Blackwater still in the dock, but for how long?

Blackwater trials failing to produce convictions. Yemen resource conflict highlighted in two reports. Arms thought to be destined for Nigerian Delta intercepted. Karzai presses ahead with ban on private military companies, drawing mixed response. All this and more in today's security briefing.
Luke Heighton
27 October 2010

Reports of the possible collapse of attempts to prosecute the notorious, North Carolina-based Blackwater Worldwide company come at a time of renewed focus on the role of contractors in territories administered or formerly administered by the US and its coalition allies. The private military firm, which now operates under the name Xe Services LLC, has been under investigation by the US federal government for the last four years, following a string of accusations that it was responsible for numerous murders and other violent crimes in Afghanistan, Iraq and Kuwait. In the most recent case considered, however, the US justice department has announced it will abandon the case against one of the company’s former employees, Andrew J Moonen, despite the efforts of federal prosecutors and the FBI. Moonen has been accused of killing a guard assigned to a senior Iraqi government official on 24 December 2006. According to the New York Times, lawyers involved in the case cited the difficulty of obtaining evidence in war zones, of gaining proper jurisdiction for prosecutions in American civil courts, and of overcoming immunity deals given to defendants by US officials at the scene.

In the immediate aftermath of the shooting in December, Moonen was interviewed by staff from the United States Embassy in Baghdad’s Regional Security Office, rather than the FBI. Critics of such actions have pointed to the fact that the Regional Security Office was itself a unit of the US State Department, in turn responsible for supervising Blackwater and other security contractors in Iraq. According to Moonen’s lawyer, however, even his statement at the Regional Security Office was given under duress. Stewart Riley said that not only was his client issued a so-called Garrity warning, threatening him with the loss of his job unless he talked, but that he was also promised immunity from prosecution for anything he said. Similar assurances are said to have been given to Blackwater personnel involved in the Nisour Square case.

On 16 September 2007, Blackwater employees escorting a US state department convoy on its way to a meeting with United States Agency for International Development (USAID) officials shot and killed seventeen civilians in central Baghdad. Following the shooting, Blackwater’s licence to operate in Iraq was immediately revoked. In September this year a jury in Virginia was unable to reach a verdict against five former Blackwater employees accused of manslaughter and various weapons-related charges in the Nissour Square shooting. Justice Department officials have appealed against District Judge Ricardo Urbina’s declaration of a mistrial and a new trial has been set for March 2011. A sixth former employee had already pleaded guilty to charges of manslaughter, attempted manslaughter and aiding and abetting.

In total, more than 120 companies have been charged by the Justice Department, with allegations ranging from contract fraud to violent assault, rape and murder in all three countries. The family of Moonen’s alleged victim, Raheem Saadoun, filed a civil lawsuit against both him and Blackwater. This was subsequently dropped following a financial settlement.

More water + more land = fewer guns?

Yemeni authorities have foiled what they say was an attempt to disrupt preparations for the twentieth Gulf Football Championships next month. According to a statement issued by the interior ministry, on Saturday police in Aden arrested a man carrying a plastic bag thought to contain 1,800 grammes of dynamite intended to destroy the city’s “vital installations”. Al-Arabiya report that, following the man’s arrest and confession, officers detained a further six suspects and were hunting for another two.

The football tournament – which involves Yemen, Iraq, and six Gulf states – is due to run from 22 November to 5 December, and will be held in Aden and the neighbouring Abyan province. Both have seen a rise in attacks attributed to Al Qaeda in recent weeks. Islamist militants have attacked both Western and government targets in the country, which many believe is on its way to becoming a “failed state”, riven by Shiite rebellion in the north and separatist revolt in the south. Earlier this month, one person was killed and several others wounded when a sports centre in Aden was hit by two bomb blasts.

Yemen is under considerable pressure from the West to resolve its domestic conflicts, not least because they are believed to detract from its ability to deal with the problem of increased ‘Al-Qaeda'-related activity in the country. Only a few days after the Aden plot was discovered, however, a report into the domestic effects of separatist and terrorist-related violence has found a far less headline-grabbing cause of loss of life. Produced by Yemen Armed Violence Assessment (YAVA), a research initiative administered by the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, Geneva, Under Pressure: Social Violence over Land and Water in Yemen found that resource conflicts are responsible for at least 4,000 deaths per year, and that these shortages contribute significantly to social and political instability in the country, hindering economic development, and increasing secessionist and other forms of collective violence.

The Yemeni government’s inability to deal with the challenges facing it was also highlighted in a report issued by Chatham House, Yemen and Somalia: Terrorism, Shadow Networks and the Limitations of State-building. The Report's authors, Sally Healy and Ginny Hill, make a compelling case for reflecting critically on the efficacy of a Western approach that allows security-led interventionism to undermine efforts to build a viable state through the use of such longer-range strategic tools as diplomacy, development and defence investment. At the heart of attempts to prevent radicalism and the growth of such organisations as Al Shabab and Al Qaeda, they argue, should be a concerted attempt to disrupt the narratives around injustice and being ‘under attack’ which provide both groups with much of their appeal. One way to do this is to address more precisely the problems outlined in the YAVA report coupled with more conventional counter-terrorism and counter-piracy strategies. At the same time, the report stresses that these strategies must themselves adapt to the threat posed by covert multi-million-dollar shadowy business networks throughout the Gulf, and develop more comprehensive, incisive methods to deal with them.

Rocket launchers, grenades and explosives found at Nigerian port

Nigerian secret police say they have intercepted a large shipment of weapons believed to have been destined for militant groups operating in the Niger Delta. An SSS spokeswoman told the BBC that thirteen containers seized at the port in Lagos city had rocket launchers, grenades and other explosives hidden in the “floorboards”. Several arrests have been made, though the names of those detained have not yet been disclosed.

Surveillance at the country’s ports has been stepped up amid increased fears of an escalation in violence in the run-up to next year’s elections, and in the wake of the October bombings in Abuja in which ten people were killed. Those attacks were widely attributed to the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, or MEND, leading to the arrest and detention of MEND’s suspected leader, Henry Okah.  Okah is currently standing trial in Johannesburg, where he is accused of terrorism-related offences. Following a bomb threat issued by MEND on Friday, Okah’s brother Charles was also arrested in his home in Appa, a commercial district in the capital, Lagos. Charles Okah is suspected of having helped fund the October bombings, and is thought to have been operating under the pseudonym ‘Jomo Gbomo’ – the name used by MEND both to claim responsibility for the Independence Day bombings and in issuing the latest threat.

Nigerian newspaper Vanguard, meanwhile, has given its own account of the process that led to Charles Okah’s arrest. Were it not for Friday’s threat, it argues, Okah would probably not have been arrested at all, despite widespread suspicion regarding his likely involvement in MEND’s operations. Vanguard went on to report that news of Okah’s arrest had so shocked MEND it had decided henceforth to suspend all communication with Nigeria’s media. This, the papar said, “is the first time since MEND was formed in late 2005 that it is imposing self censorship, citing “security concerns” for the action. Through its email address, it had been no-holds-barred with both local and foreign media in the past six years”.

There are signs, Vanguard says, that MEND is also undergoing a certain amount of internal instability, with several ex-leaders of associated militant groups claiming that the organisation no longer exists, with individuals who once comprised MEND having already accepted amnesty. In dismissing these claims, MEND stated that it had new commanders and that the group is far stronger than its enemies in government, the security services and the region’s oil companies allege.

US voices disquiet at Karzai ban on private military companies, though NGO's claim they will be unaffected

Afghan Preseident Hamid Karzai has reiterated his commitment to ensuring that all foreign private security firms presently operating in the country leave by January 2011. Only those operating inside embassies, international organisations such as the UN, and military bases will, he says, be allowed to continue their operations, with the majority being replaced by Afghan police forces. Private security contractors have been accused repeatedly of violating the terms of their engagement, and of several serious breaches of human rights protocols. Up to 40,000 Afghans are also currently employed by dozens of foreign and local security firms, many of which have been accused repeatedly of colluding with armed opposition groups and criminal gangs.

Karzai first announced his intention to transfer greater responsibility for internal security over to local forces in August, although such a move had been expected for some time. Speaking in August, presidential spokesman Waheed Omer said "dissolving private security companies is a serious program that the government of Afghanistan will execute," adding, "very soon, the President of Afghanistan will set a deadline".

In response to the initial announcement, the United States attempted to play down the likelihood of such plans ever coming to fruition Pentagon spokesman Colonel David Lapan expressed the view that while the US understood Afghan concerns over private security firms, strenuous efforts were being made to address the issue Karzai raised. Lapan also stressed that US security needs remained a priority, while appearing to cast doubt over the seriousness of such claims: “I don't know that it's a decision; it's concerns that President Karzai has expressed”, he said.

However, this latest step, signalled in remarks made during a speech Karzai gave on 20 October, suggests the president is still committed to such a move and that a deadline has been set. Responses, as one might expect, have been mixed. The US, which provides by far the majority of the security agencies and contractors in Afghanistan – and at the same time spends more on their services than any other interested party – has so far offered little more than a restatement of its previous position. Speaking two days after the speech, US State Department assistant secretary Phillip J Crowley suggested doubts still remain as to whether Karzai’s proposals will ever come into being. “We recognize that there’s a gap that presently exists, and we are working through - with the Afghan government and others within the international community - to try to figure out how to help Afghanistan implement its decree, but at the same time make sure that essential operations continue to function,” he said.

Others, however, have been much less equivocal. Speaking to IRIN (Integrated Regional Information Networks), a news agency supported by the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), one aid worker said that the closure of private security companies in Afghanistan “will have absolutely no impact on NGOs”. Laurent Sailard, director of ACBAR, a coordinating body of over 100 Afghan and foreign relief agencies, went on to say that of the NGOs who do work with security agencies, most used them for advice rather than protection; a view endorsed subsequently by Nic Lee, director of the Afghanistan NGO Safety Office (ANSO), who told IRIN, “NGOs don’t use weapons and don’t hire armed guards for security”.

Without addressing directly concerns in some quarters over the readiness and reliability of the Afghan police, Karzai also stated recently “Our foreign friends should not come asking us to allow these companies to continue their activities… Instead, they should help strengthen our police."

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