I first saw them on the slip road. They were trapped in a muddle of traffic, jostling to get through, eager, anxious, impatient; the mood of the driver transmitted down through the steering wheel and the throttle into the jerking, pushy movements of the car. I'd watched them as we drove past and now they were behind us framed in my observer's mirror, kicking up a plume of road dust as they weaved through the morning traffic on the highway through Fallujah. Pickups loaded with workers on the open backs, loose-fitting robes snapping in the milky warm slipstream, moved to let the black BMW 7 series charge through. They were like the members of a herd making way for a big predator which had earmarked its prey further into the throng.
I knew what was coming now just as the herd, watching from their pickups and battered saloons, did... But the difference was that I am not one of the herd.
John Geddes, ex-SAS Warrant Officer, Highway to Hell
The briefing room was crowded, jovial, as jokes lit the air and the last cigarettes were swiftly extinguished. Metal slid over oil, a final weapons check, then the comms equipment crackled into life: the package was ready. The teams glanced quickly outside then grabbed their Raybans. It promised to be another glorious spring day – albeit one in the choking dust of Baghdad.
For Peter Moore, 'the package' and a British IT contractor, the slightly surreal surroundings of the Green Zone had been his home for the past few weeks. He'd already worked in the jungles of Guyana and a stint in Iraq, where he'd been sent by US technology firm BearingPoint, promised a healthy bank balance. The 'gentle giant' told friends he'd been nervous about coming – but was reassured by the presence of his personal security detail, former military men supplied by GardaWorld, a prominent Canadian security firm. Everyone got along with Pete, and the Scottish and Welsh ex-soldiers were no exception.
It was a routine journey. Just a few minutes from the relative safety of the Green Zone. They had visited the Ministry a total of 21 times. It was heavily protected, situated inside its own compound, a prestige location in the slowly rebuilding country. What was there to fear?
That was their first mistake.
Witnesses said the snatch was carried out by what appeared to be a police unit. The street was sealed off at both ends by around 30 four-wheel drive vehicles, identical to those used by Iraqi security forces. The men, in police camouflage uniforms, walked straight past guards at the Finance Ministry building on Palestine Street. This was downtown Baghdad, on a typically hot, dusty May afternoon two years ago.
Baghdad was 'hot' not just for the season: sectarian tensions between Sunni and Shia groups were high, and clashes had already taken place between Shia militias and Coalition forces, as the notorious Mahdi Army of radical cleric, Muqtada al-Sadr, flexed its muscles.
Moore was busy giving a lecture in the small building housing the Computer Services Institute when the doors burst open. "Where are the prisoners? Where are the prisoners?" shouted what, at first sight, appeared to be an Iraqi police major. In the confusion, the kidnappers strode in and seized the IT contractor, along with his two British guards. A third security consultant, perhaps with a sixth sense or just plain lucky, slipped quickly into the surrounding crowds and escaped detection. His two colleagues outside, standing by their vehicles, did not share his luck: swiftly overpowered, they were bundled into the fleet of 4x4s and driven away. The kidnap was over in minutes.
One Iraqi official later said the gunmen knew precisely where they were going. She said that Peter Moore had regularly given lectures at the Ministry during the past year. Transported to Sadr City, a notorious Shia slum in eastern Baghdad, the five men were paraded by their captors, then later shown twice on video. The kidnapping had started a hostage crisis that remains a priority for the British government to this day. Negotiations for their release are continuing. However, as the two-year anniversary recently passed, at least four of the security contractors appear to be dead and Peter Moore's friends are left to pray for his future.
"We will never give up until you come home," wrote the seven-year-old daughter of one of the dead men, in a letter to her daddy. "I love you and miss you so much."
Welcome to the world of the 'private military contractor' – or PMC (sometimes also referred to as 'private security contractor', PSC) – modern mercenaries earning tens of thousands of dollars protecting corporate interests in all the war- and cockroach-infested backwaters of the world. Chances are your mobile phone, computer components, petrol, even the latest mergers and acquisitions in far-flung corners of the globe are backed up with more than just legal firepower. If there is money to be made, corporate or diplomatic interests will be protected by men who once served in some of the elite fighting forces of the world.
Not since the days when the East India Company used soldiers of fortune to depose fabulously wealthy Maharajas and conquer India for Great Britain, and mercenaries fought George Washington's Continental Army for King George, has such a large and lethal independent fighting force been assembled worldwide.
Of course, throughout history, mercenaries have fought for coin in other peoples' wars. As far back as Ancient Egypt, the thirteenth century BC, Pharaoh Rameses II used 11,000 mercenaries during his battles. Thousands of Greeks fought for the Persian empire, and the Romans utilised barbarians from across the empire. The Byzantines also famously used Vikings to form the Varangian guard to protect their Emperor, men travelling from the far northern wastes down to the Middle East.
Even as late as the 1970s European colonial powers hired mercenaries to defeat African “liberation” movements, prompting the United Nations to propose an international treaty against "mercenarism". Despite such exceptions, the shift from pre-modern to modern warfare was marked by the idea that states should fight wars with their own forces. Mercenaries appeared as an occasional threat to governments and international order, but only a marginal threat, and one that was waning.
More recently, particularly notorious 'dogs of war' included Mike Hoare, who was involved in the Congo Crisis in the early 1960s and a Seychelles failed coup in 1978; as well as Bob Denard, who took part in numerous African campaigns, often with the covert support of France (his particular speciality was intervening in the Comoros islands). Ex-SAS officer Simon Mann was involved with a mercenary company called Executive Outcomes and its ventures in Angola and Sierra Leone. In 2004 he was found guilty in Zimbabwe of "attempting to buy weapons" allegedly for a coup in Equatorial Guinea. He was later deported to Equatorial Guinea and is now jailed in desperate conditions.
(Although both are now defunct, their alumni remain among the industry elite: Tim Spicer, Sandline International's former CEO, now runs Aegis Defence Services, which contracts with the Pentagon to coordinate security for all reconstruction projects in Iraq. And as Executive Outcomes founder Eeben Barlow wrote in a memoir released in South Africa that the main difference between his company and those now working in Iraq "under the guise of security companies" was simply that the big names had government backing. "After we had blazed the path for military consultancy and advisory work," he wrote, "companies realised that the military market was an open playing field.")
Just as the sun seemed to set on these individual mercenaries, so it rose on the era of the military corporation. And not just in Iraq. Whether it be delicate negotiations with tribal leaders in Baluchistan, to Kurdish mercenaries hired to protect power plants in Iraq, or dealing with militia and criminal looters in the Niger Delta, and directly protecting clients on a 'personal security detail' (PSD) the roles and locations for these modern mercenaries are widespread.
Since the 1990s, PMCs have taken on increasingly larger roles in war and military campaigns. The size and scope of the private military industry today is unprecedented. In fact, the ratio of military contractors to soldiers has climbed with each U.S. military intervention since the 1991 Gulf War, such that more private contractors work in the Iraq War than soldiers. In Iraq alone, there have been an estimated 180,000 private military contractors performing functions that once would have been handled by soldiers in uniform.
And there’s no reason to expect this trend to slow down. Already estimated at more than $100 billion, the PMC market is projected to be worth between $150 billion and $200 billion by 2010.
The vast bulk of those contractors in Iraq handle military support functions: building and operating military bases, maintaining and repairing military equipment and vehicles, and moving massive convoys of supplies that are both vital to the operation's survival (like gas and ammunition) and not so vital (like Pizza Hut Personal Pan Pizzas). Getting those jobs done has incurred a great cost, both financial and human; more than 1,400 civilian workers have died and 31,000 have been wounded or injured in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Companies with names like the aforementioned Blackwater, DynCorp, ArmorGroup, Custer Battles, Triple Canopy, Aegis, Control Risks, Unity Resources Group and scores of others charge millions of dollars to clients and (in some cases) have balance sheets in the hundreds of millions themselves. Some specialise in providing manpower in hostile environments (more the traditional view of mercenary work); others offer an array of services, from risk management, to kidnap response, crisis management, business intelligence, fraud investigations, and IT security, in which 'asset protection' (of clients or property) using direct manpower, often subcontracted, is only one part of the picture. They even have their own industry associations, in an effort to clean up a sometimes dubious image and promote professional regulations: the International Peace Operations Association (IPOA) in the USA and the Security Industry Association (SIA) in the UK. Of course, the blue chip clients and plush London or Washington offices mask a lifestyle which is anything but new. And there are scores of less visible, and possibly less reputable firms, springing up from the woodwork. Iraq and Afghanistan have, some commentators claim, unleashed a "Wild West" attitude in the private security industry.
In Hollywood and Tom Clancy myth, such individuals today are typified by Russell Crowe's character in the movie, 'Proof of Life', where a former Australian Special Air Service (SAS) soldier negotiates with Colombian hostage takers – whilst sweeping Meg Ryan off her feet. In reality, the truth can be anything but glamorous.
You only have to flick through newspaper cuttings papers to see the controversy surrounding the U.S. military company Blackwater (now renamed 'Xe'), the firm until-recently protecting the U.S. State Department's people in Iraq. Not only has it been fighting an order for it to withdraw from the country (from which it is now banned), six of its former operatives have been arrested and charged in the USA for killing 17 Iraqi civilians during an apparently unprovoked attack in Baghdad, in 2007. Meanwhile, the ambush and killing of four of its contractors in the Iraqi city of Fallujah, in 2004 – involving a catalogue of errors and tangled web of sub-contracting, leading to their burned and dismembered bodies being dragged by baying crowds and hung from a bridge – led directly to the US flattening of that city.
Head over to YouTube and you can find shocking footage of PMCs once employed by the British firm, Aegis, shooting up random civilian vehicles as they drive through Baghdad. Meanwhile, others – like the British men working for GardaWorld – have been kidnapped; scores more have died, in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Their reputation, and that of the industry, can scarcely have been less glamorous.
Many in the industry resent being referred to as "mercenaries", of course. They often contrast the role of someone fighting in the army of a third power (a mercenary) with someone who happens to be employed in a security role for a business that is working in a potentially hostile environment (a protective or advisory role). In fact, there are a plethora of terms and roles covered by the PMC/PSC world, hampering any hard and fast definition of this hazy industry.
Some firms, such as the British group, Control Risks (CR), provide what they term as purely defensive 'PSCs' as part of their contracts. Working on behalf of diplomatic clients in both Iraq and Afghanistan, CR – which provides a huge array of security and risk management services – claims the choice of terminology is key: “Essentially these two terms, private military company and private security company, have come into play in the last few years. And they carry an emotional and reputational charge with them,” says CEO Richard Fenning.
He wrote an opinion piece for the Financial Times in which he lamented the lack of controls for the unregulated army of contractors in Iraq. And he maintains that there needs to be a clear distinction: the private military company is there to offer a service usually provided by the military which, for whatever reason, the government has decided to use private contractors. “They’re performing a military function.”
“A private security company is not there in lieu of the formal military; it is there to provide a range of auxiliary security services and most of the time this is for companies and not for government. What we do is essentially defensive."
James Blount, CR’s former head of operations in Iraq, explains it as an approach based on intelligence and subtlety. "We don't have vast machine guns with open barrels pointing out the window, for example. There are other organisations which adopt a very 'un-British' way of doing things, which can only exacerbate the gulf between them and the locals. If our guys do find themselves in an unavoidable situation, then the key thing is to get the client to safety – withdraw, extract. It's very unlikely we would have to fall back on some form of engagement."
Blount says that his teams had already helped save client lives, too. "We had a team with a client in the UN building when it was bombed," he recalls. "The shockwave blew them all off their feet, and most were injured. But our guys went into the rubble, found the client, and as their vehicles had been destroyed, called in another call sign and got him out. They also applied battle dressings to the wounded. Others who died might have lived if they had had that kind of service. Our client was shocked and dazed but absolutely delighted with our response."
Working at the “high end” of the industry, neither does former Special Boat Service (SBS, British special forces) commando Duncan Falconer like to be referred to as a mercenary. “At the risk of sounding big-headed, I'm at the upper end of the talent pool. I conduct terrorist and war risk surveys for the biggest insurance companies. I create operational protocols for dealing with pirates. I conduct structure surveys for governments – embassies for instance – and provide full written reports including recommendations. I provide security reports for oil platforms and supertankers, etc, and I teach corporations how to manage a serious hostile or environmental crisis.”
“The general public will view these people exactly how the media wants them to," suggests Falconer, who is also a bestselling novelist and currently engaged in dealing with the piracy threat off Somalia and the Gulf. "You are referring to a small and highly-publicised sector of asset protection in hostile environments where there is no government or military support. In a nutshell, men are basically hired to protect an asset as it travels through hostile country from point A to B. The scenarios and strategies vary from time and place. The one issue that all security eventually has to rely on no matter what aspect, be it a bodyguard for a monarch, a bouncer or a PSD rear-gunner: it's all down to the personnel selected for the job. You pay peanuts you get monkeys. You have monkeys in charge you get more monkeys doing the job. Blackwater's a fine example but there are many others.”
Others have had a very different experience to either Blount or Falconer. Simon Low, a former sergeant in the French Foreign Legion and author of The Boys From Baghdad, his account of convoy running in Iraq for private military company, ArmorGroup (a division of the massive G4S security firm), saw the industry very much from the ground up. And he was highly critical of the failures he saw.
“I doubt I will ever do it again,” says Low, speaking from his home in rural France. “Not in the commercial sector and not in Iraq, because of the dangers.” He describes hellish scenes during several ambushes he endured. “There weren’t enough expats [he had to make do with Kurdish fighters to protect a power plant in the north] and not enough armoured vehicles. It was going beyond a joke. Just on my little level, we went through five £30,000-40,000 replacement vehicles."
Like many of the men I spoke to, he was scathing about the professionalism of some U.S. PMCs. “I don’t like their style. A lot of the PMCs are just ex-American regular soldiers. They’re the biggest cowboys out. It’s all big muscles, all the big gear. One of them told me ‘Simon, there can only be one great nation’!”
He raises another interesting point. “When the British and American armies went in there [to Iraq] they went as units. PMCs were sent in a trickle of postings, then put in a couple of villas and teams. People who’ve never worked together before."
He claims that the £6,000 a month he was paid “was not near enough” for the dangers he had to face (his Iraqi drivers were earning just US$500 for the same period). "One guy with me had a couple of kids ... he was killed. When you stop and look at it you think ‘bloody hell, those kids are now growing up without their father’. When I came on leave after two ambushes and getting injured in my hand, I was definitely not thinking right."
He says that he couldn’t believe his luck when he was finally released and got back home. “It felt absolutely fantastic.”
According to a paper put together by Sam Perlo-Freeman and Elisabeth Sköns in the September 2008 SIPRI (Stockholm International Peace Research Institute) paper, 'Insights on peace and security', two trends led to the creation of the military services industry. "The first was the large supply of discharged military personnel after the end of the Cold War and the widespread demand for these personnel from both weak states facing internal conflicts and non-state actors operating in conflict zones. The second trend was the increased privatization and outsourcing by the governments in advanced market economies of a wide range of functions that were previously carried out by military forces or defence ministries."
Some say that the first modern PMCs can be traced back to the Vietnam War. What made the rise of these organisations possible, explains the Brookings Institution’s P.W. Singer in his book Corporate Warriors, is the combination of the end of the Cold War, the subsequent downsizing of armies, the availability of smaller high-tech weaponry, and the ideological trend toward outsourcing and privatising government functions.
Investigative journalist Jeremy Scahill, writes in his bestselling exposé, Blackwater, that in 1992 a relatively little-known, Texas-based oil services firm called Haliburton was awarded a US$3.9 million Pentagon contract. "Its task was to write a classified report on how private companies, like itself, could support the logistics of U.S. military deployments into countries with poor infrastructure. Conspiracy theories aside, it is hard to imagine that either the company or the client realised that this contract (now called the Logistics Civilian Augmentation Program or LOGCAP) would today be worth as much as US$150 billion."
(The Pentagon's top auditor said in May this year that the number of suspected fraud cases tied to the logistics contract with former Halliburton subsidiary, KBR, was “unprecedented”.)
In the 1990s, the security companies became more and more involved in the delivery of services: "Providing logistics services, training, giving operational support, and staffing international police contingents," argues Deborah D. Avant, associate professor and director of the Institute for Global and International Studies at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs, and author of The Market for Force: The Consequences of Privatizing Security. In a lecture to the Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI) in 2006, she said: "The private sector also increasingly financed security services: both international NGOs and transnational corporations used the financing of security to better achieve their goals."
"To begin, consider a few examples. During the 1990s, Sierra Leone hired Executive Outcomes to help train and support its troops to counter the RUF [rebel] insurgency. The Bosnians hired MPRI [another private military firm] to advise and train their military after the Dayton Peace Accords. Every single international civilian police officer the U.S. sent abroad in the 1990s was a DynCorp employee. WWF, faced with the possible extinction of a species of rhino in the Democratic Republic of Congo, solicited bids from PSCs to train and protect park guards. Global corporations like BP, Exxon, DeBeers and others contract with private security companies for site security, security force training, and security planning all over the globe."
Proponents argue there are many benefits associated with private security. First, it can be used to provide surge and flexibility. As seen in Iraq, and also in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina (where Blackwater provided disaster response), PSCs can provide “surge” capacity to quickly field additional forces. Without the political and bureaucratic lead time required for mobilising military forces, PSCs can move in to accomplish a wide variety of tasks, suggests Avant.
They can also provide specialised units. Companies hire from mostly retired military and police personnel – in theory making it easier for them to select individuals with a particular skillset. Avant argues it is also "politically less costly to field PSCs. Private contractors are seen to be working for profit, of their own choice, and sending them abroad is not held to the same standard that sending national troops, working for their country."
Some commentators have even gone so far to liken the rise of the private military and security firms as "new empires".
Specialist in empire history, Professor Dominic Alessio of Richmond University, London, states: "What fascinates me about them is that people often think that states are the sole empire-makers but it just isn't always the case. In fact private companies have a long history of involvement in empire building too – the East India Company is one example. So mercenary companies are part of an established trend with business in many ways. Science Fiction picks up this motive too in films such as Alien and Aliens, as does the SF writer Kim Stanley Robinson."
He adds: "What also makes mercenary companies interesting in relation to empire building, however, is that they, like many companies, have been accused of profiting from such conflicts. The early 20th century critic John A. Hobson talked about the relation between empire and big business, as does the historian of empire Barbara Bush. Osama bin Laden himself has been critical of such a relationship, saying the [Iraq] 'war brings billions of dollars in profit to the major companies'."
Whatever you think of them, as the U.S. and Britain prepare to withdraw their 'official' armed forces from Iraq, tens of thousands of PMCs will remain in the country.
We meet in the rural wilds of Hereford, on the English-Welsh border, traditional home to 'The Regiment' – the elite Special Air Service, or SAS, long-mythologised in print and on the big screen. John Geddes, a former SAS Warrant Officer who now runs his own training and security consultancy, Ronin Concepts, has faced just about every hardship one could imagine – surviving ambushes in Iraq, as a PMC, to arrest in Nigeria by the secret police. He has written two bestselling books: Highway to Hell, about his Iraqi experience working close protection for media and corporate personnel; and Spearhead Assault, an account of his time in the Falklands war.
I am collected from the local railway station by a blunt-faced 'squaddie' (soldier) driving a 4x4, before being joined by a slowly cruising Jaguar, a shrouded figure at its wheel. The vehicles weave through the traffic and hold up the flow – part of their PSD training, I later learn – before squawking commands through their handheld radios and letting me out at a local hotel. After a few minutes left alone, Geddes strides in with several hard-looking men, glancing around the corners, before satisfying themselves that we are not being followed. "You're the package today, I told them," the silver-haired Geddes smiles, "I hope you don't mind."
As we sit, the close-cropped soldiers watch nearby. Most of the men Geddes trains are from the British (and other) armed forces, preparing to retire – and then turn straight around and enter the potentially-lucrative world of security contracting. Most will end up in Iraq and Afghanistan. “A few people have ended up in some strange places ... Monaco, Cannes, and living the good life.” Geddes finds himself frequently in demand, particularly in the Middle East.
Sipping an orange juice, he says that the lure of PMC work can be very appealing but in reality "is very demanding". Three of his former students have now died in Iraq. "You can't always be certain of the professionalism of colleagues thrown together from different backgrounds and nationalities," he states, describing it often as a "mismatch".
“Security companies have always been around; always worked abroad, of course. And there's a lot of competition. A lot of people I met were waffling they were SF [special forces] when they weren’t. 'Ruperts' – officers – saying that, just for the buzz. If you work hard, though, you can make it work. There’s a lot of work out there on the security front, it can be a comfortable living, yeah, but people go boom to bust all the time in this business. It’s not for the faint-hearted.”
He is also highly critical of many of the companies in the field. "The quality control is minimal in most of these companies. They've got a loose criteria – if they're desperate, they'll take whatever anyone comes and it's a boon if they've had any active service."
Although jobs are advertised on message boards and in magazines such as Soldier of Fortune, the most frequent recruitment tool seems to be word-of-mouth. Asked how he first got a job in the field, fellow special forces practitioner, Duncan Falconer answers: “It was a natural progression from the military I suppose but not one I expected at the time. A couple of days after I left the SBS literally wondering what I could do with myself I received a call from a former SBS boss who offered me a job.”
Another PMC, Julian Davies, a former Major with the British Parachute Regiment and commander of a helicopter squadron in Northern Ireland, says it is very much an industry of personal connections and networking. "It was almost entirely word-of-mouth. By the time you saw an advert [in a newspaper or magazine] for a job in Iraq, it was already filled."
Working now as regional manager in the Middle East for the risk management consultancy, Salamanca (which protects assets for several billionaires, as well as mining companies in the Yemen and Congo), Davies thinks the public sees only one side to PMC work. "We've got a very jaundiced view of the majority [of PMCs]," he says. "A lot have a pretty thin veneer of legitimacy. Of course, all these companies are commercially driven. Those like Control Risks in Iraq are a good company; Aegis and Blackwater tend not to apply the same standard. But the operational staff set that tone. If they see the Iraqis as the enemy forces, they will treat them with disdain."
He agrees that parts of the industry became "like the Wild West" in recent years. "A lot of companies came together very fast in the wake of the requirements of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan: often freelance adventurers and underqualified for the arenas in which they found themselves."
Charlie Martell, a British ex-Marine commando and mine clearance expert who consults worldwide – and who signed on for close protection work in Iraq for six months with a PMC outfit – mirrors those comments. "On the contract I was working on there were numerous issues. A small number of the Team Leaders were not disciplined … a few were alcoholics and became aggressive when under the influence. Some of them were fantastic of course – very professional and utterly reliable."
“But there was a certain amount of bitching between a number of the guys, and sometimes between the teams. This was outrageous in an environment where we had a real live risk from people who wanted to kill us and or our clients. It's also the monotony of the job: it is an incredibly boring and unsatisfactory kind of profession."
How do you stay sane in such an environment? “You just think about the money,” answers John Geddes. He shrugs his shoulders. “You talk to anybody, they just think about the money.” That sounds like being a mercenary, I suggest. “Well – it is. Sometimes it’s bigger in one company than another, but it’s twice or three times what you make in the Army. Although it’s not that great to be honest.”
Numerous controversies surround the continued and expanding use of privatised military force.
According to Deborah Avant, there is a lack of legal clarity about the PMCs' role. She suggests that the laws of war have been designed for traditional militaries. "The legal status of personnel deployed by PSCs is often unclear as are the mechanisms by which their rights and responsibilities are meted out." She says this poses a problem: PMCs are neither combatants nor noncombatants. This can pose a serious a risk. "They may not be accorded POW status if captured by the enemy and can be executed as an illegal combatant or charged with murder if they kill another."
Some have said that the whole ethos of security contractors working close protection details – to protect “the package” (client) at all costs – means they take actions for short-term reasons only. For example, forcing people off the roads or shooting at nearby cars, which acts against the direct long-term interests of security and stability.
"I used to dread coming across those guys with the armoured vehicles," groans Duncan Falconer. "I was living in the Red Zone [in Baghdad], grew a beard like one of the locals and drove around in a battered old taxi. Every time they appeared I thought they were going to shoot me – because they'd think I was an Iraqi – or get us caught in an ambush."
He suggests this is also the fault of the end clients wishing to cut costs (many criticise the industry for its tangled web of subcontracting). “They begin with the best of intentions but greed plays a part, complacency, loss of interest. Some [security firms] are partially bought out by greedy investors with no security knowledge who insist on cutting costs often at the expense of personnel on the ground.”
He adds: “The problem is producing the numbers of experienced people required: companies can't just pull them out of a hat. The SAS are losing personnel with only a few years in the job who are leaving the service to look for 'civvy' jobs, displaying their SAS badges. But can you blame them for wanting to improve their income?”
“Another issue is the competition for security contracts," he says. "Whose fault is it when the cheapest tender is accepted – where there is no money available for quality ex-soldiers – where the only security personnel for a few dollars a day are third world soldiers with their own home-grown concept of accountability? Money plays a big part in poor security.”
Indeed, while most PMCs are headquartered in militarily powerful countries such as the United States, Britain, and Israel, a disproportionate number of the PMC workforce itself comes from the global South. According to a survey conducted by the PMC industry’s think tank, the International Peace Operations Institute, in U.S. operations only about 10 percent of contracted workers are Americans, while 60 percent belong to the country in which military operations are taking place (Iraqis in Iraq, for example) and 30 percent come from other countries. A Congressional Research Services report reveals those numbers are fairly representative of U.S. efforts in Iraq, with a slightly higher percentage of contractors (65 percent) being Iraqi and about one-quarter being other foreigners.
That last group, called “third-country nationals,” (TCNs) is made up of workers from around the world. They are routinely paid about one-tenth of what their American counterparts earn. Host-country nationals (HCNs) tend to be paid wages commensurate with local jobs. Former Haliburton subsidiary KBR has employees from 38 different countries working in Iraq. Erinys boasts employees that have served all over Africa, Global Risk Strategies brought in some 500 troops from Fiji that had served in East Timor or in the Middle East. Triple Canopy has deployed personnel from the Philippines and El Salvador. Some third-country nationals – Filipinos and Indians, for example – perform the bulk of support work on American military bases, such as laundry and food service, while others – especially Nepalese, South Africans, and Latin Americans – are hired for security work. The latter usually come from countries with a recent history of counterinsurgency or other claims to military expertise: Blackwater (in)famously used Chilean and other former counter-insurgency soldiers from Latin America, supplied by third-party recruiters and often linked to regimes with poor human rights records.
Although there have been high-profile responses to cases where Western contractors have been captured or killed, such as the GardaWorld kidnappings or slaughter of the Americans in Fallujah in 2004, "captured or killed foreign contractors don’t receive such treatment," writes Katherine McCoy, a Ph.D. student in the sociology department at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, whose forthcoming dissertation focuses on the use of private military corporations in war and conflict. "For instance, there was limited political response in the United States when insurgents captured and beheaded 12 Nepalese contractors working in conjunction with the U.S. mission in Iraq. For this very reason, companies sometimes enlist foreign contractors for high-risk or high-visibility roles, such as gunners or pilots."
She says there have been widespread reports of PMCs confiscating foreign contractors’ passports and keeping contractors against their will. This led the U.S. Defense Department to issue a memorandum in 2006 calling on the companies to clean up their act, "but little seems to have changed. One likely explanation for this inertia is that the foreign contractors are hired through an international web of subcontractors and subsidiaries, effectively deflecting responsibility from any one company."
Are things changing on the wider geopolitical front, though? Blackwater, which earned such infamy during its Iraq days, has had a name change (to Xe) and been banned from that country. After earning more than US$1 billion in federal contracts from the Bush administration, mostly for providing security to U.S. diplomats in Iraq, a spokeswoman said the company will no longer pursue new security contracts. She said it will now work mostly on training law enforcement officers and military troops in such areas as weapons handling and hostage rescue.
Kathryn Helvenston-Wettengel, whose son Scott Helvenston was one of the Blackwater employees killed in the massacre in Fallujah 2004, said that the name change made sense. "I'm not surprised at all," she said "They've become so corrupt, I don't think they could get a contract under Blackwater's name. So, good luck."
With Iraq a tougher operating environment for PMCs, it now looks as if the Afghan government may tighten its oversight of armed security contractors as well. The Afghan Ministry of Justice recently introduced a draft law on private security companies; while it's still too early to gauge the impact of the new law, it's clear that the Afghan government will be taking a closer look at the conduct of the guns-for-hire.
Alexander Nikitin, a member of the UN Working Group on the use of mercenaries, said he believed the legislation would boost oversight of private security firms. "The Working Group is of the general view that legislation, which would ensure oversight and monitoring by the state of private security companies, as well as their accountability, is a positive development."
Meanwhile, some have mooted that private military and security forces could one day be used in peacekeeping operations. According to investigative journalist Jeremy Scahill, in 2006 then-Blackwater Vice President Chris Taylor expanded on his vision for a Sudan deployment by the company. "Of course, we could provide security at refugee camps, defensive security," he said. "What we seek to do first is be the best deterrent we can be." He boasted that Blackwater could mobilise faster than either the UN or NATO. "In the time it takes to put an internationally recognised body unit on the ground, I can be there in a third of that time and I will be 60 percent cheaper," Taylor told National Public Radio.
"World stability and peacemaking/-keeping operations have been criminally cost-ineffective and operationally failed," he suggested. "Send 10,000 UN troops to Darfur? A colossal waste of money. You do not create security and peace by throwing more mediocre, uncommitted people into the fray."
What he didn't mention, of course, was the profit margin such companies may have hoped to reap as a result of constant instability, wars and humanitarian crises. Other experts also disputed his claims altogether. "It's comparing real apples with fictional oranges," P.W. Singer of the Brookings Institution told Scahill. "NATO or UN operations represent a full array of political commitment and activities, not simply a small set of guys with guns and a CASA 212 [aeroplane]."
"This kind of lobbying often attempts to confuse folks. The issue preventing effective action in Darfur is not simply a matter of financial costs. That is, there is not some imaginary price point that only if such firms could come in under, it would solve things. The real problem is that it is a political mess on the ground, there is no effective UN mandate, no outside political will to engage for real, plus a Sudanese government that is obstructionist and effectively one of the sides ...meaning if you go in without a mandate, you gotta be willing to kick the doors down, destroy air bases, etc, which no firm has the capacity to do, and sends the issue back to US/NATO/UN ... thus far preventing any useful deployment."
Perhaps the shocking reports of piracy off the shores of Somalia and Yemen offers another avenue for the privatised warriors. In 1997 I met Mike Hitchcock, who had read one of my articles, talking about the-then growing threat of maritime piracy. A Vietnam veteran with the Australian special forces, Mike wanted to find work guarding ships. I told him I knew of none. Now that has all changed, with a veritable industry (of hijacking) springing up in response (some say) to illegal dumping, over-fishing and lawlessness in the region.
Overseas, the U.S. Navy has already relied upon a company called Glenn Defense Marine Asia to provide security, complete with armed Gurkhas, for its naval vessels while in port. In the wake of the 2002 assault on the French oil tanker Limburg in Yemeni coastal waters, Hart Security was hired to train the Yemeni navy in waterborne anti-terrorist tactics.
Not every contractor offering anti-piracy services seems to have been legitimate. In 2005 New York-based Topcat Marine Security signed a two-year deal worth more than US$50 million with the Somali Transitional Federal Government to escort ships traveling through Somali waters. But Topcat's legitimacy seemed in question: so much so that the U.S. Department of State's Bureau of Arms Control issued a cease and desist order.
Blackwater's (Xe) solution was to offer a support vessel that would accompany a ship and deploy helicopters to patrol the area. For anti-piracy operations, the 14-sailor crew would be supplemented with Blackwater security guards and four rigid-hull inflatable boats.
Roger Middleton, a Horn of Africa specialist at Chatham House, said that once a ship has been hijacked the ship-owners hire professionals to help: from specialist negotiators to private security firms, to transfer the ransoms. "They are mostly ex-SAS and British or Australian. A lot are also South African," he says. Not much more is known for certain. However, talking to The Guardian newspaper last year, Middleton said that such operations cost about US$1m, not including the ransom.
"The professional negotiators, acting on behalf of the ship owners, get about US$100,000 for their services and the lawyers receive a fee of about US$300,000 for ensuring that the shipping companies are not putting themselves in any dubious positions," he explained.
Much of this "action" takes place in London, where both the maritime insurance, and many private security businesses, are based.
With the economic downturn upon us, many businesses are being forced "to look into unfamiliar territories," suggests Heyrick Bond-Gunning, an ex-British army officer who runs the security and risk management consultancy, Salamanca, from plush Mayfair offices. Having spent a year opening and then running DHL's operation in Iraq – including seeing one of his planes shot down – Bond-Gunning understands risk better than most.
"This brings increased risk to employees and increasing risks around doing business at a time when the attitude of the lenders to risk is diminishing," he explains.
Furthermore, he claims, the brand loyalty to the larger security/risk management companies is really being tested at present. "Other than brand, why would you use a larger company who are going to sub-contract the work out, manage it poorly, treat the client as an account, and charge 350 percent on top of the sub-contractor fee for the pleasure?"
In arenas such as Iraq, the market conditions had become much tougher. "The margins aren't what they were; ArmorGroup or CR had huge margins. It's dropped to seven to 15 percent. So it's not as attractive moneywise and there's huge infrastructure costs to getting involved as a security contractor – houses, armoured vehicles, quick reaction teams, tracking vehicles, communications network, etc."
"It's a new industry, though," he says. "Five years ago the buyers were not that savvy. They're a lot wiser now."
As for the perception problem the PMC industry suffers, Richard Fenning of Control Risks admits that "the bad incidents hurt everyone – absolutely. My own sense is those are aberrations. Absolutely unacceptable, we should be collectively shamed those sort of things have happened. Clearly it does happen, and to a certain extent we're all tarred with the same brush. But there are tens of thousands of foreign security people there for the last few years, and 99.9 percent do not take part in those activities. They never get on YouTube, they just do their job, day in and day out."
For Duncan Falconer, Iraq remains an anomaly. “Afghanistan will not be the same mainly because there will not be the same investment in the country: no assets. There was a sudden need for thousands of security personnel in Iraq. These slots could not all be filled by professionals and a lot of inexperienced people took on jobs far beyond their knowledge base. I do believe the Americans have brought the standards down hugely and influenced a lot of fools by the way they operate.”
And what of the men?
Contractors who suffered devastating injuries supporting the U.S. war effort in Iraq and Afghanistan have come home to a grinding battle for basic medical care, artificial limbs, psychological counseling and other services in America, an investigation by the Los Angeles Times, ABC News and ProPublica has found.
The insurance companies responsible for their treatment under taxpayer-funded policies have routinely denied the most serious medical claims. Those insurers – primarily the now-crippled American International Group (AIG) – recorded hundreds of millions of dollars in profits on this business.
Yet unlike wounded soldiers, who are offered health care, rehabilitation and support services by the military, the civilians have to battle a federally supervised insurance system marked by high costs and excessive delays.
The psychological costs can be high, too. Simon Low says his binge drinking went out of control; John Geddes, who has lost over 50 friends and colleagues in his long military and PMC career, says that the lifestyle can have "a big toll on married life. It's a big strain on a person, on their psychology. I've experienced PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder], everyone gets it."
As one 'asset protection consultant' I spoke to points out ruefully: “Sometimes there’s this perception we’re all knuckle-dragging types, which couldn’t be further from the truth. There’s so much multi-tasking, so much balancing of security with diplomacy and commerce and business. It takes quite a special person to go into all these environments with a client.”
Meanwhile another anniversary passes in Iraq; another year for Peter Moore, the IT man held at the hands of Shia militants. Falconer, who met the men and calls their situation "vile", says the incident should never have happened: "I was there with them for two days, trying to hire an armoured vehicle. They went there [to the Ministry of Finance building] 21 times. Twenty one times," he repeats, with a shake of his head. "The one big 'no no' in this game is routine. When you can't feel the danger … well, you need to get out."
Yet for all those apparent dangers, there seems a never-ending supply of men willing to tread the path towards mercenary riches. The sun may have set on empires, but for the soldiers of fortune protecting our corporate and diplomatic wealth it seems the day is yet early.
This story was commissioned for The Walrus magazine in Canada ©2009.