I Survived 996 Days As A Hostage (They Killed Everyone Else)
Thanks to ISIS and their decapitation fetish -- which has grown so out of control, even the French Revolution would ask them to tone it down -- the fear of terrorist kidnappings is at an all-time high. And for a small percentage of the population, it is not a baseless phobia: We spoke to Peter Moore, who was kidnapped by terrorists in Iraq, held prisoner for two-and-a-half years, and barely managed to get out with his life. Here's what he told us.
First, I Was Kidnapped By The Police
Peter is a civilian, not a soldier. And he's also an IT guy, which should help our readers relate to him even more. To complete the trifecta, we're also going to assume he's a huge dork -- purely so you can better picture yourself in his shoes.
Peter came to Iraq to help the Iraqi Ministry of Finance do something complicated with databases. We don't 100 percent understand Peter's job, but it involved a lot of programming and Red Bull. The company that brought him over did give him some training on what to do in the event of an emergency, but it was about as useful as most corporate training. And it didn't seem like he'd need it, because he had four guards -- all British combat veterans -- watching his ass every time he left the relative safety of the Green Zone. Their names were Jason Creswell, Jason Swindlehurst, Alec MacLachlan and Alan McMenemy. Yes, that is some intensely ominous foreshadowing.
Yeah: Those guys.
One day, while he was training three Iraqi programmers and a systems analyst, somebody formally introduced the shit to the fan. Peter recalled:
"Someone called the systems analyst out, which was odd. Maybe he got called away, I don't know ... I was training the programmers I think in Crystal Reports ... and all of a sudden I heard someone shout 'get down'."
And then, suddenly, Peter's life went from this ...
... to a scene from Homeland. And to make it worse: The people shouting and waving guns around were actual police officers.
"And everyone stood up ... so I stood up also. Unfortunately when I stood up it put me next to the door ... when the door opened, there was a police officer from the Ministry Of Interior there. I recognized his uniform straightaway ... What I remember most, was actually a machine gun pointed STRAIGHT at my groin. I put my hands up. He says come on. I step outside ... and the place is awash with Iraqi police officers, probably about a hundred. He led me to the entrance ... and I saw the leader of my British security team being beaten up by five Iraqi police officers."
Peter is adamant that these were not terrorists dressed as Iraqi police: they were Iraqi police, moonlighting as terrorists. And they were beating the shit out of the badass combat veteran protecting Peter.
"I said, 'What do I do?' He said, 'Whatever they say!'"
Probably a good rule to observe around anyone jamming a gun in your face.
The police/terrorists led Peter and his four guards outside, where "20 or 30" police vehicles waited, "They put myself in the back ... the team leader in the trunk. I thought we were under arrest. Maybe there was something wrong with my ID. For some reason, I had a lot of money in my wallet, around $300. I remember they took my ID out and threw it out the window."
So Peter took his cash and tried to bribe the driver -- which is generally a fine move when being detained by crooked cops in a foreign country -- "And the guy just looked at the $300 and threw it out the window. And I'm like, that's not good."
By that, the money color, and Peter not passing "Go" we're guessing they were playing by Monopoly-style terrorism rules.
The average per-capita income in Iraq is around $4,000, meaning Peter's bribe was a solid month's salary. The fact that his captor tossed it out the window no longer qualified as 'a bad sign.' It was a nightmare billboard.
"And then they started taking my clothes off and throwing them out the window, and that's when I realized it was abduction. I remember them throwing my steel-toed boots out the window and thinking, 'I hope that didn't hit anybody.'"
Because, even being kidnapped, Peter's a pretty nice dude.
Then They Smuggled Us To Our Prison
The next few hours were pretty confusing. Peter and his guards were taken out into a marketplace, shoved into a minivan, driven around a bit, taken into a building, tied up, driven around again, and taken back to the same room. They were loaded into another car, driven 10 or 15 minutes, and set up in a basement filled with straw bales.
"We sat in this basement for maybe an hour. We get water poured on our head. Then they walk me to a stretcher, get me to lie down on a stretcher, then they wheel me into a truck -- it's a big army truck." Had Peter been played by Arnold Schwarzenegger, this would be the point where he uses his own enormous schlong to strangle the nearest captor, then kill the rest of the terrorists using nothing but his bare hands and a series of increasingly painful puns. Unfortunately, this was reality, so ...
"I [accidentally fall] on my side and I break a rib, I hear my ribs crack."
Because no day is ever so bad it can't get worse.
Peter and two of his guards were manhandled into a "secret compartment" in the truck. And then, "They bolted the compartment shut. I lifted my blindfold and I could see daylight in the cracks in the weld and [I thought], 'This would never happen to Indiana Jones. He'd be out of there by now.'"
And probably twisting some bearded guy's neck while saying "I've got a crack for you."
But no -- Peter and his fellow captives spent two days crammed into a compartment so tiny, "One British guard had his back on my knees." When the vehicle finally stopped, "We got some cake. And they gave us food, water. And then it went quiet. I got brave and lifted my blindfold ... I could see the stars, and I looked up to the British guard, and I lifted his blindfold and said, 'Look, you can see the stars!' And that was the last time we saw the sky."
We're guessing it was a while before unexpected cake made another appearance, too.
Peter's memories of this period are understandably confused, because pants-ruining terror has a way of playing with your memories. But he does remember, "whispering to one of the guards, 'Are we going to make it out alive?' And he said, 'Well, with a bit of luck.'"
Eventually, they were taken to the Iraqi city of Basra, which they knew because one of the guards had fought there during his army days. "The guards were saying, if this is Basra than we're still held by Shia militia."
Which was ... a good thing?
And It Became Apparent That They Weren't The Worst Possible Kidnappers
So obviously, this was a shit situation. But the fact that Peter is alive today means that his captors weren't exactly ISIS-level assholes. He'd been captured by Shia terrorists, who were also police officers ("it's like being a scout leader and a teacher, you can do both.") They wanted hostages to exchange for money, and for the freedom of their comrades, but they didn't want to see the inside of Peter's neck hole. That doesn't make them good guys, but it does make them "not the worst" guys.
Though ransoming hostages after throwing money away also makes them the "not thinking-shit-through-est" guys.
"Over the next ten days, what happens is, our captors get us clothes, they get us medication, they get us food, they tell us they're not going to kill us." Peter says they repeatedly re-iterated, "'We're Shia, we're not Al Qaeda' [a Sunni terrorist group]; they said they were holding us for an exchange."
Eventually a senior militia figure came to visit. They asked him:
"'Are you going to kill us?'
And he said to me, 'I'm not as nice as my friends.' I was like, right, OK, that doesn't make me feel better."
The militia leader wanted them to make a video. You know the type: grainy footage, beards of despondence, second-rate tracksuits, pleas for release.
Claims of "They're treating me well" under barely suppressed tones of sarcasm.
"So we then did a video, basically saying 'I'm Peter Moore. I'm alive and being treated well.' We had to do a message to Tony Blair -- 'You have to get us released.' We all did that video."
Peter went along with the videos because he wasn't trying to be a hero, nor was he suicidally camera shy. He was just a guy, doing whatever he could to make it out of this alive. But his captors didn't necessarily believe that:
"They always believed I was a military intelligence officer, so they never asked me any questions about IT."
He might have volunteered that info, except a reliable on-site IT guy is worth more than any ransom.
These guys were nicer than ISIS, but that's the high bar at the limbo competition. Six or seven months in, he recalled that one of his captors, "handcuffed me behind my back, blindfolded me, and removed the chain, and then he took me outside and made me kneel down."
The guard put a gun to Peter's head and pulled the trigger.
"I just remember hearing the click ... I started sweating ... and then there was the bang ... I remember hearing the cartridge fall on the floor ... what they'd done is put a gun to my head and fired a gun behind my back. And then I went back into the room where the British guard was. And he said, 'what happened?' And I said, 'I think I got shot in the head.'"
That's not an uncommon response, by the way. Mock execution victims can feel like they've already died.
Mock executions are a popular torture tactic, used by everyone from ISIS to the CIA, in order to break a captive's will. Peter suggested that it might also be an effective way to ensure a prisoner remains well-behaved immediately prior to an execution: "With ISIL videos people ask me, why didn't they run? Well, they probably didn't know they were going to die at that point."
Standard poker tactics, really. You bluff a guy once, then hit him with the real thing soon after, when he's expecting another bluff. But you don't decapitate him. That is frowned upon in poker.
Next, I Acquired An Xbox
Peter and his guards were separated and held in different safe houses. For his first year of captivity, he "was pretty much blindfolded, chained, and handcuffed," but as the months dragged on, he and his fellow prisoners ran into more and more guards who treated terrorism as a 9-to-5 kinda deal.
"It wasn't consistent. Some guards would let us take the blindfold off and let us watch TV with them. But what became apparent, is every time I moved (every two-and-a-half months) I got a new set of guards, and it was clear that the old set of guards didn't talk to the new ones."
And so Peter embarked upon a strategy well-known to children of divorced parents:
"I was like, 'The old set of guards let me go without handcuffs' ... and two years in, I'm like, 'Where's my TV? Where's the PlayStation? I had a TV at the last house.'"
"No HD?! What kind of low-rent insurgency are you running?!"
Yes, of course "Mom lets me do it" is always a lie -- but his captors didn't exactly have a Slack channel set up to compare notes. Peter's plan worked. Sort of.
"I'll be honest with you, actually I got an Xbox."
Well, at least it wasn't a Wii U.
If you, too, plan on using an impending kidnapping to catch up on game time, Peter's got some advice: "Ultimately your survival depends on the people around you. You may not like them ... but build a rapport. Talk about food; I'd say, what food do you eat in Iraq? He'd say, he likes fish. I'd say, your wife cooks for you? He'd say yes. I'd say, oh fish is easy to get in Iraq? [He'd say] 'Yes.'"
And then Peter would spring his trap: "That sounds great. Say, could I get some fish?"
Then slowly replace "fish" with other demands, subtly working your way up to "Hey, do you like freedom? Me too! Say, could I get ..."
I Built A Convincing And Relatable Persona
How honest should you be with your kidnappers? That's probably not a question most folks ever ask themselves. But maybe you should, because when Peter got kidnapped, he immediately started lying, out of the assumption that in "six months, dead or alive, this thing's going to be over."
"Right at the start, we were all asked, 'Are you married?' well the British guards all said yes, even though it turns out only one of them was. So I said yes ... over time, they start asking me questions about my wife. Over two-and-a-half years I had to build this whole story about my wife because, y'know, 'Don't change your story.'"
It's not like you don't have time to sit and flesh out the details.
So he claimed he'd met a woman while working in Guyana. Peter had worked in Guyana for some time before going to Iraq. But everything else in this story is a bald-faced lie:
"In Guyana, my wife is called Emma Desousa. She's a Brazilian Amerindian person. The way we met, was that because of the lack of tech skill in the area, there's a tech agreement between Guyana, Brazil, Columbia, and Suriname, so I would cross over into Brazil and install computer equipment for the ministry responsible for gold mining. Emma was a malaria doctor, doing a malaria program in Brazil while I was installing the computer system."
"She also has a part-time job as an international supermodel."
Again, all of this -- including the supposed international agreement -- was made up by Peter on the spot. Apparently, Peter is a hell of a liar. Even our best lies don't include intricate political relationships. Also apparently, Wikipedia wasn't huge in Iraq at the time.
"I was a little bit worried someone from the British government would go running around looking for Emma Desousa." So he actually made up a new lie, just to protect himself in this eventuality. "The reason you can't find her is Desousa isn't the name she was born with. People in Brazil don't use their indigenous names to apply for jobs."
Basically "She lives in Canada, you wouldn't know her" ... except if they Google hard enough, you might die.
Again, that's a lie -- Peter is now inventing socio-economic employment strategies in his fibs. Truly, the man should teach a master class.
It goes on: "We were asked, what is your religion? I said Protestant. They said, is that [a type of Catholic]. I said yes. Over time I'm thinking, I'm going to have to do some Catholic stuff ... so before I went to sleep I started to pretend to pray, but I didn't do anything. I just put up my hands and closed my eyes. And I thought, I might as well make it consistent, so I started counting ..."
It was that or start randomly praying to every major deity and see who came through with a special ops team.
Some of Peter's captors were surprisingly respectful of his fake religion:
"They brought me Islamic prayer beads" since they couldn't find any rosaries, "... so everyday I used to flip through these -- like a thousand times a day, one banana two banana three banana four -- it was really relaxing."
This worked for a while, until one of his captors finally asked: 'As a Catholic person, with the prayer beads, what do you say?'
"So in my mind I'm thinking, Oh shit. And I remember, as a kid, hearing Catholic people say their Hail Mary's ..." so he just told the man "Hail Mary." But his unusually curious guard looked the actual prayer up, and it turned out to be much longer than Peter expected.
"And I'm like, this has gotten way out of hand. I said, 'I'm really sorry. I've got to be honest. Catholic children learn it as a baby, and I haven't gone over it in years, and I'm saying the wrong thing.'"
His guard who, remember, was a bonafide Muslim terrorist, said, 'It's OK. It's not what you say that God recognizes. But God recognizes what you do.' And I'm like, whoa."
We're really not sure what the lesson is here, other than that this particular Shia militiaman might have a solid career in writing cheesy inspirational self-help books.
But Most Importantly: I Got Stupid Lucky
The men who captured Peter and his guards wanted to exchange prisoners for some of their compatriots who'd been arrested by Coalition forces:
"My sense was they wanted an exchange, and I said 'look, you'll get money for us, but you're not going to get an exchange.'"
Spoiler alert: Peter would eventually be a huge exchange.
But the militia kept trying to work out a personnel exchange, and the British government kept making that "yap yap" motion with their hands while the terrorists talked. Negotiations dragged on for months, and Peter wasn't exactly kept in the loop about the process. Eventually he became aware that a captured former marine and current private security employee, Michael Chand, was being given "first aid" by the same militia that had captured Peter. They'd apparently orchestrated a roadside bombing that wounded the man, and then carried him off. Chand didn't survive.
"They'd also captured an American soldier, Sergeant al-Taie -- he was an Iraqi who came to America and joined the army -- and they really gave him a hard time. I used to hear him being beaten with what sounded like a brick in the room next door. He was the only American to be classified as missing in action. But they killed him also."
Remember, "not as bad as ISIS" still allows you to be fucking terrible.
Peter wound up being the only person to survive out of his group. His four guards, hardened military veterans all, were each killed during their captivity.
"The militia told me that everyone had been killed, either because they'd tried to escape, or the Americans were raiding next door ... I think two of my British guards, and one of the Americans, were in a house and tried to escape. And the other two, and Sergeant al-Taie, were in a house the Americans got near ..."
Their kidnappers executed them rather than risk letting them go.
To this day, Peter still feels guilty about being the sole survivor, even though it was all obviously entirely out of his hands. And that's fickle, stupid reality for you: military training and combat experience count for about as much as an IT degree when shit truly starts to roll downhill.
And Then I Got Out
"I'd been told I was going to be released all the time. In the last year, toward the end of 2009, I did a number of release interviews. In May of 2009, two British bodies were released in exchange for seven people, one of whom was a commander of the militia. And in September, they released 100 live militia for one body."
The British were pulling out of Iraq by 2009, and they were eager to tie up any loose ends they could. Peter wound up being one of the last of those loose ends:
"At 5 a.m. on the 30th of December, this Iraqi comes in and says 'Get up.' I said 'Go where? It's 5 in the morning.' He said 'You're being released.' I said 'Why am I being released?'"
"What, suddenly you need a reason to get out of handcuffs? Go the fuck home."
The guard claimed it was because the British had agreed to a prisoner swap, "I said ... 'Whatever, what do you want me to do? It's 5 a.m., leave me alone.'"
Now. Now is the point where you relate to Peter the hardest.
But still the heartless guard insisted Peter get up at such an ungodly hour, to shower for his 'exit interview' with the captors.
"They question me again on being a military intelligence officer. I said, 'I'm not'. He says, 'You're right, you're not a military intelligence officer. You're a very good military intelligence officer.'"
It's never a good idea to roll your eyes at a kidnapper, but damn it must've been tempting at that moment.
Again, he wasn't. But everything we've learned about him from this interview makes us think he'd actually be pretty damn solid at the job. The next thing Peter knew, his captors had driven him to the middle of Baghdad, and taken off his blindfold:
"There's people everywhere, and then I'm put into the backseat of this other van, and we drive off ... and then we drive about five minutes down the road, we turn to this driveway in our house. We get out, and there's a man with a normal camera filming me. And we enter this room ... filled with people. Half in normal clothes, half in military uniforms ... a man in a suit gets up, says 'Peter Moore? ... I'm with the Iraqi government. You're a free man.'
"With that, he sits on the sofa, I sit next to him. He makes a statement to the camera."
It became clear that Peter was expected to make a statement. At this point, possibly because he got up at 5 a.m., he still felt like a prisoner, and was more-or-less convinced this was all a cruel trick. And so he lapsed into your standard, kidnapped-by-terrorists-and-put-in-front-of-a-camera behavior.
"I say how bad America is, how much I like the militia, how I'll give them five stars on TripAdvisor."
"Rooms small, but sturdy. 5/5, would be held as political bargaining chip again."
Soon after, Peter was taken to the embassy. He really was a free man.
"In my mind, when I got released, I was going to have this great statement ... it was going to be the title of this book, or the movie. But all I wanted was to be alone. And the first place I could think of to be alone was the toilet. So I say, 'I need to pee.' ... I put my hands on the wall, I start banging my head on the wall and I say, 'Stop that, you're going to hurt yourself.' There was this huge bank of mirrors, and I looked at myself. And I said, 'You've done it, you've beaten the odds.' And then I just started crying."
In all, Peter Moore survived 996 days as the prisoner of violent terrorists, while all of the trained military personnel around him died. We don't know -- we kind of think "Stop That, You're Going To Hurt Yourself" is a pretty good book title.
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For more insider perspectives, check out 4 Aspects Of Hostage Situations Movies Didn't Prepare Me For and 8 Insane Things I Did After Being Kidnapped By Terrorists.
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