Steroids, drink and paranoia: the murky world of the private security contractor

Terri Judd on the guns for hire fighting for business in Iraq and Afghanistan

Paranoid, competitive and fuelled by guns, alcohol and steroids. That is how one senior contractor in Baghdad describes the private security industry operating in the city's Green Zone.

It was the world to which Danny Fitzsimons, a 29-year-old former soldier suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and paranoia, and with an extensive criminal past, returned three weeks ago.

Despite rules against alcohol, his ArmorGroup colleagues welcomed him with a drinking session. A fight broke out and he shot and killed two of them – a Briton, Paul McGuigan, and an Australian, Darren Hoare – then wounded an Iraqi, Arkhan Mahdi. He faces a premeditated murder charge and execution if found guilty.

Mr Fitzsimons's family is determined to save him and say he was suffering from severe psychiatric problems after a brutal career in the Army and in the security industry. But those on the ground hold little hope. Figures in the industry told The Independent that the shooting could not have come at a worse time. They are already resigned to Mr Fitzsimons's execution and say that he is a tiny pawn in a huge, expensive and vicious game of chess.

They say the private security business in Iraq is in a vice-like crush. The gold rush that began with the conflict in 2003 is drying up. Contracts are not as lucrative, the trend is towards employing Iraqis instead of Westerners and, crucially, the Iraqi authorities – for so long impotent when it came to controlling the armed men swaggering around their cities – are clamping down.

"We are loathed out here. We are the single most hated entity in Iraq," said Ethan Madison, a security contractor who has worked in Baghdad for five years. "They are going to hang him if he is found guilty. The Iraqis are desperate to put their foot down and make an example, say this is our country and we make the rules."

The big companies – including ArmorGroup – are fighting it out for a lucrative Foreign Office contract worth more than £20m and are determined to survive the fallow period in the expectation that within a few years the big oil companies will bring with them another cash cow.

But just months after the private military contractors lost immunity, the Iraqi police are flexing their muscles. For the first time, foreigners are coming under intense scrutiny, compounds are being searched, licences checked and practices – such as blocking roads or banning locals from driving too close – banned.

In this cut-throat industry, there is open astonishment that a man like Mr Fitzsimons, who had been sacked from two companies, Aegis and Olive, was hired again. "It's a small world. It is easy enough to check on someone with a few emails to former colleagues. I get them all the time," said a former Parachute Regiment officer.

Mr Madison agreed: "Everyone you speak to says there is no way he should have been given a job. Anyone who knew Danny knew he was aggressive and always looking for drama. People were wary. There is a lot of resentment. No one cares that this guy was mentally ill. Paul was such a nice guy. He was larger than life, upbeat, a really friendly big man."

Despite assurances by the British Association of Private Security Companies that the industry takes post-traumatic stress seriously, few on the ground seem to care.

Private security contractors live with intense pressure as they escort clients in the "Red Zone" or in convoys through Iraq. "Every car could be a bomb," said Mr Madison. "There is a management attitude that, if you don't want to do the job, there is plenty more where you came from. There is a divide, open loathing, between the management and the men on the ground. There is no loyalty.

"It is a pressure cooker and you can see guys physically deteriorate. You watch people coming in fresh-faced and two months later they are snappy and irritable. It is constant, nervous pressure. It is a quite regular occurrence for people to die out here, although it doesn't get reported."

At night they return to the Green Zone, where the only releases are working out in the gym – with many also using steroids – or drinking. Many compounds have bars and a shop selling beer and whisky. A lot of contractors, like Mr Fitzsimons, are on contracts which forbid alcohol. But, as the shootings proved, the rule is frequently ignored, and sources say little has changed since that night.

They are often dismissed as mercenaries for chasing the cash, but many contractors sign up for different reasons. Like Mr Fitzsimons, some miss the camaraderie, excitement and sense of belonging they had in the Army or Royal Marines, and are unable to cope with the banality and unfamiliarity of civvie street. But they find the loyalty and bond that held "brothers in arms" together has been replaced by profit.

This latest incident threw a sharp spotlight on the industry. After the shooting, ArmorGroup insisted that it had a stringent vetting process and a strong track record of recruiting high-quality people while honouring its duty of care to its employees.

Mr Madison rejected that claim. "That was a ridiculous comment. Some of the guys sent out are second rate. When a company gets a contract, it waits until the last minute to get people into the country quickly, and that is when the vetting process goes tits-up. When dealing with physical injury, the companies are generally good. And I know they have helped out Iraqi families of men who have died. But for mental illness, there is no provision at all. If you are mentally injured, the attitude is you are a freak, fuck off. It is a real World War One attitude – stand up and fight or else disappear. If I lost a leg they would do something about it. But if I was mentally ill, it is not their problem."

The industry has improved its act since the early days of 2003 when a host of Walter Mittys competed with established companies for massive profits; men were poorly armed and often poorly behaved.

One former policeman who worked with Control Risks staff in Basra in 2006 described the contractors as well-equipped and professional, even eschewing the drinks at the Foreign Office bar. "That was when the industry was at its peak. But [Iraqi] government agencies were starting to look at the money they were spending and tightening the budgets."

In September 2007, 17 civilians were killed in a shoot-out involving contractors with the American firm Blackwater, now Xe. By the start of this year, private security contractors had lost their immunity.

"The Iraqi police are now stamping their authority at checkpoints. They really dislike the private security contractors and now they are in control," said one former Guards officer from Baghdad. "Ministry of the Interior officials are turning up at compounds and searching them. If you don't have a licence for a gun or a licence plate for a car you will be arrested. The days when you just strapped on a side-arm you bought downtown are gone. The Iraqi police attitude is: 'We don't like you, we don't want you in the country. We can't kick you out but we are not going to let you run around like cowboys'."

Other contractors said they would be seen as mercenaries until the business was properly regulated by the UK and US governments. The Government is expected to report back on a six-month consultation later this year, recommending self-regulation with international co-operation, with the aim of raising standards.

Andy Bearpark, the director general of the British Association of Private Security Companies, said that self-regulation was the best option but that a greater level of co-operation between companies was needed.

"The private security industry is essential if the UK is to play its role in reconstruction of fragile states such as Afghanistan and Iraq. The association was formed to ensure that standards in all areas were raised and that the very best practices were used by the industry generally. We have worked with the British Government since our formation in 2005 to ensure that this is the case."

How Mr Fitzsimons will fare is unknown. A team of lawyers sent to Iraq by his family last week said that he could not get a fair trial in the country and called for the case to be transferred to Britain and for the Government to step in. A UK trial would be hampered by the difficulty of contacting witnesses and by the fact that the Iraqi police have gathered the evidence.

Foreign Office sources said that representations would be made if Mr Fitzsimons was found guilty and the death penalty was imposed, but little more could be done other than making appeals through diplomatic channels. A prisoner transfer agreement has yet to be negotiated with Iraq.

In this battle for bucks, many contractors are quietly thrilled that ArmorGroup has, as one contractor said, "dropped a bollock". Mr Madison said: "This shooting will have a serious impact on ArmorGroup as it is bidding for the Foreign Office contract which is now with Control Risks. It is a prime candidate along with Aegis. The damage is done."

The Foreign Office mobile security contract won by Control Risks in 2007-08 came in at just under £21m. ArmorGroup – whose parent company G4S said this week that its half-year turnover was up more than 10 per cent to £3.5bn – won the £17m contract for Afghanistan. The total contracts for the two countries were valued at about £55m a year.

And for the men on the ground, for whom the work is dwindling, there is the consolation that another equally lethal front has opened up.

As Mr Madison explained: "The rumour of the month is that one company is offering £1,000 a day to run convoys from Pakistan into Helmand [Afghanistan]. Of course, it would be operation certain death, but the money is good and some men will go for it."

* Ethan Madison's name has been changed to protect his identity.

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