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December 18, 2014

The Formal Demands of a Somali Pirate

I have paid close attention to two trends in recent years: the increase of piracy on the high seas and the decrease of formality in writing.

The first is self-explanatory and most everyone has now come to understand that the threat of pirates attacking commercial vessels, particularly off the coast of Somalia, is a major threat to both international cargo and those who ship it. The second has been a longer-running trend, in which letters that begin “Dear Sir” have been replace with emails led by “Hey Bob” or even less-formal messages — in texts, tweets and Facebook messages — that seem to start mid-sentence and contain no capital letters.

Until now, however, I thought these two things existed on two different planes of reality altogether. But a new Reuters reports shows that there is a link. And ironically, these lawless swashbucklers are apparently one of the last bastions of formality in letter writing we have left.

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

Reuters obtained a copy of one such packet, presented to the owner of a hijacked oil tanker and the owner’s insurer after the ship was taken. Due to the commercial sensitivities, the names of the insurer and ship owner were redacted from the document, as was the size of the ransom request.

But what remains is colorful enough, and somewhat surprising. 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 of the memo belies the violent reality of the pirate’s actions. As of early August armed Somali pirates hold 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 who Jamal is or what he does, his signature is accompanied by his seal — yes, Jamal has a stamped seal — depicting a skull and crossed swords with the name of the group.

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