The American security company Blackwater is planning to cash in on the rising threat of piracy on the high seas by launching a flotilla of gunboats for hire by the shipping companies.
The firm, which gained international notoriety when its staff killed civilians in Iraq, has already equipped one vessel, called The McArthur, which will carry up to 40 armed guards and have a landing pad for an attack helicopter.
The McArthur, a former survey ship, arrives in the Gulf of Aden, the scene of the recent high-profile hijackings and shootouts with Somali pirates, at the end of the year. It is to be joined by three or four similar vessels over next year to form the company's private navy.
Blackwater, which has strong ties with the Republican administration in Washington, was the subject of investigations by the US Congress and the Iraqi government after its guards shot dead 17 people in Baghdad's Nisoor Square last year, a massacre which led directly to changes in law regarding security contractors in Iraq.
Several security companies are rushing to the region despite the presence of British, American, Russian and Indian naval warships, among others, sent to protect ships. For fees ranging from £8,000 to £12,000 for transits of three and five days, companies are offering teams of unarmed guards, "non-lethal deck security personnel".
With more than 60 ships attacked in the Gulf and ship-owners paying an estimated £75m in ransom for the return of crew and cargo, the security companies foresee a lucrative business.
One US company, Hollowpoint Protective Services, says it is offering a comprehensive service of hostage negotiations backed by armed rescue operations if the talks fail. Eos, a British concern, says it favours a "non-lethal" approach with the use of sophisticated laser, microwave and acoustical devices. But Blackwater plans to have the largest and most heavily armed presence among the security contractors. The company believes that the presence of escorting gunboats will have a deterrent effect, with criminal gangs being forced to switch to more vulnerable targets.
A Blackwater spokeswoman, Anne Tyrrell, said there have already been about 15 inquiries about its anti-piracy service. The company refused to reveal how much it will charge. Its executive vice-president, Bill Matthews, said the US Navy and the Royal Navy do not have the resources in the region to provide total security, opening up a role for companies such as his. He added: "While there are temporary needs that perhaps outpace the limited resources of the Department of Defence [Washington] and the Ministry of Defence [London], the private sector is available to fill those gaps.
"We have been contacted by ship-owners who say they need our help in making sure goods get to their destination. The McArthur can help us accomplish that. We have not sought to enter the space until recently. It was not part of our business plan. But as the world changes, so does our business plan."
Nick Davis, a former British Army pilot who runs a company in Poole called Anti-Piracy Maritime Security Solutions, said: "It frightens me that Blackwater is going down there. Their background is not in deterrence. Their background is in weapons. To me, the best people to be armed are the military. Pirates might approach McArthur without knowing it's a Blackwater boat and try to hijack it."
Chris Austen, chief executive of Maritime & Underwater Security Consultants, in London, said ship-owners should be cautious about armed guards. "There are some flags that prohibit the carriage of arms or the use of violence. There are some insurers that will not accept it, and your insurance will be void."
Guns for hire: The violent option
The massacre on Baghdad's "Bloody Sunday" became a lethal symbol of the aggression with which Blackwater's private army carried out its mission in Iraq. I saw the deadly result of panicked security guards opening fire at a crowded Nisoor Square in the city centre. Round after round mowed down terrified men, women and children. At the end of the shooting spree, 17 people were dead and 20 injured. The killings sparked one of the most bitter and public disputes between the Iraqi government and its American patrons, and brought into focus the often violent conduct of the Western security companies – and that of Blackwater in particular. Operating in Iraq since the 2003 invasion, they were immune from scrutiny or prosecution. This was the seventh shooting of civilians involving Blackwater. The company's reputation in Iraq was particularly controversial. After Nisoor Square, the Iraqi government threatened to expel Blackwater. But it was forced to let the company operate again under pressure from Washington.