Redondo Beach resident Michael Scott Moore recounts Somali Pirate captivity
by Kevin Cody
Michael Scott Moore spoke at Pages bookstore in downtown Manhattan Beach in November 2010, about his newly released book “Sweetness and Blood: How surfing spread from Hawaii and California to the rest of the world, with some unexpected results.”
Afterwards, the Mira Costa High graduate (‘87) crossed the street to Ercoles for beers and burgers with several Easy Reader reporters. His next book, he told them, would be about Somali pirates.
Moore spent the better part of the next six years researching and writing that book. Almost three of those years were spent as a captive of Somali pirates. On Thursday, July 19 he will return to Pages to talk about “The Desert and the Sea: 977 Days Captive on the Somali Pirate Coast.”
The New York Times wrote of “Sweetness and Blood,” “What Moore has done, subtly and beguilingly, is write a book about surfing that often is not really about surfing, but about simply being alive (and in some cases dead).”
The same can be said of his new book.
“I was a writer with a weakness for big ideas and my ideas, more than anything else, carried me off to Somalia,” he explains in the early pages.
One “big idea” was the parallels between Somali pirates and colonial America pirates. Moore sketched out this idea in an October 2011 article for The New Republic magazine. “Captains without cargo and seamen without employment turned in increasing numbers to the easy lure of piracy,” Moore notes, quoting from “The Pirates Pact,” a book about colonial era piracy by Yeshiva University professor Douglas R. Burgess.
“The parallels weren’t clean, but the Atlantic seaboard of North America had evolved from an undeveloped haven for pirates…. What if Somalia could move in the same direction?” Moore asks in part one of “The Desert and the Sea.”
To research the book, Moore obtained a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting and flew to Galmudug, Somalia, in January, 2012. There he met Mohamed Ahmed Alin, the president of Galmudug, a self governing region in central Somalia. Alin lamented piracy, but enjoyed its benefits. He lived in a guarded compound in Galkayo, the region’s largest city. Its name translates as “where the infidels ran away.”
Moore’s initial impression of Galkayo supported his thesis.
This loose affiliation of houses with little tradition of electricity, running water or schools had sprouted a pair of universities, more than 20 lower schools, competing cell-phone networks, a few ramshackle hotels, internet cafes, even alcohol. It was almost cosmopolitan. People called it a boomtown…. The sudden prosperity corresponded to an upward arc in pirate fortune. General opinion at the U.N. and elsewhere held that ransom cash had juiced the economy.
Following his meeting with the regional president, Moore traveled to the port city of Hobyo, where foreign ships and their crews were held for ransom. In Hobyo, Moore met with a pirate boss named Mustaf Mohammed Sheikh.
Mustaf Mohammed lost no time declaring himself at war with forces of the West. He said that ‘white people’ had attacked Somalia by trawling its coral reefs and dumping poison on its shores. “As soon as they stop leaving poison on our beaches and taking fish from our seas, we will stop hijacking ships,” the pirate said….
“How did your career as a pirate start?” I asked.
“Someone sank my boat,” he said. “My brother was killed, all our equipment — our nets everything — was destroyed. That was the beginning.”
“Ten years ago.”
“Who did it?” I asked.
“Denmark. A Danish ship. A trawler….”
The interview was videotaped by Ashwin Raman, an Indian documentary maker and German TV war correspondent. Moore and Raman had teamed up in Germany where Moore was living while covering the trial of 10 Somali pirates for Spiegel Online. Moore holds dual U.S. German citizenship through his German born mother. During the pirates’ trial, Moore met Mohammed Sahal Gerlach, a Somali elder from Galkayo who married a German woman and went by her last name. He and Raman hired Gerlach to provide security.
Gerlach took us for a walk along the beach and we found a massive industrial waste canister, yellow and almost cube-shaped, seven or eight feet tall, sitting in the shore break.
“This washed up in the  tsunami,” he said “It is too heavy for anyone to move.”
“Where is it from?” I said.
“We don’t know.”
It looked like radioactive waste canisters I had seen in photographs. Italian journalists had uncovered collusion between Ndrangheta [Sicilian]Mafia bosses and warlords in Somalia to bury tons of waste in Somali soil — or sink it in the waters offshore — during the nineties.
Somalia is a failed state, without a navy to defend its coastline. But Moore began to doubt that protecting Somalia’s coastline, alone, explained the piracy. Most of the pirates weren’t fishermen, and they couldn’t swim, he learned.
“What undercut Mustaf Mohammed’s speech to us was the sheer number of impoverished sailors captured in Somalia. At the time of our interview, more than 700 hostages from India, Bangladesh, Iran, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Yemen and the Philippines were still being held in cruel conditions. The affected shipping companies, too, were a random assortment — sometimes Danish or Greek, sometimes Liberian, Malaysian, Chinese. The profiteering had little to do with complaints against the West. Pirates just caught what they could.
After 10 days in Somalia, Moore booked a flight out of Galkayo Airport to Berlin, by way of Nairobi. Raman booked a flight on the preceding day to Mogadishu, Somalia’s capital.
The Galkayo Airport roads could be dangerous. Two Western aid workers, Jessica Buchanan and Poul Thistel, had been kidnapped on one of them several month before.
On the morning of Raman’s flight, the guards hired by Gerlach failed to show up at their hotel. Gerlach called President Alin, who sent a white jeep with a gunman to take them to the airport. After Raman boarded his flight, Moore, Gerlach and their gunman loaded into the president’s jeep for the ride back to the hotel. They approached a “technical” parked on the side of the road. A technical, Moore writes, “is a cannon-mounted flatbed truck, a battle wagon from the Somali civil war.”
That’s when the scholarly narrative of Moore’s book on Somali pirates took a dangerous and personal turn.
“Can’t we just drive on?” I said.
Gerlach said,“It’s one of ours….”
The technical approached the car with its canon aimed through our windshield…. A dozen or so men jumped off, holding weapons…. I held the door closed with my right hand. They wrenched it open, and pounded my wrists with their Kalashnikovs. I had never felt so much violent malice at such close range and I kept pulling at the door, hoping to buy time while our guard in the front seat performed his job. I was confused by the number of men who kept pounding my wrist with their gun barrels. I felt bones crack, I let go of the door and they pulled me into the dust outside and beat me on the head.”
The pirates dragged Moore into a Land Rover and took him to a camp in the bush. They had a mattress waiting for him and offered him a bottle of water and a can of tuna. The following morning, he and two other hostages, poor Seychelles fishermen, were taken to a walled compound.
After an hour, a smooth-looking man came in, wearing slacks. He introduced himself as a translator. I later learned his name was Boodin, but he never said so. Instead, he offered me warnings and condescending wisdom. I had made a mistake, he said, mistakes were human. I should not open the windows. An armed guard waited outside every wall. “If you open a window,” he said, “you will die.”
“I made a mistake. Mistakes were human.” The observation becomes a motif that Moore meditates on throughout the book, with predictably circular conclusions.
My real mistake was coming to Somalia, at all. What did I think I would find around here? Pirates who trusted writers? Truth? Some war correspondents come away from the battlefield more disoriented than before, less confident about the facts, and by now I just wanted to be unconscious….
I had broken one of the cardinal rules of anyone who pokes around in troublesome parts of the world, which is to keep your family’s lives unaffected.
His mother, Marlis Saunders, was thrust into the role of negotiator. Next to the table by her bed in her Redondo Beach home she kept instructions given to her by a FBI neighbor on how to respond when the pirates phoned.
The week of his January 21, 2012 kidnapping, Easy Reader printed on its front page and posted on its website a story about the Mira Costa High grad and author of a book on surfing being held by Somali pirates. The next day the paper received a call from a Der Spiegel editor asking for the story to be removed from the website. The more publicity Moore received the more ransom the pirates would be embolden to ask for, the editor contended. Easy Reader did so, abandoning the fundamental responsibility of journalism to air the truth.
As long as I had a radio, I listened for clues about my case and it seemed curious that the [BBC] World Service never mentioned it, even during reports about Somalia. Part of me felt isolated and forgotten. I had no idea what was going on. But I also knew that publicity would give leverage and comfort to my kidnappers. My guards even listened to the radio like eager kids whenever we made a video. They wanted to hear my name and they looked forward to a media circus and a massive ransom.
Moore was forced to appear in Five “proof of life” videos, which were released to the media. Only one received international distribution. That video was made in May 2012 a few months after his capture.
A week after his capture, he was allowed a phone call home. Moore was taken up a hill where he was met by several armed Somalis, including a the pirate boss of the group that kidnapped him, Ali Duulaay. A translator introduced himself as Omar.
“We will have to call your family,” [Omar] said, fingering a small mobile phone.
“I don’t have much family,” I said.
“I am divorced.”
“My father died when I was young.”
“What about your mother? You will need to ask her for a ransom of $20 million.”
My heart sank like a bag of sand. A demand of $20 million was pathological. I must have given a desolate smirk.
“Do not smirk,” shouted Omar, and Ali Duulaay raised his pistol, threatening to beat me on the head. “It is not a joke. We have information you are a spy.”
“If she does not pay in 24 hours you will starve.”
I said nothing.
“And tell her to deliver a message to President Obama. If someone tries to rescue you, you will be shot. Tell President Obama.”
“We don’t know President Obama.”
“Your mother will tell him. It is not a joke. Many Somalis were killed last week in a rescue. This man lost his brother.”
Duulaay looking crazed, aimed his pistol at my face and shook it. I’d never stared down the borehole of a firearm before….
Omar took the phone and when someone answered, he said, “Hold on please for the hostage.” I said, “Hello” and heard my mother ask, in a sane and sensible voice, for the name of my childhood cat….
“Mom, they want $20 million.”
She seemed short of breath. “Where are we going to get $20 million?”
Good question. I had no kidnapping insurance. My application for coverage had been rejected in the weeks before we left.
The pirates were shocked when they learned the U.S government does not pay ransom money, a policy dating back to the Revolutionary War.
Bashko [one of the guards] stalked into my room and said, “Why?” with a look of mocking sarcasm. “America no money?”
“America no money for thieves,” I said, and tried to explain the rational. If governments paid out for every hostage, thieves would keep taking more.”
Privately, Moore was ambivalent about the U.S.’s no ransom policy. He saw that national policies make little impression on impoverished pirates.
“My kidnappers were romantics who thrived on dreams of a life-changing fortune dropping from the sky. [They] listened to reports on the radio every morning about billion-dollar buyouts, catastrophic Wall Street losses, interstellar arms deals and trillions in public debt. When they did the math it seemed incredible that some slice of that action couldn’t be wired to Somalia.
Following his release, during a talk at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington D.C., he addressed the ransom issue.
“A simple policy of no payments won’t work because there will always be exceptions. Even if there was a treaty, gangs might not know about it. A real deterrent would be a consistent policy of rescue. Word would get around that kidnapping will cost you your life.”
On January 24, 2012, four days after Moore’s capture, the aid workers, kidnapped on the same airport road Moore was kidnapped on, were rescued from a bush camp south of Galkayo, near where Moore was being held. Navy SEALs parachuted in, shot nine sleeping guards and took the hostages out by helicopter.
After hearing of the rescue, Moore took to wearing a bright red Manchester United T-shirt and using a Bic lighters with LED lights to flash SOS signals into the night sky. Drones and surveillance planes frequently flew overhead, prompting the pirates to move him between different camps and compounds.. For one five month period he was held on the Naham 3, a Taiwanese fishing vessel anchored off Hobyo. Its 26-member crew would be held nearly five years.
Each surveillance flight triggered a rollercoaster of hope and disappointment, until, to avoid the debilitating, emotional toll, he decided to abandon hope of a rescue.
He devised and dismissed as suicidal countless escape plans, despite his guards being stoned on khat every afternoon. His glasses were broken when he was captured and his sight was so poor that until the guards came close to him, he couldn’t distinguish between them because they swapped clothes with one another.
Much later, he heard of a Naham 3 crewmember who escaped and asked for help from a nomad. The nomad handed him back to the pirates. Moore’s one escape attempt came while he was being held on the fishing vessel. A small, surveillance plane had made repeated flights overhead, prompting him to speculate there must be a Navy carrier nearby.
I kicked off my sandals so they skittered across the deck and ran for the cutaway section, launched myself off the gunwale with one bare foot and dove, fingertips first about 20 feet into the waving, black, surprisingly warm water.
“Michael,” Abdiwali’s [a guard’s] voice hollered behind me. The culmination of a dream that had percolated in me for more than five months at sea gave me a quick thrill of hope; but when I came up for air I noticed how buoyant I was and how afraid.
I dove again, waiting for bullets. My only consolation was that the pirates would have terrible aim….
Nobody fired a shot. Soon, I was a ship’s length away, about 150 yards. The swells were long and gentle. The water tasted brinier than other oceans I know and I floated easily because of the salt. I wasn’t cold. But my body felt electrified with fear. Before I jumped, I knew the chances of success were low and the notion of escape was deliriously insane, half suicidal, so I had left the ship with self-destruction at the front of my mind. I would go free or die trying. It took fear and desperation to urge me off the ship, but fear and desperation are forms of energy, which convert to something powerful if you express them well. Emotionally, I had made no mistake. I felt fantastic. I no longer wanted to die….
I decided to try the LED. I wanted to flash a signal up to whatever might be watching. It should have been clear to a drone that a hostage had jumped and I thought an SOS pattern would help identify me. (I was also, by this point, quite out of my mind.) I rooted in my cotton shorts and came up with the plastic wrapped lighter, waited for a large swell to shelter me — as if a black wave could hide what I was about to do — then aimed my plastic lighter at the sky. I clicked.
Of course not.
Someone tossed a life preserve attached to a rope… I held the ring close to my chest, the men pulled. It was only while I scaled the hull that I thought of a decent alibi.
“What were you thinking, man?” said Abdul frantically, his eyes manic and wide….
My alibi was obvious. “Garfanji,” I said to Abdul. “Al-Shabaab.”
I didn’t want to move ashore to be sold to terrorists. I didn’t want to hang from a tree. Those threats had been half serious in May and now, almost four months on, they were like rotten fish.
Al-Shabaab was a Somali terrorist group with ties to Al-Qaeda. Garfanji was a pirate boss who had set Moore’s ransom at $20 million and had ordered one of the Seychelle fishermen to be tortured in Moore’s presence. The fisherman was hung upside down from a tree and whipped with a bamboo cane. The day after Moore’s escape attempt, he was beaten.
I was lying on my bunk when a guard started pounding on my chest with a water bottle until something snapped. Beatings were a constant fear, not just for punishment, but random violence.
After a year in captivity, with no hope of rescue, escape or ransom, suicide became an alluring alternative.
I thought about suicide every day. Death would have been easy in Somalia, AK -47s lay around like junk. In Galkayo, the notion of grabbing a rifle to shoot a few pirates and then myself started to seem not just desirable, but moral because it would have saved a lot of people a great deal of trouble. It would have spared any SEAL team the dizzying risk of a mission….
I steered around the question of suicide on some days only by cold logic. An adult who committed suicide “did not obviously love you” — I returned to this idea more than once while I brooded about my dad and I understood the corollary, sometimes with gritted teeth. Killing myself would have meant defeat for everyone I loved… Mom didn’t deserve to have two men in her life die by suicide.
Moore’s father died of a heart attack when he was 12, his mother told him. When Moore became an adult he learned his father had shot himself.
On the morning of September 23, 2014, nearly three years after having been taken captive, a Land Rover entered the compound where Moore was being held.
My limbs swamped with fear. Cars came at night, as a rule. Hashi [a guard] stood outside the bathroom with his Kalashnikov.
“Michael? Gari [car].”
“What gari? I’m busy.”
“No problem,” he said.
My other guards buzzed in the hall like excited school boys. Abdurrahman the translator, Madobe, and a runner had arrived in the Land Rover with a sealed, clear plastic sack of bound hundred dollar bills. (Probably $100,000 dollars, for about 10 guards)
“You are going free,” said Yoonis when I came out.
I studied the bills to see if they were fake. Hard to tell. It was a lot of money, but Al-Shabaab would have paid in dollars, too (not shillings). I couldn’t believe I was about to go free. I’d shut down everything in self-defense and I still had a hair-trigger temper, an animal mistrust of the mysterious changes upending my comfortable, prison world.
“You must pack your bags,” Abdurrahman said. “You are going to the airport.”
I dropped a few things into my faux leather bag, in a desultory way and tied it all up with a dirty rope. The day felt bright and warm, I had time to make a journal entry. “I’m sick and stuffed-up with clogged ears and blurred eyes, lungs full of bronchitis and a heart full of rage.” One of the guards had given me a bottle of potent Egyptian cough syrup to calm my bronchitis, (or whatever it was), to help me sleep. I’d been sick for weeks. Boils thrived on my skin. By now it felt normal.
I packed my notebooks away. No one seemed to care about them. A few men wanted to shake my hand. I submitted, but looked away. I did believe I would never see them again, but I thought somebody else would just deliver me to another part of the bush and transfer me to a more dangerous gang.
I climbed into the car with only Yoonis and Abdurrahman, the two translators. No weapons in sight. That was oddly encouraging. But when the car pulled out of the compound, Yoonis changed his story.
“We will not go to the airport now. We will give you to some other Somalis,” he said, which was the wrong thing to say to a hostage in my state of mind. I nearly bit off his head. You just sold me to another gang, I thought and in the rush of rage I felt blind with practiced mistrust, fierce as a cat piled into a traveling cage.
The heat and dust of Galkayo seemed pleasant, though. I saw school compounds, semi-familiar houses and medical clinics. Robed women and children moved along the road. Driving in a car without a tight contingent of armed men felt almost civilized and it was such a surprise to see everyday life in a Somali town without squinting through a blindfold that I began to notice a different fear, an unexpected panic, that all my wound up defenses might be useless now. I might have to unwind. What if these guys are serious….
I’d grown use to being a hostage and didn’t know how to stop.
We drove some distance into the bush, where a white sedan waited beside a gnarled acacia. “Get out. You are free,” said Yoonis and that was it.
My atrophied arms began to tremble….
They drove off in a hurry. I found myself alone in the quiet waste with a new driver who looked almost as nervous as I felt. Dust blew up off the bush. There was no other gang. This new man spoke American English. He described a wild plan to deliver me to a hotel in North Galkayo, where I would meet my mother.
“Oh, sure,” I said, trembling with fury again, fangs still dripping with sarcasm.“My mother’s in Galkayo.”
“She is in the hotel.”
While we drove in town he recommended lying far back in the seat and draping my blanket over my head.
“It’s better if people don’t see you in this car.”
“I want to talk to somebody.”
“I will call Bob,” he said
He dialed a number while he steered along the dusty road, and on the phone I heard not just Robert, or Bob — the negotiator — but my mother…. Her voice sounded musical and happy.
“Where are you now?” I said, with almost comically cluelessness. “Not in a a Galkayo hotel room?”
“No, we’re in California,” she said.
“Your driver will take you to a hotel,” Bob said and another man will drive you to the airport. “Your pilot’s name is Derek.”
The ransom had come down from $20 million to $1.6 million. His mother raised the money from journalism organizations, friends and her personal resources. None of the money, as far as the family can tell, came from the U.S. or German governments.
Moore left Somalia with six 5-inch by 7-inch, school notepads filled with tightly written notes. Early in his captivity guards discovered his notepads and confiscated them. But after several months, they let him write openly and brought him new pads and pens when he asked for them.
“Writing kept me quiet. I didn’t write names or places because I knew they wouldn’t want that. Important information I wrote in German, in a cramped hand.
“I was worried I hadn’t written enough down. But when I started the first draft, I realized I had more than enough. A lot of the book is from memory.”
Writing, he said, kept him sane. Having his notepads confiscated partially explains why he leapt from the fishing vessel.
“I was clearly on edge. I had to find another way to manage the inarticulate stress. Without my note paper, I learned to recite the lists of crewmen and fish names in my head, every morning, to keep them memorized. I had also left two unfinished books behind in Berlin, so to keep my brain busy, I thought about the passages I wanted to change. Every morning, I ran through what I could remember of the manuscripts and composed new paragraphs. Once I had a new section ‘written,’ I started to rehearse it, the way an actor memorizes lines. Soon, I had a two-hour drill.
Throughout the first two years of captivity, Moore wrestled with a toxic combination of anger toward his captors and self recrimination. Then one morning, he heard newly elected Pope Francis speak on World Service radio.
“At night we look at the sky and we see many stars,” the English reporter translated, and in the background I could hear the pope give his homily in Italian. (Tante stelle, tante stelle.) “But when the sun rises in the morning, the light is such that we can’t see the stars. God’s mercy is like that: a great light of love and tenderness.”
It reminded me of the Unforgiving Servant, the petty man in the Gospels who walked into the street after pleading for mercy from a king, only to hassle another servant for a much smaller debt. I noticed that if the pirates were in debt to me, morally, then I was in moral debt, too — up to my neck in it. Rotten with obligation. To my mom, most of all; to my entire family, to all the institutions working to set me free…. The simple poetry in the pope’s words unfastened something, so I could feel how bitterness and anger were acts of will, like suffering, and how a slight step backwards, an unhooking of the mind, could let in a flood of mercy and light.
So, I called a private truce. I stopped treating the pirates like persecutors.
During his talk at the Woodrow Wilson Center he remarked on time spent looking back on his life.
“Before I went to Somalia, I thought I knew a thing or two about love. But after my kidnapping, my mind flipped through the pages of my memory, almost like the cliche of your life passing before your eyes before you die…. It was a way of hanging on to the person I was. I thought about the people I loved and I had a profound sense of having failed to love enough. So if I can leave you with one impression, that would be it. I have a strong impression that none of us love our families quite enough. If death gives you a few minutes to reflect on your life before you go, I suspect you might have the same impression. You should try to do a little bit more every day before that time comes around.”
“The Desert and the Sea: 977 Days Captive on the Somali Pirate Coast,” by Michael Scott Moore. 445 pages. Harper Wave. B
by Kevin Cody
Kevin is the publisher of Easy Reader and Beach. Share your news tips. 310 372-4611 ext. 110 or kevin[at]easyreadernews[dot]com