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Panel wants to limit activities of private firms in war zones Print

The Iraqi Dogs of War: An ex-SAS veteran reveals the antics of 'security experts' helping to lose the war on terror
By BOB SHEPHERD
 
As soon as I saw her, I knew there'd be hell to pay.

The scene before me was utter bedlam: hundreds of people in the street looting, while the sound of AK47 gunfire cracked from burning government buildings.

Everywhere, there were defaced portraits of Saddam - some with the eyes scratched out, others painted over or burnt.

The British "liberation" of Basra was entering its third day, and I was working as a private security consultant for ITN, protecting their crews as they reported on a war which was less than a month old.

They had been tipped tip off that the Sheraton Hotel - a symbol of the West - had been set alight, and they wanted to get some footage.

While the crew got down to business, I scanned the vicinity for potential threats.

Two things struck me immediately: first, the gunfire coming from the top floors of the hotel. It was probably celebratory, but there could be a sniper lurking, waiting to pick off a promising target.

Second, and of greater concern, was the group of around 150 men outside the Sheraton. A stocky, clean-shaven youth - his shirt unbuttoned to expose a hairy paunch - was clearly their ringleader.

Suddenly, he started shouting. He pointed, and all heads turned in one direction - and that's when I saw her.

Never, in all my years, had I witnessed anything like it in a war zone. A woman, obviously a Western journalist, dressed in tight trousers and a snug top that had ridden up to reveal her navel.

A woman dressed that way in London would hardly warrant a second glance. But in Basra, even under normal circumstances, it was highly provocative.

Most astounding of all, she appeared to be completely unaware of her appearance, and the effect she was having.

When she saw the group of men, she waded right in, notebook in hand, to conduct interviews.

The men parted like a shoal of fish, then closed around her. She was trapped, and she didn't even know it.

By this point, some of the men who'd been firing rifles inside the hotel had joined the unruly gang.

I wondered how I could possibly intervene to help the woman should anything happen.

The ringleader was getting louder and louder, whipping the gang into a simmering frenzy. Then, suddenly, he grabbed the journalist roughly around the waist.

At long last, the penny dropped. Her expression changed from professional indifference to total shock.

"Ureedik! Ureedik!" (I want you! I want you!) shouted the ringleader.

There was nothing left to think about. I shouldered my way in, all the time conscious of the pistol I had hidden in my body armour.

When I finally reached her, she looked like a fox cornered by a pack of hunting dogs. She was frightened, and desperate to get out of there.

"Where's your crew?" I shouted to her. She pointed to a saloon car parked outside the hotel. A cameraman I'd seen earlier was throwing his gear into the back seat.

With one hand on her back and the other poised to grab my pistol, I started to push her towards the edge of the crowd.

When the ringleader lurched forward to grab her, I threw myself between them. It was now a standoff between him and me.

I didn't see any knives or pistols, but I knew that somewhere in the crowd were the gunmen who'd been firing from the hotel.

As I inched the woman towards her car, the gang were swarming all over it. I opened the door and told the terrified cameraman to drive the hell out of there as quickly as possible.

The weight of the crowd nearly overwhelmed me as the journalist climbed into the passenger seat. But before she could close the door, the ringleader dived into her lap and she screamed as he ground his face into her crotch.

I grabbed the waistband of his trousers and pulled him off. He managed to grab a pack of cigarettes from the dashboard before he fell backwards. He was obviously determined not to come away empty-handed.

As the car sped off, my hand hovered over my pistol again as I contemplated how the baying mob would react.

To my tremendous surprise, the ringleader smiled and extended his hand.

I released my weapon and shook it. He slapped my right shoulder. Then he turned his back on me and shared out the cigarettes he'd taken, as if he were the grand conqueror.

I rounded the ITN crew up, relieved that there had been a peaceful outcome. Later, however, I reflected on how easily a stand-off like that can turn nasty.

When I'm working in dangerous countries like Iraq, I always apply the same ground rules: plan ahead, blend in, and respect the local population.

It is so simple, yet so many people - not just civilians like that unsuspecting female journalist, but soldiers and security contractors, too - ignore these rules at their peril.

When I retired from 22 SAS Regiment in 1994, I was certain that dangerous adventures in far-flung places were behind me.

I had spent 20 years in the SAS, achieving the rank of Warrant Officer. I'd been involved in the Iranian embassy siege in London, and fought in Northern Ireland, the Falklands, Bosnia and the first Gulf War.

My own SAS career ended four months shy of my 40th birthday - a good age to leave, in my view.

I gathered my belongings from camp in Hereford and walked out of the gates for the last time. I cried like a baby.

The world of international commercial security - the Circuit, as it's known - was a natural place for someone with my background to land.

I spent my first five years working for an American billionaire and his family. In half a decade, the gravest threat my client encountered was a playful seal in the Galapagos Islands that swam a bit too close.

My days of looking after rich people in glamorous locations ended when Al Qaeda hijackers crashed two planes into the World Trade Centre, transforming the Circuit from a cottage industry into a multi billion-pound business.

The media often refer to people on the Circuit as "mercenaries" - a label as offensive as it is inaccurate.

Mercenaries are hired guns who sell their services to the highest bidder.

By contrast, security advisers work for the British government (or governments of allied countries), for commercial clients (media outlets or companies who've won government contracts to re-build wartorn countries), or the military itself.

In 14 years on the Circuit, I have never accepted an assignment that I felt ran counter to Britain's national interests. So don't ever call me a mercenary!

When you're working on the Circuit, you can be asked to do a wide variety of jobs - from close protection (basically minding clients) to kidnap and ranson negotiations, surveillance, risk analysis and fraud investigation.

The biggest growth area by far in recent years has been in Iraq and Afghanistan.

As will become clear, nowadays not everyone on the scene has the expertise and ability to handle these hostile environments. The results can be disastrous.

One of my early experiences of the Circuit, post 9/11, was guarding those ITN crews amid the chaos of Iraq.

In my years looking after the rich and famous, I'd never let myself go or allowed my military training to deteriorate.

I never drank on the job. I kept myself in good physical condition and seized every opportunity to sharpen my "pro-active security skills" - anticipating trouble before it starts.

I didn't know it at the time, but my discipline would pay off handsomely in Iraq. The core skills I had learned in the SAS were still with me, and the most important one never left my mind: when operating in a war zone, you need to be as inconspicuous as possible.

Driving a beaten-up pick-up truck rather than a flash 4x4 with blacked out windows, hiding weapons and body armour underneath clothes, wearing local dress if appropriate. All these things help.

But external trappings are only part of it. Maintaining a low profile also extends to conduct. As I witnessed with the female journalist in Basra, it's imperative to behave respectfully towards the local population, always remembering to act like a guest and not a conqueror.

Sadly, a lack of awareness reigned among many of my fellow security advisers. Walking into the lobby of the Sheraton/Palestine hotel in Baghdad was like lifting the curtain on a freak show.

I stared, slack-jawed, one day as a British security team strutted past.

Every member was wearing body armour over their clothing, and carrying weapons in full view, from AK47s and submachine guns to pistols in waist holsters.

They probably thought the weaponry intimidated would-be attackers.

Maybe, yes, in a Hollywood movie, but in the real world of hostile environments, the worst thing you can do is draw attention to yourself. It's not a matter of if you'll get hit, but when.

As bad as those Brits were, the American security details I saw were even worse. Not only did they wear their body armour and weapons overtly, many of them were obviously on steroids, wore sunglasses indoors, and had pistols and knives strapped to their legs. Cowboys!

The more time went on, the more idiots started appearing on the scene.

The fledgling security industry born out of 9/11 kicked into high gear in April 2003, with the announcement of a $18.4 billion fund by the U.S. government to rebuild Iraq.

The main recipients of these multi billion-dollar contracts were private firms, staffed by experts such as engineers and surveyors - and they all needed looking after.

While it was good news for security firms, in a situation like Iraq what you really need are more soldiers - and that's where the money should have gone.

I estimate that the U.S. should have sent an extra 50,000 soldiers to sort out its portion of Iraq.

But President Bush had sold the public on a war with few casualties and a quick resolution. The U.S. - and Britain - saw the Circuit as a short-cut to achieve that.

As Iraq descended into chaos, soldiers were stretched to the limit fighting insurgents, so rather than deploy more troops, the U.S. and UK governments outsourced military jobs to the private security firms.

Tasks such as guarding compounds and training Iraqi police all shifted to the Circuit.

But as Iraq became more dangerous, the security needs of companies trying to rebuild the country became ever greater, too.

The more the insurgency gained traction, the more reconstruction funds were diverted into the pockets of security firms.

The biggest loser in this was the Iraqi people, whose daily lives, far from improving, degenerated into a struggle for survival.

Coalition troops on the ground also suffered enormously due to the lack of proper military reinforcements.

Meanwhile, the Circuit had never had it so good. Private security firms were eating up a bigger slice of the reconstrucion fund, as well as getting outsourced military jobs.

In 2003, the collective annual revenue of British security firms totalled approximately £320 million.

The following year, annual revenues had exceeded £1.8 billion. In short, the debacle in Iraq had turned into a 21st century gold rush.

Standards on the Circuit went into freefall. Demand outstripped supply; even a military background was no longer a hard and fast requirement.

I was meeting lads who'd worked as bouncers before joining the Circuit in Iraq.

By 2005, the security market was flooded. Supply caught up with demand and the bubble burst. Faced with declining revenues, many security firms slashed wages - guys who three years ago could have earned £500 a day, now risked their lives for just £170 - and cut back on equipment and training.

The consequences were often brutal. I attended the funeral of an associate who worked for one of the most disreputable British security firms (I shall not name it) - a firm with an eye for the bottom line rather than people's lives.

An ex-Marine, he was killed in an ambush while checking out a building site in Mosel. He had been in Iraq for just two weeks.

He'd been urged to take what I call ridiculous risks, such as arranging a trip to a coalition-funded building site in broad daylight.

Of all the dirty secrets private security firms have, the death toll is by far the worst. I got an idea of how deep the problem runs in 2006, working for another British firm.

One day, a colleague's disgust boiled over and he showed me confidential lists of casualties. In less than two years, nearly 60 employees had been killed and countless more injured in Iraq.

Many of the deaths involved security advisers delivering supplies for coalition forces. Their families and employees working similar tasks were only given sanitised accounts of how they had died.

Thus, the same fatal errors were destined to be repeated again and again.

It's not as if all the work was vital for the survival of democracy and the future of Iraq.

"Is moving 50,000 plastic chairs really worth dying for?" my colleague asked me. I don't think so.

What was really shocking were reports of a growing number of Muslims from Britain were fighting alongside the insurgents.

Take one figure I met while CNN was filming in Sadr City, a poor Shiite neighbourhood of Baghdad and a base for the insurgent Mehdi Army.

"Who are you?" he asked me in an instantly recognisable northern accent.

"A journalist," I lied. "You're Scottish, aren't you?" he said.

"Yeah," I said. "And you're Geordie!" "Yes,2 he said, smiling. "What are you doing here?" I asked. "I'm in the Mehdi Army." "What's wrong with the Toon Army?" I said, referring to Newcastle United's supporters.

He laughed, but the light-hearted moment was brief.

"You've got 20 minutes to do your filming.

"Why 20 minutes?" I asked.

"Because in 20 minutes, an American-patrol is coming past and today they're getting it."

Powerless to warn the troops of the impending danger, 20 minutes later we heard the double thump of an explosive being detonated. Thankfully, there were no casualties - but I've no doubt that Geordie Muslim was out for blood.

The commercial security companies that have stayed in Iraq may label me over-cautious, but I believe that all civilians should steer clear of Iraq and Afghanistan until the security situations improve. Drastically.

By 2006 there were an estimated 126,000 security professionals working in Iraq on U.S. government contracts alone - the numbers in Afghanistan are unknown - and, quite simply, many of them lack the skills, equipment and training to perform their tasks effectively.

I've read the political spin that the Circuit aids stability. Trust me; it doesn't. The truth is, the Circuit is undermining the War on Terror by enabling Western governmnets to hide the true costs of their failed policies.

I have no doubt that had it not been for the Circuit propping things up, public calls for a radical rethink on Iraq would have come much sooner.

It hurts me to know that there are executives of these security companies receiving fat bonuses funded by the deaths and maiming of brave men and women on the ground. It has to stop.

But it won't until the industry is properly regulated by an external body, with sweeping powers to enforce codes of conduct.

The real benefits would be felt in future. If governments can't turn to the Circuit for help, odds are they'd think twice before committing to policies not justified by our military strength.

I haven't worked in Iraq since late 2004 because it has degenerated into total anarchy and chaos. It's impossible to protect my clients with anything other than return fire - and that is not the way I like to work.

I can't do it any more. I am a family man, and when I leave on an assignment, I like to know that I am coming back home in one piece, and not in a body bag.

•Adapted extract from The Circuit by Bob Shepherd, published by Macmillan at £16.99. Copyright Bob Shepherd 2008. To order a copy at £15.30 (p&p free), call 0845 606 4206.

 
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