The Wild West in East Africa

What do a handful of South African mercenaries do for an encore in Somalia, once all the pirates are gone?

©Somalia Report - Jason Florio
©Somalia Report - Jason Florio

It’s not easy to be a mercenary these days. The once-booming markets in Iraq and Afghanistan have shrunk, while lingering controversy surrounding the mercenary poster-boy company Blackwater (or whatever they’re called these days) has served to paint private security contractors as reckless and unaccountable war junkies. A good gig as a soldier of fortune is harder and harder to come by.

Yet there’s one war-torn country where demand for guns-for-hire is still high. A contingent of mercenaries has managed to carve out a niche for itself in the failed state of Somalia. Initially brought on in an internationally controversial mission to combat pirates terrorizing Somalia’s coastal waters, the mostly South African corps have now turned to fighting Somalia’s al Qaeda-linked terrorist menace, al-Shabab. In the anarchic world of failed states, private contractors are often able to accomplish what goverments are not. But the consequences are hard to predict.

Even by the standards of Basrah or Kandahar, northern Somalia’s a pretty tough place to go to work. Mired in civil war for over two decades, Islamist militants, pirates, clan militias, and government forces continually clash in an ever-shifting web of alliances. But for these hardened South African mercenaries, such environments are hardly new.

There’s a good reason so many mercenaries hail from there. After the collapse of apartheid, many highly trained and experienced fighters found themselves out of a job. When the 32 "Buffalo" Battalion, an infamous counter-insurgency force mostly deployed in southern Angola was disbanded in 1993, many of its erstwhile members joined Executive Outcomes (EO), the world’s first modern private military company. EO also hired former members of the Civil Cooperation Bureau (CCB), a euphemistically named secretive hit squad that targeted anti-apartheid activists.

Starting in 1993, EO began to pop up in sundry civil wars across the world’s hot spots. In Angola and Sierra Leone, the company’s forces almost singlehandedly saved the governments from advancing rebels. But in 1997, EO subcontractors were detained and then expelled from Papua New Guinea after becoming embroiled in an international scandal over mining rights known as the Sandline Affair. The following year the company dissolved, though EO personnel continued to find new work. In 2004, they were involved in an abortive coup aimed at toppling Equatorial Guinea strongman Teodoro Obiang. Now the same old guard — fighting for an array of security outfits with ever-changing names — have found themselves in Somalia.

In January 2010, about 150 mercenaries and support staff (working for Saracen International, a shadowy Lebanese company registered to EO founding director and former CCB officer Lafras Luitingh), were contracted by the government of Puntland, an autonomous northern enclave that has managed to avoid the worst of the Somali civil war. Ruling over about 1.5 million people and a quarter of Somalia’s territory, the Puntland administration on the whole has far outperformed the internationally recognized government in Mogadishu. As Somali federal politicians beg for handouts from donor countries, Puntlanders maintain their own security, levy taxes, and are on the cusp of holding direct elections.

Saracen’s task was to train and mentor the Puntland Marine Police Force (PMPF), a 1,000-man strong local counter-piracy militia based in Bosaso, Puntland’s main port and largest city. Flush with some $50 million in start-up funds from the United Arab Emirates, Saracen came equipped with flatbed trucks, marine patrol aircraft, and Alouette IIIs — French light helicopters primarily used for reconnaissance.

The Puntland administration, eager for international support, was for its part happy to show the world it could be an ally in the fight against piracy. For the Emirates, ensuring that their shipping corridors were pirate-free — particularly for oil-exporting tankers — was well worth keeping somewhat dodgy company.

"This project was conceived by, and executed by what we would call pariahs, people who are not part of polite society," said Robert Young Pelton, author of Licensed to Kill: Hired Guns in the War on Terror. "But it remains one of the most efficient and productive solutions to the problem of piracy." 

It’s hard to argue with the results. Since PMPF went live in early 2010, piracy has been virtually eliminated in Puntland; over a year has passed since the last Somali pirate hijacking. Yet exactly where the credit lies is different matter. Most attribute the drop off in piracy to the increased deployment of armed guard detachments on board commercial vessels, rather than enforcement efforts on land.

But critics fear that law enforcement may not be the PMPF’s primary purpose. An elite, foreign-trained paramilitary force — loyal only to Puntland’s president — could be used to suppress domestic opposition to the administration, or even to enforce Puntland’s claims to territory disputed with the neighboring region of Somaliland. The United Nations has been particularly persistent in its denunciation of the PMPF, accusing the group of violating the 1992 arms embargo on Somalia.

Meanwhile, Putland has become an increasingly inviting home for al-Shabab, the al-Qaeda affiliated Somali terrorist group. Kenyan, Ugandan, and Ethiopian troops have squeezed them militarily in the south of the country, and the group has fled north into Puntland’s Galgala hills, a mere 30 kilometers west of Bosaso.

But with a paltry annual budget of around $20 million, the Puntland government has few options when it comes to containing the region’s growing Islamist threat. This rogue band of foreign mercenaries may be their best hope.

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The PMPF’s transition from counter-piracy to counter-terrorism force has been both long and troubled. In 2012, Saracen International was forced to rebrand itself as Sterling Corporate Services, following bad press and harsh criticism from the United Nations. Last June, the UAE finally responded to external pressure and pulled its funding for the PMPF. Sterling Corporate Services dissolved, and most of the foreign personnel departed. Yet a skeleton crew of 12 freelance guns-for-hire remained in Bosaso to maintain the force’s equipment and minimal operational capacity — though initially without pay. Five months later, UAE funding to the outfit quietly resumed to the tune of $1.2 million per month, and back wages were paid, according to a Puntland government source.

Among those remaining in Puntland was former EO commander Roelf van Heerden, 58, a South African with a salt and pepper mustache and intense gaze. Van Heerden served as the PMPF’s operations commander from April 2012 to January of this year. 

The PMPF’s first major target in June 2012, he told us in early May, was the pirate boss Isse Yulux, who commanded a 100-man militia holding two valuable tankers for ransom, the MT Smyrni and MT Royal Grace. Van Heerden and the PMPF pursued Yulux across northern Puntland, but the pirate leader was always a step ahead. On June 6, the PMPF caught up with Yulux at his compound near the coastal village of Bargaal. As van Heerden and former EO pilot Arthur Walker circled above in an aging Alouette chopper, the pair came under Dushka 12.7mm anti-aircraft fire from a defensive line of technicalsflatbed trucks with mounted guns ringing the compound.

The Alouette’s gunner responded by opening fire from th
e chopper’s single machine gun, destroying the technicals and killing one pirate. But Yulux and his men evaded capture yet again, and sailed away into the Gulf of Aden with the Smyrni and Royal Grace. Yulux seemed tipped off to the attack, which led van Heerden to conclude that the PMPF had been infiltrated. Abdirizak Farah, the PMPF’s local Somali commander, came to van Heerden one day with a blunt warning.

"He told me to sleep with my weapon," van Heerden said. "Yulux had created a hit list of expat commanders and had offered rewards. I was number one on the list."

It wasn’t an idle threat. On April 27, 2012, Saracen’s Lodewyk Pietersen was shot dead by two of his trainees while monitoring troop movements into a Puntland village. While the official account of the incident reported that the murder had resulted from Pietersen disciplining his troops over the theft of a vehicle, van Heerden is convinced that the killers were paid by Yulux.

"He was number four on the list," van Heerden said.

But even infiltrated and with a reduced contingent of Saracen/Sterling mercenaries, the PMPF continued its mission. The most daring operation unfolded on Dec. 23, 2012. After a three week-long siege, its marines launched an assault on the pirates holding the MV Iceberg, a Dubai-owned cargo ship whose mostly Indian crew — abandoned by their shipping company — had been held hostage for an astounding two years and nine months. One crewmember had committed suicide, and chief mate Dhiraj Tiwari had been severely tortured and eventually beaten to death by his captors. The high winds of the monsoon season had driven the Iceberg, now depleted of fuel, onto a rocky shoal near the shore, rupturing her hull.

The rescue operation began at dawn. Once again, van Heerden concluded, the pirates had been tipped off, and the PMPF marines were greeted by machine gun fire breaking the early morning silence. Upon realizing that the ship’s steel plating was sufficient to shield the pirates from small arms fire, van Heerden called for heavier weapons. In due course, PMPF marines sent for a Soviet-issue recoilless rifle, and began bombarding the ship’s bridge from a position on the nearby beach. Outnumbered and outgunned, the Iceberg’s hijackers agreed to surrender on the condition of safe passage off the vessel, and her crew’s long ordeal came to an end.

Farah told van Heerden that following the operation, Indian officials arrived in Bosaso on Dec. 24 and handed over $1.5 million in cash to PMPF director Mohamed Farole — Puntland President Abdirahman Farole’s eldest son. The alleged payment was also reported by the local news website Horseed, though we were unable to independently verify the figure. Just $3,000 in reward money was paid to the PMPF marines who participated in the operation, according to Farah — about $30 a man.

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But the situation on the ground had begun to change months before this daring raid late last year. As piracy sharply declined throughout 2012, the rationale for the PMPF’s continued existence had become increasingly murky. Around a campfire one evening in May 2012, over coffee and biscuits, the mercenaries excitedly discussed what their future held.

"They talked about how once counter-piracy was done they could refocus on other threats, such as al-Shabab and ‘instability writ large,’" recalled Roger Carstens, a counter-insurgency expert who spent time with the PMPF. 

Yulux, like most Somali pirates, has since gone to ground, and it appears that the soldiers of fortune now have a new target: al-Shabab. Indeed, indications are that the PMPF may be transitioning into a counter-terrorism unit, battling the insurgency in Puntland’s Galgala hills, southwest of Bosaso. The violent Islamist campaign in Puntland was kicked off in early 2010 by arms smuggler Mohamed Said Atom, who — though aligned with al-Shabab — maintained an independent network. Atom’s organization was taken over by al-Shabab the following year, as sustained military setbacks in the south increasingly led the group to relocate north, so as to keep a line of communication open to al Qaeda elements in Yemen. 

"We believe that there are … more than 400 [fighters] in those areas," President Farole told Reuters news agency in November. 

Late in 2012, al-Shabab escalated its attacks in Puntland. On Dec. 5, militants struck a base of the Puntland militia, known as Darawish, 18 miles south of Bosaso, killing 17 soldiers. The same night, a roadside bomb planted by Islamist militants claimed the lives of another 10 soldiers.

Puntland authorities were quick to answer back. According to van Heerden, the PMPF’s first engagement with al-Shabab took place in the Galgala hills on Jan. 15. As Darawish and Puntland Intelligence Service (PIS) forces advanced on the ground, the PMPF provided aerial support with the Alouette and one fixed-wing aircraft.

Skirmishes continued over the next several months. Following an al-Shabab ambush on Feb. 14 of a Darawish and PIS column, a condemnation of the mercenaries found its way into the terror group’s rhetoric.

"The attack was carried out by the anti-Shahada [anti-Islam] militias of the administration calling itself Puntland," al-Shabab spokesman Abu Muscab related. "They had 18 vehicles and were receiving air support from Saracen." 

The United Nations had long ago warned of the specter of foreign mercenaries playing a combat role in Somalia, citing their lack of accountability as well as the possible disruption of the international security force building in Somalia. In its reports to the Security Council, the U.N. Somalia Eritrea Monitoring Group (SEMG) repeatedly blasted the PMPF for flouting the U.N. arms embargo on Somalia. "Under the [U.N.] embargo there is no role for foreign military personnel to operate in Somalia," Matt Bryden, who served as the coordinator of the SEMG from 2008 to 2012, told us earlier this month. "[P]articipating in combat operations is clearly going beyond what the Security Council envisioned for any foreign force other than AMISOM [the African Union peacekeeping force in Mogadishu]."

Bryden disputes that Saracen’s private army has had much of any success: "The PMPF, to my knowledge, has only rescued one ship that had already run aground," Bryden said, referring to the MV Iceberg operation. "Most pirate bases it has entered had already been vacated. And it has yet to arrest one significant pirate leader. Counter-piracy doesn’t seem to be its primary goal."

Like many others, Bryden seems to regard the PMPF as a quasi-praetorian guard masquerading as a counter-piracy force. A paramilitary unit loyal only to the president — and commanded by the president’s son — could destabilize Puntland’s upcoming elections, he argued. If Puntland — one of the few stable areas in Somalia — breaks into turmoil, there are concerns that the region will become a safe haven for al-Shabab terrorists.

Fears over the politicization of the PMPF may already be coming to pass. On Oct. 29, the PMPF blocked roads and encircled the Bosaso residence of former Somali Prime Minister Abdiweli Ali Gaas, who was widely viewed as a potential candidate in the Puntland presidential election scheduled for next January. As a result
of the PMPF’s intervention, Gaas was unable to meet with local politicians and elders.

Both PMPF Director Mohamed Farole and President Abdirahman Farole declined to comment for this article. However, the Puntland government maintains that it has no intention to use the PMPF or its expat mercenaries in the fight against al-Shabab. "Compared to today, the threat level from Galgala, militarily, is not what it was in 2010," a Puntland government source told us. "There is no plan — and no need — to use the PMPF in the Galgala hills."

Yet the PMPF’s revamped role as al-Shabab hunters might be exactly the reason the UAE continues to fund the force. "Their main interest is that they see Puntland as a launching pad for attacks, specifically from al Qaeda elements, against the UAE," said Pelton. "They want to ensure that the PMPF is watching their back." UAE officials were not available for comment.

The future of the PMPF remains in limbo. Following the departure of the majority of Saracen/Sterling’s mercenaries, the Puntland government has searched for another private contractor to resume the PMPF training program and provide a coherent command structure. But after the international scandal, no contracting firms have been eager to take on the task.

The presence of foreign mercenaries in war-torn states will no doubt remain controversial. But some say that preaching about international legitimacy in places that lack the basic peace and security most take for granted is a luxury Puntland can ill afford. Others put the point more bluntly.

"In a place like Somalia you don’t have time to screw around with the U.N.," said Pelton.

If the distant critics had Islamist militants planting bombs outside their doors, they might come to agree.

<p> James Bridger is a maritime security analyst and piracy specialist based in Washington, D.C. Jay Bahadur is a freelance journalist and author of The Pirates of Somalia: Inside Their Hidden World. </p>