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    Middle East
     Jan 30, 2013

Security firms eye African 'terror' bonanza
By Ramzy Baroud

Although recognized as the world's biggest security firm, the image of Britain's G4S plummeted during the London Olympics last year as it failed to meet the government's labor demands. Through growing unrest in North and West Africa, G4S is eyeing a speedy route to recovery.

The January 16 hostage crisis at Algeria's In Amenas gas plant, where 38 hostages were killed, ushered in the return of international perceptions of al-Qaeda not as extremists on the run, but as well-prepared militants with the ability to strike deeply into enemy territories and cause serious damage.

For G4S and other security firms, this translates into growing demand.

"The British group ... is seeing a rise in work ranging from

electronic surveillance to protecting travelers," the company's regional president for Africa told Reuters. "Demand has been very high across Africa," Andy Baker said. "The nature of our business is such that in high-risk environments the need for our services increases."

If Algeria's deadly encounter with al-Qaeda was enough to add the North African country to private security companies' emerging African market, Libya must be a security firm's paradise.

Following the North Atlantic Treaty Organization's (NATO's) toppling of the regime of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi and his brutal assassination in Sirte on October 20, 2011, numerous militias sprung up throughout Libya, some armed with heavy weapons, courtesy of Western countries.

Initially, such disturbing scenes of armed militias setting up checkpoints at every corner were dismissed as an inevitable post-revolution reality. However, when Westerners became targets themselves, "security" in Libya finally became high on the agenda.

Many private security firms already operate in Libya; some were even present in the country before the former Libyan government was officially overthrown.

Some of these firms were virtually unknown before the war, including a small private British firm, Blue Mountain Group. The latter was responsible for guarding the US diplomatic mission in Benghazi which was torched on September 11 last year. It later emerged that the attack on the embassy was preplanned and well-coordinated, resulting in the death of four Americans, including ambassador J Christopher Stevens.

It remains unclear why the State Department opted to hire Blue Mountain Group, as opposed to a larger security firm as is usually the case with other Western embassies and large companies, which sometimes vie to reconstruct the very country that their governments conspired to destroy.

The lucrative business of destroying, rebuilding and securing has been witnessed in other wars and conflicts spurred on by Western interventions. Private security firms are the middlemen that keep local irritants from getting in the way of post-war "diplomacy" and the work of business giants.

When a country eventually collapses under the pressure of bunker busters and other advanced weapons, security firms move in to secure the realm at the same time as Western diplomats are bargaining with emerging local elites over the future of the country's wealth.

In Libya, those who contributed the biggest guns were the ones that received the largest contracts. Of course, while the destroyed country is being robbed blind, it is the local population that suffers the consequences of having foreigners with guns watch their neighborhoods in the name of security.

It must be said that the new Libyan government has specifically rejected Blackwater-style armed contractors - as in having boots on the ground - fearing provocations similar to those that occurred in Baghdad's Nisour Square and similar killings throughout Afghanistan.

The aim in Libya is to allow smooth business transactions without occasional protests provoked by trigger-happy foreigners. But considering the deteriorating security in Libya, which has been created by the systematic destruction of the central government and its entire military apparatus, a solution to the security vacuum remains a major topic of discussion.

Private security firms are essentially mercenaries who offer services to spare Western governments without the political cost of incurring too many casualties. While they are often based in Western cities, many of their employees come from so-called Third World countries.

It's much safer this way - when Asian, African or Arab security personnel are wounded or killed on duty, the matter tends to register, if ever, as a mere news item, with little political consequence, Senate hearings or government enquiries.

Mali, a West African country that is suffering multiple crises - military coups, civil war, famine and finally an all-out French-led war - is the likely next victim or opportunity for the deadly trio: Western governments, large corporations and of course, private security firms.

Mali is the perfect ground for such opportunists, who will spare no effort in exploiting its massive economic potential and strategic location. For years, the west African country has fallen under Western political and military influence. The year 2012 represented a text-book scenario that ultimately and predictably led to the Western intervention that finally took place on January 11, when France launched a military operation supposedly aimed at ousting armed Islamic extremists.

Military operations will last "as long as necessary," declared French President Francois Hollande, echoing the same logic of the George W Bush administration when it first declared its "war on terror".

As inviting as the Malian setting may seem, it is equally intricate and unpredictable. No linear timeline can possibly unravel in simple terms the crisis at hand. All arrows point to large caches of weapons that made their way from Libya to Mali following the NATO war. A new balance of power took hold, empowering the ever-oppressed Tuareg and flooding the country with desert-hardened militants belonging to various Islamic groups.

Two symmetrical lines of upheavals developed at the same time in both the north and south parts of the country. On one hand, Tuareg's National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad declared independence in the north and was quickly joined by Ansar Dine, Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa.

On the other hand, US-trained army captain Amadou Haya Sanogo made his move in the southern part of the country in March, overthrowing President Amadou Toumani Toure.

The Malian storyline developed so rapidly, giving the impression that there was no other option but imminent confrontation between the south and the north. France, Mali's old colonial master, was quick to wave the military card and worked diligently to enlist west African countries in its war efforts.

The plan was for the intervention to appear as if it's purely an African effort, with mere logistical support and political backing by their Western benefactors. Indeed, on December 21, the UN Security Council approved the sending in of an African-led force (of 3,000 soldiers) from the Economic Community of West African States to chase after northern militants in the vast Malian desert.

That war was scheduled for September 2013, however, to allow France to form a united Western front and to train fragmented Malian forces. However, the militants' capture of the town of Konna, close to the capital Bamako, has reportedly forced France's hand to intervene in Mali and without UN consent.

A war which was waged in the name of human rights and Mali's territorial integrity, has already sparked outcries from major human-rights organizations regarding crimes committed by foreign forces and their Malian army partners. However, what seems thus far as an easy French conquest has left other Western powers licking their chops over the potential of having access to Mali, which is unlikely to have a strong central government anytime soon.

On January 25, the African Press Agency's (APA's) page on Mali was filled with news items about eager Western involvement in solidarity with the French war buildup. It ranged from "Italy to send aircraft to help transport troops to Mali" to "Germany pledges aid to Africa for Mali intervention."

All calls for political dialogue, especially as ethnic strife is likely to devastate the country for years to come, seem to fall on deaf ears. Meanwhile, according to APA, the UK is offering help to Mali in finding a "political roadmap" aimed at securing the "political future of the West African country".

As France, the US and EU countries determine the future of Mali through military efforts and political roadmaps, the country itself is weakened and politically disfigured beyond any possibility of confronting outside designs. For G4S and other security firms, Mali now tops the list in Africa's emerging security market. Nigeria and Kenya follow closely, with possibilities emerging elsewhere.

From Libya to Mali, a typical story is forming of lucrative contracts and massive opportunities. When private security firms speak of an emerging market in Africa, one can safely assume that the continent is once more falling prey to growing military ambitions and unfair business conduct.

While G4S is polishing its tarnished brand, hundreds of thousands of African refugees (800,000 in Mali alone) will continue their endless journeys into unfamiliar borders and unforgiving deserts. Their security matters to no one, for private security firms offer no protection to penniless refugees.

Ramzy Baroud (www.ramzybaroud.net) is an internationally-syndicated columnist and the editor of PalestineChronicle.com. His latest book is: My Father was A Freedom Fighter: Gaza's Untold Story (Pluto Press).

(Copyright 2013 Ramzy Baroud)

Mali: West Africa's gate to intervention
(Dec 18, '13)



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