Peter Moore: IT consultant, Iraq hostage - Part Two
Xboxes, the Simpsons, freedom, and dealing with HR
When we last left IT consultant point Peter Moore, he had spent over a year in the hands of an Iraqi Shi'ite militia, being shuffled around from building to building as his captors sought to evade coalition forces. Moore spent much of his time chained, handcuffed, blindfolded, and separated from the four British guards with whom he had been abducted.
Unbeknownst to him, his four former colleagues were already dead. Two of them had escaped from the house in which they were being held captive and only to be shot in the street, while a third had been killed trying to steal his captor's gun. The fourth was shot by the militia when they thought the house they were in was being raided.
The bodies of two of the guards were then used in May 2009 to buy the exchange of the militia's second-in-command, Laith al-Khazalli, from coalition forces. Al Khazlli came to see Moore shortly after his release, a visit that was to lead to better times for Moore and his eventual release from captivity.
The Register So what happened when you met Al Khazalli?
Peter Moore He told me first off that everyone else I'd been taken with was dead. They either died trying to escape, or they were held in a house where the guards thought the place was being raided, although there was no such raid, as it turned out. He apologized for that.
I don't know the truth of that. The inquest of three of the bodies said that they'd been killed in classic execution style. I stand by what the militia guy told me. I think they tried to escape, got caught, and were executed in response.
Then we had a bit of a discussion. I'd been chained for two years at that point, and I pointed out that America hadn't done that to him when he was jailed. Why was he doing it to me? He eventually agreed, but did warn me that if I tried to escape then I would be killed.
I said fine. After two years my muscles were wasted away, all the guards were dead, and if they couldn't get out there was no chance of me doing it. So after that the chains came off full-time, I could walk around more and there was even an en-suite toilet.
Reg Did you manage to establish a rapport with your guards, too?
PM In 2009 the guards were actually pretty good. I'd been moved back up to Baghdad by this time and the guards had changed.
These guys described themselves as being part of the Northern Faction, and they were much less religiously extreme. They were certainly serious about their religion, prayed three times a day, but they were not extremists. The people in Basra were downright evil, to be honest with you.
The ones in Baghdad were much more easy-going. One of them, a militia major as he described himself, I actually got on with really well. I was really hoping that he might turn me in to the coalition, but he never did. Somehow he just disappeared; I don't know what happened to him.
I had some feeling at the back of my mind that the militia had killed him off because he was getting too friendly with me, but I don’t know if that's true or not.
Reg And you got to watch television?
PM Yes, although no Western news. All those channels were deleted off the satellite system. Lots of entertainment stuff, and I gleaned what I could from that.
I heard that President Obama had been elected from watching the Oprah show, and picked up some stuff from TMZ and Dr Phil, too. We did get to watch a lot of Simpsons episodes. I told the guards that if you want to know about American culture, this is the thing to watch.
Reg It was also reported you had access to PlayStation?
PM I think honestly the PlayStation was bought in because the guards were quite bored.
The first time we had a PlayStation was right at the end of 2007, and they'd play a FIFA football game on it – I can't remember which one. But I couldn't play, as my glasses had been taken off me.
In 2009 this guard actually brought in an Xbox. I'm not a fan of the Xbox and I didn't want to give Microsoft the publicity, so when I was released I only told the press about the PlayStation. I was hoping Sony might get me a free PlayStation, but maybe it's not the kind of publicity they are after.
The FIFA football games were still popular, and they had a couple of those first person shooter games, but I can't remember which ones. I think one was Black Ops or something like that. I did joke with them, asking if this was how they were training the militias these days.
Reg As a fellow Star Wars geek I understand you faced a Chewbacca choice?
PM We developed this board for an Iraqi version of draughts – or Chinese Chequers, as they call it in the US.
So we played this and I got the hang of it – sometimes they'd win and sometimes I'd win. But there was this one guy who was actually very bad at it, and the problem was he was a regular guard and he got quite annoyed very quickly. So I used to let the Wookie win. Part of me was thinking "Is this a scene from Star Wars or what?" Winning 50/50 was OK but any more than that might have caused a problem.
Reg And you were still doing technical support?
PM From that point on I did a number of things, a bit of reinstalling, installed games for them, that sort of thing. They'd copied a lot of games where the instructions were in English so they needed me to install them. In 2009 they came in with a flash drive of military files that they couldn't access. Basically they were just hidden files, so I unhid them and opened them up, and it was a PowerPoint chart of all these people who had been arrested.
The first thing it said at the top was: "Only to be viewed by American, British, and Australian military intelligence personnel." I thought great, I'm going to get out and be the first person to be held in prison by both sides.
Reg So when did you get an idea that you were going to be freed?
PM Well, they'd been telling me for months and months that I was going to be released, and I did a release interview back in 2007. They ask you your name and a lot of personal information for it. They told me I was going to be released – but I never was.
Roll forward around a month – December 27, 2009, it would have been. I'm watching the Iraqi local news in Arabic. It was me and the guards in a room watching the set. And I see this film on the news, it was a Handicam shot, really shaky, and this vehicle pulls up. It's like a blacked-out 4X4, and this guy gets out of it with a couple of people in uniform and suits and stuff.
I thought it was a diplomatic vehicle but the guys in the room were getting excited. One of them pointed to the TVF and said "That's Blackwater." I told him no, Blackwater's just an armed security firm – that's a diplomatic car. Anyway, I didn't think that much about it.
Two days later they wake me up at 5 in the morning and tell me to get up as I'm being released, and there's a guy stood there with a camera filming me. I told him to go away as I was tired, turned over, pulled the blanket over my head and went back to sleep.
Then another guy came in who spoke much better English and said I really had to get up as I was being released. So I asked him why I was being released in a somewhat sarcastic tone. He said the militia's leader had been handed over to the Iraqi army. That's what was going on in the report on the TV.
I got up, got dressed and cut my hair, and they gave me new clothes. I did another release interview. They asked me my name, my parents' names, my wife's name, my job, my parents' jobs, where I lived, a ton of stuff. Then they blindfolded my and led me out to a car.
Reg One second - a wife? I thought you weren't married?
PM From working overseas I'd learned that in most of the world's conversation it's family first. When you're aboard the very first question most people will ask is "Are you married, do you have children?" whereas in America the first question is "What do you do?"
So when we were taken, even though I didn't have a girlfriend, I said I had a wife. What I wasn't expecting was to have to carry on this façade for another two-and-a-half years. So when they asked what her name was I ran through names of ex-girlfriends and women that I knew, but in Guyana most of the population is Indian, so the names are very long and complex.
I was trying to think of a Christian name and pulled out the name Emma, who was a woman I knew in Guyana. Then I remembered a film I'd seen called Formula 51 (also known as the 51st State in the UK) where there's a character called DeSouza, so that was her name.
I said she was a visiting nurse from Brazil working on a malaria programme. It got to the point in 2009 that I was getting a bit concerned that someone at the British embassy would be trawling around Brazil looking for someone called Emma DeSouza so I figured out a way around it.
In Brazil the indigenous people are discriminated against, so they tend to use Catholic names rather than their given names, so I told them I couldn’t pronounce her actual name. It was made up off-the-cuff.
When I got out of Iraq and back to Guyana I met up with Emma and explained the situation to her. She was fine about it, but a bit concerned that we'd have to get married for real.
Reg Anyway, back to the release.
PM Well, I was led out to the car and I still didn't believe they were going to release me. After all, I'd been with some of these guards now for over a year and they weren't very excited. I would have thought they would be a bit more enthusiastic if I really was going to be freed.
They made me lie down in the footwell of the back of the car and we drive off. Five minutes later they told me to sit up in the back seat and in the passenger front seat was the very guy who took me hostage, who'd first held a gun to my head back in 2007.
We came up to an Iraqi army checkpoint and a soldier stops the car. I was thinking: "Oh fuck, this isn't going to be good." The soldier leans into the car, chats with the driver and asks for his ID, walks off, comes back a few minutes later, and then after a bit of a discussion just waved the car on.
I thought "Well right, so much for the Iraqi Army looking out for me." We drove down the road for another five minutes and drew up into the driveway of a private house and I was told to get out of the car. I could see in the driveway was a guy with a camera on a tripod, which I thought was weird.
I went into the house, turned left, and was in this big, long living room and it's full of people. There's folks in keffiyehs, many more in full army camouflage gear with machine guns, guys in jeans and t-shirts, and at the end of the room is a settee with a guy in a suit sat on it. The guy in the suit gets up, tells me he's an Iraqi member of parliament. He told me he would take me back to the British embassy and that I am a free man. I'm thinking that I didn't feel very free at that point in time.
Reg That's understandable.
PM With that we sit on the sofa and I have to make a statement about how great the militia has been, how bad America is, and all that sort of stuff. The MP made a statement as well, waffling on in Arabic, and with that the guy in the suit gets up and walks out.
So I'm left in a room full of heavily armed men thinking: "What do I do?" I got up and stared to walk towards the back door and I was stopped by these guys in camouflage gear with big machine guns and I thought, "This is it, they're going to kill me." Then they grabbed me, turned me around, put their arms around me, and then their friend took a photo of us all together. I went outside and was told to get into a car with some armed Iraqis.
I could see the armed guys in front with earpieces in, chattering away on the radio, and the Iraqi MP next to me speaking on the phone in English, saying that he had me and we'd be at our destination in five minutes. After the call had finished he told me he'd been speaking to the British Embassy and I thought no way – if that had been the embassy they'd have wanted to speak to me.
So we're driving down the road and we got stuck in traffic. I could see that the doors were unlocked and I'm thinking I could do a runner and escape. But I thought better to hold back – I didn't want to get out of the car and get shot by the militia. Even if I was just going to be exchanged with Al Qaeda that's OK because they can cash me in for the insurance.
After another 10 minutes we pulled into a driveway I didn't recognise. I got out of the car and this guy walks up to me and says, in British English, "Hi, I'm with the British embassy, we've come to take you home."
Life after captivity
Reg Free at last. How did you take it?
PM I always thought that if I got released, I'd make this huge profound statement that would be on the front page of all the papers – but there was nothing. I couldn't really believe it, and just wanted to be on my own for a while. The only place I could think of was the toilet, so I asked him where it was.
He looked a little surprised but directed me so I went in, locked the door, put my hands on the wall and started banging my head gently on the wall. I knew I just had to get a grip and get with it. I washed my face with water and looked up and the entire bathroom wall was covered with mirrors and I just remember looking at the reflection and thinking, "You've done it, you've made it out, you've beaten the odds." Then I started crying.
After I'd composed myself a bit I stepped out of the bathroom and there were tons of people there. To be honest, I was completely numbed by it all. I'd been moved around so much, it just felt like I'd been moved to a new location with new guards.
Reg So what happened next?
Well they fed me down at the staff canteen. I don't remember what. There was a report in the British press that I'd asked for a full Christmas dinner, but that's not true. One thing I had been really craving when I was being held was garlic bread, and I did gorge myself on that when I got the chance.
I saw an American army psychiatrist there at the embassy for a check-up, and then there was a British naval doctor who went over me and declared I was mentally fine. As far as I was concerned there was nothing more that could be done in that respect.
Then I got a full debrief. It was a bit James Bond: I got debriefed by the CIA, MI6, the Foreign Office, and the Metropolitan Police were also there. In the latter case, the Met had the contract to train the police officers. So the people who took me hostage had been trained by them. I said to the Met guy, "You trained the guys that took me hostage!"
Reg So why had you been released?
PM Basically MI6 had negotiated a deal where I would be exchanged for the leader of the militia.
It's difficult for me to justify it because for me personally the exchange was great. But someone like me for a militia leader? That's not good. Two dead bodies were exchanged for the militia's second-in-command and another body bought 100 more militia out. If I'd have been in charge, there's no way I would have released him for an IT guy.
Reg How long before you left the country?
PM Not long. An American military helicopter flew me to the airport, and at that point I was expected to get hit by a militia rocket attack. At Baghdad airport they transferred me to a private government jet and flew me to Jordan. It wasn't until we landed in Jordan that I felt I was safe and out of the militia's hands.
Once we got there they put me on a private medical plane back to the UK, and we arrived at RAF Brize Norton. I got into an unmarked police car and it took me to a government safe house where my step-parents were. We hadn't seen each other in years, since before the abduction, so we had an awful lot to catch up on. They were used to me being away, but it was great to see them again.
Reg Did you get straight back to work?
PM When I was at the embassy a local representative from Deloitte came to see me and tell me that BearingPoint had gone bankrupt and they now ran my division.
But the company had been paying my salary for me while I'd been held. But oddly I also got regraded, I got pay increments and even promotions. I got holiday pay, and with the promotion I got more of that – very strange. I went in as a junior IT consultant and by the time I was released I was something like senior regional executive. In all I made a little under $250,000.
When I got released, Deloitte gave me a laptop and a working ID. So I logged in to the intranet and a couple of days later I got an email from the audit department. It said that I'd been randomly selected for an audit check because I hadn't filed a time sheet for two-and-a-half years.
So I rang the audit department and told them I'd been taken hostage. The woman at the end of the phone laughed and then said, "OK, what's the real reason?" I insisted this really was the case and there was a long pause before a man came on the phone who knew who I was, and said he'd sort it out.
The company carried on paying me up until about May and then said: "Well, what do you want to do, work for us or what?" They then offered me a job, but the position was in Afghanistan as they felt with my skills I'd be good working out there.
I said my skills would be better used in Washington DC briefing the people who were going to Afghanistan. They didn't fancy that so I said thanks but no thanks and left the company, and then headed off back to Guyana where it was nice and warm and found myself a job. I still had a bank account there and knew I could get a job and somewhere to live.
Reg So what kind of job did you get?
PM Well, I spent all of last year working in Guyana developing a land-management database using SQL Server 2008.
With that version of the software we could store data in geometry and geology for land shapes in GIS systems. So now you could go into the database and sort out the shape of a bit of land on the screen in an electronic map, and it would tell you all the parameters; before you couldn't do that without some sort of sophisticated middleware getting used.
After I finished with that in December I left and came to America and bought a motorbike for this road trip. I'll be here until February and then I've got to go back to the UK because my passport is about to expire. Then I'll look around for another job. I want to stay in IT, and as long as I keep my skills sharp I know I'll be fine.
People have said to me I should try and make money out of the whole hostage thing. To be honest I haven't a clue how to do that. It's been suggested I write a book, and after the Reddit conversation I'm coming around to the idea. I was really surprised by the enthusiastic response to my story, I thought most people would think, "What a dick." The thousands of questions were a bit overwhelming but really gratifying.
Reg Now that you've had time to reflect, what do you think about your captors?
PM When you think about it, the conditions I was kept in were harsher than those of prisoners held by the US and coalition forces, but the principle is the same. We'd been taken and were being held without rights or visitation.
And that's the same as what happened in Guantanamo and Iraq for loads of people. If you are going to imprison people, let them have representation, and if they're guilty then charge them through the court system.
Reg Has it changed you significantly?
PM Mentally I have bad moments occasionally when I feel unsettled, but that's receding, so no serious psychological damage. But the whole experience has changed my outlook somewhat. I used to be a real workaholic, going at it every minute. Now I work, but enjoy my time off – and thus the road trip.
Reg What did you notice that was odd after so long out of circulation?
PM The biggest difference I noticed in London was everyone walking around talking to themselves on these Bluetooth headsets. Bluetooth had been around before I was taken, but it had really kicked in while I was away and it was very odd hearing everyone.
But the biggest technological change I missed was touchscreens. I remember touchscreens from 10-15 years ago but it was always terrible – you had to put an overlay on a PC monitor and it was just rubbish. Now Apple and others have really done a good job of it.
I think in the long term we're seeing the death of the laptop as we know it. Something like my iPad will have stonking amounts of storage, and a super-slick interface with a keyboard will replace the laptop, although they'll be around in the short term.
Reg And as for you, sticking with databases and developing countries?
PM For the time being yes, although I don't know if I'll stay with it forever. While I'm working in developing countries, then the database is king.
Ultimately that's how countries start to computerize, by transferring their paper-based systems into a digital format. Basically it's all about governance, streamlining systems. Most of these places have had the same paper-based systems since independence, and they need to get these systems in order.
You're also usually starting something entirely from scratch, which has its own appeal. You'll get to a site, clear out an office, and put in desks, a generator for air conditioning units, and then expand it out as you needed. Then you create an IT team from scratch and train them to take the process forward themselves.
How long I stay working in developing countries is perhaps a bit more questionable. I'm not sure I'm ready to come back to the UK quite yet – it's still very cold and wet. I'm looking at other jobs now. There's a couple in Croatia that look interesting, a couple in Africa, and one in the Caribbean. You never know, I could get a job as a technical consultant on Borderlands.
One of the things people get wrong it that they assume in a third-world country there's no technology around at all. I know you can go a couple of hundred miles down the Amazon and you'll come across small villages that have their own solar-powered internet café there.
Reg Would you still recommend an IT career abroad for others considering the move?
PM I'd definitely recommend it, if you go in with the right mindset. You're never going to make tons of money out of working in developing countries; you're in for a disappointment if you expect that. If you're after the dosh go to London, New York, San Francisco, or a big city.
You have to go into developing markets with the motivation that you're trying to help the country, improve things, and pass on your skills to make them a little bit better. A big part of this is to train IT people to take over your job – which is the goal at the end of the day.
So head to a Western city if you want to get rich, but if you want an interesting and varied job with lots of travel, then it's definitely the way to go. ®