Some months back, Mark Mazzetti of The New York Times reported that the United Arab Emirates had contracted Reflex Responses—a private security firm with ties to Blackwater Worldwide founder Erik Prince— to build a mercenary army composed of primarily Columbian and South African recruits at a military base in the middle of the desert. The ostensible purpose of this Praetorian Guard is to keep an eye on Iran, although a skeptic might wonder if the recent wave of Arab unrest has helped convince the Emirati authorities of the need to keep the other eye on their own citizens.
Reflex Responses is only the latest example of the growing trend of states farming out the functions of their militaries to the private sector. Much has been written in recent years about the moral and practical hazards of employing private security contractors in war zones, where oversight is limited and the firms frequently operate in an environment of virtual impunity. In Somalia, which barely possesses a government capable of delegating away its own functions, the unforeseen complications can be even more far-reaching.
Such was the case in Puntland, the autonomous region in northeastern Somalia that spawned the 2008 outbreak of maritime piracy, and where I spent three months researching a book on the subject. In 1999, almost a decade before the Somali pirates began to crowd the pages of the international news, then-Puntland president Abdullahi Yusuf brought in the British military contractor Hart Security to provide a Coast Guard for the nascent statelet. For the task of preventing illegal fishing along Puntland’s 1,000-mile coastline, the firm was given one sixty-foot trawler and a force of seventy local men. Hart’s profit was to come from hypothetical future revenues from the sale of fishing licenses to foreign companies, which it split almost evenly with the Puntland government.
In the face of a brief civil conflict from 2001-2002, Hart withdrew from Somalia and was replaced by the Somali-Canadian Coast Guard (SomCan), a hastily-cobbled-together outfit run by Abdiweli Ali Taar, a former Toronto cab driver. At its height, SomCan operated a fleet of six patrol ships and four hundred marines, and the company claimed to have identified and arrested a total of thirty illegal foreign fishing vessels. During its tenure, SomCan carried Hart’s fishing license business model to a new level, serving as the direct agent for several south Asian fishing companies, and even going so far as to post its own marines on the decks of its clients’ ships. Its relationship with one Thai company, Sirichai Fisheries, was literally skin tight, with Sirichai reportedly providing the uniforms for the SomCan marines. SomCan continued operations until 2005, when the firm was fired by Puntland president Mohamud Muse Hersi after its own employees hijacked a Thai fishing vessel and demanded an $800,000 ransom.
Following their dismissal, there is substantial evidence—including from my own interviews with pirates—that former Hart and SomCan marines turned to piracy. During one of my trips to Puntland, I interviewed a pirate named Ombaali, a sullen and physically stunted youth in his early twenties, who had to be virtually dragged through the door and forced to speak to me. Ombaali, who had served as a “holder,” or hostage guard, during three pirate operations in 2008, reported that eight members of his extended gang (roughly fifty individuals) had had past histories in the Puntland Coast Guard. “They were the most experienced at attacking and capturing,” he said.
It would be overly simplistic to attribute the better organized and sophisticated breed of pirate that burst into the Gulf of Aden in 2007 and 2008 solely to Puntland’s failed coast guarding experiments; the timing of the piracy outbreak had much more to do with the fiscal and military collapse of the Puntland government in 2007 than a sudden decision by former coast guards to collectively turn to a life of crime. But there is no denying that the skills and experience possessed by ex-Hart and SomCan marines—trained, in many cases, to a European standard in marksmanship, marine navigation, boarding and seizure operations—rendered them ideal employees for the new businesses springing up in Puntland’s coastal towns.
The Puntland government, moreover, is yet to learn from its past mistakes. In November 2010, Puntland entered into a deal with Saracen International, a South African private security firm with no clear address, to “train and mentor” a thousand-strong “Puntland Marine Force.” The firm—whose Ugandan subsidiary has been fingered by the UN Security Council for training rebel paramilitary forces in the Congo—is headed by Lafras Lutingh, a former officer in the South African Civil Cooperation Bureau, a notorious apartheid-era internal security force. Several months after the announcement of the Puntland deal, Saracen was revealed to be covertly backed by Erik Prince, and funded by the United Arab Emirates. Pressure by the Associated Press and The New York Times subsequently led to the Puntland government shelving the project, at least for the time being.
Guns-for-hire are always a tempting option for governments, particularly in a failed state where national institution building can often seem like a hopeless task. But unlike an army or a police force, private contractors can disappear as quickly as a contract expires, leaving unpredictable long-term fallout. The case of the Puntland Coast Guard should serve as a cautionary tale from the anthology of unintended consequences, an illustration of what can come from selling off pieces of a state before the state exists at all. Yesterday’s coast guards, after all, can become today’s pirates.
[The preceding was an unpublished Op-Ed I wrote about a month ago—somewhat out of date, but hopefully still of interest. Much of the content was taken from a chapter in my book, "Of Pirates, Coast Guards, and Fishermen."]