Michael Scott Moore (@MichaelSctMoore) is a literary journalist and novelist who wrote about being held hostage by Somali pirates in his latest book, The Desert and the Sea: 977 Days Captive on the Somali Pirate Coast.

What We Discuss with Michael Scott Moore:

  • Why high-seas piracy still exists in some of the world’s most desperate places.
  • How an outsider — such as a journalist like Michael Scott Moore — can be easy prey for pirates abroad even under the “protection” of hired security.
  • The types of people who become pirates and how the devoutly religious among them reconcile their actions with their faith.
  • Why you’ll probably never find a restaurant specializing in Somali pirate cuisine.
  • How a hostage remains sane over 977 days in captivity through escape attempts and threat of torture.
  • And much more…

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Being kidnapped by Somali pirates and held hostage for over two years sounds like a nightmare scenario that none of us would wish upon our worst enemies. But for journalist Michael Scott Moore, it was a reality he managed to endure.

In this episode, Michael talks about these experiences that formed his latest book, The Desert and the Sea: 977 Days Captive on the Somali Pirate Coast. He runs us through the events that led to his capture, how he maintained his own sanity while spending so much time in captivity, what it’s like to attempt escape under such circumstances, how he eventually made it home, and what it took to readjust to “normal” life. Listen, learn, and enjoy!

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Most people who have thrilled to fictionalized accounts of pirates — from Treasure Island to Pirates of the Caribbean — might be forgiven for thinking that piracy on the high seas died out more than 200 years ago. But as Michael Scott Moore, author of The Desert and the Sea: 977 Days Captive on the Somali Pirate Coast discovered, the practice is still very much alive in some of the most desperate parts of the world.

“When the last stable but also dictatorial government collapsed in Somalia in 1991, there stopped being these national organizations — including the navy,” says Michael. “The national military was barely existent. So there’s no navy to defend the coastline. And starting in the ’90s, international fishing outfits figured that out and they came close to the Somali coast and they started stealing their fish. So the roots of Somali piracy are in this illegal fishing. And for those first years in the ’90s before any of us heard about Somali piracy, there were local clan leaders that would send out armed men on little boats to stop the fishing ships and say, ‘Do you have a license?’ And they would say, ‘No,’ and they would detain the ship for maybe 24 hours and charge the owners maybe $50,000 — and that would be the license fee. Then fishing went on as usual.

“Although the Somalis had no central national government, they acted as if they did and they sent out these armed men. And it worked. It was not an ideal arrangement, but that’s how things worked off Somalia in the’90s. And because it worked in some half-assed way, we never heard about it until around 2005 when some of these gangs got more organized and more ambitious and started to capture large merchant ships — tankers and cargo ships. Even after they started taking these crews hostage, the pirates insisted that they were still defending their coastline. And it became such a profitable business that starting in 2005 but all the way up until 2012 or so, pirates were a real problem in Somalia — and that’s when I went there.”

He went there to survey the scene and report back to a world curious about this unique situation, but he didn’t bargain on becoming a victim of the piracy epidemic himself.

“Word got around fast that strangers were in the region. It’s a very closed area — it’s always been closed to outsiders, which means word gets around when outsiders are there,” says Michael. “My partner flew off to Mogadishu…I drove him to the airport and saw him off; he got on the plane safely. And then on the way back from the airport, back into town towards our hotel, there was actually a truck waiting for us. It was a truck with a cannon welded in the back — these are very common trucks, they’re called ‘technicals’ because of the civil war in Somalia. At first we thought it was there to protect us, but actually it stopped our car and 12 gunmen from the flatbed came over to my side of the car. They actually fired into the air, opened the door, and tore me out of the car. They were waiting for me, and they were probably hoping for both of us; I think they were a little bit disappointed that there was only one journalist.

“They pulled me out of the car; they beat me. They broke my glasses. They had another car waiting and they sort of bundled me into it and off we drove into the bush. And after that I was a hostage.”

Listen to this episode in its entirety to learn more about the kind of people who become pirates under desperate circumstances, what makes a potential hostage a target, what the first few hours of captivity by pirates are like, why you’ll probably never find a restaurant specializing in Somali pirate cuisine, how Michael’s escape attempt at sea went, how fellow prisoners who speak different languages communicate with one another, what warrants torture from a pirate captor, what led to Michael’s ransom and return, the aftermath of the ordeal, and much more.


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