Britain top dog in unregulated shadow world of mercenaries – report

© Ahmad Al-Rubaye
Britain has become the world’s post-9/11 “mercenary kingpin” with hundreds of firms employing thousands of ex-military freebooters in a shadowy industry worth billions, a report by charity War on Want claims.

The report, titled ‘Mercenaries Unleashed: The brave new world of private military and security companies,’ examines the rise of the industry over the past 15 years. It argues that the time has come to ban mercenary firms and “end the privatization of war.

War on Want claims private military and security companies (PMSCs) are reaping massive profits from the war, instability and chaos which have accompanied the ‘War on Terror.

In a statement on the charity’s website, executive director John Hillary said: “Private military contractors ran amok in Iraq and Afghanistan, leaving a trail of human rights abuses in their wake.

The “alarming rise” in private military activity has led to what Hillary terms the “return of the ‘Dogs of War.’

Regulation is almost unheard of in the industry, an issue War on Want wishes to see addressed.

For too long this murky world of guns for hire has been allowed to grow unchecked,” Hillary said. “In letting the industry regulate itself, the government has failed: only binding regulation will do.

The time has come to ban these companies from operating in conflict zones and end the privatization of war,” he added.

As well as calling for regulation, the report examines the key players in the industry, the militarization of the oceans, the revolving door between military and intelligence communities, how the industry was incubated in the War on Terror and rapidly emerging markets for mercenary work.

Revolving doors

Mercenaries Unleashed points to tight links between the British military establishment and the unregulated mercenary industry.

Partly this is geographical, with 14 companies headquartered in the English town of Hereford, where Britain’s most famous special forces unit, the SAS, is based. War on Want estimates around 46 companies compete for recruits from the special forces.

Most mercenary companies boast of their links to special forces, elite infantry units like the Royal Marines and to the intelligence community. High profile groups like Aegis Defence Services, Olive Group and 3e Global are all at pains to highlight their military expertise on their websites.

The report notes that “at the heart of the industry is a revolving door between PMSCs, military, intelligence and corporate worlds, with the interests of these sectors closely intertwined.

The mercenaries see it slightly differently. For them a specialist military background is a marketable commodity.

The report quotes former British Army Major General Graham Binns, now CEO of Aegis, as saying: “In the world of business, ex-military people have got a lot to offer – I certainly hope so anyway.

Forged in war

The modern mercenary industry was born in the War on Terror. For 15 years the firms have been cashing in on the instability created in the Middle East and Central Asia following the removal of the Saddam Hussein and Taliban regimes.

The immediate aftermath of the invasion of Iraq saw a mercenary gold rush.

In Iraq in 2003 and 2004 money was basically free,” Director General of the British Association of Private Security Companies Andy Bearpark says in the report.

That meant contracts were being let for ridiculous amounts of money – millions and millions of dollars of contracts being pumped into the industry. The industry exploded in terms of the volume of business on the back of Iraq.

Some of today’s work is for states. It is estimated that Britain’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office handed out Iraq security contracts worth around £150 million (US$218 million) between 2007 and 2012.

But with the end of the war, money from the “occupation budget” dried up. Today the big money is in providing military services to private companies – particularly oil giants.

Royal Dutch Shell, BP, ExxonMobil and other multinationals have signed deals to produce, refine and export oil and gas from the country, and are willing to pay PMSCs to help secure their operations,” War on Want claims.

Another big winner is G4S, now the biggest single private security firm in the world. Again, its activities straddle both government and corporate security interests.

In 2015 G4S announced it had won a $270-million-dollar contract with the Basrah Gas Company, even as it renewed its contract with the UK government to secure the British embassy in Afghanistan for another five years. The Afghan deal is valued at around £100 million.

Floating armories 

UK mercenary firms are leading the way for military contracts on the world’s oceans.

In 2011 Prime Minister David Cameron authorized the employment of armed guards on British registered ships. It was at a time when the seizing of ships by Somali pirates was regular news.

Since then the British have been profiting from a maritime security industry estimated to be worth $500 million per year. Experts say UK firms “dominate” seaborne security operations.

Professor Chris Kinsey of King’s College told War on Want that British military firms are “following the cash cow ... putting armed contractors on ships is something the British are particularly good at, and they seem to be the ones dominating this particular type of security activity.

One key feature of maritime security operations is the use of a legal loophole to operate floating armories, keeping the ship-borne guard well stocked with weapons and ammunition.

Heavily guarded boats ready to do business can be found throughout the Indian Ocean, with some registered in countries with soft-touch arms regulation. One ship, the report claims, is licensed in landlocked Mongolia.

While the UK government appears to be opposed to the armory boats in principle, it emerged that in 2013 the UK Department for Business, Innovation and Skills issued 50 licenses for floating armories in the Indian Ocean and the Gulf of Aden.

Scramble for Africa

Contracts in Afghanistan and Iraq are a mercenary’s bread and butter, but Africa looks set to be the next big thing.

The report claims all the major UK firms operate in Africa, with Aegis claiming to provide services in 18 countries and G4S reportedly making a third of its profit from the continent.

Andy Baker, head of African operations for G4S, is quoted in the report as pointing out that “demand has been very high across Africa. The nature of our business is such that in high-risk environments the need for our services increases.

Cashing in on political upheaval appears to be the name of the game. Within days of the death of Libyan dictator Colonel Muammar Gaddafi in the wake of the 2011 US-led air war, mercenary internet recruiting forums were alive with speculation.

There will be an uptick of activity as foreign oil companies scramble to get back to Libya. Keep an eye on who wins related contracts, follow the money, and find your next job,” the Security Contracting Network claimed at the time.

Self-policing mercenaries?

War on Want says the industry must be properly regulated. There are some signs that powerful actors, including the UN, are starting to take note.

In 2010, after 10 years of campaigning, War on Want reported that the UN Human Rights Council based in Geneva debated the first draft of a possible Convention on Private Military and Security Companies. The council held its fourth session on the issue in 2015.

Also in 2015 the Swiss government banned private military firms operating from inside its borders from taking part in foreign conflicts. British authorities do not appear to have been inspired by the Swiss example, however.

The UK government, by contrast, argues that PMSCs are best left to police themselves through voluntary codes,” War on Want concludes.

It’s time to get binding regulation of private military and security companies back on the UK government’s agenda.