Islamic name.
McGowan said he was driven across remote stretches of the Sahara in the back of utility truck with other hostages, and housed in a grass hut, handcuffed and blindfolded for long periods. He was told on a the drive home his mother had passed away.
McGowan was released last month after being kidnapped, along with four other foreigners, while touring Mali on motorbikes. One, a German, was killed in the kidnapping. A Dutch hostage was freed in 2015 in a raid by French special forces and a Swede was released in June this year.
The South African government earlier this month announced the release of McGowon who was held since 2011 by the Mali-based group. He was kidnapped from the tourist town of Timbuktu 6 years ago.
South Africa’s foreign minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane in confirming the release said no ransom was paid to Al-Qaeda. Gift of the Givers, the organisation that acted as intermediaries between Al Qaeda and government, said on Thursday McGowan had been released on compassionate grounds.
The government ordered a series of tests to be conducted on him. He was only recently discharged from hospital after observation and treatment for numerous minor ailments.