The Wilson Center Wednesday hosted a conversation entitled Pirates, Islam, and US Hostage Policy with Michael Scott Moore, a freelance journalist for Spiegel Online and a former hostage of Somali pirates. Haleh Esfandiari, Director of the Middle East Program at the Wilson Center, moderated. Moore related his experiences as a hostage of Somali pirates for 2½ years. He also discussed the recent change in US hostage policy.
In 2012, Moore, a dual American and German citizen, was covering a trial of Somali pirates in Hamburg. German public defenders argued that the alleged pirates were merely fishermen made desperate by overfishing from illegal trawling. Moore met Somalis at the trial who arranged for him to travel there to learn more.
Moore flew to Somalia, where he interviewed a pirate boss who framed his actions in terms of a struggle against Europeans. He cited legitimate complaints, like illegal tuna trawling, but his main motivation was greed, not ideology.
A few days later, Moore was ambushed by a truck with a mounted cannon. A dozen gunmen jumped out, pulled him from his vehicle and beat him. The kidnapping was well planned. His kidnappers knew he was American. His captors had been looking at a picture of him on a cellphone before his capture. A fellow captive was taken 50 miles offshore of the Seychelles, 700 miles from Somalia. Both Moore and the Seychellois were originally held on a $20 million ransom demand by pirates pretending to be disgruntled fishermen. But qat addiction, not overfishing, is the main cause of desperation among young Somalis. Qat is an expensive habit and Moore never met a Somali pirate who was not addicted.
Moore’s guards were unaware that the US does not pay ransom. If the pirate bosses knew of the policy, they cynically believed they would receive money anyway. The kidnappers were opportunistic and asked for money from all sources: the US and German governments as well as Der Spiegel. They updated him on supposed negotiations with the US. It took them a year and a half to realize that they would not get money from that source. Moore thinks that President Obama’s clarification that families will not be prosecuted for paying ransoms is positive. The past practice of telling families they could be prosecuted caused confusion and limited their efforts to help their loved ones.
Deterrence could reduce hostage taking, Moore suggested. A consistent rescue policy would be one way to accomplish this. A few days after his capture, a Navy Seal team rescued two other American hostages and shot their captors dead. If this happened consistently, pirates might think twice about taking hostages. However, the wishes of families must be honored, since hostages sometimes die in rescue attempts. Policymakers must allow families to choose whether they would like the US to attempt a rescue. Consistent punishment, such as the death penalty, could also be an effective deterrent. The pirates tried in Hamburg in 2012 were jailed for several years, which is not enough.
Moore had previously assumed that pirates could not be devout Muslims because theft is forbidden in Islam. However, his guards prayed five times per day. Moore asked whether they saw a contradiction. At first, they explained that they were just guards and their bosses were un-Islamic thieves. However, pirate bosses do not hire guards who are not fully on board with the work. The guards also claimed that they were protecting Moore from the Somali terrorist group al-Shabab, but received a salary from the pirate bosses.
The guards later claimed that piracy and hostage taking are not haram (forbidden), provided that the victims are infidels. The guards would point out wild pigs and ask Moore if he wanted ham. Moore believes the bosses used a dehumanizing narrative of captives as pig-eaters to convince the guards that what they were doing was all right. Like ISIS, whose leaders are often former Ba’athists, Islam is not the motive for the leaders of pirate gangs. They spread ideas in Islamic terms to motivate their foot soldiers.
Ultimately released for $1.5 million, Moore views the outcome as a miracle. Straying from the political into the deeply personal, he related how his belief that his death was imminent made him reflect on how he had lived his life. He felt that he had fallen short in caring for others. He urged the audience to think each day about how they can do better for their loved ones.