Peter Moore: IT consultant and Iraq hostage – Part One
Stripped, pistol whipped, cold conked, bored stiff
Interview On May 29, 2007, IT consultant Peter Moore and four British guards were taken hostage by an Iraqi militia during what was supposed to be a quick three-month posting to Baghdad. It would be another 946 days before he was released.
During his years of imprisonment, Moore endured solitary confinement, mock executions, and the loss of his four colleagues. He was eventually exchanged for the head of the Shi'ite militia (now political party) Asa'ib Ahl al-Haq – the "League of the Righteous" – in a swap he says should not have been made.
Earlier this month while on a motorbike holiday through every state in the US, Moore decided on a whim to take questions on his experiences from Reddit users. The strong response to his story surprised him, and he agreed to talk to El Reg about his experiences as a geek for hire in the developing world, his abduction, and how life has been since.
The Register: So Peter, where are you now?
Peter Moore Niagara Falls, of all places. I finally got a room with decent Wi-Fi so I can get Skype working. It's been an interesting trip so far, managed to bike around the west and south coasts, made it through the Midwest with only one day snowed in at Wyoming, and now we're heading south for the winter.
Reg How did you get into the technology business?
PM Basically I've always been in IT. I hated school and was useless at it. I left and joined a Youth Training Scheme doing electronics, computing, and mechanics – and since mechanics was really dirty, I concentrated on IT and electronics.
After that I applied to university and to my surprise got offers from all of them. I ended up going to Nottingham to study computer science. After graduation I went to work for Warwickshire County Council doing IT, and I've stayed in the profession ever since.
Reg And on the overseas side of things, what tempted you away from the shores of Blighty?
PM Oddly enough it was the Scouts. I've been involved in the scouting movement since I was a lad, and when I was twenty we went to a campout with scout leaders in Kansas, of all places. That trip convinced me I wanted to work overseas and see more of the world.
But in order to do that I recognized I needed more qualifications. If you want a job overseas in IT, you really need a Master's degree. So I ended up at the University of East Anglia to get the qualification in computer science I needed so I could head overseas.
I still carried on working while studying, and from 1999-2000 I had a part time job with NTL, which was quite cool. I'll always remember staying up on New Year's Eve to monitor NTL's network operations centers for signs of the dreaded millennium bug, which failed to be an issue.
After getting my Masters I headed off to China and spent two years in a university in a far western province of the country doing systems work. I came back to England, thinking I'd got rid of the travel bug, and lasted a whole month before I decided I wanted to leave again for pastures new.
Then I got a position with Voluntary Service Overseas in Guyana, which at the time I thought was in Africa, but it turned out was in South America. In 2004 I went there and did my two-year stint as a volunteer and then worked directly as a Guyana government employee on local wages, which weren't very high.
After a while I had to start looking for better jobs, as I had to clear my student loan, and this company called BearingPoint was looking for people to go to Iraq for contract with a full-time employee job and salary. So off I went – and the rest is history.
Reg What kind of work were you doing out there exactly?
PM Well, some years earlier USAID had funded the installation of computer systems at the Iraqi finance ministry after the invasion. These had been set up to cover financial-spending information, but the reporting system never worked, so they were looking for someone who could develop reports.
It was using Microsoft SQL Server 2000, which I was familiar with, and I was setting up a LAN database so that you could create reports from the systems using Access 2003. As it turns out, the job evolved into much more than that.
I had a programming team so I changed the job slightly to trying to build up an IT department that would develop the reports themselves and replace me. Looking back, it's one of the things that annoys me about Iraqi militias saying there have been no jobs for locals since the invasion. I would have been hiring an IT team of about ten people to replace me, but that all fell apart after I was abducted.
Generally, I found the IT skills levels among the Iraqi locals to be very good. There were solid programmers, people with degrees in IT, and the majority spoke pretty good English at a conversational level, although fluency was sometimes patchy. Their overall skill level in the field was very good.
Reg There were rumors after your release that the abduction was related to the work you were doing. Any truth to that?
PM Well, you can't rule it out, my work would definitely have shown that there had been misspending. But whether or not it would have shown the money was going to militias, I don't know.
One amusing note was that the British press was saying I wasn't really talking about the IT work I did out there, which spurred a lot of gossip. There's good reason, it was pretty boring stuff except to another IT person.
There was nothing hugely secret about it, but it was reported I was finding money going to Iran. I don't know if it was, but certainly not in the amounts they were talking about.
They also reported I was developing sophisticated tracking software on the computer systems a few days before I was abducted. I wondered if someone in Iraq thought there was something in this, but in fact I was using Crystal Reports 11. It's good, but hardly that sophisticated.
Since I got out I've also heard that politics may have played a part. A couple of weeks before I was abducted, the Minister of the Interior, which is where the militias operated, was moved sideways to become the Minister of Finance. There's some speculation that he ordered the abduction to show he had control over the militia, but you'll never know.
Reg And it was police from the Ministry of the Interior who abducted you?
PM On the day of my abduction, around 100 policemen from the Department of the Interior stormed the building we were in.
There were uniformed police officers, the real McCoy. Some of them were also members of the militia – they can do both. It's like someone who's a teacher but also a scout master. I had two British guards outside the room I was working in, and they were taken by the police before we even knew what was going on.
The first I knew about it was when somebody shouted "Get down!" and everybody in my room stood up. So I stood up also but that put me next to a door, so when the door opened I was right in front of it.
One of the policemen walked up and put his pistol to my head and my first reaction was that I just laughed. It's odd. All I remember was seeing he had a machine gun over his arm and the barrel was pointing at my groin. I thought "If he fires that's really going to hurt."
Strange what you think about at times like this. I wasn't frightened or anything, I was just thinking "Typical, I can't believe this is going on" sort of thing.
Resistance is futile
Reg I understand a British colleague escaped capture in the raid?
PM To be honest with you, I don't know exactly what happened because we were working in separate rooms. I was told later that his colleagues hid him in the false floor underneath the computer room until the police had gone.
He was in an office next door with two Iraqis and he had a beard like the locals. I suspect the militia just looked into the room and didn't realize that he wasn't a local. The guy who took me hostage said he had looked in the other room and didn't see anyone, so that may be it.
Reg What happened after you left the Ministry of Finance?
PM We were bundled into the back of a police vehicle, and still thought we were just under arrest at that point. But when they started to strip off our clothes and throw them out of the van's windows, I realized we were being abducted.
I remember just driving through a couple of military checkpoints with the sirens going, and then the convoy split up. We pulled up in a marketplace in Sadr City, I got out with the British guards, and we stood there in this marketplace in our underpants. We were then bundled into the back of this minibus with a couple of police officers, blindfolded, and driven around for a bit, stopping off in various houses.
Myself and two of my guards were then put into a false compartment in a Bedford truck behind the drivers cab and kept in there for two days as we were driven down to Basra, 300 miles down south from Baghdad.
Reg And you were kept there with the others?
PM They moved us around a lot at first to reduce the chances of the coalition forces getting a lock on us. I found out that was the main reason the coalition couldn't get to us during the initial abduction period. Signals are key to finding you quickly.
We were taken out and I was moved into a house with two of the guards for around ten days. Then, for whatever reason, I was moved to another house where the other two British guards were being held. Then I was moved back to be with the other two guards, then one of them disappeared and I never saw him again.
I stayed with the other guard until the end of December and then was moved and spent time with two American hostages. Their identity has never been released to the press but I can tell you who they were now. One was and American guard contractor called Michael Chand, who was kidnapped on August 17, 2007 according to leaked diplomatic cables.
The other was a very interesting guy, Staff Sgt. Ahmed al-Taie. He was an Iraqi-born American who had gone out there as a translator. al-Taie was the last American soldier to be missing in action and his body was only released earlier this year.
Reg Why keep the body so long?
PM It's a tactic that group uses. We were held by Shi'ite militia, who were following on from Hezbollah. Now Hezbollah participate in regular body exchanges with the Israelis. So the Shi'ites followed that practice.
If I'd been taken by Al Qaeda then I would have got out a lot earlier. The Shi'ite wanted me to exchange for their own people who had been arrested, where as Al Qaeda want money and will cash in hostages to get it.
Reg So what kind of conditions were you kept in?
PM I was chained to a wall with less than a meter of movement for the first year, although I got passed around different groups of guards so conditions weren't uniform.
For the first six months I could sit and lie down and that was it, but the second six months I was permanently blindfolded, handcuffed, and chained, so I could only lie down on my back – it's all they would let me do. They only let me take the blindfold off to eat and to go to the toilet.
In the second year I just had both of my feet chained to a grille and I had about a meter of movement, but these guards were easier. I had a TV and was allowed to sit on a chair, so I could alternate between sitting on the floor and on the chair, which made it much easier to deal with.
Reg Where you physically abused?
PM The first six months were the worst; they were really quite harsh – unnecessarily harsh. I got broken ribs, I got a crack in my head and glass in my leg.
One time a guard came in and just smacked me over the head with an AK-47 butt. I knew something was wrong, everything just went black and white and I could feel liquid running down the outside of my head where they cracked open my skull. It was rough.
I think they were just doing it to enforce control initially, but some of the guards had had relatives that were captured by the British or Americans so they were a little bit unhappy. That said, some of them were just downright nasty.
Reg The mock executions you mentioned. This was part of it?
PM The first time it happened it basically terrified me. I was sat with one of the British guards blindfolded and a police sergeant from the Ministry of Transport in Basra came in. He handcuffed my hands behind my back, blindfolded me, and led me outside.
I wasn't really sure what was going on. He knelt me down and put a gun to my head, cocked it and then pulled the trigger. While he did it someone else fired a gun. I heard a bang behind me and just thought "I'm dead." The brain just goes, "You're dead." Then came the reality check, I'm still breathing, still sweating, and I can hear the guards laughing.
Then it kicked in: I wasn't dead. I know you're supposed to show the stiff upper lip and show no fear, but I just started shaking and sweating. I was so annoyed with myself for that. Then they let me back into the room and the British guy asked what had happened. I said they'd just shot me in the head and he said no they haven't. It was very disturbing.
Reg It was reported that you actually did tech support for the militia when you were incarcerated.
PM Yes, in December 2007 a guard came in with a laptop he said belonged to his boss and said it wasn't working very well and could I take a look at it.
Honestly, I really couldn't be bothered, so I took a cursory look at it and said there was nothing I could do. He came back 10 minutes later and asked again, saying it was for his boss and he really wanted it sorted out. Eventually I agreed to take a look at it.
It was running really, really slowly. I checked around and saw it had loads of spyware and adware running on it, so I deleted what I could, defragged the hard drive, ran Regedit to see what else was blocking it up, and removed all of the temporary files. When I'd finished it was running a lot faster and the guy took it away.
A few minutes later the guy comes back into the room, smacks me on the top of the head with a gun and tells me next time he's got a computer problem I better fix it straight away.
Escape, boredom, suicide
Reg You considered an escape plan while in captivity. How did you plan to do it?
PM We had a number of plans. The first time we had a chance to escape was within the first couple of months, after we'd been moved down to Basra and I was being held with two of my guards.
One of the Iraqis was ill and one of the British guards was a trained medic, and the Iraqi needed to be injected with some medicine. We had a big discussion about whether to inject this Iraqi with air to kill him.
The problem was that I wasn't blindfolded at the time but still chained. The medic was chained but not blindfolded but the other guard was chained, handcuffed, and blindfolded and he was the only other guy who knew how to use a gun. There were two guards in the room, plus one downstairs, so I was very edgy about this.
The other concern at that time was that we'd only been held for a couple of months, so we thought let's just see what happens, it could work out OK. We'd been told an exchange was planned, negotiations were happening, so I was like "Let's just leave it."
Plus, we knew we were in Basra and Basra's a real militia stronghold, and we didn't want to run out into the street and right into the hands of a militia – out of the frying pan into the fire. So we decided to sweat it out.
Reg And you coped with boredom by mentally designing systems, you said. Come up with anything good?
PM I was gutted about that – Apple beat me to it, the bastards.
What I'd got thinking about was flash drives. The problem with taking your files around on a flash drive comes when you put them into a new PC. You might not have the right software for the operating system.
So what I was thinking about was a small dumb terminal, like a Wyse system, that you could put RAM into and operate via a USB keyboard, mouse, and monitor. You could pack a flash drive, and on there you'd have your version of the operating system with all of your software and files on it.
Plug the flash drive into the USB port of the terminal and then it would boot up from your flash drive so you've got your exact version of the operating system. Then you could take it home and have exactly the same setup when you plug into a terminal there.
I was going to call it FlashPC. I thought it would be kind of cool. "What sort of PC have you got? I've got a FlashPC." Then I came out and found out Apple had got this thing called the iPod Touch which had the flash memory and a pretty good software keyboard as well.
Reg The way things are in the patent world, you should file and start suing.
PM I know what you mean. Someone did suggest I sue the directors of Homeland for royalty rights.
Reg You also designed rail transport systems?
Yes, this was using what I had available to think about. Basically, when you paint a wall you get dots in the paint, bits of dust and what have you. So I occupied the time building connecting systems that used the least amount of track with the optimum number of trains at each various times of the day, based on how many people lived in each area.
Each dot could represent a different town so you could work out how many people would use the trains system and then go into greater depth on home many lines of track you'd need, accompanying road systems, and what have you.
Reg I have to ask, you mentioned talking to the pillow. Was that the same kind of thing?
PM It's more amusing than anything else. What I was trying to do was stimulate myself and keep my brain active for when I got out.
My thinking was anything could happen to my body – broken bones I can recover from – but if my brain goes I've had it as far as future employment goes. So I would pretend I was in an interview and run through answers to likely questions.
Another good thing was imagining I was negotiating the sale of a motorbike. I've never had a car, I'm quite proud of that, and always stuck to bikes ever since my first one, a Yamaha RXS100. Right now I'm on a Honda ST1300, the PanEuropean as it's called in the UK. I figured on a road trip this long I needed to buy a good bike.
In one of the houses in early 2008 the guard had put a CCTV camera in my room, and so I'm sat talking to my pillow and the next thing I know the guard comes rushing in. This guard was useless, he was really concerned; I think he thought I had died on his watch or something. So he starts up with "What are you doing, are you all right?" and I'm like, "Yeah yeah I'm fine, just go away."
Reg And I understand you considered suicide.
PM At one point the chain they tied my arms with was taken off and put in a shelf in my room.
At that point it looked to me that I wasn't going to make it out of this alive. What I was worried about was being tortured and killed; I'm not good on pain, I didn't want to be tortured. So I thought if I could kill myself, I could control where and how I died.
I thought about it a lot and realized I could use this chain. In the room was a hook where a chandelier used to hang on, and I knew it was fairly strong because one of the guards used to come in every day put the chain around this hook, put a metal bar in the chain and then do chin-ups.
Also I thought it would be quite appropriate to hang myself from the chain – after all, I'd been in it for so long. I just thought it would be great to see the reaction of those guards walking in and seeing me hanging there dead. They'd get their arses kicked for that. But obviously if I'm dead I can't see their reaction, so a key reason I didn't do it was because I couldn't see them.
Some people say to me that it must have taken real strength to decide to kill yourself and all this sort of stuff. But one thing that really psychologically drained me was that after convincing myself I could hang myself, I then had to convince myself not to do it, not to follow through with it. That really mentally drained me out, I don't know why. I was ready to execute it, but had to pull back.
Maybe it does take a lot of strength to decide to kill yourself, but it takes more to decide not to once you realize it's possible – which is what I decided to do. ®
Next in Part Two: Xbox amusement, freedom achieved