DUBAI // Eager to capitalise on the rising threat of Somali piracy, private security firms are lining up to win contracts to train maritime forces in Somalia.
And while the international community backs the idea of building up Somali forces fight piracy, it is raising eyebrows about the prospect of unregulated training and arming programmes that could later backfire.
Still, over 100 security firms have made pitches for contracts, said Saeed Mohamed Rage, the government minister overseeing counter-piracy for the Somali region of Puntland, where most pirates come from.
Some 20 firms had made offers in two days at an anti-piracy conference that ended here yesterday, he said. “Mostly they are European companies, Germans, Americans - a lot.”
Conference participants - including senior UN and government officials and industry executives from 50 countries - acknowledged the need for such a force.
In a statement, they endorsed “the provision of coordinated training as well as material and financial resources to improve land-based security capacity.”
Likewise Jack Lang, until recently the UN special adviser on piracy, identified local security as one of three pillars for his recommended solution, which was largely incorporated into a UN Security Council resolution passed last week.
“Police and on-land coast guards must be reinstalled in the pirate zones,” he said in a speech yesterday. “The international community must support this initiative... notably through training.”
But the prospect of privately trained forces in Somalia - already a warring, fractionalised and heavily armed country - has raised concerns.
Though the international community cannot ban private security firms from the country, under a UN arms embargo, the UN would need to approve any weapons they supplied.
The many firms eyeing the counter-piracy market needed to be open about their activities, said Col RJ Steed, a senior military adviser with the UN Political Office for Somalia.
“Private security companies must comply with the sanctions monitoring regime and they can only be used in a clear, transparent and open way so that their activities do not destabilise the region,” he said.
“We need to be very careful.”
The UN is training 500 Somali police officers in a $10 million programme, but not in counter-piracy.
The only firm known to have secured a contract in Somalia so far is Saracen International, which, according to media reports, has ties to Blackwater founder Erik Prince and received backing from the UAE.
Mr Rage, the Puntland minister, said that since last June the firm has fulfiled a multi-million dollar contract to train 350 forces in counter-piracy. He said his government had not paid the contract, but declined to say who had.
The Puntland authorities plan to invite the UN to inspect the forces and seek permission to arm them, Mr Rage said. For now the men are waiting without pay.
The government has a letter of intent for a second contract with Saracen to train over 1,000 additional troops, he said.
The collaboration, which was revealed by the media in January, prompted international players like the US to step in.
“Our diplomats worked with all the usual folks to say, this is really going to create a problem, this is really not something that you want to do,” said Donna Hopkins, counter-piracy coordinator for the US State Department.
Security firms should wait until Somalia passes a law regulating such forces, and ensure that their forces will be sustainable, she said.
“Buying a bunch of boats and sticking guns in the hands of sailors that are half-trained is a backwards way to do it,” she said.
“First you develop the laws, then you build up the structures, then you develop the revenue streams, then you buy the equipment, then you train the people.”
Halliday Finch, a Nairobi-based firm that is seeking funds to build a 1,500-strong maritime police force on behalf of the government in Mogadishu, said it follows such steps.
The company has already trained 500 non-maritime police, said CEO Sam Mattock, and has kept the UN and other organisations abreast of its activities.
“We’ve said, let’s do this properly, let’s make it transparent,” he said. “No secrets.”
The firm has drafted a law for the government to submit to parliament that would regulate maritime police.
To ensure the force is sustainable, the firm aims to spend $52 million in the first year and train up an officer corps within two years. With a Kuwaiti partner, Mr Mattock said, he plans to solicit the funds from the Kuwaiti government.
Like others, he stressed the need to enable Somalis to fight piracy themselves. For one, they can police on land - stopping pirates before take to sea.
He faces stiff competition, he said. “There’s plenty out there.”
Some security firms, though, feel the possible harm outweighs the benefit.
“If you train up a special police group, and five years later it turns out that group is pretty despicable... It’s just too dangerous,” said one executive who declined to be named. “We have to be 100 per cent sure.”