NAIROBI, Kenya – Blackwater Worldwide and other private security firms — some with a reputation for being quick on the trigger in Iraq — are joining the battle against pirates plaguing one of the world's most important shipping lanes off the coast of Somalia.
The growing interest among merchant fleets to hire their own firepower is encouraged by the U.S. Navy and represents a new and potential lucrative market for security firms scaling back operations in Iraq.
But some maritime organizations told The Associated Press that armed guards may increase the danger to ships' crews or that overzealous contractors might accidentally fire on fishermen.
The record in Iraq of security companies like Blackwater, which is being investigated for its role in the fatal shooting of 17 Iraqi civilians in 2007, raises concerns about unregulated activity and possible legal wrangles.
"Security companies haven't always had the lightest of touches in Iraq, and I think Somalia is a pretty delicate situation," said Roger Middleton, who wrote a recent report on piracy in Somalia for Chatham House, a think tank in London.
NATO, with a flotilla of warships due to arrive in Somali waters this weekend, is trying to work out legal and regulatory issues surrounding the use of armed contractors before adopting a position on private security companies.
But the U.S. Navy, part of the coalition already patrolling off the coast of Somalia, says the coalition cannot effectively patrol the 2.5 million square miles of dangerous waters and welcomes the companies.
"This is a great trend," said Lt. Nate Christensen, a spokesman for the Bahrain-based U.S. 5th Fleet. "We would encourage shipping companies to take proactive measures to help ensure their own safety."
Somali officials also approve of the private contractors.
Abdulkadir Muse Yusuf, deputy marine minister of the semiautonomous region of Puntland, said private firms are welcome in Somali waters. As well as fighting piracy, he said, they could help combat illegal fishing and toxic waste dumping.
Some security companies — not all of which let their employees carry lethal weapons — blame trigger-happy operators in Iraq and Afghanistan for tarnishing the reputation of legitimate businesses.
After a series of shootings that killed civilians, Iraqi legislators negotiated an agreement with the U.S. that will remove some of the private contractors' immunity from prosecution. U.S. authorities are investigating Blackwater for improperly bringing weapons into Iraq and for its role in the 2007 Iraqi civilian deaths.
The removal of immunity, Iraq's stabilizing security situation and a glut of security operators in the country have combined to tempt some companies to seek a new market in the pirate-infested Gulf of Aden off Somalia.
Last week, Blackwater announced it was hiring a ship fitted with helicopters and armed guards for escorting vessels past Somalia's pirate-ridden coast. Spokeswoman Anne Tyrrell said it had received 15 inquiries so far.
Peter Singer, an expert on private security companies, agrees Africa is a potential growth market, but he says it's unlikely many firms will abandon work in Iraq and Afghanistan, where there are dramatically more business opportunities as long as the wars continue.
"If somehow Iraq ends and you see a shrinking amount of contractors there, most of them are in logistics and training services," Singer added. "None of that carries over to this role."
British firms dominate security work in the Gulf of Aden, but American companies are increasingly getting into the action, according an Associated Press examination of new anti-piracy efforts through interviews in East Africa, Europe and Washington.
In addition to Blackwater, Mississippi-based Hollowpoint, which has not been active in Iraq, says it will provide guards and recover seized ships.
"We'll get your crew and cargo back to you, whether through negotiations or through sending a team in," said CEO John Harris, who is discussing contracts with several companies.
There have been 63 reported attacks on ships off the Somali coast this year alone and probably many more have been carried out. Almost a third of the recorded attacks have been successful.
Ransoms can reach into the millions of dollars. That's a fortune in a failed state like Somalia, where almost half the people depend on aid and warlords plunder food shipments meant for starving children. The money goes to clan-based militias, some of which are fighting in Somalia's civil war.
Cyrus Mody, the manager of the International Maritime Bureau, says private security personnel can offer useful advice to ship captains, but he worries not all companies have clear rules of engagement or have sought legal advice about the consequences of opening fire.
So far hijackings are rarely fatal: One Chinese sailor was executed by pirates when ransom negotiations were going badly, and the two other known deaths resulted from a ricochet and a heart attack.
Mody says armed guards onboard ships may encourage pirates to use their weapons or spark an arms race between predators and prey. Currently, pirates often fire indiscriminately during an attack but don't aim to kill or injure crew. The pirates usually use assault rifles but have rocket-propelled grenades; some reports also say they have mini-cannon.
"If someone onboard a ship pulls a gun, will the other side pull a grenade?" Mody asked.
British contractors stress the importance of intelligence and surveillance, a safe room for the crew to retreat to if the ship is boarded, and the range of non-lethal deterrence measures available.
"The standard approach is for (pirates) to come in with all guns blazing at the bridge because when a boat is stopped it's easier to board," said David Johnson, director of British security firm Eos. "But if you have guns onboard, you are going to escalate the situation. We don't want to turn that part of the world into the Wild West."
Johnson's employees don't carry arms, relying on tactics that can be as simple as greasing or electrifying hand rails, putting barbed wire around the freeboard — the lowest area of the deck — or installing high-pressure fire hoses directed at vulnerable areas of a ship.
One tugboat confused its attackers by going into a high-speed spin when pirates approached, causing the attackers to give up — and leaving the crew sick but safe.
High-tech but non-lethal weapons include dazzle guns, which produce disorienting flashes; microwave guns, which heat up the skin causing discomfort but no long-term damage; and acoustic devices that can blast a wave of painful sound across hundreds of yards.
Johnson believes his company's refusal to carry guns has helped attract business: inquiries have gone up three- to fourfold in the past few months.
Other companies do arm their employees, pointing out that while non-lethal weapons are also carried and greatly preferred, they can be taken out by bullets or a grenade, sustain damage from salt water, and may have a shorter range than some weapons of pirates.
Pirate attacks have driven up insurance premiums tenfold for ships plying the Gulf of Aden, increasing the cost of cargos that include a fifth of the world's oil. But some insurers will slash charges by up to 40 percent if boats hire their own security. Earlier this month, British security firm Hart launched the first joint venture with an insurance company, offering discounted premiums for ships sailing past Somalia that used Hart's guards.
The 20,000 ships that pass through the Gulf of Aden on the way to or from the Suez Canal each year can't avoid the 1,800 miles of Somali coastline without sailing around the entire continent of Africa.
The jump in interest in private contractors — spurred by last month's hijacking of a Ukrainian ship loaded with tanks and other weapons — has brought new players into the market and a flood of business for well-established firms.
Drum Cussac, a specialist maritime security company, says its business has increased 50 percent the last few months. Not operating in Iraq or Afghanistan, the firm has traditionally supplied security teams to luxury yachts like the French Le Ponant, which was hijacked last April with 22 crew members onboard.
Maritime operations manager Michael Angus says the yacht business has doubled. And now, he says, merchant ships such as bulk carriers or oil tankers are asking the company for teams of armed guards, making what was once a seasonal business off Somalia a year-round enterprise.
London-based Olive Group, which protects Shell operations in Iraq, began offering services in the Gulf of Aden earlier this year. Its security consultant, Crispian Cuss, says just the presence of armed guards may be a deterrent. Pirates get information on crews and cargos from contacts in ports or at shipping companies and avoid vessels with armed men on board, he said.
"No client's ship has been approached by pirates while we've been on them," he said.