Somalia, a lawless country located on the east coast of Africa, should be no stranger to anyone in the security industry. The hub of maritime piracy, an area that that has been at civil war for over thirty years and a country that many western governments have tried to tame, all to no avail. From the highly documented and ultimately cinema screened failed black hawk down mission of the Americans in Mogadishu to the frequent botched raids of European governments trying to combat piracy, it’s certainly not an area for the faint-hearted.
It’s always held a lot of mystery for me and somewhere I’ve wanted to operate for the mere fact that very few people have or will get to experience it. But at the same time conducting hostile environment close protection in a country with no friendly infrastructure or support assets is wildly different to operating in Iraq or Afghanistan where there is a huge international presence.
The client wanted to set up a hub in Somalia on which to build and ultimately expand their operation. The question was very simple, “Is it possible to operate in Somalia” as the situation was so volatile and the environment ultra-high risk. As with any task, anything is possible as long as you mitigate the risks accordingly. You can walk the Queen through the streets of Baghdad if you so wish, as long as you mitigate the risks to an acceptable level.
After meeting with the client at their office in London there would be one main principal, supported by an advisor, wanting to conduct meetings with high-level government, business and tribal leaders in the north of Somalia around Hargeisa, weapons were not an option.
After conducting a full risk assessment and starting to put the operation order together, due to the situation it was deemed too dangerous to be on the ground for any more than two nights at a time. If necessary numerous short trips would be better than one large trip so that if anyone did have hostile intent their planning time and ability to conduct a hit would be limited. Transport would be a two-vehicle move, requiring me as the team leader (TL) / security consultant plus three team members. One of the team would be trained to paramedic level and have a full med kit as appropriate for someone with that level of medical training. The team would have to be familiar to me as we had minimal time in which to prepare so operators with a solid background in close protection and trained to the same standard were handpicked for the task. The paramedic was unknown but came highly recommended.
So, no weapons, ultra-high risk and very limited knowledge of the ground and operating environment. We were certainly going to need some support. The company employing us had an office in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, where we would forward base from. Their security manager had been monitoring the situation in Somalia since the idea was first discussed and I used the analysts from the company I was working for to provide a detailed country brief. In addition, and even more essential, was speaking to some people who’d actually operated there, and thankfully some basic mapping was established. A fixer on the ground would be critical but due to the situation, we wouldn’t be able to notify them until the day before we deployed on task to retain the level of confidentiality needed. Not having weapons when operating in Somalia, where even the children are carrying AK47’s was a concern. However everyone has their price, especially in a country like this, so it was decided that we would buy some armed police to escort us when we got there, hopefully, arranged through the fixer prior to our arrival.
The team met at the airport and a full outline of the task was given. The brief they had received so far was just enough so they could make an informed decision on whether the risk warranted the pay they would receive (£350 per day, plus £30 daily allowance), but not too much that it would compromise the confidentially of the operation should they decide not to deploy.
On arrival in Addis Ababa there appeared to be a problem with my luggage as we hadn’t requested permission from the government to bring sat phones into the country. Fortunately being such a corrupt place, twenty dollars later and we were on our way. Having not deployed to a third world country for a few years it’s amazing how the stench of burning rubbish and raw sewage can take you right back and in a way allows you to really start to focus on the task at hand. At the hotel in Ethiopia, we had two days before deploying for acclimatisation, to meet with the client, principal and receive a full brief from the security manager.
After doing the niceties with the principal at their office which was almost oasis like in an area of the city which was otherwise very run down, we met with the security manager for a full brief. It’s important for a task like this that full orders for the team are established following a similar format to what some might have used in the Army. No one should be left in any doubt of what the task entails and their role within it. All comms were tested which included sat phones, mobile phones, and two-way radios. The reality soon sets in that in a place like Somalia if it all goes wrong then there is no one coming to get you. The client told us they should have support assets to us within 24 hours if needed but realistically we knew that wouldn’t happen. It would be for us to extract ourselves with vehicles and weapons that we didn’t have on a route that we’d never driven. A recce would have been preferable but the team and client’s security manager felt it would have completely signposted our intent and removed the element of surprise. Plus there would be an extra £10,000 cost for the additional flights and in today’s economic climate this was an expense the client wasn’t willing to accept.
We set off to the airport in Ethiopia at 3 am to be in Somalia by first light where we would meet our fixer and police escort who had now been confirmed. The airport was comical when we turned up to security the person on the x-ray machine was asleep laid out in a full sleeping bag. Once we’d woke him he didn’t even get out of his bag but opened one eye, lifted his head and nodded us through. It always amazes me that security is so poor in other countries that would allow you get into the UK, yet the UK border force put so much emphasis on making it difficult for you to get out of the country. On arrival at the plane, it can only be best described as a small caravan with wings, we managed to cram in and set off on a journey that was turbulent, to say the least!
On arrival in Hargeisa, it was actually not so bad, there were a few aircraft on the ground, one delivering aid, and we were met by our fixer who took us to “VIP” passport control (a small un-airconditioned room with a partitioned toilet). Due to the high-risk environment, the plane wouldn’t stay so that was it, we were on our own until the pick up two days later. The Police Chief himself had graced us with his presence and paraded his men, a ragtag bunch of young to pensioner aged men with mixed uniforms and the worst kept weaponry I’d ever seen, although the presence of the PKM was appreciated. Each officer received a facilitation payment of $20, a little sweetener in order to hold their attention for the duration of the visit. We had a principal vehicle and a personal escort section vehicle complete with local drivers, essential for navigation when driving in a hostile environment. I’m not one for teaching new drivers how you expect them to drive, I think it causes more risk in the short term as you are trying to get them to immediately change habits of a lifetime, as long as they locked the doors that is all that was asked of them. In addition, we would have a four-vehicle police escort, well that was the theory anyway. The actions on part of the orders in Addis Ababa had been very straightforward, if there was a need to extract, weapons would be taken from the police and vehicles including the local drivers would be used to bug out to Ethiopia in the west or Djibouti in the north. Going firm in an unsecured location was not an option as support being more than twenty-four hours away as a minimum meant we’d have next to no chance of holding out so had to stay mobile.
First stop was the hotel located near the airport, this gave us time to shake out, take in the environment and do a full comms check as we’d only tested radios at the airport. The hotel was frequented by the few western types who visited and was ok from a security perspective, a decent perimeter of sorts and a large number of armed static guards. It was here that we realised our four vehicle police convoy would come and go as it pleased, sometimes we’d be escorted by all four and sometimes just one that we put down to Somali logic! The hotel was raised high above the city which sat in a dust bowl beneath it. There was a huge communications mast next to it which would mean wherever we were in the city we’d have a point of navigation to work our way back towards if necessary.
Eventually, we made our way into the city along the dusty roads, marking emergency rendezvous (ERV) points along the route using prominent features, ‘dry river bed, narrow bridge’ for example. The population lives in serious poverty, most families survive on around a dollar a day. The poorest, and majority, of houses are made up of sticks with carrier bags woven together as a makeshift barrier to the elements, a mid-tier house would be of mud construction and the few from a more affluent background might use bricks.
We arrived at our first destination by mid-morning, a government building within a well-constructed compound, a large contingent of guards providing security with a police post outside for support. The area was a hive of activity and search procedures seemed quite robust on the face of it but it didn’t take long to start picking holes in their security procedures. Although the building was well constructed the head of security was keen to show us the mortar shrapnel marks that peppered the outside of the building and there were numerous craters from various sized calibre rockets. The compound had certainly seen some action. Although the guards seemed ok, not being one to ever rely on someone else to provide security the team assumed positions like the layers of an onion. The bodyguard (BG) inside with the principal, of course, one on the entry point to the building, one on the perimeter with the main guards (although not in sight of those outside of the compound as to not draw unwanted attention) and then me as the TL floating between the positions. Team members would rotate periodically to get away from the searing sun into the BG position where there were air conditioning and refreshments. In addition to the TL, I’d be taking comprehensive notes and photos to put together a briefing document on return to the UK that could be used prior to other tasks to that location.
It was coming up to noon so we made our way to a hotel for a lunchtime meeting, the only other westernised hotel in the city, but with a completely different standard of security to the one we initially composed ourselves in by the huge communications mast. Attack resistant bollards, meant to be used to slow traffic and segment a direct route to the building reducing the likelihood attack, but so badly positioned that you could actually drive straight between them. There were minimal guards but thankfully the person who we were meeting with had practically brought their own militia army, some dripping with bandoliers like Para’s on patrol in Helmand Province. The team again assumed the onion layer security principle positions, the BG outside of the meeting room, one at the main entrance of the hotel, me floating between them and one taking the opportunity to eat and rehydrate. However, come lunchtime for the militia army, all of them including BG left their positions to eat or sleep under a tree leaving their own principal completely vulnerable and ours with a hugely reduced level of security. As much as we’d have liked to have left the location, the aim was to allow the principal to conduct his meetings and unless the threat raised dramatically that was what we were going to do. Our police escort massively outgunned by the militia army had been sleeping under a tree since our arrival.
The afternoons in Somalia are a whole different ball game, practically the whole country, men, women and even children, partake in the daily consumption of khat, a social gathering using a flowering plant native to the Horn of Africa. A supposed stimulant that’s meant to make you more alert but with psychotic and paranoid side effects, not an ideal scenario when you are providing close protection in an already hostile environment. In addition to khat, the rule of thumb seems to be most people like a long snooze during the afternoon and even guards when you turn up to compounds can be seen laid out near their positions barely lifting their head to acknowledge you as you enter.
We only had one meeting in the afternoon as the roads become even more hazardous, if it was like whacky races in the morning, by adding khat into the equation it raises the threat on the roads so significantly that realistically meetings need to be arranged at the hotel and in the relative safety of the compound. The meeting was held at a small school in an area that was less densely populated than the main city we had been operating in. Our police escort had all but given up and combined with the slumbering guards the team were particularly vulnerable at this location. With the BG inside with the principal, the team took it upon themselves to try and secure the perimeter which included stopping vehicles and pedestrians entering for the time that we were there. Not great from a hearts and minds point of view but necessary to ensure the integrity of the perimeter and safety of the team. As the TL I had to take the decision to cut the visit short as there were just so many variables to try and manage a team of four and no real support assets, the only real conclusion was to leave.
Back at the main hotel near the airport, the principal conducted some more meetings as the team put the plan in place to secure everyone at night. As with a lot of these places you get hosted really well and we were treated to a Somali buffet including goats head curry, a delicacy for the area, and a myriad of weird and wonderful side dishes. Although the hotel was relatively safe by Somalia standards you just can’t rely on someone else to provide you security. We’d managed to secure one corridor to ourselves in the hotel which would make it a little easier to provide protection. The boss was briefed on the plan and told not to go anywhere outside of his room until collected in the morning. The plan was to have the BG at the end of the corridor, which thankfully had a TV and sitting area. There was no need for the BG to be outside of the principal’s room stood rigidly to attention just in case. One person would locate with the hotel guard at the front door who had thankfully locked the building down. One on the perimeter conducting patrols and establishing what level of alertness the hotel static guards were at throughout the night, and of course one sleeping. It’s vitally important you retain this level of security, you never know when someone might enter the building and the hotel guard fail to lock up correctly after them, or in this instance, a gate that was originally locked on the perimeter was found to be open by the operator on patrols.
For the next two days, we followed a similar routine before heading to the airport for our pickup. By this time the police had miraculously all turned out again, we had our full four-vehicle convoy as promised, last seen at full strength when we first left the airport two days ago. Of course, they weren’t there to wave us off but wanted their gratuity payment of another $20 for a job well done. Each officer had been given a whole months family wage in the space of two days which was important so that the next time we arrived they would give us their ‘undivided attention’ and although not perfect by western standards at least it gave us additional security, ease of access to meeting locations and some weapons should they be needed.
We went back a further four times in the next three months and the company now have a fully established office secured by Ghurkha’s and close protection provided by a UK company with operators who deploy fully armed. It’s a lawless but really interesting place and as long as you mitigate the risk, anything is possible.
Managing Director of The Security Advisor