By MARK MAZZETTI and ERIC SCHMITT - LA Times
WASHINGTON — It seemed like a simple idea: In the chaos that is Somalia, create a sophisticated, highly trained fighting force that could finally defeat the pirates terrorizing the shipping lanes off the Somali coast.
But the creation of the Puntland Maritime Police Force was anything but simple.
It involved dozens of South African mercenaries and the shadowy security firm that employed them, millions of dollars in secret payments by the United Arab Emirates, a former clandestine officer with the Central Intelligence Agency, and Erik Prince, the billionaire former head of Blackwater Worldwide who was residing at the time in the emirates.
And its fate makes the story of the pirate hunters for hire a case study in the inherent dangers in the outsourced wars in Somalia, where the United States and other countries have relied on proxy forces and armed private contractors to battle pirates and, increasingly, Islamic militants.
That strategy has had some success, including a recent offensive by Kenyan and African Union troops to push the militant group Al Shabab from its stronghold in the port city of Kismayu.
But with the antipiracy army now abandoned by its sponsors, the hundreds of half-trained and well-armed members of the Puntland Maritime Police Force have been left to fend for themselves at a desert camp carved out of the sand, perhaps to join up with the pirates or Qaeda-linked militants or to sell themselves to the highest bidder in Somalia’s clan wars — yet another dangerous element in the Somali mix.
A United Nations investigative group described the effort by a company based in Dubai called Sterling Corporate Services to create the force as a “brazen, large-scale and protracted violation” of the arms embargo in place on Somalia, and has tried to document a number of grisly cases in which Somali trainees were beaten and even killed. In one case in October 2010, according to the United Nations group, a trainee was hogtied with his arms and feet bound behind his back and beaten. The group said the trainee had died from his injuries, an accusation disputed by the company.
Sterling has portrayed its operation as a bold private-sector attempt to battle the scourge of piracy where governments were failing. Lafras Luitingh, a senior manager for the project, described the October 2010 occurrence as a case of “Somali-on-Somali violence” that was not indicative of the overall training program. He said that the trainee had recovered from his injuries, and that “the allegations reflect not the professional training that occurred but the fact that professional training was needed,” he said.
A lawyer for the company, Stephen Heifetz, wrote an official response to the United Nations report, calling it “a collection of unsubstantiated and often false innuendo assembled by a group with extreme views regarding participants in Somali politics.”
Sterling officials have pointed out that in March, a United Nations counterpiracy organization — a separate entity from the investigative group that criticized Sterling — praised the semiautonomous Somali region of Puntland for creating the program. Moreover, the company argues, Somalia already is a playground for clandestine operations, with the C.I.A. now in the midst of an extensive effort to arm and equip Somali spies. Why, they ask, is Sterling Corporate Services singled out for criticism?
Concerned about the impact of piracy on commercial shipping in the Middle East, the United Arab Emirates has sought to take the lead in battling Somali pirates, both overtly and in secret by bankrolling operations like Sterling’s.
American officials have said publicly that they never endorsed the creation of the private army, but it is unclear if Sterling had tacit support from parts of the United States government. For instance, the investigative group reported in July that the counterpiracy force shared some of the same facilities as the Puntland Intelligence Service, a spy organization answering to Puntland’s president, Abdirahman Farole, that has been trained by C.I.A. officers and contractors for more than a decade.
With the South African trainers gone, the African Union has turned to a different security contractor, Bancroft Global Development, based in Washington, to assess whether the pirate hunters in Puntland can be assimilated into the stew of other security forces in Somalia sanctioned both by the United States and the African Union. Among those groups are a 10,000-man Somali national army and troops of Somalia’s National Security Agency, based in Mogadishu, which is closely allied with the C.I.A.
Michael Stock, Bancroft’s president, said a team of his that recently visited the camp where the Puntland force is based witnessed something out of the Wild West: nearly 500 soldiers who had gone weeks without pay wandering the main compound and two other small camps, an armory of weapons amassed over two years at their disposal.
Although the force is far from the 1,000-man elite unit with helicopters and airplanes described in the United Nations report, Mr. Stock and independent analysts said the Puntland soldiers still posed a potential threat to the region if left unchecked.
“Sterling is leaving behind an unpaid but well-armed security force in Puntland,” said Andre Le Sage, a senior research fellow who specializes in Africa at the National Defense University in Washington. “It’s important to find a way to make them part of a regular force or to disarm them and take control of them. If that’s not done, it could make things worse.”
Mr. Stock, whose company trains soldiers from Uganda and Burundi for counterinsurgency missions in Somalia under the African Union banner, said Bancroft would not take over Sterling’s counterpiracy mission.
The Sterling operation was shrouded in a degree of secrecy from the time Mr. Luitingh and a small group of South Africans traveling in a private plane first touched down in Bosasso, Puntland’s capital, in 2010. The men worked for Saracen International, a South African private military firm hired by the emirates and composed of several former members of the Civil Cooperation Bureau, the feared paramilitary squad during the apartheid era.
The following year, after The New York Times wrote about the operation, Saracen hired a prominent Washington law firm to advocate for the mission at the State Department and the Pentagon, and a rebranding campaign began. A new company, Sterling Corporate Services, was created in Dubai to oversee the training in Puntland. It was an attempt to put distance between the Somalia operations and Saracen’s apartheid-era past, but some of the officers of the two companies were the same.
Two well-connected Americans were also involved in the project. Michael Shanklin, a former C.I.A. station chief in Mogadishu, was hired to tap a network of contacts both in Washington and East Africa to build support for the counterpiracy force. More significant was the role of Mr. Prince, who had become an informal adviser to the crown prince of Abu Dhabi, Sheik Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan. Former company employees said Mr. Prince made several trips to the Puntland camp to oversee the counterpiracy training.
At the time, Mr. Prince was also involved in a project to train Colombian mercenaries at a desert camp in the emirates to carry out missions at the behest of the Emirati government.
But the emirates’ refusal to publicly acknowledge their role in the operation, or to make a formal case to the United Nations Security Council to receive permission to build the army under the terms of the Somalia arms embargo, drew the ire of United Nations arms monitors, who repeatedly pressed the emirates to shut down the mission.
Lawyers for Sterling gave extensive briefings on the program to the State Department, the Pentagon and various United Nations agencies dealing with piracy.
Yousef Al Otaiba, the emirates’ ambassador to Washington, declined to comment for this article.
American officials said they had urged Sterling’s lawyers, from the firm of Steptoe & Johnson, to have the operation approved by the Security Council. Mr. Heifetz, the company’s lawyer, said Puntland and other Somali authorities did receive permission to build the police force. A spokeswoman for the State Department said the United States government never approved Sterling’s activities.
“We share the monitoring group’s concerns about the lack of transparency regarding the Saracen and Sterling Corporate Services’ train-and-equip program for the Puntland Maritime Police Force, as well as the abuses alleged to have occurred during the training,” said Hilary Renner, a State Department spokeswoman, referring to the United Nations Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea, the investigative arm.
For Sterling, the beginning of the end came in April, when one of the South Africa trainers, Lodewyk Pieterson, was shot dead by one of the Somali men he had been training to chase pirates. Sterling said in a statement that the death was an isolated occurrence and that the trainee accused in the killing had been arrested. “The murder was an aberrational incident involving a particular trainee who was not well suited” to the police force, the statement said. After the death, it said, Sterling tightened its screening of applicants for the Puntland force.
But there would be no need for that. By the end of June, Sterling whisked the rest of its trainers and their equipment out of the country, and the Puntland force was left on its own.