Kiwi who terror king didn't see coming

By Andrew Stone

Bold NZ woman will relive ordeal as star witness at trial

Freed hostage Dr Mary Quin chats with another hostage after their kidnap ordeal in southern Yemen. Photo / AP
Freed hostage Dr Mary Quin chats with another hostage after their kidnap ordeal in southern Yemen. Photo / AP

The moment that Mary Quin thought she would die was in a gunfight with an AK-47 jammed into her spine.

Quin was a hostage, a human shield squeezed between an Islamist gang in Yemen, and trigger-happy security forces sent from Aden to overwhelm the kidnappers.

The New Zealander imagined her backbone splintering into a thousand pieces from a bullet fired by the captor she called "Purple Skirt" after the colour of his traditional clothes.

In her account of the ordeal, Kidnapped in Yemen, Quin wrote: "I willed him to move the gun, just a centimetre either side, so when the gun went off it would be a clean shot, an instant death."

But it wasn't Quin who was hit by gunfire. The gun barrel eased and she turned to face her kidnapper. Purple Skirt lay groaning on the stoney desert floor, his weapon beside him.

Quin reached for the barrel but the injured militant grabbed the stock.

"I want that gun you little bastard," the 45-year-old executive told Purple Skirt, before placing her infidel shoe on his head and tearing the automatic from his grasp. For a moment the Catholic woman from Manawatu considered opening fire.

"I suddenly knew I was capable of killing another human being and enjoying it," she realised, shocked that she "had met some new person, someone inside me that I never knew existed, someone capable of evil. One problem - this evil one didn't know how to use an AK-47."

Instead she turned to run towards the rescue force, pausing only to say goodbye to Purple Skirt: "Salaam alaikum, mother-f*****."

Four of the tourists in her party died from the gunbattle, executed by a murderous kidnapper or hit in the volley exchanged between the militants and Yemeni troops. Two captors and a soldier died but a dozen of the gang escaped.

In the years since the bloody exchange, Quin kept chipping away at the questions which nagged her about the hidden forces behind the kidnapping, all the while nurturing her stellar career in the United States.

The 60-year-old grew up in Palmerston North. One of nine children, her father was a detective while her mother was at home raising the family. After a first class honours science degree in physics from Canterbury University, she left for Chicago to study for an engineering PhD then jumped into the corporate world.

Armed with a Harvard MBA, she mixed with the big boys at Kodak and Xerox before heading to the wilds of Alaska to run a firm half-owned by a North American Indian tribe which serviced resource projects and generated income for native Alaskans.

Last year she returned to New Zealand for the hot seat as chief executive of the $250 million-a-year agency Callaghan Innovation, the high-tech taxpayer-funded vehicle which the Government hopes will act as a midwife to a whole swag of globally-tuned high-value NZ companies.

For the moment that task is on hold as Quin relives the Yemeni ordeal as a star witness in a high-profile terrorist trial in New York. In the dock is handless, one-eyed Muslim cleric Abu Hamza al-Masri.

Egyptian-born Hamza maintains he lost his hands when a landmine exploded as he helped rebuild roads in Afghanistan. US anti-terror investigators told Quin the injuries were more consistent with a chemical explosion, suggesting Hamza was hurt making a bomb.

Prosecutors in the Manhattan court believe evidence gathered by Quin after her ordeal will help put the imam behind bars for life. One crucial element is a tape-recording Quin made when she interviewed Hamza at his north London mosque nearly two years after the deadly kidnapping.

Months of dogged research led her to the mullah of Finsbury Park, who she believed was the mastermind behind the kidnapping. She spotted her quarry in the street as he tried to park a beaten-up blue Mercedes. Quin introduced herself and asked whether he got emails she had sent from America.

The preacher gestured to the stumps of his forearms and replied: "No. Emails are not easy for me."

He suggested his persistent visitor return in a week. The next time they met, Quin, her head and shoulders covered by a shawl, came straight to the point. "I have come to talk about Yemen," she told Hamza. "I was one of the tourists who was taken hostage by Abu Hassan."

She wrote that the mullah was briefly speechless but agreed to talk to the tape recorder Quin placed between them. The imam confirmed he had been in touch with Hassan, founder of the Aden Abyan Islamic Army and leader of the Yemeni kidnappers. It was Hassan who demanded to know which of his captives was American. Quin, who carried a US and an NZ passport, produced her home country document.

Contradicting reports that Hassan had been executed after a brief trial, Hamza told Quin the Islamic fighter was still alive.

Hamza closed the interview with a warning. "Do not go back to southern Yemen," he cautioned Quin, saying that rocket attacks on tourists would be next. "You will not see it coming."

As the woman he spilled his thoughts to takes the stand, Hamza might realise it was he who didn't see it coming.

Interview and lunch, with tryst

Tough, courageous and persistent, Mary Quin is no shrinking violet when it comes to revealing episodes of her private life.

In February 1999, a few weeks after she escaped with her life from the deadly Middle East hostage drama, Quin flew to New Zealand to see her family and attend a school reunion.

In Wellington, she had a "particularly eventful day", she relates in her book Kidnapped in Yemen. The morning started, Quin recalled, with a radio interview, before she went to lunch with a former boyfriend "followed by a tryst, for old times' sake, back in my hotel room".

There was time for afternoon tea with three nuns, before the day wrapped up with dinner put on by a lesbian couple. Before turning in, she wrote in her journal "Not a bad day's work!"

- NZ Herald

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