Additional reporting from Matt Kennard, Timothy Young, Matthew Leger, Susanna Kalaris, Samuel Brownsword, Sean French and Tom Ormson
Detail from G4S Gurkha Services marketing brochure and Queen’s Gallantry Medal, as highlighted by Clare Sambrook.
Yesterday, an American man was convicted for killing unarmed civilians whilst on patrol in Iraq. But he wasn’t a member of the US Army. When the incident took place, he was working for the company Blackwater. Last month, the Taliban carried out a lethal suicide attack in Kabul, Afghanistan. But the compound they targeted wasn’t controlled by the army of any nation. It was run by G4S. According to the Islamist group, the British company constituted an ‘important base of occupying forces’, from which attacks against the Taliban were planned and mobilised.
G4S, one of the UK’s biggest private military companies, provides pivotal ‘operational support’ to Britain’s military in Afghanistan and such incidents bring back into focus the extent that private military and security companies are present – and sometimes directly involved – in combat.
Since the ‘War on Terror’ began in 2001, billions of dollars have been made by men (and it is almost always men) working for private military and security companies (PMSCs) around the world. In the killing zones of Iraq or Afghanistan, Somalia or Yemen, such corporations have become central to undertaking roles traditionally reserved for national militaries.
Britain has led this privatisation of modern warfare. It leads the world in providing armed contractors to ‘hot spots’, be it combating terrorism in the Middle East or fighting pirates off the Horn of Africa. Some of their biggest clients are governments; since 2004, the British state has spent approximately £50 million annually on mercenary companies. The total worth of the global private military and security industry has been estimated to stand somewhere between £69 billion and £275 billion a year.
Many of these companies will serve whoever can pay – from wealthy private individuals to faceless corporations. It is easy for them to do so. Despite the size of this mercenary industry, the entire sector is marked by secrecy. Men trained in the arts of subterfuge and counter-intelligence dominate this sphere, and the result is an industry that operates from the shadows.
What we do know is that many of these mercenary companies, especially ones based in the UK and US, were heavily involved in military campaigns in both Iraq and Afghanistan. We know their armed personnel can earn as much as £10,000 a month, tax-free. And we know that some private military contractors have been directly implicated in civilian deaths; the employees of Blackwater, now Academi, a US private military corporation, opened fire on Iraqi civilians in September 2007, killing 17 and wounding a further 20. In 2007, employees of Aegis Defence Services, based in London and run by the former Scots Guards officer Lt-Col Tim Spicer, posted footage on the web showing their guards firing their weapons at what has been reported as ‘civilians’. The company said the shootings were legal within rules of protocol established by the now-defunct Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq. The company has also been criticised for allegedly employing former child soldiers from Sierra Leone as mercenaries in Iraq, for the simple reason that they were cheaper than their European counterparts. James Ellery, a former director, said the company had a cost-reduction ‘duty’ to recruit from cheaper countries.
In 2011, personnel from another UK private military contractor, Protection Vessels International Ltd, were arrested for stashing arms on Eritrean territory without permission and were later charged with sabotage, espionage and terrorism. The company’s apology was accepted and, today, it thrives.
There is no central database of private military and security companies operating from the UK, and no legal requirement to register with a governing body. Only one dataset offers insight: the UK’s Company House provides a code for companies that offer security services. Thousands of small business are listed, offering anything from bouncers to industrial site protection. But within this list, our researchers identified 235 UK-registered military and security companies whose websites offered higher-level security work, usually international and involving armed protection.
Our researchers found a systemic lack of transparency; a clear willingness to offer use of armed force irrespective of who is doing the hiring; a significant source of employment for ex-Special Forces personnel, often without checks; and, at times, a lack of compliance with international law or norms.
Who, where, when, how? British private military and security companies lack transparency
One of the most concerning characteristics of the British mercenary industry is a fundamental lack of transparency. One-tenth of companies do not have an operating website. Those that do reveal little. Basic information, such as staff details, what precise services the company offers, the exact geographical reach of operations, or who they might have offered services to in the past, is rare. Most companies’ websites are sparse and purposefully so, often either consisting of a single page with almost no information, or requiring login details.
Access to Interventions Ltd’s website, for instance, is only allowed to “members of the Police, Military or a Government Agency involved with Law Enforcement”. Whilst not illegal, this frustrates attempts to identify what these companies are up to and blocks scrutiny from journalists and researchers.
While the majority listed their managing director or founder, only one-fifth provide details of other staff. In general (77% of the time), staff members were either not listed at all, or referenced just using their first names or initials. A company such as Cobra International Security simply lists its staff as ‘Paul G’, ’John S’ or ’Chris M’, followed by descriptions of their professional backgrounds. Blurred pictures are often used, such as on the websites of Patriot Group and Excellentia. We asked these companies why they blurred their workers' faces. They declined to answer. None of this is illegal, but it does frustrate research into a controversial industry.
In several cases, there were mismatches between the names of directors listed on a company’s website and those on Companies House. In other cases, there were doubts as to whether listed directors or senior personnel are actually part of the day-to-day operations of the business. For instance, in the course of this investigation, a member of the team listed on the pages of 3E international denied working for the company. Her profile was subsequently deleted.
The industry is marked by a high turnover of companies; businesses are formed and then dissolved a short while later. This practise might be to create companies to provide certain projects, but it adds to the impenetrable nature of this sector, where so much is opaque and seemingly unaccountable. Elsewhere, companies owned by the same director offered completely different services.
A clear pattern of disguised addresses also appeared from our research. We found three companies (International Security, Security Sure Solutions Ltd and Precedence Global Ltd) registered at the same address that turned out to be a Polish restaurant. When contacted, one of the companies, Precedence Global, admitted that it did not operate from this location and that it was a ‘virtual office’, owing to ‘security concerns.’ Other contractors shared the same addresses as media or housing companies.
At least 32 companies turned out to be using such ‘virtual offices’, allowing companies, for a fee, to use a ‘prestigious’ address (i.e. a City of London postcode) without actually operating from there. One of the service providers, Capital Office Ltd, used by at least six military and security companies, promotes its services by saying virtual addresses ‘can add to the authenticity of your new company because it looks like you have offices within a busy business hub’.
The trend enables companies to base themselves anywhere in the world but claim that their operations are from the UK, with the implication – perhaps – that this brings a certain ‘British standard’.
Where these companies are actually operating is, again, opaque. More than two-thirds looked at either failed to mention where they operated or did so in obtuse terms, boasting a ‘global’ or ‘international’ reach. Sometimes they offered their services in ‘hostile environments’, ‘where the client needs us’. At best, they mentioned specific regions, seas or ports. But only 60 companies explicitly mention some of the countries they have been operating in, so overall operational transparency remains limited.
The pervasive lack of transparency and vague phrasing also means it is impossible to determine what the companies are actually capable of. Often, they claim professionalism without providing specific examples, while descriptions of their work often provide no substance. One company said it provided ‘operational support services’ without specifying the type of support. Another company provided ‘project support by combining local knowledge with our own expertise in… complex environments.’ The most frequent phrase on the more than two hundred websites that Action On Armed Violence scrutinised was ‘bespoke security solutions’: vague enough not to break any laws.
The websites are written in this strange language that combines military terminology with business-speak. These companies provide discreet services for clients that often want to remain anonymous. This is an industry run by men trained in concealment, secrecy and measured violence – and one that remains impenetrable to anyone who does not show funds to gain access. Industry insiders argue that they need to operate ‘under the radar’ to protect their clients, and not “share (them) with every terrorist, hacker or bad guy on the planet” as one security operative put it. This should not be an excuse to hide from transparency.
Putting the gun where the money is: when profit controls where and who to ‘protect’
Unsurprisingly, Britain’s private military contractors are driven by economic rather than humanitarian priorities; their operations dictated by where the money is. At its height, there were reportedly 80 British military companies operating in Iraq, while some of the biggest companies are said to owe their very existence to the profits garnered in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In recent years, alongside counter-terrorism operations, anti-piracy campaigns have become a major source of income. This is reflected in marketing materials. Numerous companies explicitly mention working in either the Gulf of Aden, Indian Ocean, Gulf of Guinea, Horn of Africa or Somalia, and directly advertise their anti-piracy capabilities. The anti-piracy industry grew despite warnings that increased private military presence at sea displaces the piracy threat and tends to provoke pirates to use increased violence.
British companies claim to operate in 17 out the 30 countries that the Foreign Office lists as ‘Human Rights Priorities Countries’ (namely: Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Somalia, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, the DRC, Russia, Colombia, Yemen, Syrian, Myanmar, Iran, Bahrain, Venezuela and South Sudan). What are these companies doing there? What oversight is in place in these operations, especially as in some places the government is itself implicated in gross human rights abuses? And who is paying these companies? We don’t know.
We do, however, know that the UK government has, in last decade, deployed British security companies to at least five of these countries; Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, Libya and Somalia. And we know that civilians have been killed by security companies in some of these countries. Given the lack of accountability and media coverage in these areas we do not know just how many civilians have been killed, and what British companies – if any – were involved. Despite the security companies’ aversion to transparency, and evidence that some have engaged in human rights abuses and political destabilisation, the Foreign Office continues to deploy contractors to states where the Foreign Office itself has spoken out against human rights violations.
Outsourcing military operations may save governments money. As Andy Bearpark from the British Association of Private Security Companies (BAPSC) puts it “certain activities can be done much more cost-effectively by the private sector.” But when private contractors are deployed to areas of high human rights abuse, how rigorously will any overuse or illegal use of force be investigated or prosecuted?
‘The revolving door’ – when the line between national armies and PMSCs diminishes
Almost two-thirds of companies we looked at (65%), including leading companies such as Constellis, Aegis and Control Risks, explicitly mention that members of their staff or directors have a military background in either the Royal Marines or British Special Forces.
Britannia Risks Group, a maritime security company, for instance, boasts a strong team with “a combination of former Royal Marines/Academics and Mariners delivering unrivalled client experience.” The actual figure is likely to be higher than 65%, as many may employ former army members without explicitly mentioning it.
The close ties between the military and the private sector translates into a physical presence. At least nine private military companies are located in Hereford, near the headquarter of the Special Air Service (SAS). The employment of former military personnel is, by many, perceived as an automatic guarantee for good conduct and the former soldiers, who are now pursuing a more lucrative career in the private industry, are seen as ‘heroes’ in the eyes of many.
There are, however, several issues that this raises.
The impression of guaranteed professionalism that comes with the hiring of ex-servicemen can lead to a lack of scrutiny in the employment process. In 2009 a former British Army paratrooper shot two G4S colleagues in Iraq. The former soldier had been deployed by G4S, one of the world’s biggest security companies, despite being discharged from the British army and diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder. G4S later admitted “systemic failures in vetting process”. Something similar also happened in 2016, when G4S had to explain why they had falsely claimed one of their contractors had passed the mandatory screening to carry a gun. The contractor, Omar Mateen, later carried out the worst mass shootings in recent American history when he killed 49 people at a nightclub in Florida.
Combat Stress, the veterans’ mental health charity, has reported over 2,200 referrals for trauma-related mental health in one year. A paper surveying both serving personnel (regular and reserve) and veterans found that the weighted prevalence of common mental health disorders was 27.2%. The risk of suicide in men aged 24 and younger who have left the armed forces is about two to three times higher than the risk for the same age group in the general and serving populations. Such veterans can’t be guaranteed mental health support in the private military and security industry. While the appearance might be of a ‘continuation’ of armed service, the reality is different.
In practice, private military and security contractors operate under less scrutiny than national armed forces. There is concern the British government considers private military contractors an unofficial extension of their work, able to do what the national army cannot. This clearly raises questions relating to accountability and – even – the possibility of privatised ‘black Ops’.
Compliance with the law
The issue of working within the law stalked this inquiry. Internationally, there has been one attempt to monitor private military and security companies’ levels of compliance with international standards. The International Code of Conduct (ICoC), set up in 2010 under an initiative by the Swiss government. Yet out of the 235 companies, only 15 are members of the ICoC. Only seven percent have a ‘compliance’ section on their websites (out of the 212 functioning sites). More than 90% fail to mention compliance or standards.
Overall, then, UK-based mercenary companies seem to operate under a system of ‘self-regulation’ and national laws – even when operating in international zones where national laws are often poorly enforced and police forces are stretched paper thin.
The language used by the companies who do mention compliance measurements is often vague. Some say they ‘aim’ to operate within the law, or that they will comply ‘where possible’. In many cases, it seems as if the clients’ needs are the singular priority. For example, one company claims on a banner on its website that ‘we don’t blink when you want to be secure and safe.’ This is far from illegal, but it does raise the question: how much are human rights considered in that blink of an eye.
Futhermore, the growing anti-piracy industry has raised a number of issues relating to legal status on international waters. The legal no-man’s land of such seas has arguably enabled private military contractors to circumvent national laws, leading them to bring arms illegally into countries – either knowingly or unknowingly – as a trend of ‘floating armouries’ has evolved. The spectre of an uncontrolled spread of arms without fear of legal consequences certainly haunts such debates.
Moreover, it’s not clear who might prosecute a private security company that uses force on international waters, such as one – for example – implicated in shooting civilian fishing vessels. We do not know how many armed violence incidents occur with British security companies on the high seas, and how many civilians may have been killed or injured in such firefights.
Some commentators have claimed that the UK’s private security market has radically reformed itself in recent years, away from the ‘fast and loose’ trading environment of the early days of the War on Terror. They claim that the International Code of Conduct for Private Security Service Providers that some companies sign up to provides standards that are kept. But this code of conduct remains voluntary and, despite the protestations of the industry being well-run, our investigation suggests strongly otherwise.
The Security in Complex Environments Group, an organisation set up to develop standards for British security companies working abroad, is led by director, Brigadier Paul Gibson – former director of counter-terrorism and UK operations. In 2016, he told the Guardian Newspaper that ‘You’re always going to have rogue companies in any business sector. If a client is prepared to take a risk by using a private security company that is not regulated, that is a matter for the client. That is absolutely not the way British private security companies are currently operating.’ After looking closely at the industry, we’d beg to differ.
Call to action
Action on Armed Violence’s investigation of 235 UK-based, internationally operating, private military and security companies has illustrated numerous areas of concern about this often hidden industry, where profit-seeking private entities are trusted with governmental security tasks, while themselves being subject to a perilously weak system of ‘self-regulation’.
Our research has raised special concerns about the British state’s inclination to outsource government tasks to private contractors, a support that has been indispensable for the private security industry’s growth and profits. Outsourcing military forces does not just undermine states’ claimed monopoly on the legal use of force, but given the lack of scrutiny of private military and security companies, private contractors may enable governments to get tasks done that avoid the scrutiny that comes with national force deployment.
Even though the foreign office argues that UK-employed private military and security companies are just conducting defensive operations, and hence not qualified as ‘mercenaries’, the lack of transparency that pervades the industry offers little in the way of assurances or reasons to trust this statement. Until Britain’s mercenary industry shows greater transparency and oversight, Action On Armed Violence calls on the British government to take its declared human rights ambitions seriously. It must stop deploying private military and security companies to countries that have major human rights concerns.