The government and mainstream media are up in arms about returning Islamic State fighters. But what of the British mercenaries fighting in the region? Peter Hill examines a double standard with troubling implications.
The government has recently enacted new anti-terror measures aimed specifically, it claims, at returning Islamic State fighters from Syria and Iraq. The temporary character of these measures will almost certainly disappear with time. The legislation passed in the aftermath of 9/11 and 7/7 has become effectively permanent and has been used far beyond its original, official scope. This was certainly the case, for instance, with the 2003 Extradition Act.
It is also clear that these measures will be used specifically against Muslims, increasing the danger of criminalising Muslims in Britain in general. Members of Islamist organisations are not the only people travelling to the region from Britain to take part in violence and warfare. Take the British nationals who travelled to serve in the IDF. Or members of Britain’s own armed forces, who still serve as part of an occupying force in Afghanistan.
Guns for Hire
Then there is the shady world of the private mercenary armies. These basically unregulated firms are known euphemistically as Private Military Companies or Private Security Contractors. They are in fact mercenaries. The lawless conditions in which these firms operated in Iraq are fairly well known: they have been revealed in books and journalists’ reports and were explored in Ken Loach’s 2010 film Route Irish.
One American journalist embedded with mercenaries in 2004 reported: ‘If a US soldier shoots someone under murky circumstances, the Army’s Criminal Investigation Division looks into it. But the CID has no authority over civilians off base. “I don’t even know that if you engage someone there’s even an investigative authority to follow up,” Kelly [a security contractor] said. “With no parameters, how do I know if I’ve done something wrong? It’s like the Wild West, but nobody’s the sheriff.
‘Or, depending on how you look at it, everybody is. Last summer, a British contractor was run off the road by bandits on a highway south of Baghdad. The contractor, a former SAS man, got out of his car and pretended to surrender. When the bandits approached, he shot both of them. One didn’t die immediately, so he clubbed him to death. The Brit was still laughing about it when Bill ran into him a week later.’
Mercenaries working in Iraq could on occasion, however, receive the most respectful memorial notices from the BBC when they come to a sticky end. For some reason, we have yet to see any dead British Islamic State fighters treated in the same manner. But British mercenaries are, of course, regularly presented by the right-wing press as operating in the nation’s interests, even when they are clearly working for private, for-profit organisations. In addition, they are generally ex-servicemen, and generally white.
Counter-terrorism organisations like to refer to networks of Islamist fighters coming out of conflicts such as those in Afghanistan in the 1980s and contemporary Iraq. But this ‘matrix of international terrorism‘ has a shadow-image, a second network of dangerous fighters operating across the world. This network is made up of Western mercenaries – ex-military, special forces and police – and takes in old and new conflict zones: Northern Ireland, Zimbabwe, Iraq, Afghanistan.
Those with an interest in this network of privatised military firms would like us to think that they are a necessary response – and a most ‘flexible’ and cost-effective one – to the threat posed by Islamist terrorist organisations. The relationship is less one-sided than that. ‘Counter-terrorism’ – state-run or privatised – causes much of the violence to which it claims to be the solution.
The Rhodesian SAS, and Other Colonial Exports
The history of these networks of ‘counter-insurgency’ experts stretches back into the Cold War and Britain’s old colonies. Ex-members of the Rhodesian SAS, or the police force of apartheid South Africa, were also able to find gainful employment in various anti-Communist conflicts, from Oman to Angola to Colombia. They fought alongside former members of the British Special Forces, many of whom had experience in Northern Ireland. These private mercenary armies operated all over the global South, wherever governments were weak and Western interests were at stake.
The most famous mercenary activities of the twentieth century were in Africa in the 1960s and 70s. In the words of former British diplomat Craig Murray, ‘It was the old story – trained white men to go in, shoot up a lot of Africans and grab control of key economic resources.’ (The Catholic Orangemen of Togo, p 26). Those who got control of the resources were generally Western corporations. The Blair government was embroiled early in its early months in one such affair, which became known as the ‘Arms-to-Africa’ scandal. This involved soldier-turned-mercenary Tim Spicer and an attempt to seize diamond mines in Sierra Leone on behalf of an Indian financier. Tony Blair made a mockery of Robin Cook’s attempt to instigate an ‘ethical foreign policy’ by declaring the British official who had helped along the deal to be ‘a hero’.
Towards the end of the twentieth century, a study by the Campaign Against the Arms Trade reported that the mercenaries were seeking a new respectability.
‘The warriors who infested Africa in the 1960s and 1970s were for the most part individual adventurers without corporate backing, who sought excitement as well as money by joining in mayhem in troubled corners of the earth. … Now, however, a different breed has come to the fore: the organisers of “private military companies”, who operate from smart offices, purport to be carrying on legitimate, indeed virtuous businesses like overseas versions of Group 4 or Securicor, move in highly respectable circles and have access to government departments.’
What really brought the mercenaries into the mainstream of government policy, however, was the “War on Terror”. The same ex-Rhodesian, apartheid South African and Ulster soldiers, along with ex-military personnel from across the world, were among employed as military contractors in Afghanistan and particularly in Iraq, after the US-British invasion. Iraq was the scene of a mercenary ‘Gold Rush’, with vast amounts of money being dispensed on these services by the US and British occupation forces and private contractors (most of it, ultimately, paid for by the Iraqis, of course). The industry mushroomed.
The fact that it had the capacity to do this can be explained partly by the fact that the ‘War on Terror’ followed the onset of the wave of neoliberalisation and privatisation in states across the world. This included the military and security organs of states, a 2006 study by War on Want notes, and many former employees moved into mercenary activity. In the former Soviet Union, nearly 70% of ex-KGB members went into the mercenary business.
Meanwhile, the mercenaries’ old activities in Africa, which used to shelter behind the rhetoric of anti-communism, could now use the War on Terror as a justification. In Somalia, for instance, in 2011, the UN Security Council warned that Saracen, a mercenary firm with links to South Africa, presented the ‘most egregious threat’ to peace and security in the country. Journalist Mel Frykberg wrote: ‘Lafras Luitingh, a former “reccie” [reconnaissance soldier] implicated in South African apartheid hit squads, heads the company’s operations in Somalia. He was implicated in the cover-up of the murder of anti-apartheid activist David Webber by a hit squad.’
Lack of Legislation
Ex-Special Forces, military and police personnel from Britain’s ex-colonies have been especially well-placed, since the start of the War on Terror, to cash in on their experience of ‘small wars’ and ‘counter-insurgency’. If we are searching for the reasons why people in, say, Iraq or Somalia might join Islamist ‘terror’ organisations, it might be worth considering, among other factors, the existence of private Western mercenaries in their countries, operating in the interests of Western businesses and states, and whose activities are effectively above the law.
At home in Britain and the USA, there are hardly any more regulations on these mercenary firms than there were in occupied Iraq. The private security industry has undertaken a certain amount of self-regulation since the Iraq war boom in the employment of mercenaries, which had begun to get the whole industry a bad name.
But Government has essentially left them to it. Organisations such as Campaign Against the Arms Trade and War on Want have been calling for regulation of mercenaries for many years. South Africa outlawed mercenary activity in 1998. There is a 1989 UN Convention prohibiting the use of mercenaries, which entered into force in 2001 – but neither Britain nor the USA are signatories. In the intervening time, the industry has boomed. The international voluntary code launched in Geneva in 2013 is effectively toothless.
One reason for this is that the PMSCs have close ties to politicians as well as to the defence and security establishments. In April, for instance, Home Secretary Theresa May visited one of the industry’s major jamborees, Counter Terror Expo 2014 at the Olympia Exhibition Centre in London. ‘She was shown around the event by Lord West, former Chief of the Naval Staff and Minister for Security and Counter-Terrorism from 2007 to 2010 and by Stephen Phipson, the Home Office’s Director of Security Industry Engagement.’
Instruments of State
This is not simply a matter of negligence or laissez-faire, or of mercenary firms buying themselves a piece of Government. The unregulated status quo is positively useful to states which employ large numbers of these contractors themselves. PMSCs, many military experts tell us, are now an indispensable part of the way Britain and the USA wage war. With shrinking but still unwieldy armed forces, these states have come to rely on mercenary companies to an unprecedented extent – since Iraq above all.
War has been partially privatised. This has not only enabled the augmentation of private profits, but also the denial of public responsibility. For example, in the 1990s the American mercenary firm MPRI trained the Croatian Army. This ‘circumvented’ the UN embargo on giving arms and training to any warring party in the former Yugoslavia. When the Croatian army went on to break the UN ceasefire and commit various atrocities, the USA was able to evade responsibility in a way that would hardly have been possible had its own army been involved in training the Croatians.
The political fallout from the death or injury of mercenary soldiers is much less than in the case of a country’s own armed forces. While rates of pay are good for the mercenaries, and certainly better than in the official armed forces, they are effectively being paid extra for their greater expendability. They too can suffer from the lawless conditions under which mercenaries operate: in one incident in Iraq, a mercenary employed by G4S (ArmorCorp) shot dead two of his colleagues. And ultimately their bosses, the ex-officers and defence officials who run the mercenary companies, are profiting far more than they themselves are, from their labour and the danger they are exposed to.
The nexus of interests linking government to mercenary firms helps explain why no steps have been taken to regulate the industry. The 1999 CAAT study, calling for such regulation, noted that the legal instruments were ready to hand. In addition to the UN Convention on mercenaries, an old British law of 1870 against Foreign Enlistment outlaws the recruitment of mercenaries. Though long treated as a ‘dead letter’, it could equally be held to apply to British citizens travelling abroad to fight for the Islamic State, the IDF, or private mercenary firms.
Instead, of course, the UK government prefers ‘anti-terror’ legislation which applies only to Islamist fighters. It condemns the use of proxy militias by the Russian government in Ukraine. Russia’s actions in Ukraine should be condemned. But the UK government is less willing to address its own dependence on and toleration of private armed forces. Terrorist organisations such as the Islamic State or al-Qaeda have developed in the context of a wider climate of violence. And for this, western governments and businesses have much to answer for – not least in their use of effectively unregulated private mercenary armies. ‘Counter-terrorism’ is a cause of terrorism, and not a solution to it.