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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.

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