The UK firms who tackle Somali pirates

An armed Somali pirate The influx of British private security firms to Somalia echoes their spread after the 2003 Iraq war, analysts say

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The release of a UK hostage in Somalia has drawn attention to the British security firms which are increasingly dominating Somalia's lucrative anti-piracy industry.

It was a family ransom which ultimately secured the release of Hertfordshire social worker Judith Tebbutt this week, but there have been media reports of negotiators who paved the way for the 56-year-old's safe return.

With the UK government saying it refuses to talk to kidnappers, the door has opened for private security firms to fill the void in this troubled African country.

The Times reported that specialist lawyers at one such company, Control Risks, spent months thrashing out the deal - but the firm will not confirm or deny helping free the mother.

Andy Bearpark, director of the British Association of Private Security Companies, says negotiators are making "enormous" amounts of money, but carry a heavy burden.

'Capability gap'

"It's a relationship of trust, and as in all negotiations, it's a question of little steps, where you build up that relationship," he said.

"It's an art, or skill, or science in its own right, which exists regardless of participants. The fact that one is morally reprehensible is irrelevant, it's a game between two sides."

He says you have to be "very careful" you are talking to the right people, and that you can prove the hostage is alive and capable of being delivered.

The pirates typically target commercial shipping companies more than individuals, as they are more likely to get paid through their insurers.

Judith Tebbutt Mrs Tebbutt's ransom was air-dropped on to a ship - considered the most secure method of payment

They earn an estimated £35m a year from the racket, which is responsible for the seizure of scores of ships and hundreds of crew members.

Graeme Gibbon-Brooks, a former naval officer who runs a UK-based maritime intelligence company operating in Somalia, says: "You don't get cowboy ransom negotiators.

"They are highly trained, and come with a background of having done this in the police or military."

His company - Dryad Maritime Intelligence Services - tracks how the pirates operate and predicts where they will strike next.

"We tell the good guys where the bad guys are," he says.

"It works a bit like weather forecasters, it's not enough to know where it has rained, we want to know where it's going to rain."

'Mercenaries'

Established in 2007 with four staff, Dryad now employs 21 people in the UK alone - another example of a sector which has steadily expanded since piracy in Somalia took hold in 2008.

"The business has grown and grown. As ship owners look at the way they treat their risk, effectively the maritime security industry has grown to meet the demand," he says.

The Security Association of the Maritime Industry (Sami) estimates there are more than 200 private security firms operating in the north-west Indian ocean.

It says British firms account for almost half of the 139 companies which are Sami members.

Start Quote

They [security guards] may have been good in Iraq with sand in their toes, but some have never been to sea”

End Quote Christopher Ledger Idarat Maritime

And the International Code of Conduct for Private Security Service Providers (Icoc) says British firms dominate those which have become signatories to its principles.

Of the 307 companies from 51 different countries, 117 are British, followed by the US on 39 then South Africa with 16, it says.

Another rapid growth area is the business of armed contractors hired to protect ships in Somalia from on board - a practice officially sanctioned for British ships by Prime Minister David Cameron in October.

Prof Chris Kinsey, a security expert at King's College London, says Britain's private security firms were "following the cash cow" much like they did in Iraq in 2003.

"Putting armed contractors on ships is something the British are particularly good at, and they seem to be the ones dominating this particular type of security activity," he says.

He predicts the recent discovery of oil in the region will generate even more work as "huge capital assets" like tankers and drilling ships need protection.

He says most British security firms now have a maritime division and estimates 95% of those at a recent industry conference held in London were sea-based operations.

Security adviser Christopher Ledger, who runs Idarat Maritime, says the rush to "jump in for a quick buck" has led to an unregulated industry which has at time been a "disgrace".

A global anti-piracy centre in Portsmouth, Hampshire Dryad Maritime opened a global anti-piracy intelligence hub in Portsmouth in November

Describing some armed guards as "mercenaries", he says fishermen were killed by one team which panicked and mistook them for pirates.

"They may have been good in Iraq with sand in their toes, but some have never been to sea. It's a real problem," he says

Each member of a unit of three guards can earn up to £400 a day for five days, he adds.

But Peter Cook, director of Sami, says no ship has ever been taken whilst armed guards have been on board.

He says naval forces have co-ordinated efforts well to deter the bandits, but limited resources and vast geographic areas have curbed their effectiveness.

The squeeze on spending in the West is "significant" and a "capability gap" has appeared which will only widen as the volume of trade by sea increases, he adds.

Today, more than 100 sailors remain held to ransom on the Somali coast as thousands of ships pass through the dangerous Gulf of Oman.

For released hostage Mrs Tebbutt, the joy at her freedom has been "overwhelmed" by her "immense grief" at the loss of her husband, who was shot dead during her abduction in Kenya.

"I hope that while I adjust to my freedom and the devastating loss of my husband, that I and my family will be allowed space, time and most of all privacy, to come to terms with the events of the last six months," she says.

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