In shipping, the saying goes, owners worry about protecting their vessels, cargoes and crew — in that order. The industry itself disputes this; some in the security business suspect one reason companies use armed guards is the risk that crew taken hostage might sue their employers for failing in their duty of care by not hiring enough protection.
Many of those recently released say they were mistreated, underfed, used as slave labour and sometimes even forced to join in attacks on other ships. When international naval forces approach, officers say hostages are often simply lined up on the deck with guns to their heads until the forces withdraw.
Sometimes — especially on ships carrying low-value cargoes — crews say owners seem willing to abandon them to their fate. Williams and Twiss tell the group in the pub that there are tales of oil tanker owners deliberately holding back ransom payments to ensure ships are held while the price of oil rises, Reuters reports.
The growth in private security work is not limited to the Indian Ocean. When governments and organisations needed to get thousands of their citizens out of Libya in a hurry, many turned to private firms staffed mainly by ex-military people to organise and sometimes carry out evacuations.
And the demand isn’t just coming from western states and companies. London-based consultancy firm Control Risks — one of the largest of a new breed of such firms providing services from IT security to advice on piracy to hostage negotiation — says it managed the evacuation of about 2,000 Chinese oil workers using hired commercial airliners.
“We are the child of globalisation,” says its chief executive Richard Fenning.
Increasingly, private firms provide data-crunching for intelligence agencies that need to go through millions of phone calls and e-mails to detect hints of militancy and dissent. They guard embassies, maintain tanks and aircraft. NATO forces in Afghanistan are heavily dependent on small Pakistani trucking firms hired to bring supplies across the Khyber pass.
In the Indian Ocean, several companies are even trying to raise funds to buy former naval patrol boats or converted commercial vessels to form a flotilla of small private armed escort ships. They would be the first private warships in more than 200 years — although not everyone is convinced the sums involved would make it viable. For some, that’s a relief.
“There is no great enthusiasm for this privatisation of what used to be the military,” says Gvosdev at the U.S. Naval War College. “It’s something that has happened as states no longer have the resources to do everything and have looked to do things cheaper. But clearly no one wants these private entities to have too much in the way of capabilities.”
Such thoughts are far from the minds of those completing the ship security officer course in Poole. After a test and a curry buffet the students receive their pre-printed certificates and head off to an uncertain future. There are jokes and bluster, but these men may soon be out at sea, taking life-and-death decisions far from help.
“The last thing you want to do is open fire,” says Williams. “But if it’s three in the morning and you’re standing watch on your own, what are you going to do?”