x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Riding Shotgun

American combat forces may be leaving Iraq by the end of 2011 - but the army of guns for hire isn't going anywhere.

A private security company's vehicle burns after a bomb attack by insurgents: The shock from an IED attack, one contractor said, can be worse than the shrapnel.
A private security company's vehicle burns after a bomb attack by insurgents: The shock from an IED attack, one contractor said, can be worse than the shrapnel.

American combat forces may be leaving Iraq by the end of 2011 - but the army of guns for hire isn't going anywhere. Nir Rosen spends a month inside the world of Baghdad's private security companies.

I’m in the driver’s seat of a 2.5-ton armoured truck somewhere west of Baghdad in December 2007, navigating a main supply route used by the American military. Next to me is a Lebanese private security contractor named Abu Layla, who is monitoring the roadside for potential bombs. Suddenly, we get ambushed – a “contact,” as contractors call a violent encounter with Iraqi insurgents, sectarian fighters or al Qa’eda. I hit the panic button on the dashboard, and our signal alerts the nearest US military unit. I take one hand off the wheel to remove the safety of my AK-47 and Abu Layla does the same. Machine gun rounds zip over our heads, and with adrenalin flooding my veins and shots ringing in my ears, we fling open the doors of the vehicle, huddling behind them for protection. I pull the trigger twice to fire “double tap” shots at our attackers and throw a smoke grenade in their direction, sending purple smoke blowing into the wind.

Luckily for me, this attack was only simulated – part of my training during a month spent embedded in Baghdad with two private security companies in Iraq. These outfits are, as a rule, hostile to the media and averse to attention: the two firms asked to remain anonymous in exchange for access to the inner workings of their fortified compounds. Inside I learned quickly that these men are more welcoming – and far less guarded – than the military regiments I’ve met in Iraq in the past three years.

As the American occupation of Iraq heads into its sixth year, the outsize role of private security companies cannot be doubted. A recent audit by the US Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction found a whopping 310 different firms had contracted to provide security for American assets in Iraq, from diplomats to supply convoys, with the bulk of the $6 billion (Dh22bn) bill represented by contracts with 77 outfits.

But while Iraq remains the world’s most dangerous place, insurgent attacks are down. With reconstruction efforts being scaled back, there are fewer convoys and civilian contractors requiring protection. The role of Iraqi security forces has increased, and the passage of the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) – which will put American security contractors under the jurisdiction of Iraqi law – would appear to place these contractors in a precarious position.

But as the Inspector General’s report notes, the drawdown of American combat forces – ostensibly required by the SOFA – may very well increase the need for private security to protect the significant presence of American civilians and military advisers who seem unlikely to depart Iraq anytime soon.

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I flew into Iraq from Queen Aliya International Airport in Amman, which these days has the feel of the bar scene in Star Wars – a motley array of unlikely characters tossed together thanks to the American invasion of Iraq and the civil war that ensued. Iraqis fleeing their country and wealthy Iraqi businessmen returning home sit by Israeli businessmen speaking Hebrew, Muslim pilgrims from around the world dressed in white on their way to Mecca and Medina and obese American technicians wearing Operation Iraqi Freedom souvenir T-shirts and combat boots.

Then there are the guns for hire: thick South Africans built like rugby players, sticking together and speaking Afrikaans, wiry British soldiers and muscled Americans. The private security companies in Iraq have attracted an odd assortment of characters: ex-military types who never liked saluting, naive dreamers who saw a security job as the quickest way to get into combat – and big lugs who seem to have been picked, like playground sports captains, for their sheer size. Private security in Iraq is a $2 billion-a-year business; one of the world’s most dangerous jobs, but a tantalisingly lucrative one.

My flight into Baghdad on Royal Jordanian was full of security contractors, with only a handful of Iraqis. “We wish you a pleasant stay in Iraq,” a stewardess announced as we landed, as if to provide the illusion we were tourists arriving for a leisurely visit. But as we stepped onto the tarmac, uniformed men from a private security company called Global manned the path to the terminal, their AKs at the ready. An Australian directed us to line our bags on the floor as a dog came through to sniff for explosives. I wondered who would take the trouble to fly bombs into Iraq from Jordan.

While men have sold their martial skills from as early as history can record, today’s private security company is a thoroughly modernised entity, with shareholders, international recruitment, and even contracts to train government security forces, including those of the United States. In the US, the use of contractors to supplement traditional military non-combat roles is hardly a new phenomenon: there were 80,000 contractors working in Vietnam during the American war, and one company alone, PAE, had at least 25,000 employees there. During the Tet Offensive PAE took a higher percentage of casualties than the American military.

But the war in Iraq has transformed the use of private contractors: the American occupation is not only dependent on civilian contractors to perform a logistics and support role that traditionally belonged to the military, it is equally dependent on armed private security contractors, who protect sites, run convoys and serve as bodyguards for civilian officials. For security companies “Iraq was an internet-like boom,” says Peter Singer, an expert on the industry at the Brookings Institution. “We could not do Iraq without these firms.”

But the dependence on outsourced firepower has presented its own set of problems – crystallised in high-profile incidents like the killing of 17 Iraqi civilians by Blackwater contractors guarding a State Department convoy last September.

The Iraqi government moved swiftly in an attempt to ban Blackwater from operating in Iraq, and while the firm’s license was revoked by the Ministry of Interior, its contracts with the State Department have not been cancelled. This month five of the American guards involved in the shooting were indicted in a US court on charges that include manslaughter. The Blackwater shooting was one among many episodes of contractor recklessness, but in truth the American military is still more likely to kill Iraqi civilians.

Blackwater, however, earned its reputation for lawless aggression in a series of ugly episodes. Like many companies, they may have simply grown too quickly, desperate to fulfil the requirements of enormous government contracts with whatever manpower was available. A former Blackwater site manager told me that hiring standards were lowered to rush men to Iraq, and that trainers at the company’s North Carolina facility complained that candidates who failed in training were being sent to Iraq anyway.

I met one Blackwater contractor called Mike who was a former cop from Santa Barbara; he owned a bar after retiring from the police force, but when that got boring, he took a one-month course with Blackwater and shipped off to Iraq.

The former Blackwater site manager, who worked in Iraq and Afghanistan for the firm after serving two decades in the American Special Operations Forces, told me that Blackwater’s method was to “shoot everything that moves.”

For Iraqis, private security companies are just another part of the occupying forces that run them off roads, block streets, menacingly point weapons at them and, every once in a while, open fire. In the first few years after the war, it was just armed foreigners who intimidated Iraqis with impunity, and by now most Iraqis know to stay as far away as they can from security convoys and American contractors. But these days there are a host of Iraqi security forces on the streets as well, driving 4x4s and pickups and shooting into the air to scatter vehicles and bystanders. As I sat in traffic from the airport, making my way through Iraqi police and Army checkpoints to Baghdad’s Mansour district, I was more nervous about those guys than the prospect of IEDs (improvised explosive device) on the roadside.

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The first private security company I stayed with was run by a tall African-American named LT, a 30-year-old Dennis Rodman look-alike with sleek, large muscles. Four years of service with the 82nd Airborne hadn’t eliminated his Brooklyn attitude.

In 2003 he received an unsolicited e-mail inviting him to apply for work as a security contractor in Iraq – and even now he has no idea why. “It was weird,” he says. He came to Iraq to work for another company before becoming vice president of a small but very professional operation, staffed by Americans and some 70 Iraqis. Although many companies have ceased doing convoy security because of the dangers involved, LT’s firm still does, and he was a seasoned veteran of Iraq’s lethal roads after four years of running convoys. In the early days, before his company acquired its armored vehicles, he escorted cargo lorries up deadly highways in ordinary civilian vehicles disguised to look like taxis.

Now he has several Ford F350 pickups, with specially constructed armoured housings in the back for a machine-gunner. These days he does not have to rely solely on his own devices – he has a sophisticated support network behind him. Private security companies are linked to the American military through the Reconstruction Operations Center (ROC) of the US Embassy’s Iraq Project and Contracting Office. Each contractor’s vehicle is equipped with a transponder connected to a satellite network called Tapestry which tracks their movements throughout Iraq. Both the military and contractor personnel manning the ROC 24 hours a day and the operations managers of the various companies can always locate their vehicles and track security incidents on the roads. Should a vehicle come under attack, it is equipped with a panic button to communicate with the ROC, which dispatches American troops to the scene.

LT had lost two men to sniper fire, with a few others wounded by IEDs, a relatively low number for a company that ran convoys. The pace can be dizzying, with convoys taking several days to make a round trip, spending nights on American bases while cargo is loaded or unloaded. Back at the compound in Mansour – an ostentatious mansion decorated obscenely in every style imaginable by the Baathist who formerly owned it – a Sri Lankan cook brews Dunkin Donuts coffee and makes three meals a day for the men. LT has constructed a makeshift gym in the living room, for when the men are not collapsed in exhaustion, games on a PlayStation are their recreation of choice.

Many of LT’s daily operations are managed by Elie, a Lebanese Christian veteran of the Falangist militia who proudly told me he had been the force’s youngest tank commander and had even received special training from the Israelis in the 1980s. LT’s assistant team leader is a hard-looking 32-year-old Iraqi male who goes by the call sign Tiger. He and his brother, known as Devil, have – like many Iraqis who have spent the last few years working for Americans – taken on the appearance, mannerisms, speech and swagger of their American employers. When I first met them I thought they were inner-city American Latinos.

A former officer in the Iraqi special forces, Tiger is from Baghdad’s Dora district, a stronghold of al Qa’eda until 2007. When the Marines first arrived in 2003 he served as a translator, and then landed himself a job doing security for the State Department. American intelligence personnel trained him and employed him as an agent. They taught him how to change his appearance and to use weapons, and he helped them arrest a number of insurgents. Then he went on to work for private security companies. “You know work for the government doesn’t pay s***,” he explained. (He has since left the firm to return to work for the Iraqi military.)

Tiger and his brother had an elevated status among the Iraqi staff, and unlike their compatriots they slept in the main house with the Americans, in a caravan that looked like a messy but violent teenager’s room, with clothes and food wrappers strewn about, alongside AK-47s, pistols and loose ammunition. Tiger had a large American flag hung over his bed and an Iraqi one near his desk – where his computer screensaver featured pictures of Malcolm X and Louis Farrakhan.

Prior to a mission, LT blasts hip-hop through the house to get the team in the right mood. He briefs Tiger, who then briefs the other Iraqi gunmen – but without divulging too many details to prevent information from leaking out into the hands of insurgents. LT’s men are forbidden from carrying mobile phones while on the job for the same reason – when LT found a phone, he would break it on the spot. “IEDs,” he told me, “can be triggered by phones.”

One of the more unique aspects of LT’s company was the close and intimate co-operation between the Americans and the LNs – local nationals, in the vernacular of US soldiers and contractors. LT made a point of demanding his American staff treat Iraqis as equals. “We are a pro-Iraqi company,” he told me. “You have to respect Iraqis like you respect anybody. These are really good guys,” he continued, “I would go anywhere with them and not worry because they have my back. When they’re out and I’m here, I can’t sleep because they’re out. I’m like a mother hen.”

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After my time with LT I headed to a large facility in Abu Ghraib, west of Baghdad, to stay with another security company. My host, a former British paratrooper who went by the call sign Fmed, had been working in Iraq since 2004. He had initially come to run security convoys for a British firm called Armor Group, but now had a management job with an Iraqi-owned firm run by Americans. After leaving the army, he spent seven years working private security details for wealthy clients around the world. But when he heard that many of his former comrades-in-arms were in Iraq, he decided to give it a shot.

Fmed thought his experience as a paratrooper in Northern Ireland had been excellent preparation for security work in Iraq. “A British soldier of a certain age is used to going out in a civilian area where the majority of people just want to go about their business and enjoy their life,” he said, “and Iraq is like that. Most Iraqis just want to get their country back to where they don’t have to worry about being killed by Americans or Iraqi forces.”

As we drove around his company’s vast compound – which resembled the terrain along ordinary Iraqi roads – he told me that during the seven months he spent running convoys, he had experienced 11 serious contacts. Since 2006, he said, IEDs had begun penetrating even armoured pickups like the one we were driving, as he coached me to identify potential roadside bombs. “Look as far as the eye can see,” he told me, “not just two cars in front. Look at every bit of bottle, rock, trash, rags, over hangs, concrete, anything out of the ordinary, any vehicle driving parallel to you – you’re constantly scanning. Look near, middle, far, left to right, right to left.”

Suddenly every object in my view was a potential bomb, every bush concealed wires and every broken piece of kerb had an IED stuffed inside it. “In good teams the driver never leaves the vehicle,” Fmed told me, “the vehicle is the most important weapon you have, it can get you out of the shit.” As we drove along the road, he commented on every potential IED location or suspicious vehicle approaching. “You have to drive through an IED even if you only have one wheel left,” he said. “There is a fluidity to convoy driving. Its an art in itself – you are constantly moving.” Speed made no difference, he explained.

Fmed had been in vehicles hit by IEDs numerous times. “The shock can do more damage than actual shrapnel. I’ve known guys to be unconscious for a minute and a half, and that’s a lot. There is one big loud bang, the vehicle goes up in the air, it comes crashing back down, there is black smoke, you can’t see a thing, your ears are ringing, you want to throw up.”

Back home, he lamented, “they think we’re a bunch of hah-hoo cowboys, which was the case in 2003. Then you had every Mickey Mouse in the world. You could be a bouncer from Liverpool – one Friday night you’re kicking the f*** out of somebody in a bar, and on Monday you’re walking around Baghdad with an automatic weapon.”

Now, he said, companies required more extensive prior experience, but the poor training at firms like Blackwater was still making all contractors look bad. “You would have to double the number of American soldiers if they were doing our job,” he said. “I’ve never shot or killed a guy who wasn’t shooting at me. The military has more friendly fire incidents than we do. I’ve been lit up by Americans more times than I know.”

Contractors, he continued, “ain’t a dying breed. We’re an evolving breed. And the Americans have realised they can’t do without us.”

The average wage for a western contractor like Fmed is between $10,000 to $13,000 a month, though most companies do not provide paid leave. He hadn’t yet succeeded in achieving his own goal in Iraq – “mortgage free living for the rest of my life” – and his absence had been hard on his wife and daughter at home. “They are the casualties of my time here.”

Fmed and his colleagues put me through a weapons crash course: AK-47, 9mm Glock pistol and PKM belt-fed machine gun. “The whole idea is to kill the f******* with as little ammunition as you can, single well placed shots,” explained Fmed. We took the weapons apart and put them back together again and again, and I loaded magazines with ammunition until my fingers were calloused. By the end of the day my lower back was killing me, as were my calves, knees and shoulders. My hands were blackened and I had the smell of gunpowder in my mouth. I was hurting in places I had never felt before, and I remembered why I chose journalism rather than a real job. We shot standing up, kneeling, lying down, always two shots in rapid succession, double taps. I succeeded in maintaining my shots in small clusters in the target, and they told me I was a natural. I thought it must all be easy.

As we prepared for a more realistic scenario, Fmed explained I should learn how to administer first aid to myself, including an IV, and we practised in his clinic. I stuck the catheter in a volunteer and easily found the vein and connected it to the IV.
The next day we returned to the range for a more realistic walk-through – I would ride in one gun truck with Abu Layla, the only Lebanese Shiite contractor I had ever met. He belonged to a Shiite militia back home, he told me. “Now I work for the Americans,” he laughed, “I’m a Republican.”

Abu Layla and I would be in a vehicle disabled in an ambush. On the range before us were targets representing friendlies and bad guys. We were not supposed to shoot at the friendlies. Under fire, we would cover each other as we moved from the vehicle to a safer area where I would administer first aid to myself. Fmed would fire the PKM over my head so I would know the feeling of bullets whizzing past me. “Don’t worry, I haven’t killed anybody yet that I haven’t meant to kill,” he reassured me.

We waved for the scenario to begin, and the shooting started, with grenades launched above us from a retrofitted AK-47. Opening the doors, we relied on their armor for cover and fired from between the door and the vehicle. Fmed’s shots zipped over us. I pulled out a smoke grenade and threw it between us and our attackers, and purple smoke blew in the wind while Abu Layla ran around the back and knelt several meters away from the vehicle, switching a magazine as I provided cover fire. Then my gun jammed, and I fumbled with it, trying to resume firing. I leapfrogged around Abu Layla, kneeling to change magazines, knocking the empty one out with the new one, as I had been taught. It jammed again and I started to get nervous – with Abu Layla shooting right next to me and Fmed’s bullets flying past.

As I took cover to administer first aid to myself, Fmed fired a grenade over my head. The force of the explosion startled me. I fumbled with the tourniquet and found a vein in my forearm. I stabbed right through it and a ball swelled under my skin; when I took the needle out to try again, blood spurted all over my trousers.

It was a humbling experience. Being under fire was nothing new, nor were nearby explosions – but as a journalist you can just take cover and watch. I was ready to trade the AK for a notebook and return to relying on my wits to survive.

I was driven back to the airport by another former Lebanese Falangist, who fought from 1975 until his country’s civil war ended in 1990 and now worked as a contractor in Baghdad. “It’s fun working in Iraq,” he told me without solicitation. I asked about the Lebanese civil war. “It was fun,” he said.

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Last week I caught up again with Fmed, who now works for a different company in Ramadi, in western Iraq. He had still not met his financial goals and he would not leave Iraq or the security contractor industry until he did so. “Things are better,” he told me, “in the sense that the foreign fighters are starting to leave Iraq and heading for Afghanistan – they have basically done all they can in Iraq.”

The American military, he said, “have handed over a great portion of the country to the Iraqi Army and security apparatus, and still carry out the odd joint operation. We have been lucky here, though several months ago one of our vehicles was hit by an IED without casualties on a nearby military route.” But the threats have not gone away, he suggested, pointing to two IED attacks last week on police outposts in Fallujah.

For his part, Fmed was hardly eager to quit the security business. “Soldiers are a funny breed,” he laughed, “and ex-soldiers who work contract are even funnier. We need the excitement, the lead flying and the IED’s exploding, to feel truly alive. We could settle for the quiet life, but we keep going where it is everything but quiet. I will keep on going abroad to hot spots as long as the wife allows. When she says enough is enough, I’m hanging up my weapons for good. Until that day, let the good times roll.”

But like the jihadists, security contractors are also setting their sights on the new frontier in Afghanistan, where the resurgent Taliban and the prospect of a new American “surge” seem sure to mean big business – especially as the new regulations in the SOFA raise the risk of prosecution in Iraq.

“It does worry a few of the guys,” he told me. “We operate within the restraints of the rules for the use of force, and as long as we can prove that we acted in what we thought was self-defence we should be OK. But we may have to answer to Iraqi law,” he said, and nobody knows what that will mean. “To find out where we stand, and whether the Iraqis will give any contractor a fair hearing,” he said, “some poor bastard is going to have to go through the process.”

Nir Rosen is a fellow at the Center on Law and Security at NYU and the author of The Triumph of the Martyrs: A Reporter's Journey into Occupied Iraq.