Ransom letters from Somali pirates reveal their professionalism

Documents reveal just how organised - and seemingly courteous - Somali pirates have become, but their friendly tone belies the violent reality

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 15 August, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 15 August, 2012, 5:11am


Welcome to the Pirate Action Group. Pirate commander Jamal wishes to congratulate you on being hijacked. Kindly speak to his negotiator about your ransom, bearing in mind that his demands are similar for every vessel he seizes.

This is not an absurd joke - this is how the pirates of the African coast do business, and it's a serious matter for the companies that have to pay out.

In 2011 Somali piracy cost the world economy US$7 billion and earned pirates some US$160 million in ransoms, according to a recent report by the International Maritime Bureau. Piracy is receding of late, but it is still a threat. The bureau reported 69 hijacking incidents by Somali pirates between January 1 and July 12.

Rogues though they may be, these pirates in many cases are surprisingly well organised, down to having their own suite of paperwork - on letterhead - for their victims.

Reuters obtained a copy of one such suite, presented to the owner of a hijacked oil tanker and the owner's insurer after the ship was taken. The names of owner and insurer and the size of the ransom request have been redacted, but what remains is colourful enough.

The cover sheet, in memo format, is addressed "To Whom It May Concern" with the subject line "Congratulations to the Company/Owner."

"Having seen when my Pirate Action Group (P.A.G) had controlled over your valuable vessel we are saying to you Company/Owner welcome to Jamal's Pirate Action Group (J.P.A.G) and you have to follow by our law to return back your vessel and crew safely," the memo begins.

The tone belies the violent reality of the pirates' actions. As of early August armed Somali pirates held more than 170 hostages, according to the IMB, and were responsible for 35 deaths in 2011 alone.

"Do not imagine that we are making to you intimidation," the memo says, before signing off with "Best regards" and the signature of Jamal Faahiye Culusow, the General Commander of the Group.

Lest there be any doubt about his occupation, Jamal's signature is accompanied by his stamped seal,, depicts a skull and crossed swords.

Anything can be insured for the right price. A small coterie of companies, among them Travelers, Chubb and AIG, offer "kidnap and ransom" policies to shipping companies. In the event of a hijacking, they will pay up, just as Jamal and his ilk request.

As the number of attacks has declined, piracy coverage prices have too, said Amanda Holt, a vice-president in the financial and professional liability unit at insurance brokerage Marsh in Norwich, England. "Often if you buy piracy cover you'll get a discount on your war premium."

A ship owner looking to insure a single transit can now get US$5 million in coverage for anywhere from US$3,000 to US$5,000, assuming the ship has armed guards.

Jamal provided the ship owners with a breakdown of the value of their tanker, the oil it contained and also the worth of the crew (at least in his estimation), presenting a final demand figure for them to consider.

"We will send to you after when we arrange something for the demanding ransom money and after when we finish the meeting among my group and resolve my problem," he writes on the second page of the kidnap package.

One expert in ransom negotiation situations said it was no surprise that Jamal and his colleagues were so well organised. "They want to get the money. If they present themselves and behave as someone who will live up to their commitment… we are much more likely to go ahead and pay the ransom easily and efficiently," said Derek Baldwin, director of worldwide operations for IBIS International, which operates in 45 countries worldwide.

"If they present themselves as a non-structured group of disorganised loons they stand an awful lot better chance of having an extraction team show up on their front porch and shoot them."

As for Jamal, his fate remains unclear. There is no mention of him to be found online, and Interpol did not return a request for comment on his legal status.

The hostage taking in this particular case ended peacefully, though the source of the documents declined to say if or how much was paid.