If You Don’t Negotiate, You Better Rescue

An opinion on US hostage policy


March 2015

A gang of pirates kidnapped me in January 2012 while I researched an article and a book in the town of Galkacyo, in central Somalia. The gang held me for 32 months in the desert bush, on a captured ship, and in a series of half-built homes. The ransom demand was $20 million and it stayed at that stratospheric level for months after the dramatic rescue of American aid worker Jessica Buchanan and her Danish colleague Poul Thisted, by SEAL Team 6, four days after my capture.

I was never sure whether I might be ransomed, like most pirate hostages, or rescued, like Buchanan and Thisted, or killed in the attempt, like Luke Somers and Pierre Korkie in Yemen last year. The prospect of a (successful) rescue graced my dreams in Somalia the way it infested my kidnappers’ nightmares.
When I walked free in September there was a lot of debate over whether Europe or America took the right approach toward hostage-takings. Governments in continental Europe claim not to pay ransoms, but probably find ways to do it through intermediaries. America, like Britain, won’t. I’m a dual citizen, so the U.S. and German governments both played a role in my freedom, and without giving away sensitive details I think I might venture an opinion.

The European position is two-faced, but it has to be. The U.S. position is downright schizophrenic. Since early 2002, in the wake of the Patriot Act, a directive signed by President George W. Bush has guided American agencies in all foreign hostage cases, terrorist or criminal, causing no small amount of confusion. The directive is secret, but it seems to have dried up Washington’s behind-the-scenes negotiations with kidnappers. (Negotiation isn’t the same as paying ransom; chit-chat can sometimes soften the kidnappers’ line.)

Even worse, over the last decade or so, the State Department and the National Security Council have also moved to block families from paying private ransoms at all. This meddling in my case was annoying, not disastrous. I wasn’t a terrorist hostage, so paying a ransom—as my family finally did—was permissible. Meddling in the case of Americans held in Syria was more sinister. Diane Foley, the mother of James, the first hostage beheaded by Islamic State last summer, said a member of the National Security Council warned her not to attempt to ransom her son. Paying ISIL would lend material support to terrorists, the government argued, which is against the law.

To a bureaucrat that may sound logical. To a blogger, even advisable. To a family it’s intolerable, and the only moral position left to a government that leans on mothers not to ransom their children is to send in the SEALs. If you don’t pay ransom, you’d damn well better rescue.

Yes, the military did make more than one attempt last summer to rescue James Foley and Steven Sotloff and Kayla Mueller, but they were too late; the White House—in spite of its hard line against ransoms—showed an abundance of caution.

Let’s follow this line of logic for a minute, because nothing other than U.S. military involvement will discourage the capture of Americans abroad. No-ransom pronouncements by presidents or the State Department don’t work. Those declarations are featherweight for Somali pirates or for any half-educated enemies of the West who fail to keep international ransom policies straight in their minds and insist on believing that a fat nation will buckle to a bunch of AK-47s and rocket launchers.

Violence is a clearer language for kidnappers. (I hate to admit that, as a writer.) A Risk Management Officer for the GTZ, a German development group, noticed that kidnappings of aid workers in Afghanistan declined after two rescues in late 2012—one by British Special forces, the other by Navy SEALs. The assessment at the time “was that gangs were no longer looking for Westerners because there was too much likelihood of a rescue,” a researcher at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs told me last week.

One SEAL died in the 2012 Afghanistan mission. U.S. citizen Luke Somers and Pierre Korkie, a South African, both died at the hands of their captors in Yemen last December before a Special Forces team arrived. The problem with an aggressive rescue policy is that it has to tolerate such devastating loss. One experienced hostage negotiator in America, a friend of Korkie’s, tells me he would shy away from too many rescue attempts; but he admits a more aggressive policy would reduce kidnappings. “Israel has decided to accept the risk of losing hostages as long as all the kidnappers die in a rescue attempt, and the message is sent that Israel won’t pay ransom,” he said. “And, it’s been a long time since an El-Al flight has been hijacked.”

An Israeli-style rescue policy is the only logical end of the U.S. refusal to negotiate or pay. It’s not impossible. But hostage cases are so varied that even the hardest line has to bend with circumstance. Israel negotiated a prisoner exchange with Hamas for Gilad Shalit in 2011, for example. The Obama administration settled on a similar exchange for Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, and the Reagan administration famously traded arms to Iran for hostages in Beirut during the 1980s.

U.S. policy, nevertheless, seems to have frozen up since 2002, in spite of the nation’s tremendous resources. Washington hamstrings itself with limits on negotiation, without—as far as I can tell—lowering the bar for a rescue. Our hostages, in effect, stay put.

So, in the trans-Atlantic derby, two-faced European policy wins—for now, by default. It pleases very few people. But it has saved a few European lives.

Michael Scott Moore


Idomeneo in Berlin

Remember the scandal over “Idomeneo” in Berlin? Remember how Islamists went mad when the Deutsche Oper decided to stage a controversial production of Mozart’s opera, unleashing a storm of violence?

By George!

Behind the frosted-glass office doors of an old building on New Montgomery Street in San Francisco you can find a barber shop, a bartending school, and a number of lawyers

Noah and the Dinosaurs

One rule of fundamentalists is that they hate to be interviewed. William Dembski doesn’t. He has a long face and glasses, wears knife-edged slacks and sober ties; he mixes fashion sense with a relaxed wonkishness that announces dedication to reason rather than the Bible-thumping fanaticism he’s been accused


I Have Landed

The title of Stephen Jay Gould’s twenty-second book on natural science borrows a phrase his grandfather scribbled in an English primer after he arrived at Ellis Island

For the Pleasure of Seeing Her Again

I think Derek Walcott holds the title for Greatest North American Playwright Almost Never Produced in San Francisco, but Michel Tremblay runs a close second.

The Invention of Love

The last time one of Tom Stoppard’s plays had its American premiere in San Francisco, last spring, I wrote that it “wouldn’t be above Stoppard to spin a whole script around a minor and meaningless point of grammar.”


Sending in the Marines

NATO, officially, is pleased to have pirates to fight. A mission against sea bandits in the Indian Ocean is not mission creep for the trans-Atlantic alliance, if you talk to its leaders

Battleships Off Somalia

Navies are expensive, and sending warships to Somalia is a hugely inefficient way to fight pirates, considering that the number of successful attacks off the Somali coast this year

How Do You Prosecute a Pirate?

The most eyebrow-raising aspect of Western counter-piracy missions off Somalia is how rarely they arrest a pirate.


Ghosts of Dresden

The Allied firebombing of Dresden in 1945 destroyed the baroque center of what Pfc. Kurt Vonnegut called, in a letter home from Germany, “possibly the world’s most beautiful city.”

How to Film Nazis

The big surprise last week during the Berlin Film Festival was a disastrous premiere for a long-awaited feature film, Jud Süß — Rise and Fall, by a talented German director named Oskar Roehler.

Nazis on the Campaign Trail

Holger Apfel is a burly, fat-cheeked 35-year-old with glasses, given to wearing brown suits. He leads a delegation of the neo-Nazi NPD (National Democratic Party of Germany) in the German state parliament of Saxony.


It’s Called Soccer

Americans live on what amounts to an enormous island, defended on two shores by the sea, and we’ve evolved a few marsupial traditions that nobody else understands.

One Hundred Years of Hanging Ten

The George Freeth memorial in Redondo Beach is a salt-bitten bust of a lifeguard in an old-fashioned swimming vest, gazing with the stoicism we expect from early surf heroes into the deep mysteries of a concrete parking garage.

Tilting at Turbines (in the Severn River)

The morning was clear and cold, with frost on the church steeple and the cemetery grass. I had a quick English breakfast at a white-cloth table, in my wetsuit, and drove to Newnham, a village on the Severn River in Gloucestershire, parking near the White Hart Inn.

Other Prose

Denis Johnson, Poet of the Fallen World

“I’m kinda like Ozzy Osbourne,” says Denis Johnson in a distracted moment, explaining that he might not remember to call me back. “My wife was just telling me that.”

This Will Kill That

“Here is one,” replied the archdeacon, opening the window of his cell; he pointed to the Cathedral of Notre-Dame, whose two black towers, stone walls, and huge roof

The Curse of El Rojo

I’d packed the car lightly — a bag of clothes, a bag of cassette tapes, a backpack of books, a few essential tools.

Michael Scott Moore is a literary journalist and a novelist, author of a comic novel about L.A., Too Much of Nothing, as well as a travel book about surfing, Sweetness and Blood, which was named a best book of 2010 by The Economist and Popmatters. He was kidnapped in 2012 on a reporting trip to Somalia and held hostage for two and a half years. The Desert and the Sea, a memoir about that ordeal, is out now from HarperCollins.

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The men from the Naham 3 are all friends of mine — a crew of 26 sailors from southeast Asia who worked on a tuna long-liner flagged in Oman but owned by a company in Taiwan, which abandoned them after Somali pirates hijacked the ship in 2012.

While I was in Somalia a man called Geoff Carter wrote about a picture of Indian men surfing on stand-up boards around 1800 off Chennai, which altered the known history of surfing a bit, even though the picture was hiding in plain sight at the Australian National Maritime Museum.

Some people have asked about the Somalia memoir. It’s right on schedule, I promise, but it won’t be out for at least another year. It’s been revised in full, twice (see above), and it’ll need a few more revisions before we get anywhere. Old-fashioned authorship. July, 2018?

A version of what happened in Somalia is available as a Long Read at The Guardian, and, in somewhat shorter form, for German readers, in Der Spiegel. It’s not even near complete. Enormous parts of the story have been left untold.



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