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On the day before Eid, a delegation from the United Arab Emirates and security contractor Bancroft Global completed their third meeting on the future of the land-based anti-piracy force called the Puntland Marine Police Force. Although any visit by the UAE would normally be considered a VIP event in Puntland, attendees describe the meeting as tense. The son of President Mohamad Farole even went as far as to show his position by refusing to meet the delegation at the airport.
The Private War Against Pirates
The main topic of the meeting was cash. Under the approval of Crown Prince and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan the UAE initially funded the program using a zakat or islamic charity fund that hid the actual monetary donations into the fund. The goal of the maritime trading nation was altruistic and simple; to help Puntland develop a security force to defeat piracy and bring stability to its shores.
Despite the deep pockets of the Nahyan family, problems with the flow of money began about half way through the project and peaked five months ago. The "secret" project was once again in the media and was also featured in the latest UN SEMG report as a private army set up to fight pirates and accountable to no one. Although the PMPF did not deploy until spring of 2012, the unnamed authors of the SEMG report editorialized on the goals of the PMPF and Puntland as being negative.
The inference was that instead of the PMPF bringing security it would bring insecurity. The irony of the UN hiring foreign mercenaries to train the foreign African soldiers of AMISOM never really sunk in. The UN also implored Somali governments and international donors called to fight back against pirates. It was this unsubtle railing against the PMPF and Puntland for creating security while the south was a war zone run by a kleptocracy that initially deflected real concerns. The UN suddenly shifted from insisting that the PMPF was just smoke and mirrors to getting serious once they read about it going operational. It was almost amusing to see how the SEMG could at the same time insist that the PMPF was ineffective and at the same time complain about how effective it was. The reality is that the PMPF rolled into pirate centers like Hafun, Bargal and Eyl and dramatically shifted the piracy paradigm in Puntland. It was that success and the realization that the PMPF may overshadow the snail-like pace of AMISOM that made the PMPF the focal point of the SEMG efforts.
Instead of the UN supporting the efforts of the PMPF against pirates the SEMG increased their efforts to shut it down recommending sanctions against the contractor but not pirates because sanctioning pirates meant that ransoms could not be paid to free hostages.
By June 6 2012, the program was shut down and funds stopped without explanation right at the apex of what seemed to be an aggressive and successful campaign to attack pirates. Mobile forces were suddenly left scattered across hostile areas of Puntland without money to buy fuel or even food. There was some sense of discontent among the PMPF when a South African trainer was gunned down by one of the PMPF members to stop them from going into town.
When the UAE money dried up and to avoid wholesale revolt, the Puntland government stepped in to provide basic supplies and wages.
The first post-shutdown meeting was held on September 4, 2012 and then another visit occurred on October 9. That meeting involved a large contingent of foreign advisors from Bancroft Global, intel and military officials from the UAE and the Puntland government.
The Private War Behind The Private War
By then, the predicament of the PMPF had been elevated to almost theatrical proportions in both the media and behind the scenes. The New York Times published an article that placed former Blackwater founder Erik Prince at the center, even insisting that Prince had visited the camps a number of times to supervise training. The article turned out to be false and was heavily corrected. The lead image of the article was lifted directly from the SEMG report and and showed a recruit who was supposed to have been tortured and later who died. The recruit in the photo and two others were very much alive. when Somalia Report investigated the newspaper's claims. It also turned out that Erik Prince has never set foot in Somalia and a Photoshopped photo of Prince on a trip to Afghanistan used without the photographer's permission. The article was later heavily edited, revised and corrected.
In addition to the hysterical media focus, there were the UAE's unpaid bills for Sterling's contractor services, there are also background squabbles over ownership of ships and helicopters potentially related to payment problems. On October 2, Lebanese based businessmen Jamal Mohammad Balassi notified the Puntland government that they were in possession of stolen property. Specifically a Cessna Super King Air B200c medevac plane with New Guinea registration but now with Puntland tail numbers. Balasi insisted in his demand letter that "we start facing a disaster mass (sic) result of losing the control on the above mentioned aircraft as a result of a fraud and misleading". It's complicated. TranServ's Balassi is a Palestinian who lives in Lebanon on an a Ukrainian pasport operating out of Rwanda, leasing an American aircraft registered in Papua New Guinea through an Armenian company to a South African to use in Puntland. The plane has no current airworthy certficate and is being flow in violation of the UN arms embargo. Balassi has also made claims on three ocean going ships and a large Antonov cargo plain purchased by the UAE and donated to Puntland.
It was that very plane that Bancroft President Mike Stock flew up from Mogadishu to Bosaso for the October 9th meeting. That meeting ended with a clear request from Puntland for the UAE to continue funding the project with Bancroft replacing Sterling (who had replaced Saracen). The UAE has also made confusing promises to pay and threats not to pay while the mess is being sorted out.
Stock had stated in the New York Times article that he was not interested, yet a five days later Stock is on an allegedly stolen plane without an air safety certificate flown by mercenaries heading to Bosaso. It is not surprising that Bancroft is not overly enthusiastic about getting involved. But then again how often is that a someone can inherit a private air, land and sea army at a bargain basement price?
The Private War Against the PMPF
The PMPF began in January 2012 and immediately caught the attention of the group that monitors violations of the arms embargo in Somalia.
Despite being briefed to the UN, US and other entities in Nairobi, London and Washington DC the PMPF has always been targeted by the United Nations Somalia and Eritrea Monitoring Group as being clearly in violation of the spirit and the legal framework of the ban. Puntland was featured as an aggressor and the South African mentors as mercenaries. In the mind of the UAE this was a State commanded, donor funded, African trained force of Africans. Most other programs flew Somali's out of the country for training, flew them back in and watched them rapidly vanish or join al Shabaab.
Many of the allegations made in the 2011 and 2012 UN SEMG report turned out to be speculative or just plain fabricated. The underlying accusation that the PMPF, Puntland, the contractors and even the Somali recruits were in violation of the arms embargo was always correct but there has never been any proof put forward of the force being used against Somaliland or as a "private army'. In a place like Somalia pretty much every one is in violation of the arms embargo, It is who the UN SEMG chooses to go after that makes it a political mess.
Somalia Report reported at the time that the UN SEMG was willing to step up its efforts to shut down the program with the UAE being pointed out as a major violator. When the UN interviewed the sponsor of the program the UAE denied they were providing funding for the project. Despite the denial of involvement, there have been numerous visits by high level military and intel delegations from the UAE, massive shipments of material and humanitarian supplies from the UAE and all clearly marked “Gift of the UAE”. There was even a close call that involved a crash landing of a UAE delegation aboard a DC3 with hydraulics failure in Bosaso. A plane full of dead Emirati military would have the whole the suspicion moot. The reality is that none of this activity or support was secret and the constant need to invent secrecy and accusations may have led to the head of the SEMG being fired after the release of his 2012 report. It has yet to be fully determined what led one of the richest countries on earth to destroy the program by lack of funds and a continual refusal of the UAE to notify the UN.
When Somalia Report met with a member of the SEMG he expressed his bewilderment at why the UAE wouldn’t send a simple notification letter. There may be more to that. What Somalia Report did uncover were a series of letters showing attempts by President Farole and the then Prime Minister of Somalia to notify the UN security council but a constant refusal by the UN to delay, reroute, return or accept their notification.
In June with the pirates on shore and on the run, the PMPF program abruptly stopped. By July small pockets of police and mentors were left in Eyl, Banderbeyla, Bargal and Iskusuban. The main base in Bosaso became tense as recruits demanded to be paid.
All but a handful of expats were removed, the program then entered the worst case scenario, unpaid armed locals waiting in the blistering monsoon winds. The sudden loss of funds left a number of foreign mentors, hundreds of freshly trained armed Somali’s and millions of dollars in new equipment and weapons scattered across Puntland.
The government of Somalia kept a skeleton crew of around a dozen South African contractors and nominally made payments. Salaries to the recruits from the Puntland government stopped about two months ago. Since then reports from the camps show unrest, desertion, anger and frustration. Expats who were initially asked to stay for only a month back in July have also not been paid.
The UAE has been continuing as they did in the latest meeting to insist they will fund the program but their promises have not matched actual receipt of funds. The other political problem is the desire of the sponsor to integrate the PMPF, or its new iteration into a national police force. After the covertly trained and equipped members of the CIA-funded Puntland Intelligence Service, the PMPF are the best-trained and equipped security force in Puntland. It is doubtful that Puntland would receive any AMISOM-type benefit for providing men and equipment to a greater Somalia.
Puntland like Somaliland has been distrustful of the various foreign-installed Mogadishu based governments. Decades of bickering, theft, incompetence, self interest from a parade of officials have taught the Puntlanders to strike out on their own, while still waiting patiently for a functioning government.
Currently Puntland sees no reason to simply hand over its troops and equipment to be integrated into the Somalia National Army or to shore up a Mogadishu-based coastal police force.
Bancroft In or Out?
The only other player in the PMPF’s future seems to be Mike Stock and his US-registered charity Bancroft Global. Bancroft began as a demining concern and has grown to become the “go to” supplier of foreign advisors to Ugandan and now Kenyan troops. Their funds essentially come from the United States after being rerouted through Uganda and AMISOM. Bancroft was also given high marks by the UN for complying with arms embargo requirements and quietly stepped into some of Saracen's abandoned programs in Mogadishu. Among them a clinic paid for by the UAE and a training program for the Presidents personal security detail.
Bancroft met with the UAE to discuss programs and paid a visit to the Bosaso base to take inventory. When Mr Stock was reached for comment he was puzzled by the vast size of the base and the location of the purported helicopters, ships and other major assets. He was also not supportive of the model used to create and deploy the PMPF. The massive 1000 meter long PMPF compound just past the airport may join the rotting SOMCAN anti piracy ships in Bosaso harbor, as reminders of previous failed anti-piracy attempts in Bosaso.
Bancroft’s idea was to shut down the Bosaso base and then distribute the men and materiel to smaller coast guards that would stretch from Kismayo up to Puntland. But as Stock is careful to point out, only if it fits within the current legal structure of the AU and UN. Currently there is no agreed upon conforming structure for the PMPF and AMISOM is quite busy down south. As was shown with the AMISOM metamorphosis of the Kenyan invasion it doesn't take much to magically transform misguided military efforts into profitable peacekeeping ones.
Puntland In or Out?
The Farole administration is also not supportive of the looting of what is essentially their land based anti-piracy and maritime security arm but they know they do not have the funds to train, deploy maintain ships, vehicle fleets, aircraft and manpower. Currently Bancroft is Puntland’s only option if the UAE steps up and funds a training and mentoring program. It may just be a game of seeing who blinks first. If Puntland, and by Puntland, we mean President Farole, agrees to see his Puntland police force be deployed elsewhere, it may bring in other units from the south into Puntland. Somali politicians have good reason to be suspicious of not only each other but the intentions of the U.S, EU and other nations. Kenya is busy sawing off a large chunk of Southern Somalia to create Jubaland, Ethiopia has safety corridors into Baido, Somaliland still sits on large chunks of what should be Puntland and the Puntland Intelligence Agency has its own CIA trained and supplied army that operates independently of the government.
It is not known how AMISOM will integrate into any program or if the UAE intends to notify the security council or even if Puntland will give up control of their UAE donated equipment. A notification is a simple letter informing members of the security council that a member nation intends to support a program that technically violates the two decade old arms embargo. The archaic blanket embargo on weapons, training and support was created to shut down the flow of weapons to militias in the 90s but today criminalizes the United States, their CIA and even the UN as violators of the Arms Embargo. The UAE has consistently maintained very robust but very private program to shore up its security.
Recently as a bulwark against the arrival of Arab Spring the UAE created an 800 man army of mostly Colombian contractors at a cost of half a billion dollars. The effort in Puntland was similar in size but with local soldiers, with an additional 1000 man planed to support and guard former President Sheikh Sharif. The UAE also supported Sharif's bid for re-election but lost. The UAE's support for Puntland has been on both the humanitarian and security side but the violation of the arms embargo led to conflict between the UAE sponsors from internal security and the defense ministries which did not support the Puntland project.
Pirates In or Out?
The PMPF as a Puntland based anti-piracy force may also have lost its momentum due to the post monsoonal downturn in piracy. Although every one and their salty dog are taking credit for ending piracy the only functional and tactical assault on actual pirate gangs from inside Somalia were by the PMPF. Their units also set up posts in key coastal areas to support local villages. Most piracy actually emanates from Galmadug but is supported and financed out of major towns like Qardo, Bosaso, Haradhere and Galkayo. It remains to be seen how confident the pirates will be this season.
When the unit was operational it quickly flowed into former pirate bases and cut off lines of supply and communication. Pirate Isse Yulux was hunted down and forced to flew to remote Candala on the northern coast of Puntland. After the PMPF was shut down, Yulux offered to pay some salaries of the PMPF in a deadpan show of bravado.
With piracy on the wane (there are still over 200 men and women held hostage in Somalia) and jihadist elements moving north the urgency may vanish leaving the worst case scenario of yet another self fulfilling prophecy of the long fired head of the UN SEMG predicting that the PMPF will truly be a source of instability in Somalia. News reports claim that the PMPF was used to pressure the former Prime Minister of the TFG from campaigning in Bari region.
The need for security off the shores of Puntland have not changed, recently Puntland forces interdicted, arrested and sentenced a man smuggling weapons and explosives from Yemen to death
The UAE has left five advisors and one Bancroft employee behind to do another assessment. The UAE once again promised that funds will be released. This time they insist the long awaited money will arrive during the first week of November.