6th Floor, Woodrow Wilson Center

Pirates, Islam, and U.S. Hostage Policy

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Michael Scott Moore, freelance journalist with Spiegel Online and author, discussed his two and a half year ordeal as a captive of Somali pirates, with a focus on certain myths about hostage-taking. He also spoke about the recently announced Executive Order on Hostage Recovery Activities.

On June 24, 2015, the Middle East Program and the Africa Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center hosted an event “Pirates, Islam, and U.S. Hostage Policy” with Moore. Haleh Esfandiari, Director of the Middle East Program, Woodrow Wilson Center, moderated the event.

Moore began by stating his belief that it is un-Islamic to hold prisoners and treat people the way that the Somali pirates treated him and the Iranian government treated Esfandiari. Yet, surprisingly, many of the guards he encountered identified as Muslims and were very religious. He explained that during his two and a half years as a captive of Somali pirates, he discovered four myths that would shatter perceptions about pirates, Islam, and U.S. hostage policy.

In discussing these myths, Moore started with the myth that these pirates are poor and disgruntled fishermen. He acknowledged that his captors voiced legitimate concerns, such as the illegal dumping on Somalian shores by Europeans, but he noted that pirate-run organized gangs are motivated by money and the stimulant drug khat. In addition, he asserted that these men do not identify as pirates and claimed that the closer you come to a real pirate, the harder it is to find one. The second myth Moore addressed was that U.S. hostage policy does not necessarily keep Americans safe abroad. He explained that it was a myth that Europeans walk with a target on their heads because they have a softer hostage policy with kidnappers—most pirate bosses do not know or do not care about differing hostage policies.

With regard to the third myth, Moore argued that the notion that pirates are not Muslim is not true. His guard, Bashko, was proud to identify as an adherent of Islam. He also noted that the top bosses of the operation circulated the idea that the hostages were pig-eaters in order to de-humanize them. He elaborated by saying that the core members of terrorist and pirate groups in the region may not be Muslim, but they wove Islam into their ideology to motivate the foot soldiers and guards that held Moore captive. Moore concluded with the fourth myth that people live their day-to-day lives believing they have loved enough, a myth that was shattered for him during his time as a hostage. He said he was struck by a profound sense of having failed to love enough and encouraged the audience to examine their own lives.

In the question and answer portion of the event, Esfandiari asked Moore if he could describe the day he was brought with a group of hostages off a boat and told he was being released. Moore explained that it was the first day he created a proof of life video and his friend, Rolly, a hostage from the Seychelles, was hung by the ankles and beaten on camera. She also asked if there was a moment when he gave up hope that he would be found, and he responded by saying after the first year when he was frequently held in solitary confinement, he stopped thinking he would be able to get out. When asked if he had undertaken preparedness training prior to his trip, Moore replied by stating that he did not have any particular training even though such programs exist for journalists. He added that he should have prepared for hunger strikes because he was not ready for their psychological side effects. Responding to a question by Esfandiari about the recent White House policy changes on hostages, Moore explained that families would no longer face prosecution for attempting to pay ransom their abducted love ones and that communication between law enforcement officials and families would be improved.

By: Donya Nasser, Middle East Program 

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