Private security firms benefit from piracy

In the war against piracy off the coast of Somalia, private security firms are offering military experience and weaponry to ship owners, most of whom are willing to pay thousands of dollars a day for their own private army.


In 2008, Somalian pirates attacked a hundred ships, more than twice the number in 2007. It is a growing problem that spells profits for private security firms. Defense Services, ArmorGroup, Asia Risk Solutions, Blackwater: all are engaged on behalf of shipowners in the war against piracy.

Since mid-October the American private security firm Blackwater Worldwide, known for their controversial activities in Iraq, have put their own ship, the McArthur, at the disposal of victims of piracy in the Gulf of Aden. Refitted in 2006, the 46.6-metre ship is designed to support military and security actions. Among its features are a helicopter pad and 15,500 litres of fuel. A subsidiary of the company provides the helicopters and pilots.

“Millions of dollars in merchandise transits each year through the Gulf of Aden,” explains Bill Matthews, executive vice-president of Blackwater, in a statement.

"The arrival of Blackwater, a company used to operating independently in war zones, risks changing the market in the struggle against pirates," writes Philippe Vasset, editor in chief of "Intelligence Online," a publication devoted to activities that influence the world.

“If they had the means, they would operate 25 boats across all areas and charge a state tax," said Julien Duval, head of maritime security of Secopex, a Blackwater rival.

Former military elites, weapons in hand

Secopex, the only private French private security company, has already smelled the bonanza, along with its American counterpart . Come January 2009, France will be able to provide armed escorts for ship owners.

To get around French law, which prohibits the presence of armed guards on fishing boats, the boats will have to sail under the flags of Djibouti, Yemen, or Somalia.

In partnership with a British firm, Secopex will also be able to provide 11 ships of lenghts of 24, 36 or 50 metres. On board would be five guards from a pool of 2,000 contracted military or security specialists.

This group of specialists would include ex-Navy divers, formerly of the national police “intervention group” (GIGN), Marine commandos trained in liberating hostages, and submarine commandos, among the most secretive and experienced members of the French army.

Hart Security, a British rival of Secopex, subjects its recruits to intense training. "The work at sea is very different to that on land", explains Hugh Martin, the company’s director general.

All guards board the boats armed. Their first job is to prevent pirates from coming on board. "Everything is at stake here," Martin explains. After verifying the origin of the flag, the security units first opt for weapons of dissuasion, such as flares or cannons that fire electromagnetic waves. If those are insufficient, they may opt for another course. At Secopex, "a team of nine always includes two sharpshooters,” says Julien Duval of Secopex. “The seven others are armed with automatic weapons.”

All this comes at a cost.  At Secopex, "it costs $12,000 dollars a day for an escort ship of 24 metres," the smallest offered by the company, Duval says.

Piracy that borders on terrorism

For Christian Ménard, a UMP deputy heading a mission gathering information on maritime piracy, the recent incidents, particularly the spectacular hijacking on November 15 of the Sirius Star, a super-tanker three times heavier than an aircraft carrier, "raises the question of a link between pirates and terrorists."

"Saudi Arabia has approached the "shebab", young militant Islamists who today control three quarters of Somalia, to demand their intervention with the pirates,” Ménard says. He adds: "In Somalia, training camps exist, with very strict rules, destination piracy. More than 3,500 people have already passed through."

There exists, therefore, strong evidence of a link between terrorists and pirates, though no proof. Indisputable, however, is the fact that the pirates are becoming better organised and equipped – they have boats at their disposal that allow them to operate on the high seas. In the face of ever more violent attacks, ship owners recognize the need for protection.

"About 50% of boats attacked by the pirates hide it from their insurers,” says Ménard. A hard situation to manage for the ship owners. "Two months ago, after the Ponant affair, I asked some of them. All were ready to pay to assure their security," Ménard added, referring to the luxury French cruise ship taken over by pirates in the Gulf of Aden in April with 30 crew members aboard.


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