A War Journalist’s Worst Case Scenario: The Kidnapping of Michael Scott Moore
Journalist taken by Somali gangsters has been forgotten by the world
They came in the night.
Jan. 25, 2012. 3:30 in the morning. A dozen members of the elite Navy SEAL Team Six leaped from a cargo plane at high altitude, waiting ‘til the last moment to open their ‘chutes in order to avoid detection.
Their mission was to raid a makeshift base belonging to Somali gunmen—a base that doubled as a safe house for two hostages: Jessica Buchanan and Poul Hagen Thisted, both aid workers employed by a Danish agency.
Two hours prior to the jump and 75 miles to the northeast, forces from Joint Special Operations Command Horn of Africa—which oversees American commando missions in Somalia—landed two fixed-wing planes and 11 helicopters at the main airport in the city of Galkayo. The airport and its runways now seized, they would serve as the SEALs’ staging area.
In the weeks prior to the raid, U.S. intelligence had monitored the Somali kidnappers, tapped their phones and pinpointed the location of the hostages. The result was an intelligence picture that lowered the risk of an operation going bad. But Buchanan’s health was declining—the result of a kidney condition. The commandos had to move fast.
The SEALs landed two miles from their target and approached in silence.
The combat ended in 15 minutes. Nine kidnappers died. No commandos were harmed. The hostages were rescued and moved to the waiting helicopters.
Buchanan and Thisted were kidnapped at the end of October 2011 while on a road to the airport in Galkayo. They were rescued before February, having spent three months in captivity.
A week earlier prior to the rescue, journalist Michael Scott Moore was taken hostage along the same road. At the time of the Jan. 25 rescue operation he languished fewer than 200 miles away in the pirate den of Hobyo.
The commandos did not come for Moore.
And despite continuing missions by U.S. forces in Somalia, including an October raid in retaliation for a terrorist attack at the Westgate Mall in Nairobi, no one has returned for him. Almost two years after his capture, Moore remains a hostage.
He’s lost in a world of complicated politics, idiotic gangsters, media empires content to ignore the problem rather than report on it and a public numb after dozens of stories of journalists being kidnapped and released.
Sweetness and blood
Moore was already interested in Somalia and its pirate problem when he met Mohamed Sahal Gerlach.
A former resident of the Galmudug region of Somalia, Gerlach invited Moore to come to the port of Hobyo, a potential entry point for the U.N. World Food Program. Moore took him up on the offer.
A Western man poking about a dangerous Somali city was an unusual sight. Some locals speculated he was an engineer, there to help develop the port. The more paranoid thought he was a spy sent to report back on militant and criminal groups. But it was just Michael Scott Moore: surf geek, world traveler and journalist.
As an American with dual German citizenship, Moore has written for Spiegel Online, Pacific Standard and other publications about the economies of Germany and America, the horrors of post-traumatic stress disorder and the willful ignorance of Holocaust denial.
He’s penned articles on poaching and terrorism, but he’s perhaps most well-known for his travel writing and a well-reviewed book about surfing. Sweetness and Blood describes his time traveling around the world, interviewing surfers from Cuba to Indonesia and the culture’s sometimes odd mutations like outlaw river-surfers in Germany.
The book is refreshingly free of surfing jargon and served as a riposte against the sport’s boorish denouncers: “domestic bigots” in America who distrust the sport’s blue-state vibe, anti-American types in Europe who see the American pastime as too gauche and “Northeastern snobs” who view surfing as bro-ish.
“At the very least, I thought, I’ll have a book to annoy the French,” he told The New York Times. When the Times asked him what he wanted to write next, he said, “A book about piracy has the same appeal to me as the surf book. It has the same clash between hard fact and cliché mythology.”
Prior to the Times interview — in the summer of 2009 — Moore had been in contact with War is Boring. He said he was heading to Africa to do research for this new book about piracy. He described a trip that would take him to Kenya, where ships heading to and from Somalia carry armed security contracts to counter the pirate threat. Articles from this initial trip would later appear in Spiegel Online.
A dangerous road
On Jan. 21, 2012 — two weeks after arriving in Somalia — Moore was scheduled to take a flight out of Mogadishu. On the day of his flight, he left his hotel in Galkayo and proceeded to the airport. He was escorted by security forces provided by the local government, assured by everyone involved that they would keep him safe.
The security forces hired to protect Moore colluded with local pirates, and along the road to the airport his transport was stopped by 15 men driving two Land Cruisers. They pulled Moore from his vehicle and took him to a stronghold in Hobyo, the very same port he’d visited earlier.
Pirates and other criminal groups in Somalia are infamous for taking foreigners and holding them for ransom and it’s also not unusual for government security forces to act in the interests of criminals.
In conflict zones around the world, kidnapping is a money-making enterprise for criminal groups, even though the ransoms they demand often outstrip the ability of victims’ families to pay. Other times the motivation is political, with journalists being used a form of strategic leverage. The best outcome—though by no means assured—is for someone to pay the ransom.
As far as hostages go, Thisted and Buchanan were lucky. SEAL Team Six dropped from the sky and freed them in a precision display of U.S. military killing prowess. But their rescue complicated things for Moore.
After Buchanan and Thisted were freed, Moore’s kidnappers doubled his ransom $10 million to $20 million. The money was ostensibly payment for the nine Somalis killed by the SEALs. The kidnappers also beefed up their security. Moore’s location was shuffled from Hobyo to the pirate base of Ceel Hurta after pressure from locals fearing a U.S. attack. His last known location is the remote, dusty, north-central Somali town of Wisil.
“We are only going to release him if the American government gives us the ransom we have mentioned to them,” Hassan Abdi, a pirate broker told Somalia Report. “We believe that instead of releasing the American for free it is better for all of us to die together.”
Moore has been seen by the outside world twice since his kidnapping. In videos and photographs released by his captors in May 2012, more than four months after being taken, he is seen surrounded by armed men, their guns drawn.
The men are intimidating, draped in masks that hide their faces, pointing machine guns and grenade launchers at their victim standing mere feet from them. The men appear to be amateurs. Some strain to hold their weapons steady. One man fumbles with his machine gun. The men force Moore to answer questions about his condition and the ransom. “I’m afraid, I’m terrified,” he says.
“My condition isn’t very good. I’m not very healthy. I haven’t eaten in two days and I only get bread and water occasionally,” he says. He warns that the kidnappers could sell him to the terror group Al Shabaab—a threat the captors apparently haven’t followed through with.
In late September, the kidnappers released several photos—one dated Sept. 6—of a bound Moore at gunpoint. Again, masked men and women surround him, pointing AK-47 rifles, belt-fed machine guns and grenade launchers. Blessedly, Moore does not appear to have lost a lot of weight.
But there is no doubt the experience is awful.
Consider journalists Amanda Lindhout and Nigel Brennan, held for 15 months in Somalia by Hizbul Islam, a terror group with an on-and-off relationship with its larger cousin Al Shabaab. Lindhout and Brennan were released in 2009, but they suffered hunger, abuse, depression and debilitating isolation.
“When the gunfire and grenade blasts between warring militias around us grew too thunderous, too close by, the boys loaded us back into the station wagon, made a few phone calls and found another house,” Lindhout wrote in her 2013 memoir A House in the Sky.
In the May 2012 video, Moore stares at the camera. “What are you feeling now, for your health?” a man asks off-screen.
“My life is terrible,” Moore says.
‘Nobody gives a shit’
In most kidnapping cases involving journalists, the standard practice for media organizations is to not publicize details about the kidnapping—and to also instruct media organizations that do cover the crime to halt their coverage.
There are several reasons for the low-key strategy.
For one, it’s designed to keep the families of kidnapped journalists, who may also be traumatized by the experience, away from unwanted or intrusive media attention. It’s also meant to prevent screw-ups from derailing negotiations being carried out through intermediaries—often “KRE” or “kidnap for ransom and extortion” firms—and to prevent misleading the kidnappers into believing their captive is worth more than they really are.
If there’s lots of publicity surrounding their bounty, then the kidnappers may reason they have a valuable captive and increase the ransom. In theory, everyone should stay silent, the negotiator then haggles down the ransom, kidnapping insurance secured by the victim’s organization or firm pays the sum and the survivor goes free.
Both the U.S. and German governments have acknowledged the kidnapping, but do not discuss specifics nor discuss Moore by name. Moore’s family could not be reached, and several of Moore’s editors either could not be reached or declined to speak to War is Boring.
“We are aware of this U.S. citizen’s kidnapping in northern Somalia and have been monitoring his situation closely,” a U.S. State Department official said. “We are concerned about his safety and well-being. We have been in contact with the his family and we are working with contacts in Kenya and Somalia to ascertain further information.”
An official from the German foreign ministry said Berlin is “aware of the issue and is in touch with all relevant authorities” but “we are not able to disclose any further details at this point.”
But the circumstances of Moore’s kidnapping do not neatly fit this theory of strategic silence. Moore’s situation is a “worst case scenario” for a journalist, according to war correspondent Robert Young Pelton, creator of Somalia Report. This is due in part to the events surrounding his kidnapping, but also to the unintended consequences of the media’s silence when journalists disappear.
Pelton has made a career of reporting from dangerous places and has tracked Moore’s kidnapping as the publisher of Somalia Report. Spiegel Online demanded Pelton to halt coverage after Somalia Report published details of Moore’s case.
“Michael Scott Moore is in that zone where nobody gives a shit,” Pelton says. “He’s in a country which nobody pays attention to. He doesn’t work for a big media organization. He’s got a U.S. passport and a German passport, but we don’t see a lot of outrage.”
Moore fell into this zone because of bad luck. The SEALs’ hostage rescue operation that killed nine of the kidnappers’ clansmen signaled to the kidnappers that Moore could be worth more than they first had thought. If the U.S. was willing to risk a bold and risky operation to free two hostages already, then the Somalis believed Moore must be pretty important as well.
“They’re assuming that Michael Scott Moore is of equal importance,” Pelton says. “But the reality was that the SEALs made their move was because they had good intelligence and they felt that the woman was entering a medical period in which her life might be at risk.”
Somali criminals are often poorly educated and don’t make distinctions between different kinds of Western targets—such as the difference between freelancers like Moore and better-paid and -insured staff journalists. Nor do they distinguish journalists from other Westerners tromping through Somalia.
If an aid worker with a non-government organization is taken hostage, then there is a group that can work to secure their release. If a diplomat is taken from a car at gunpoint, then the weight of the diplomat’s respective government is behind them.
A cargo ship hijacked by pirates could be worth millions of dollars—and the longer it’s held by pirates, the greater the loss in revenue to the shipping company. And for shipping companies, many NGOs and media organizations, there’s insurance to cover the costs.
Freelance reporters, by contrast, are self-employed. They often foot their own travel costs and are uninsured. They take risks on behalf of media companies that want war-zone reporting but aren’t willing to pay for lavish protection.
But from a kidnappers’ perspective, they’ve just scooped up another Westerner—one assumed to have plenty of support back home.
“You’re dealing with criminals who aren’t really bright, who are assuming that he works because he’s published by a large organization, and it’s German and they pay ransoms,” Pelton says. “The length of time that he’s being held is frustrating them because the silencing means he obviously has insurance, and the lack of confirmation that he worked for a large media organization to them is just lying—from a kidnapper’s point of view.”
The reality of Moore’s situation is “being denied him, that wave of information that would reboot the kidnappers’ view on this,” Pelton says. “Again, these are not smart people. They don’t know the difference between kidnapping an NGO employee versus a freelancer or blogger.”
No easy answers
What’s to become of Michael Scott Moore? There’s still a chance that SEAL Team Six or a similar outfit will be sent to his aid, but that’s unlikely.
Buchanan and Thisted were not rescued until Buchanan fell ill—an American hostage dying in the hands of Somali kidnappers is something the U.S. government will use force to prevent.
But that operation required extensive monitoring, planning and a high degree of precision. If a hostage’s location is unclear or the captive isn’t in imminent danger of being killed, then the risk of mounting a rescue attempt may not be worth it, in the government’s calculation.
And if the rescue doesn’t go according to plan, the kidnappers could kill the hostage. Rescuers could also be killed.
In January 2013, around 50 French commandos mounted a rescue mission in southern Somalia to free French intelligence operative Denis Allex from Al Shabaab. The operation was a disaster. Two French commandos were killed during an hour of heavy fighting with the Islamist terror group. Allex was executed by Al Shabaab.
The previous March, British Special Boat Service commandos attempted to free British construction worker Christopher McManus and his Italian colleague Franco Lamolinara, kidnapped in Nigeria. The commandos stormed into a compound in Sokoto and came under AK-47 fire. Both McManus and Lamolinara were shot and killed by their kidnappers.
According to Pelton, the best hope for Moore’s release is a decline in the ransom as his kidnappers are bargained down to a payable sum.
As the numbers of potential sources for a payment shrink—often leaving family members to raise the funds themselves—so do the multi-million dollar amounts the kidnappers could hope to gain. The U.S. government refuses to pay ransoms for hostages, although it doesn’t rule out negotiations or arranging private firms to raise the money.
But a decline to a sum that can be paid depends on the kidnappers having a realistic and accurate picture of who it is they have in captivity. For that, people need to care. And until the silence is lifted, Michael Scott Moore has to wait.