A Sunday Telegraph investigation can reveal that senior Foreign Office officials have held detailed discussions with a British security firm employing former members of the Special Boat Service (SBS) about setting up and running the operation.
The controversial plan – indirectly funded with aid money from British taxpayers – will see the ex-special forces team sent to train Somali nationals to take on the pirates along the country’s lawless coastline.
The revelation comes days after the release of the Chandlers, from Tunbridge Wells, who were held hostage by Somali pirates for more than a year after being captured on their yacht while on a retirement sailing holiday.
Acting as “mentors” the ex-SBS men will be allowed to accompany the new crews on patrols going into action in armed encounters with the gangs.
The plan is particularly sensitive because previous attempts to train Somali military recruits have seen them swap sides and join the pirates or Islamic insurgents, taking their weapons and equipment with them.
Operating in fast boats capable of outrunning the pirates’ converted fishing vessels, the plan is to retake the coastline and prevent the pirates from putting to sea or returning to shore with kidnap victims.
The operation is seen as essential to protect shipping navigating off the Horn of Africa. Ships currently rely on protection from international naval vessels – including Royal Navy frigates – which are spread too thinly.
Piracy has become so commonplace that conveys of ships are asking for naval escorts through the area while some shipping firms are hiring armed guards to protect their vessels, crews and cargo.
So far this year there have been 164 piracy incidents, with 37 vessels hijacked, around 700 seafarers taken hostage and 12 people killed or injured.
The decision to call in ex-special forces soldiers earning up to £1,500-a-day is highly controversial.
The Foreign Office involvement with ‘soldiers of fortune’ is reminiscent of the Sandline Affair which saw the department accused of sanctioning the activities of a private military company, Sandline International, breaking an arms embargo to ship weapons to Sierra Leone.
The Foreign Office is leading the way on the plan through its chairmanship of the United Nations Working Group on Piracy off the Coast of Somalia.
Working group number one, which is overseeing ‘military and operation co-ordination’, is headed by Chris Holtby, the FCO’s Deputy Head of Security Policy.
An internal UN document prepared by Mr Holtby says: “Crimes such as human trafficking are happening with impunity … security is the key issue.”
It adds: “If the authorities … are not yet able to stop kidnappings, it may be possible to send trainers”.
The report, obtained by The Sunday Telegraph, outlines the overall plan to get better “intelligence against pirate bases ashore” and to be “prepared to take action against them”.
It says any enforcement has to be done in accordance with international law.
Disagreements between the Transitional Federal Government of Somalia (TFG) and the authorities in Puntland, the region further north along the coast, have delayed the proposal for a “Somali Coast Guard unit equipped with 8 fast patrol craft and 96 personnel and coastal observation teams”.
This would be supplemented with a 130-strong battalion of marines for “reconnaissance, surveillance and offensive action”.
They are arguing about where the boat crews should come from. The fear is that training local men and handing out equipment, if the crews were not vetted properly, might “exacerbate the existing problem” if those men then joined the pirates.
The Puntland authorities, who are not internationally recognised, want to control the Coast Guard and send their own men to man the patrols and have objected to “the TFG selecting a commercial partner to work with to establish a Coastguard”.
But Mr Holtby’s report adds: “ensuring accountability” would be “a major requirement for attracting donor support” and that the “consultants”, who presented details on plans for a pilot coastguard scheme with the Somali TFG Defence Minister,”recognised the need for due legal process”.
An earlier, privately funded, attempt to train a coast guard unit in the region using ex-SAS trainers failed when the money from international donors ran out.
This was followed by three serving Coast Guard members being arrested and jailed after hijacking a Thai fishing trawler that they were supposed to be escorting and demanding a £500,000 ransom. The men claimed their wages had not been paid.
Now Mr Holtby has been involved in discussions with British ‘business risk consultants’ Drum Cussac, which already supplies armed security teams to shipping companies, to train the new Somali coastguard.
Last night the firm refused to comment, but it is understood it has been hired by the TFG with the international community agreeing to foot the bill.
The money will come from $25 million the US Government have promised to the antipiracy project.
Britain, which has so far not committed “specifically counter-piracy” money, will also contribute from “overlaying of benefits from counter-terrorism, counter-trafficking, migration, development/rule of law” funds.
Drum Cussac, which describes itself as ‘the market leader in antipiracy and maritime security’, is headed by former Scots Guards officer Jeremy Stampa Orwin.
Mr Stampa Orwin’s previous firm Lifeguard shared offices with Sandline and, according to a Parliamentary report, until 1998, had “from time to time” co-operated “with but is otherwise operationally separate”.
Drum Cussac says it can ‘supply a full range of armed services for the protection of vessels in transit through high risk waters and for static operations or survey work in areas of high threat’.
‘Our armed option’, it says, ‘has been designed to provide fully legitimate, properly licensed and trained teams to deploy on board vessels. Our teams are experienced UK nationals and are equipped with new and modern weapons systems.’
Senior Whitehall sources confirmed Foreign Office officials had met with the security firm involved but insisted it was at the request of the Somali Government. The meetings, the source said, were in line with the strict Government rules on dealing with such firms.
However it was acknowledged that donor cash, including British taxpayers money, would “indirectly” pay for their operation.
Abdallah Boss Ahmed, until recently the Somali defence minister, confirmed he had approved the plan.
He said: “The concept … involves the contracting of specialist private companies to train, equip and mentor vetted Somali recruits to operate effectively and with respect for … Human rights in retaking control of (the) … Somali coast and associated territorial waters.”
Source: The Telegraph
By Jason Lewis, Investigations editor: 20 Nov 2010