Commentary | 18 September 2014

Guns for hire: The surprising role of Australians in the rise of private security companies

Guns for hire: The surprising role of Australians in the rise of private security companies

James Brown

The Monthly

18 September 2014

Please click here for the online text.

  • James Brown

Guns for hire: The surprising role of Australians in the rise of private security companies

James Brown

The Monthly

18 September 2014

Please click here for the online text.

  • James Brown

Executive Summary

Heavy boots. Cheap cargo pants. Black wraparound sunglasses hiding foreign eyes. A faded baseball cap covering too-short hair. Eccentric patterns of facial stubble. A holster strapped to one leg, or a rifle draped across the body. To mention private security contractors is to conjure an instant image: Baghdad, Blackwater personnel, summer of 2003.

The first group of them I ever saw in person didn’t disappoint. They matched the template perfectly, complete with balaclava-obscured faces – both to prevent identification and to keep out the searing desert. I was heading north on an Iraqi highway in 2005, in charge of a small Australian military convoy. Ahead of us, a team of private security contractors in four-wheel drives was securing a much longer convoy of fuel trucks. Swerving across the road to prevent us from overtaking, they seemed untroubled by the fact that they were in dented Toyotas while we were in 14-tonne Australian light armoured vehicles. Sanity prevailed, and they waved my vehicles past. But they had made an impression. These were strangers in the battlespace: on the clock, on contract, working to their own mission, and not particularly inclined to help me out.

Nearly a decade later, much has changed. You may not be surprised by how the private security industry has evolved since Iraq. The quietly influential role Australians play in it is less well known.

The term “private security contractor” means different things to different people. Some immediately think of the mercenaries of the 1960s, answering ads in the back of London newspapers and fighting illicit, dirty wars in thick African jungles. That’s certainly the view of the United Nations’ expansively titled and unwieldy ‘Working Group on the use of mercenaries as a means of violating human rights and impeding the exercise of the rights of peoples to self-determination’. Bureaucrats in Afghanistan euphemistically refer to “private security providers” to describe everything from doormen at Kabul shopping centres to heavily armed local militias. For others, private security contractors work for vast multinational companies like G4S, loading cash into ATMs and monitoring security cameras.

The past decade has seen a clear trend in which personnel with military tactical skills, once the exclusive preserve of governments, have shifted to the private sector. At its peak, the conflict in Iraq employed more than 20,000 armed private security contractors. In the first half of 2010, more US-employed private security contractors than US soldiers were killed in Afghanistan. Private security companies now provide the services of bomb disposal experts as well as close personal protection teams. Private security companies also guard bases and provide tactical support to sensitive US government operations, including Central Intelligence Agency paramilitary activities and Joint Special Operations Command global anti-terrorism efforts. Companies also provide deployable intelligence experts. If you have a military need, someone in the industry will be able to satisfy it.

Protecting government officials abroad has become big business for the modern private security industry. The US State Department Worldwide Protective Services contract engages private security companies to provide security for diplomats deployed overseas and properties spread across the globe. Most recently awarded in 2010, it will cost the US government nearly $10 billion over five years, requires more than 260 armoured vehicles, and employs more than 2000 personnel. One of the largest US players in the private security industry estimates the potential total market for these types of services next year will be worth more than US$13 billion.

It is not just the US government that is providing a market for private security companies. Sweden, Norway, Japan, Canada, Finland, the European Union, the Netherlands, Denmark, and Brazil all employ private companies to ensure the safety of their overseas personnel. This year the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office will tender a contract for the protection of its officials and properties across the globe. Private security companies perform work for organisations like the UN Development Programme, the UN World Food Programme and the World Bank, as well as for independent multinational electoral commissions and monitoring organisations. A 2008 study found that every humanitarian non-governmental organisation (NGO) it surveyed had employed armed private security in at least one of its operations.

In December 2011 Australia’s then foreign minister, Kevin Rudd, travelled to Tripoli to meet the newly installed interim government of Libya. Only six weeks earlier, the Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi had been killed at the hands of an angry crowd. The country was awash in heavy weapons and disparate groups trained in their use. Intelligence agencies were trying to get a bead on the activities of extremist groups jockeying for resources and power. The US State Department had dispatched officials to track down missing surface-to-air missiles and launchers. Officials at Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) must have blanched at the thought of preparing for such a risky high-level visit. But the team providing personal security support for Rudd’s visit held no rank with the Australian Defence Force (ADF), were not sworn members of the Australian Federal Police (AFP) and were not government officials. They were civilians, hired from the Sydney office of Control Risks, a British-owned private security company. For these men, protecting Australia’s chief diplomat and former prime minister was a contract like any other.

In the past five years, the Australian government has procured more than $180 million worth of services from private security companies. Partly this has been a response to the growing numbers of government officials overseas. It’s not just Australian diplomats who can be found working abroad. Agricultural experts plan wheat harvests in Afghanistan, immigration officials pre-screen passenger manifests in Pakistan, transport officials are embedded in Thailand. More than 20 agencies and departments have staff permanently overseas – many of them in high-risk locations.

When Rudd travelled to Libya his security couldn’t be trusted to the fledgling interim Libyan government, and Australia had no resident diplomatic mission or military presence. For a little over $55,000, contractors from Control Risks advanced the trip: checking routes, accommodation and potential threats in each location Rudd would visit. When the foreign minister touched down, Control Risks personnel were responsible for keeping him safe in the event of an attack – and managing his evacuation from the country if necessary.

Unlike the US State Department’s Bureau of Diplomatic Security, DFAT doesn’t have an in-house armed security division to protect employees. So since at least 2006 it has hired teams of private security for its embassies in the world’s most dangerous countries. In Kabul, the Australian subsidiary of UK-based Hart Security runs a $103 million four-year contract to guard the Australian embassy. Hart personnel are responsible for managing teams of locally hired armed guards who protect embassy perimeters and make up the close personal protection teams that transport Australian officials around in armoured vehicles. DFAT personnel in Afghanistan manage the contract, liaising daily with Hart on everything from meals to weapons maintenance. Minutes down the road from the Australian embassy, G4S secures an AFP compound. There, six-man teams of mostly ex-British Army personnel bear responsibility for safely moving police personnel about their business in the Afghan capital. The job doesn’t just involve toting weapons and driving through the high-risk high streets of Kabul; it also includes the need to manage a fair amount of bureaucracy. A contractor who guards the AFP lists a complex web of overlapping regulations that govern his daily work: “Acting in compliance with the Host Nation’s rules and regulations, G4S policies, Handbook, Service Agreement and SOPs, contractual obligations as well as the applicable Safety Management Systems (SMS).”

One of the main reasons DFAT employs private security companies is to outsource much of the risk associated with running a large team prepared to use lethal force against a local attack. Security contractors are responsible for their own insurance, and if a contractor is injured it is the company and not DFAT that bears the responsibility of providing medical aid, evacuation and ongoing rehabilitation. But the contracts between private security companies and DFAT are necessarily intricate and complex, running to hundreds of pages. The Afghan government has proved to be capricious in the way it licenses foreign private security professionals to operate within its borders, both because locals are keen to muscle in on the market for protection and because some foreign security companies have operated with blatant disregard for local Afghan laws. As a result, private security contractors working at the Kabul embassy now travel into and out of Afghanistan on Australian diplomatic passports, accorded the full privileges of diplomatic status. That’s not entirely unusual – members of the Australian Civilian Corps deployed to Afghanistan travel on diplomatic passports as well – but it does complicate arguments that private security contractors aren’t the responsibility of the Australian government if they become injured, shoot a local or act inappropriately. To date, this precarious situation has not been tested. Contractors working for DFAT at the embassy have had few incidents and have not fallen foul of local laws in a major way.

In Iraq, the Australian-founded private security company Unity Resources Group employs more than a hundred contractors to guard Australia’s Baghdad embassy. The future of this $77 million contract seems uncertain, given the recent decision to relocate Australia’s embassy within the United Kingdom’s premises, but for now Unity staff manage local guards on the front gate, run close personal protection teams, and supervise private intelligence analysts who constantly update the threat profile based on locally sourced information.

In both Baghdad and Kabul, private security contractors hold Australian government security clearances so that they can be briefed on official information and intelligence necessary to perform their tasks.

DFAT argues that it is more efficient and effective to use private security in both locations because contractors can be mobilised more quickly than the military and often have “high quality and contemporary skill-sets, invaluable in-country knowledge, and experience in specific operating environments”. That’s certainly true. Many of the Australian contractors at the Baghdad and Kabul embassies are highly trained ex–special forces personnel with previous multiple tours in both countries. Both civilian and military officials privately acknowledge that one of the main reasons security at the Baghdad embassy was outsourced was because the ADF was running low on military police with skills in close personal protection. In both cases, too, private security companies travelling in unmarked four-wheel drives offer a lower profile than uniformed military personnel travelling in convoys of green armoured vehicles. And often DFAT prefers the direct control of managing a contract with a private company, rather than the constant negotiations and friction that can come when diplomatic protocols intersect with military culture.

There is another reason – an unspoken one – why DFAT prefers to use private security personnel in Iraq and Afghanistan, and that’s the lower political risk of deploying civilian security professionals. There has been little parliamentary or public interest in Australia’s private armies in Baghdad and Kabul, and when a contractor is killed or injured there is no ramp ceremony or grand political funeral that accompanies the arrival of their body back onto Australian soil. At least five Australian private security contractors have died in Iraq since 2003, though none of them were working on Australian government contracts. The government doesn’t track security contractor casualties overseas, but data from the US Department of Labor shows that at least 40 Australian citizens have been injured while working in security roles in Iraq and Afghanistan. Some Australian contractors have been agitating to be eligible for medals for their service while working for DFAT. After all, they argue, their work is as intrinsic to Australia’s ability to operate in war zones as that of the military.

Australian contractors are prolific in the private security world, alongside Americans, Britons and South Africans. Partly this is because Australians got a head start in the industry. The ADF deployed very few of its special forces into Iraq in 2003. Many of those military professionals left behind, feeling themselves to be under-utilised, sought experience in Iraq by taking leave from the military and signing up as private security contractors. In the early days, exorbitant salaries lured soldiers, too. Some in Iraq earnt $300,000 a year on a “three months on, three months off” schedule. In some cases, moonlighting was tacitly encouraged by the military hierarchy as a way to develop the skills of soldiers at little expense to the Commonwealth. But by 2008 salaries in Iraq had plummeted, Australian special forces were deployed in Afghanistan, and the military implemented regulations that banned soldiers from taking private security work while on leave.

By then Australians had established a firm foothold in the industry. A Perth-based company, OAM, founded by soldiers and officers from the Special Air Service Regiment, secured a contract to support the 2005 Iraqi election and at one point employed more than 500 former soldiers to move ballot papers around the war-torn country. Another SAS officer, Gordon Conroy, established Unity Resources Group through a contract to secure the movements of Iraqi currency. Based in Dubai and Singapore but managed by Australians, Unity now employs more than a thousand personnel around the world in security roles.

Control Risks, Unity Resources Group and the smaller Australian private security company Dynamiq (headed by another former Australian special forces officer) have secured large contracts with international travel insurance firms. Now their personnel run operations rooms that monitor hundreds of travel movements per year by executives of multinational companies. In the event of a crisis, these private security companies are responsible for everything from medical evacuations to ransom negotiations. One Dynamiq contractor’s CV reads like an insurance company’s worst nightmare: Eritrean shootings, riots in Mozambique, aircraft crashes in the Congo. The last saw him deploy into Africa to manage the search and recovery effort for a plane crash that killed the Australian mining executive Ken Talbot and six other Australians working for Sundance Resources in 2010.

Former Australian military personnel are over-represented at the upper levels of management in many of the world’s private security companies. Unfortunately Australian private security companies have been over-represented in some of the industry’s most notorious incidents, too. Australian-employed contractors were involved in two incidents in Baghdad in which unarmed civilians were mistakenly shot and killed. In one of these, in 2006, a 72-year-old Iraqi-Australian dual citizen, Kays Juma, was shot as he approached an intersection at which contractors from Unity Resources Group were guarding a client’s convoy.

Two perpetually vexing problems are the difficulty involved in prosecuting contractors who misbehave and in investigating incidents in which they use lethal force. The legal environment in which the industry works is complicated and murky, often subject to overlapping jurisdictions. Individuals wronged by these companies have few proven paths to secure justice. In the case of the second shooting, in 2007, lengthy legal proceedings against Unity in the US have so far failed to establish a suitable jurisdiction.

Addressing the problem of regulation in the industry is something else in which Australian experts have been over-represented. Australia was one of the founding signatories of the Montreux Document, a 2008 initiative by the International Committee of the Red Cross and the Swiss government to clarify the responsibilities of countries who hire private security companies. The Australian diplomat David Dutton, formerly the minister-counsellor in Australia’s embassy in Washington, DC, and now deputy head of mission in Manila, has spent much of the past three years working on a successor initiative: the International Code of Conduct for Private Security Providers. It’s a multinational agreement by which private security companies elect to be held to a set of standards and to regular inspection and monitoring by expert teams. When the code was launched in September last year, Australia was one of the few countries to commit funding to support the secretariat and inspection teams. Dutton was singled out at the opening ceremony as having been instrumental in securing the agreement of the more than 600 NGOs, governments, international organisations and companies involved in the process. In this group, too, Australians are over-represented. Many of Australia’s junior mining companies operating in Africa, as well as the more established ones like BHP and Rio Tinto, are employers of private security and have a stake in the future regulation of the industry.

But just as a consensus has emerged on how to regulate private security, the industry has continued to evolve. The new challenge for those seeking to develop professional standards in the industry and stamp out illegal behaviour is on the high seas. As a response to Somali piracy, shipping companies have turned to private security companies in the past three years to put armed teams on their ships in the Indian Ocean. Australian government officials now believe that almost 75% of ships moving through the waters to Australia’s west have armed contractors on board, most often in teams of four. Insurance companies have driven much of this demand for security, increasingly sensitive to the escalating cost to their operations of successful ship hijackings. Last year Australian-based private security companies fielded more than 50 teams of armed contractors for work in the Indian Ocean. Already there have been long-running battles between contractors and pirates, and on at least three occasions private security companies have killed pirates.

On the high seas, where few laws are enforced, the problem of accountability within the maritime private security industry has become a wicked one. Some unscrupulous firms sidestep international arms trafficking regulations by maintaining floating armouries on rusty vessels, moored near international shipping lanes. Indian authorities detained one of these, belonging to the US-based company AdvanFort, when it sought shelter from a cyclone in Indian waters last year. The bedraggled contractors on board had entered India on tourist visas and been waiting for tasks at sea for weeks. Among their complaints about their treatment by the company were the fact that they hadn’t been paid for months and that the floating armoury lacked wi-fi.

But the biggest change to come to the private security industry in years is happening right now – and that’s the emergence of the Chinese into the global market. Chinese companies run thousands of mining, manufacturing, energy and agricultural sites around the world. Increasingly Mandarin-speaking site managers prefer to deal with Mandarin-speaking security forces over ones locally hired in places like Tanzania and Iraq. Chinese security contractors are also considerably cheaper than their Western or Eastern European counterparts. In response to pressure from the corporate sector, the Chinese government has legislated to push its domestic private security industry to privatise and send its people overseas. Thousands of Chinese contractors, from among a several million–strong pool of domestic security forces, are rotating through international training schools established to teach them how to interact with local villagers and identify potential threats in developing countries. Here, too, Australians will be pivotal. MSS Security, which runs security at most federal government facilities across Australia, signed a strategic partnership with Chinese private security company Shandong Huawei in 2012. Australian experts now help run Shandong’s international training school and advise its senior managers.

Soon these Chinese private security teams will start to emerge, guarding everything from oil pipelines in southern Iraq to mining sites in Papua New Guinea. The majority of these thousands of contractors will have had little experience in either conflict or conflict resolution. Many will be travelling internationally for the first time in their lives. The potential for friction when they start to interact with local groups is high. But, once again, Australians will play a role as the industry evolves. When Chinese private security professionals need advice, it will be to Australian-developed security training manuals that they turn.