Belfast man who was tied to a bomb by Islamic extremists in Algeria tells of his incredible escape
Published 18/01/2014 | 00:00
A Belfast man who survived a terrifying al-Qaida hostage siege has spoken for the first time about his incredible escape.
One year on from being tied to a bomb in Algeria, father-of-two Stephen McFaul has relived the harrowing moments a suicide bombing mission unfolded around him, forcing him to escape death several times.
In January 2013 the militants behind the brutal and ruthless mission, The Signatories in Blood Brigade – a group with links to al- Qaida – targeted a remote gas production facility for their bloody hostage crisis.
The crisis lasted three days and ended with a vicious offensive by Algerian troops against the terrorists.
The extremist murder spree was believed to have been a revenge assault aimed at the Algerian government, which had allowed France to use its airspace in a military operation against Islamic militants in neighbouring Mali.
Mr McFaul was working as a supervising electrician at the gasfield complex in Amenas.
Weeks after celebrating Christmas with his two young sons and close family, the Andersonstown man came face-to-face with death at the hands of the murderous jihadists.
He was told to call his family, his government and his company, to relay orders for the military to retreat from the gas facility.
Mr McFaul watched on as friends and colleagues were strung together with explosive cord around their necks and tied to dynamite – all connected to a remote handheld detonator.
The father to Dylan, 14 at the time, and five-year-old Jake, was threatened at gunpoint.
"He again took the explosives from my neck and, along with one of his terrorists, again marched me to this warehouse at gunpoint," Mr McFaul said. "So they were walking me down and at that point they were having a conversation behind me, I couldn't hear in what language they were having it, but he did say to me if I tried to run they would shoot."
In the final hours of the haunting nightmare, a convoy of four-wheel drive vehicles carrying hostages came under fire from an Algerian helicopter gunship.
Mr McFaul believed it was a journey he would not survive. "They had started to whip themselves into a frenzy they were chanting 'Allahu Akbar' in the car, they were firing gunshots out the windows of the car.
"We did not know what way this was going. So me and the colleague who was sitting beside me just exchanged a brief few words and, yeah, that's it. 'Good luck.'"
In a Canadian documentary, Mr McFaul recalled vivid memories sitting behind his Canadian captor as the terrorist struggled to detonate a suicide bomb.
"Our vehicle overturned and came to rest.
"At this point the Canadian terrorist tried to detonate the explosive that he was carrying," said Mr McFaul. "You heard the fused wire, I guess the hissing noise from whatever he was trying to detonate, and I think it was his detonating wire.
"He's the guy who tried to murder me. He tried but he failed." As the vehicle burst into flames, the electrical engineer fled into the desert where he was rescued, looking back at the man who tried to murder him
Of 34 hostages travelling in the militants' convoy, only five survived.
They tied me to a bomb. I thought: I just hope it's quick
Stephen McFaul hoped his end would come quick, as he feared bleeding to death. The west Belfast man believed he was about to be blown up by Islamic extremists in a land far away from home.
As one of the 132 foreign hostages taken in a terrorist attack on an Algerian oil facility in January 2013, Stephen thought he would never see his two sons again.
Towards the end of the In Amenas hostage crisis, Stephen and 34 fellow hostages were driven in a convoy by the increasingly desperate terrorists.
Only five survived.
A year on from the three-day siege, Stephen has reflected on the harrowing attack in which 39 foreign hostages were killed, as well as 29 terrorists.
A supervising electrician working in North Africa in January 2013, Stephen had no suspicions of what trauma would ensue during a normal day at work.
As he headed for breakfast at the Tigantourine gas facility near the Libyan border, al-Qaida-linked terrorists stormed the base.
They began to tie up staff with explosive cord, make bombs and shoot the workforce.
"We are hearing a lot of commotion, gunfire, we're getting a lot of activity outside the accommodation, a lot of Arabic being shouted," he said in a forthcoming documentary for a Canadian documentary.
"They kicked in our door, they smashed through the bathroom door. And then they found us hiding in the shower cubicle.
"I was the first one that they took out of the accommodation.
"But just at the door of the accommodation they put me on my knees, told me to get on my knees and put my hands behind my head.
"At this point then I thought, 'Yeah that's it. I'm going to be shot here'.
"But then he put me back to my feet again and then forced me to walk in the direction which was towards where the canteen was again.
"It was within the first hour of having us seated at this plaza area they started to produce this cable of some sort, of some description. Then from one end of where the hostages were seated they started to attach it round the neck of the hostages and then looping from one hostage to the next hostage in a sequence going along the line.
"The cable wasn't long enough to reach my neck but it was attached to the person who was seated at my right-hand side, it just stopped short.
"It wasn't wrapped to my neck, but from there then it was attached to a block of explosives, they were referring to it as TNT, and at the other end of this detonator wire they had a sort of hand-held sort of detonating device.
"At this point they instructed us we could use our phones to phone our families, to phone our governments or our companies.
"They wanted us to relay the message they want the military to pull back from the immediate area, they want to have safe passage from the facility to the In Amenas airport, and from there they want to take us, the hostages, to north Mali, which is the area they now control."
The terrorists threatened to detonate their devices unless the Algerian Army let them pass through their chosen routes in a convoy of vans.
The Algerian military were on the offensive, with helicopter gunships strafing terrorist positions – which was also where the hostages were.
"I didn't know who to be more afraid of. Was it the military or the terrorists? The guy who was holding the detonator for the explosives or the helicopter coming in who was potentially going to fire on us," he said.
"I was thinking: 'I hope this is quick. I hope I'm not lying here bleeding to death or anything. I just hope it's quick.'" As Stephen and his friends and colleagues were driven in a convoy that was coming under heavy fire, he was certain they wouldn't survive.
Most didn't, but the vehicle overturned and Stephen was able to escape. He described how body parts were scattered among the debris as the 36-year-old made his final run to safety.
"They had started to whip themselves into a frenzy, they were chanting 'Allahu Akbar' in the car, they were firing gunshots out the windows of the car. "We didn't know what way this was going. So me and the colleague who was sitting beside me just said a brief few words and, yeah, that's it. 'Good luck.'
"I looked out the rear window of the vehicle and I could see the bullets striking the ground leading right up to our vehicle and then striking our vehicle. At that point our vehicle overturned and came to rest on its roof.
"The Canadian terrorist then tried to detonate the explosive that he was carrying, but it failed to go off.
"You heard the fused wire, I guess, of the 'shhhh' hissing noise from whatever he was trying to detonate, and I think it was his detonating wire.
"My thoughts were I need to get as much distance between me and this vehicle as possible and as I was making my escape this helicopter gunship had come round again and I was waving my hands clearly in the air to indicate I was one of the hostages, but they just fired upon me directly.
"So at that point I threw myself on to the ground and everyone of those bullets seemed to miss me as well.
"I started to run and came across the first vehicle. It was just carnage. There was torsos, limbs, there was a head.
"There was just body parts all surrounding the vehicle.
"I feel very fortunate that I managed to survive; I'm heartbroken that so many of my colleagues didn't."