Some say they’re a useful force for good, others say they’re an ungovernable hindrance undermining the good work of government troops. Either way, private security firms are playing an important part in conflicts around the world.
“G4S Securing Your World” is an aggressively syncopated corporate anthem proclaiming the merits of the world’s largest private security contractor (or psc). It provides armed security for the British Embassy in Kabul and protection for all UK government personnel in Iraq – and, controversially, the 2012 Olympics. “Our mission is to maintain the peace/But make no mistake we’ll face the beast,” sings the Texan crooner Christopher Davis. “We’ll back him down and make him run/We’ll never leave our post till the job is done.”
The song aptly sums up the complicated status of the Private Security Contractor; PSCS nurture a quasi-military culture, somewhere between peacekeepers and profiteers. They are outsourced purveyors of force. Very few are still mercenaries akin to Frederick Forsyth’s Dogs of War, while others are highly skilled experts providing indispensible close protection in modern conflicts.
Either way, PSCS receive large sums to take considerable risk in the theatre of war; according to the US Department of Defense, from June 2009 to November 2010, 319 security contractor personnel in their employ were killed in action in Afghanistan, compared to 626 US troops over the same period. They are nearly three times more likely to die in the field than their uniformed military counterparts. The industry’s misdemeanours have been widely publicised; companies such as Blackwater (subsequently renamed XE and now Academi) became mired in scandal during the Iraq war after 17 Iraqi civilians were killed in Baghdad’s Nisour Square in September 2007. DynCorp’s staff alleged use of dancing boys in Afghanistan caused similar outrage.
The presence of PSCS in the world’s conflicts is one of the most controversial issues in defence. Many military strategists have deemed them an un-governable chaos factor – a hindrance to counter-insurgency efforts, where winning hearts and minds is crucial. “If you talk about problematic behaviour, it’s not just Blackwater,” says Lou Pingeot of Global Policy Forum, who authored a recent report about the increasing use of PSCS by the UN. “The problem is more than a case of guys with guns. Loutish behaviour exists throughout the industry. A sense of cultural superiority is endemic. And the industry has been unwilling to confront this. They have come up with a code of conduct about not violating human rights but when they do [transgress] there are no consequences.” In many ways it’s their non-governmental, ambiguous status that makes pcss so useful. They are largely free from the politicking that limits the action of mandated armies. Being able to work outside the establishment make them a useful tool. Doug Brooks, president of the Washington-based trade association ISOA, (who produce a code of conduct) says PCSC offer an efficient business model that should be expanded rather than curtailed.
“I came into the industry from an academic perspective,” he says, as he describes a trip to Sierra Leone in 2000 with the South African Institute of International Affairs. “There were 17,000 UN troops in Freetown. They were waiting for the diplomatic clearance. Meanwhile, private firms such as DynCorp and pae were holding the UN mission together in the field. One private company had eight American contractors supervising 400 Sierra Leoneans providing logistics. For me, as an academic, this was a huge eye-opener.”
And it is true that private security firms can take direct action when some sovereign states cannot. In the Indian Ocean and the Gulf of Aden, where piracy is thought to be costing the global economy in the region of €6bn a year, armed PSCS have had a 100 per cent success rate. “The statistics show that no vessel with an armed team on board has yet been hijacked by pirates,” says Cyrus Mody, assistant director at the International Maritime Bureau (IMB). Despite this, Mody says he has serious concerns about the legal status and safety of armed PSCS at sea. “There is definitely a risk to the employment of armed teams on ships, especially since their presence is unregulated,” he says, “The IMB and the industry are taking steps to change this. This means you won’t get teams who don’t have experience in a maritime environment. It’s about recognising who is a fisherman and who isn’t – it’s about knowledge of the area.”
At the moment the law of the sea doesn’t make provision for armed freelance actors. After producing several guidelines, Mody hopes legislation will come after the International Maritime Organisation summit this November. “At the moment it is the master who has the responsibility of everything that happens on his vessel,” he says. “What’s being addressed right now is, when does this responsibility shift from the master to the person with the weapon?”
PSCS are a reality of modern warfare in dire need of standardisation and accountability. Until this happens the stigma of Blackwater will continue to haunt the whole industry.
Bancroft Global Development
Founded in 1999 by Princeton gradu- ate Mike Stock as a small-scale land mine clearance operation, Bancroft Global Development is now entrusted with a major role in the training of UN- sponsored African Union peacekeepers in war-ravaged Mogadishu. As a non-profit organisation, BGD focuses on collaboration to eliminate violence as a political tool.
Maritime defence is a growth area in the freelance security industry, fuelled by an epidemic rise in piracy that has reached an accumulated global cost of €6bn. Seamarshals works from its floating Red Sea base, servicing international routes from Djibouti to Durban and Mombasa to Mauritius. Its staff is made up predominantly of ex-British servicemen and naval officers hired to protect their client’s cargo or crew from danger, theft and extortion. Started in 2010 and run from an operations centre in Cardiff, the company offers a gamut of services from personal protection to superyacht security.
Fox Delta is one of many private security firms that have diversified their services from simply offering “boots on the ground” to training clients to deal with issues of security for themselves. Established in 2009 by former Royal Marines commando Ben Soames, a veteran of the Iraq invasion force, Fox Delta specialises in “hostile environment awareness training”. The firm offers solutions to security issues in some of the world’s most volatile areas with ongoing operations in Afghanistan, Nigeria and Somalia.
With bases in the UK and Singapore, IDG is one of a number of freelance organisations that make use of the proud heritage of the Gurkhas (see page 209), recruiting exclusively from their ranks. Founder and managing director Ian Gordon set up the firm in 2001 hoping the Gurkhas’ reputation for “loyalty, integrity and discipline” would be a panacea to the ills of the industry. Freelance security outfits are often “looked on with scepticism” despite the fact they fulfill an important function. IDG aims to “establish creditable and genuine services”, working with NGOs and private firms. Gordon hopes larger government contracts will follow in the near future.