When a suicide bomber parked a van disguised as an ambulance in front of the Shaheen Hotel in the Karadah neighborhood of Baghdad on January 28 and blew himself up, he killed four people and wounded scores of others.
He also blew the lid off a dirty little secret of the Coalition Provisional Authority: due to its “outsourcing” of privatized security services, the CPA has put terrorists, mercenaries and war criminals on the payrolls of companies contracted by the Pentagon.
After the Shaheen Hotel blast, departmental spokesman Ronnie Mamoepa at South Africa’s Foreign Ministry confirmed that one of the Westerners killed was South African Frans Strydom. Four of the wounded were also South African nationals, including Deon Gouws, who sustained serious injuries.
News that Strydom and Gouws were in Iraq sent shockwaves throughout South Africa: In front of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, both men were granted amnesty after confessing to killing blacks and terrorizing anti-apartheid activists, acts that can only be called crimes against humanity.
In Iraq, Strydom and Gouws were employed by Erinys International, a security firm based in the United Kingdom. Erinys Iraq, the subsidiary of Erinys International, was awarded a two-year, $80 million contract in August 2003 to protect 140 Iraqi oil installations. Erinys has been awarded subcontracts to protect American construction contractors, including San Francisco-based Bechtel Corp. and Halliburton’s subsidiary Kellogg, Brown and Root.
“It is just a horrible thought that such people are working for the Americans,” said Richard Goldstone, former chief prosecutor of the United Nations International Criminal Tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, speaking to European reporters last month.
Strydom was a member in the Koevoet, Afrikaner for “Crowbar,” an outlaw group that paid bounty for the bodies of blacks seeking independence during the 1980s. The Koevoet terrorized blacks in Namibia and northern South Africa for more than a decade. Hundreds of deaths are attributed to its members.
More notorious is Gouws’ past. A former police officer, Gouws was a member of the infamous Vlakplaas death squad that terrorized blacks under apartheid. Only after South Africa established the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and Col. Eugene de Kock, a former death-squad leader who supervised Gouws, applied for amnesty, did the activities of the Vlakplaas come to light. Gouws faced a choice: repent by confessing, or be charged with crimes. He applied for amnesty, confessing on his application for absolution to killing 15 blacks and firebombing the homes of “between 40 and 60 anti-apartheid activists.”
There are an estimated 1,500 South Africans employed by security contractors in Iraq, according to the South African foreign ministry. Many used their backgrounds as mercenaries during Apartheid to bolster their credentials.
After being pardoned but ostracized in South Africa, “Where are these men expected to go?” asked Judge Goldstone.
Erinys International refused to comment on the matter.
The role of civilians contracted to work in Iraq was relatively unknown to most in the United States until four American security contractors met grisly deaths in Fallujah in March. While the vast majority of individuals contracted for security work may be honest, hardworking professionals, the desperate search for manpower is allowing criminals to join their ranks.
“At what point do we start scraping the barrel?” Simon Faulkner, the CEO of Hart, a respected British security company, asked recently in the New York Times. “Where are these guys coming from?”
Not only apartheid-era terrorists are finding opportunities in Iraq. Prior to the U.S.-led war, Saddam Hussein hired over a dozen Serb air-defense specialists—at the reported cost of $100,000 a month—to devise a mobile radar system that would protect Iraq’s air defenses from attack. Many were wanted for their paramilitary activities during the Balkan Wars in Europe.
Upon the American takeover of Iraq, some of these Serbs remained behind, selling their services to the highest bidders, including security firms under contract to provide protection for employees of Blackwater USA and Titan Corporation of San Diego. They have now been joined by some of their compatriots, who had been working for the Pentagon for several years in Afghanistan. “The Bush administration is so eager to avoid responsibility for order in Afghanistan that they’ve outsourced to mercenaries the work of protecting Afghan President Hamid Karzai,” Dave Marash reported in the Washington Monthly in March 2003.
Karl Alberts, a South African pilot, recently prepared to travel to Iraq. Before he left he was arrested and charged with mercenary activities in the Ivory Coast in 2002 and 2003.
But for every Alberts who fails to make it to Baghdad, others succeed. Though their numbers are relatively few, the harm these men can do to an occupation government desperately seeking support from the Iraqi people is enormous.
Louis E.V. Nevaer is an author and economist whose most recent book, NAFTA’S Second Decade (South-Western Educational Publishing, 2004), examines the political economy of the international development and trade.