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I dug my way out with nail clippers: One man’s horrific tale of more than a year in captivity

7NEWS Australia
Malin Hagglund / Human Interest
Saturday August 13, 2022

For two-and-and-a-half days, Nigel Brennan had been using nail clippers to chip away at a hole in the room where he was being held hostage.

Finally it was big enough to escape.

The Australian photojournalist and his colleague Amanda Lindhout squeezed through the gap and fled.

They were free for just 25 minutes.

“That was probably one of the days when I thought we’d end up dead,” Brennan told 7NEWS.com.au.

It was a tiny glimpse of freedom during a terrifying 15 months in captivity in what was regarded as one of the most dangerous places in the world.

For Brennan, the experience was traumatic. But the capture would become something much bigger: a years-long saga that led to questions over how Australia handles kidnapping cases, and that still lingers with Brennan even now.

During the late 2000s, Brennan was at a crossroads in his life.

He worked as a photographer for a regional paper in Scotland, but he was desperate to be covering conflict zones.

Photo released in 2008 of Nigel Brennan. Credit: Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade/Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade

So he decided to head to Somalia, a country seen at the time as one of the most dangerous places in the world.

After the country’s brutal longtime dictator was overthrown in 1991 in a bloody civil war, the country’s clan rivalries escalated - and the following year, an estimated 350,000 people died from starvation, disease and fighting.

By 2007, an estimated 750,000 were internally displaced in the country.

On August 20, 2008, Brennan and Canadian journalist Lindhout landed in Somalia, planning to stay for seven days.

It would be another 473 days before they returned home.

As soon as they landed, the environment felt alien to Brennan. He saw people being bashed at the luggage carousel, and their local fixer only allowed them to go out during certain hours.

On their fourth day in Somalia, Brennan and Lindhout planned to visit camps outside the capital to report on the living conditions of those people who’d been internally displaced.

They thought they would need to switch security details partway through the trip - but what they thought was their new security detail turned out to be an ambush.

Brennan, Lindhout and their Somalian crew were ripped out of their vehicle, thrown onto the ground and bundled into the backseat while masked men pointed AK-47s at them.

At that moment, Brennan felt his brain had gone to “cotton wool”.

“It was that complete disbelief, it was like, ‘what is going on here, is this meant to be happening?’”

Back in Australia

Back in Queensland, Brennan’s sister Nicky received a mysterious phone call.

“Do you know Nigel Brennan?” the man on the other end of the line asked.

“Yes, I’m his sister,” Nicky replied.

The man, who called himself Adan, said he wanted $US3 million ($A4.2 million) - and he said he’d call her again the next morning to discuss.

Nicky was freaked out, she told 7NEWS.com.au. She didn’t know what to do - but it was the first lead in getting her brother back.

Eleven days later, she received a call from Brennan – a call he says was monitored and scripted by the captors. He told her he and Lindhout were physically OK - and the call ended swiftly with Brennan and his sister saying they loved one another, according to Price of Life, a book Brennan would write later on the experience.

In the following weeks, the Queensland Police – who had little experience of kidnap for ransom cases - taught her to negotiate and talk with Adan.

Her kitchen table was dotted with laptops, and a phone was set up to allow a case officer to monitor any calls with Adan.

Their key strategy? Getting confirmation that Brennan was alive by asking questions only he could answer.

“So, it was the name of his pet dog, and we had quite a few of them. It was what the name of our pet kangaroo was,” Nicky says.

Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) also got involved, and eventually Nicky’s landline was even moved to the Canberra Unit.

But there were problems with their approach.

Unlike some governments, Australia doesn’t pay ransoms as they could facilitate terrorism. Canada has a similar policy.

And DFAT had a strategy of not taking Adan’s calls, hoping the approach would wear him down.

The problem was: it didn’t work.

Life in captivity

For Brennan, life in captivity became about survival.

Soon after he was kidnapped, Brennan converted to Islam, hoping that would improve his chances of staying alive.

As time wore on, Brennan dug out verses in the Quran to show places where the text contradicted with how his captors were treating him.

“We would have these, for want of a better word, a sort of ‘pissing matches’,” Brennan says.

Five months in, Brennan and Lindhout’s situation looked bleak.

Lindhout was facing increased pressure, torture and death threats from their kidnappers. Lindhout declined to comment to 7NEWS, but said she had suffered intense abuse in an interview discussing her book about the experience, A House In The Sky.

“So, they sort of threatened her life twice, and had taken her out and done some fairly horrific things and forced her on the phone to say, ‘Mum, I have seven days or they are going to kill me’,” Brennan recalls.

That became a key motivator for their escape. From his perspective, the choice was between sitting and waiting to die - or giving it a go and potentially die trying.

But their escape attempt proved short-lived.

After they snuck out through the hole they had dug with nail clippers, they ran, screaming and asking people passing by for help and directions to a mosque - they thought they’d be safe as Muslims.

But once inside a mosque, they heard AK-47 gunshots, and soon their kidnappers had them at gunpoint once again. They were dragged into a new car, taken to a new house, and shackled with chains.

After they were recaptured, Brennan’s few possessions - religious materials, paper and a pencil were removed as punishment.

Now, his conversations were limited to when his captors delivered food - and even then, they lasted no more than 30 seconds.

The change

In Australia, attempts to help Brennan were gathering steam.

Frantic and having exhausted almost all the options they could think of to get Brennan back, the Brennan family went against DFAT’s wishes and hired John Chase - a kidnap and ransom expert with British-based firm AKE who one of Brennan’s family members described in a later book as being not far off a James Bond type figure.

By the time he got involved, 340 days had passed since Brennan and Lindhout were kidnapped.

“We had been told (by DFAT) that they were all cowboys and that it would be madness if we chose that route,” said Nicky.

Both the Australian and Canadian governments were sharing little information with the Brennan and Lindhout families, and Chase, who had just finished working on a kidnapping case of a Canadian citizen in Afghanistan, says he was “frustrated with how both governments had handled the situation.”

Because DFAT wouldn’t pay the ransom, the Brennan family scraped together money themselves by fundraising, asking friends for money, and selling houses and cars to raise funds to pay the hostage takers.

Bob Brown, then the leader of the Greens Party, heard of Brennan’s case through a journalist, and became concerned about how little was being done by the Australian government to help the family.

“It didn’t take too much common sense to know that these armed thugs in Mogadishu would very easily put a bullet into these people,” Brown says.

Brown and his partner donated $100,000, Lindhout’s family had taken a mortgage on Lindhout’s dad’s house, and Australian businessman Dick Smith funded the shortfall.

Altogether, they collected about $US600,000 which Chase’s colleagues handed over to the gang, according to a subsequent inquiry into the case.

The escape

In early November 2009, one of Brennan’s hostage takers marched into his room and handed him a phone.

It was his sister.

She had good news - she promised Brennan he would be out within the next 24 hours.

That didn’t come true. But a few weeks later, his kidnappers came into his room.

“They had to hacksaw the padlocks around my chains because they had rusted solid. I was told to strip naked and put on fresh clothes, and then was sort of bundled into a car with Amanda.

“It was the first time in months that we were actually able to sort of sit next to each other in a vehicle,” he says.

As the car drove them through bush, Brennan became hysterical. After months of captivity, he was terrified that he would be handed off to terrorists - again.

He panicked as he was put into another car - and it was only after Amanda was handed a phone and spoke to her mother that he really believed he was safe.

After a night in a hotel, Brennan finally got to meet Nicky and his mother.

“It was pretty surreal to see them, you know, and then they bundled us up and you know they finally got us to the airport and got us to Nairobi to where my sister and my mum were waiting,” he says.

Nigel Brennan took a selfie after he was released. Credit: Supplied by Nigel Brennan

Nigel Brennan making a statement to the media in Sydney, 2009. File image. Credit: Paul Miller/AAPIMAGE

The aftermath

A few months after they were released and back in Australia, Brown called for a federal inquiry into DFAT’s handling of the case.

The following year, the federal inquiry committee recommended that DFAT should help families find a private negotiator and be willing to cooperate and share relevant information with the hired consultant.

Since then, DFAT has kept its no-ransom policy - but the department has committed to providing access to private insurance companies for families considering paying a ransom, and providing families with “as much information as possible, bearing in mind national security and privacy concerns”.

Brown said Brennan’s case was a huge lesson for the government in how to deal with hostage situations.

“I don’t think the governments of the day quite realised the circumstances that a kidnapped person is in - in fact they are appalling circumstances,” he said.

“It is fundamental and will be fundamental, because more Australians will be kidnapped in dangerous places around the world and when they are, if the government won’t take action, it should at least advise people who want to take action.”

Years on, the kidnapping is still impacting those involved.

In 2015, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police arrested Somali national Adan - whose legal name is Ali Omar Ader - in Ottawa, Canada, after he was lured to the country to write a book on Somalia’s history.

The Royal Canadian Mounted Police arrested Ader for his alleged role in a 2008 hostage-taking in Somalia of Amanda Lindhout and Nigel Brennan. Credit: NBC/Reuters

In June 2018, he was sentenced to 15 years’ prison for kidnapping Lindhout.

Royal Canadian Mounted Police speaking at a press conference in Ottawa, Ontario, about the arrest of Ali Omar Ader in 2015. Credit: Patrick Doyle/AP

Brennan, meanwhile, has dealt with the trauma of the experience by co-writing a memoir, Price of Life, with his sister and then sister-in-law, where they all shared in detail their experience of the ordeal.

He was diagnosed with PTSD, and says the ordeal continues to affect him in different aspects of his life.

“There will be times when my mental health is not as it could be.”

But the ordeal also made him reflect on who he was and take ownership of past wrongs.

“Everyone that comes out from trauma grows from it, you have to grow from it. It’s an experience, like anything in life and that’s what I say to people. We all go through trauma, we all come through the other side.”


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