The security industry: Britain's
private army in Iraq
The British security guards taken hostage in Baghdad
are just four among a foreign legion paid for by you. Yet
as we grow more reliant on them, their future is perilous
in a country without rules.
By Andrew Johnson, Marie Woolf and Raymond Whitaker
Published: 03 June 2007
Baghdad is a city where there is no safety and no law,
but the five Britons - a computer consultant and his
four-man security detail - would have been entitled to
feel relatively secure inside the Finance Ministry.
The building was heavily guarded by uniformed Iraqi
police and paramilitaries. It was a Tuesday morning, and
Palestine Street was busy, with more people venturing out
since the US-led security "surge" damped down
the violence in the centre of the Iraqi capital.
Yet in broad daylight, a convoy of vehicles with up to
40 men, some in the camouflage uniforms of special police
commandos, was able to drive up to the ministry and pass
through the gate. The men headed straight for where the
Britons were working, took them without a struggle and
drove off. Even by the standards of the most dangerous
city in the world, it was an especially brazen
kidnapping. Nothing has been heard of the victims since.
The search for them has focused on Sadr City, the
giant Shia slum on the outskirts of Baghdad that is the
stronghold of Moqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army. Not only did
witnesses say that the convoy headed in that direction
after leaving the ministry, but the militia is thought to
be one of the few groups with the contacts inside the
Iraqi government to carry out the operation.
Hoshyar Zebari, the foreign minister, said last week
that the Palestine Street area was in the Mahdi Army's
"field of operations", adding: "It has
been known for some time that the Interior Ministry
police, security units and forces are corrupt, are
penetrated." According to British officials, the
kidnappers would never have got through the gate if the
guards had been Sunnis or Kurdish. A senior Mahdi Army
figure has denied that the militia was involved.
But if the circumstances are mysterious, the abduction
has cast light on the way Iraq's bloody chaos has given
birth to an entire private security industry, one in
which British companies are among the leaders. The irony
is that a decreasing proportion of their employees, and
clients, are British. If the kidnapping was aimed at
Britain, as some believe, to avenge the death of a senior
Mahdi Army commander in Basra recently at the hands of
British troops, those who carried it out would have had
to be especially well informed, because neither the
consultant nor his protectors was working for British
The IT consultant was hired by BearingPoint, a
well-connected US management consultancy. The four
security men worked for GardaWorld, a Canadian company
which guards airports in its home country and recently
branched out into the Iraq security business when it took
over two US companies with operations there.
But GardaWorld is dwarfed by the largest private
security operations, several of which - such as
ArmorGroup, Aegis, Control Risks, Erinys and Olive Group
- are British. Their executives argue that experience
gained during the 1990s stood them in good stead when the
Iraq invasion created a huge demand for security
services. Tim Spicer, for example, operated in Sierra
Leone with his former company Sandline. A former
lieutenant colonel, he is now chief executive of Aegis.
Former SAS members, as well as British ex-soldiers and
policemen, are in demand, the companies say, because they
are less trigger-happy and trained to work to far tighter
rules of engagement than their US counterparts. But given
that the torrent of reconstruction money poured into Iraq
was mainly American, US companies have come into the
business. "The Americans never had a private
security industry previously, but they do now, thanks to
Iraq," said one British executive.
Estimates suggest that there are roughly 40,000
private security employees in Iraq carrying out a variety
of duties, from close protection work to "static
protection" of premises such as embassies, and
escorting supply convoys. But the vast majority of those
are Iraqis: there are reckoned to be only 5,000
"First World" nationals - Britons, Americans
and Commonwealth citizens - and about twice that number
of "third country" nationals. Some are Gurkhas
and Fijians trained in the British Army, but an
increasing proportion comes from countries which were or
are conflict zones, such as Colombia or Serbia.
"Third country" personnel, willing to accept
lower pay and, in many cases, higher risks, are often
replacing pricier British or American private security
operators as competition gets tougher. Reconstruction has
all but halted in the welter of violence and there has
been a wave of consolidation. Some British employees of
Control Risks in Iraq threatened to strike last year when
their pay was cut by up to 20 per cent, but soon found
that no one else was hiring. Mr Spicer recently said that
business in Iraq was like "a slowly deflating
Many critics believe that is a good thing. They accuse
some security companies of being little more than
mercenaries - private armies that can operate with
virtual impunity in Iraq. A notorious video posted on the
web last year appeared to show Aegis employees shooting
up civilian cars, with Elvis Presley's "Mystery
Train" on the soundtrack. "We know of hundreds
of cases reported of random shooting at civilians in
cars," John Hilary, director of campaigns and policy
at War on Want, told MPs last month.
Anecdotes circulate, including one of a South African
machine gunner at the back of an escort vehicle who fell
asleep. He woke up with a start, found a car close behind
and opened fire, killing the driver and the rest of his
family. The security men stopped, but on finding all the
occupants of the car were dead, they drove off.
Some security men are accused of failing even to
protect their colleagues. According to another story,
when one vehicle in a convoy was immobilised by an
insurgent attack, the other escorts swerved around it,
leaving the occupants to their fate.
Mr Hilary complained that the industry was
"operating effectively outside the law". The
Government has come under pressure to regulate private
military and security companies, but despite conducting
an extensive review of how they operate, it has so far
failed to act.
In Iraq, private security companies are regulated by a
memo drawn up by the Coalition Provisional Authority
which is still legally binding. They include
"binding rules on the use of force" and
guidelines which say guns and mortars must only be fired
using "aimed shots".
The rules allow employees to "use deadly
force" in self-defence and in defending people they
are hired to protect. They are also given the right to
"stop, detain search, and disarm civilian
persons" if the contract says they should. They must
co-operate with coalition and Iraqi security forces but
not join them in combat operations, unless it is to
protect their clients. But the document adds:
"Nothing in these rules limits your inherent right
to take action necessary to defend yourself."
MPs argue that even these scant guidelines are
unenforceable. "The controls over private military
companies are rather thin. They are outside the norms of
international law, yet together they are the second
biggest force in Iraq behind the Americans," said
Norman Baker, Liberal Democrat MP for Lewes. "The
Government promised to regulate mercenaries in 2002, but
clearly finds their presence in Iraq in an unregulated
fashion rather convenient."
Indeed, with few business people venturing into Iraq,
governments - including Britain's - are among the main
clients of private security companies. Britain has
awarded contracts worth £200m in Iraq, with most of the
money spent by the Foreign Office on security personnel.
Hilary Benn, the International Development Secretary,
admitted in a parliamentary reply that "DFID engages
private security companies to provide security of our
staff in high threat environments". Mr Spicer told a
conference: "The Government needs PSCs [private
security companies] because we have the capability to act
with speed and are comparatively cheap. We can also go
places where a uniform would be unacceptable."
Concerned at the poor image created by the behaviour
of some personnel, larger companies have formed the
British Association of Private Security Companies
(BAPSC). Its director, Andrew Bearpark, told a
parliamentary committee his members were "part of
the architecture of state building" in Iraq, adding:
"I have no interest in defending abuses in Iraq or
Afghanistan ... But I'm proud ... that police training
has taken 50 times quicker than the British Government
would have been able to do it."
Mr Hilary takes a less favourable view, arguing that
"there is an increasing trend to privatise
traditional activities of the military - intelligence
gathering, interrogation, training of police and military
forces, border patrols, protection for convoys,
protection for individuals". He added: "They
have become military roles; within Iraq itself these PSCs
are seen as part of the occupying forces."
The War on Want campaigner said there were still large
amounts of money to be made in Iraq. There will also be a
constant stream of British former military and special
forces personnel willing to risk the dangers there for
tax-free salaries which can reach up to £1,000 a day in
some cases, though there are far fewer such jobs
available than those qualified to fill them.
But last week's kidnapping demonstrates that there are
some fates for which no amount of money can compensate.
Further reading: 'Making a Killing: the explosive
story of a hired gun in Iraq' by Captain James Ashcroft,
A MERCENARY'S TALE
By an anonymous British mercenary...
Tony James (not his real name) was part of an armed
convoy escorting a client of an American engineering firm
to Baghdad when his four-wheel drive was raked with
gunfire from Iraqi insurgents. The former marine and
Falklands veteran returned fire with his AK-47, standard
issue for private security guards in Iraq.
James had had his nose shot off and a bullet fragment
was stuck in his eye, threatening his sight. "It
never was much of a nose," he said. "And now
I'll get a new one."
James, then 44, had travelled to Iraq in 2004 to try
his luck in the burgeoning private security guard market.
He found a job with a small firm that had just won a
lucrative contract to protect an American engineering
firm. He was to be paid up to $12,000 a month.
Two months into his new life James had to collect an
executive from Mosul. Three vehicles are needed for this
kind of job, two 4x4s and an armoured car for the client.
Fortunately an American medical team passed shortly
after the car was attacked. James was taken by ambulance
to a nearby field hospital. It would be normal to airlift
such a serious casualty to Germany but his company had no
plans to deal with badly injured employees. The American
surgeon operated, rebuilding his nose.
As James recuperated, his company finished its
contract, but folded when further contracts fell down. He
flew home at his mother's expense in 2005, owed $50,000.
British security companies in Iraq
Aegis Defence Services (UK)
Key Contracts: a $293mreconstruction project.
Key Player: Tim Spicer operated in Sierra Leone in
Key Contracts: Foreign Office, International
Key Players: Malcolm Rifkind is non-executive chairman
Key Contracts: low-key security work in Iraq.
Key Players: former head of security consulting at
Kroll, one of the biggest US firms
Key Contracts: close security for private companies
Key Players: General Sir Malcolm Wilkes is the
Key Contracts: security for media crews
Key Players: staffed mainly by former Royal Marines
Control Risks Group (UK)
Key Contracts: US Office of Reconstruction.
Key Players: non-executive chairman is General Sir
Erinys International Ltd (UK)
Key Contracts: defends 282 oil pipelines.
Key Players: Major-General John Holmes is a director
Key Contracts: claims to be only western security
company with independent office and manager in Iraq
Key Players: founded by ex-SAS soldier Arish Turle
Key Contracts: protection for wealthy individuals,
news teams, USAid's Iraq Reconstruction Program
Key Players: Lt Gen Sir Cedric Delves is a director
Key Contracts: protection for media, oil and gas
Key Players: employs 60 former SAS soldiers.
Global Strategies Group
Key Contracts: Baghdad International Airport.
Key Players: Founded by former marine Damien Perl and
Scots Guard Charlie Andrews. Mainly Fijian staff