A report by charity War on Want claims Britain has become the world’s “mercenary kingpin” with hundreds of firms employing thousands of ex-military freebooters in a shadowy industry worth billions. Private military and security companies (PMSCs) are reaping massive profits from the war, instability and chaos which have accompanied the ‘War on Terror.’ 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. For those 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. It argues that the time has come to ban mercenary firms and “end the privatization of war.”
The charity’s executive director John Hillary said: “Private military contractors ran amok in Iraq and Afghanistan, leaving a trail of human rights abuses in their wake.” He continued “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.” He added “The time has come to ban these companies from operating in conflict zones and end the privatization of war.”
14 companies have head offices 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. 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.” 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.”
“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.” 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.
“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.
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. 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.
Africa looks set to be the next big thing. Cashing in on political upheaval appears to be the name of the game. 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.”
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.