The Privateers of Yemen

Starved for revenue and riddled with corruption, the Yemeni navy and coast guard have adopted a novel fundraising strategy: guns for hire.


BEIRUT—Yemen’s leaders are pushing the United States to increase its military aid roughly 40-fold for their country to fight al Qaeda — but Yemen isn’t just relying on aid to generate cash from the international security threats burgeoning on its lands and seas.

For more than a year, Yemen’s financially pragmatic civilian and military officials have been contracting with at least one maritime-security broker to hire out commissioned Yemeni warships and active-duty and armed Yemeni coast guard and navy sailors as private escorts for merchant ships and oil tankers crossing the pirate-infested Gulf of Aden. The cost for Yemen’s escort service: up to $55,000 per ship, per trip.

Guaranteeing "the ultimate protection for your vessel and crew,” the website of Gulf of Aden Group Transits, Yemen’s London-based broker, offers shippers "a dedicated escort by a heavily armored 37.5 meter Yemen Navy Austal patrol boat" and ”six serving Yemen military or coast guard personnel to embark and protect your vessel."

The fee apparently also guarantees shippers a degree of immunity regarding any ensuing battles at sea: "Any action taken by the teams or vessels provided … is fully authorized by the Yemeni Government,” says the website of Lotus Maritime Security, the Yemeni company that claims to serve as a liaison between the London-based broker, the Yemeni government and military, and shippers.

The broker’s website offers testimonials from satisfied sea captains. The Yemeni sailors were "always on high alert, followed all crew officers’ instructions," one happy customer noted.

Although the Yemeni sailors follow the orders of a ship’s captain when aboard a private vessel, said Khaled Tariq, Lotus Maritime’s spokesman, they follow Yemen’s rules of engagement in any contact with pirates.

That sets up possible conflicts of private and public interests not encountered by countries that do not rent out their militaries, naval experts said. In one encounter, according to Lotus’s website, the hired Yemeni service members fired shots at suspected pirates, raising the question of whether they did so with the full protection of a sovereign state, or as private individuals.

Christian LeMiere, an analyst at London’s International Institute for Strategic Studies, said he could not think of any other current instance of a government hiring out its warships or active-duty sailors to private customers for a fee.

The entrepreneurial activities of Yemen — a country where the security services and active military officers hold a great deal of political clout and allegedly control much of the country’s economy, both legal and otherwise — with its own navy shows "one of the vagaries of foreign military assistance," LeMiere said. "You can give them as much equipment as you like, but you can’t necessarily tell them where to direct it."

The Gulf of Aden, which lies between Yemen and Somalia, is one of the world’s main shipping lanes, navigated annually by 20,000 oil tankers and cargo vessels. Somali pirates in 2008 made it the world’s most dangerous place for hijackings. Since that year, the United States, the European Union, NATO countries, China, India, and others have created or strengthened anti-piracy task forces for the Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean. Dozens of warships of different countries now patrol there daily, guarding international shipping.

The attacks persist despite the intensified multinational patrols. Somali pirates have carried out more than 100 attacks so far in 2010 and still hold more than 400 hostages from ship hijackings for ransom, the International Maritime Bureau says. The use of armed guards aboard private ships itself remains controversial, with opponents arguing the guards’ presence serves to drive up the overall violence of the pirate attacks.

For U.S. officials, though, the piracy worry has lately been superseded by fears about terrorism: fears that the Somali and Yemeni branches of al Qaeda will join forces via the waterway between them, worries over threats by Yemen’s al Qaeda branch to attack shipping, and worries about weapons and fighters for al Qaeda flowing in and out of Yemen and Somalia. This month, some security officials also expressed concern that Anwar al-Awlaki, the charismatic Yemeni-American wanted by the United States for allegedly plotting and recruiting for al Qaeda in Yemen, might escape via the Gulf of Aden.

Given those worries, the United States, Britain, and others over the past decade, and especially this year, have invested millions of dollars in aid, training, and equipment to try to build up the Yemeni coast guard’s ability to protect its own shores. The aid includes seven patrol craft that the United States donated to Yemen in 2004. (Yemen bought the Austal vessels noted on the security companies’ websites from an Australian company in 2005.)

The United States is also greatly increasing training, intelligence cooperation, and donations of funding and gear for Yemen’s special operations forces to help them combat al Qaeda on the Arabian Peninsula, as the group’s Yemen branch is known.

Opposition activists in Yemen, as well as arms dealers there, said in interviews they are certain that the more than 30-year-old regime of Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who is fighting insurgencies in both Yemen’s north and south, will put the donated war materiel to use against his own people. In response, U.S. officials said they have greatly increased efforts to track the end use of donated U.S. military aid to Yemen.

Few officials from either country appear willing to discuss Yemen’s navy-for-hire program, however. Spokesmen for the U.S. 5th Fleet and for the Combined Maritime Forces, the international coalition formed in response to the Somali pirates, both refused comment in phone calls, referring questions to the Yemeni navy and coast guard. Calls last week to Yemen’s Ministry of Defense, which runs the country’s navy, went unanswered. Officials for Yemen’s Ministry of Interior, which runs the coast guard, said no one was available to comment.

Speaking by phone from Yemen, Tariq, the legal advisor for Lotus Maritime, said that Yemen started the for-fee service only in response to demand from shippers for extra, personalized protection going through the Gulf of Aden.

Yemeni authorities feared bringing hard-to-control "Blackwater type" contractors to Yemen if they authorized private security companies to do the work in the country’s waters, Tariq said. So they decided to assign the for-pay escorts to Yemen’s military instead, he said.

Tariq said Yemen’s navy and coast guard agree to the escorts only if they already have patrols planned in the areas where shippers are asking for the guards. The navy and coast guard turn down "more than half" of the escort requests that his company forwards from shippers because the duties of Yemen’s national defense require them elsewhere, he said.

Government officials in Yemen ”will not risk jeopardizing their relationship with supporting countries just for this,” Tariq insisted, in a reference to any qualms the United States and other donor countries might have.

But nothing is ever straightforward for donors dealing with Yemen.

Yemen is by far the poorest country on the Arabian Peninsula — for instance, its rate of childhood stunting, caused by malnutrition, is the third highest in the world, below that of most countries in sub-Saharan Africa.

But Saleh, the president, has managed to hang on to power in large part by directing a steady flow of patronage payments, business concessions, and other financial booty to the leaders of his extended family, the military, powerful tribes, and other key blocs in Yemen. A 2006 U.S. Agency for International Development assessment called corruption "the glue that holds Yemen together."

Saleh allows active Yemeni military officers and others in a consortium called the Yemen Economic Corporation (YECO) to take sometimes substantial financial interests in private businesses ranging from the mills that grind the majority of Yemen’s flour to Tourist City, an enclave in the capital city of Sanaa where foreigners can find alcohol and young African prostitutes. In between, YECO holds stakes in Yemen’s construction, manufacturing, food supply, and other industries.

Allegedly, not all Yemeni military enterprises are aboveboard.

On dry land, some analysts accuse Yemeni military officers of charging international oil companies millions of dollars to protect the oil equipment and workers. By sea, the United Nations calls Yemen "the most consistent source" of arms smuggled to extremist groups and gangs in Somalia. Shaun Overton, an analyst, says Yemen’s military is suspected of involvement in arms smuggling. For example, two AK-47s used in a December 2004 attack on a U.S. Consulate in Saudi Arabia were traced by their serial numbers to Yemen’s Defense Ministry.

Smugglers running the Gulf of Aden route are suspected of having powerful connections that protect them. In 2009, the Yemen Post newspaper reported, Yemen’s border guards repeatedly stopped the coast guard from boarding boats that were suspected in smuggling, leading to clashes between the two branches of the security services.

The general perception that Yemen’s army, navy, and border guards are riddled with corruption and ineptitude has led the international community to concentrate its efforts on Yemen’s coast guard and its special forces — though Saleh’s son and nephew lead the two main special-ops branches. (When I was out with Yemen’s coast guard in 2008, for one of the early stories on Somalia’s pirates, coast guard officers and sailors only looked away tactfully when I asked why international efforts to build Yemen’s military were bypassing the country’s navy.)

The United States has doubled military aid to Yemen to $150 million for this year. The Pentagon wants to give the country more than $200 million in military aid next year, part of a planned $1.2 billion military-aid package over the next several years.

That’s "nothing," scoffs Hissam Sharif, a deputy minister and one of Yemen’s main liaisons with the international community. Yemen’s government wants $6 billion in military aid over the next two years, as well as direct control of intelligence satellites, combat helicopters, and other war swag, Sharif told the Associated Press this month. Separately, Yemen’s foreign minister and prime minister have asked for between $10 billion and $40 billion in development aid to fight al Qaeda.

Yemen has an extra incentive to think big when it comes to aid. It funds its budget — at least a third of which is devoted to defense and security services — through oil, which is due to run out later this decade. Faced with a choice of aid or economic collapse, Yemeni leaders arguably could be pressed into accepting military, economic, and political reform.

Don’t count on that, warns Nicolas Gvosdev, a national-security studies professor at the U.S. Naval War College. "If they decide to stop cooperating" against al Qaeda, pirates, and other regional security threats, "we don’t have a Plan B," Gvosdev said. "We don’t really want to go on shore for Yemen."

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