Coastal patrol boats supplied by the US government to Sana’a in order to combat piracy have allegedly been diverted to maritime escort and protection missions, according to the Wall Street Journal this week.
Incoming Republican chief of the Department of Homeland Security as saying the allegations raised “serious questions, which will be addressed by the Homeland Security Committee.”
The paper itself framed the revelations in terms of “raising fresh questions about whether the San’a government is effectively using American military aid.”
According to a congressional report issued in November of last year, the US government has earmarked 29.9 million dollars to the Yemeni coast guard, in the form of patrol boats and radio equipment, in order to face “piracy, terrorism, and refugees” which it claimed would cross the Arabian Sea from Somalia.
Two Yemen-based private security firms, Lotus Maritime Security Services and Gulf of Aden Group Transits Ltd. were named as the patrons of the escort operations, by which the Yemeni government allegedly rented out its boats and personnel in exchange for sums which far surpassed sailors’ usual salaries.
The reports come in the context of extended controversy over the role of private companies in security throughout the world, and especially in combatting piracy in the Arabian Sea and protecting commercial shipping against attacks from mostly Somalia-based pirates.
But the official American position on security firms has been inconsistent over the last years. Private security companies played a major
logistical and facilitating role in America’s war on Iraq and Afghanistan, high-profile massacres of innocent civilians, especially by Xe LLC, formerly Blackwater, dampened official enthusiasm for such programs.
US officials originally looked positively on the advent of private escorts for shipping around the troubled Arabian and Red Sea areas, as it would alleviate their perceived responsibility to do so themselves.
Describing the phenomenon as “a great trend,” Lt. Nate Christensen, a spokesman for the Bahrain-based U.S. 5th Fleet told Fox News in 2008, “we would encourage shipping companies to take proactive measures to help ensure their own safety.”
Blackwater even hoped to expand into the anti-piracy business in late 2008, according to recently declassified US diplomatic cables, and converted a maritime research vessel into a an armed frigate, complete with armor, machine guns, and unmanned drone aircraft.
In communications with the US embassy in Djibouti, the firm stated, “Blackwater does not intend to take any pirates into custody, but will use lethal force against pirates if necessary.”
Official US reactions to the plan were tepid, and lawsuits from crew members of the ship included lurid accusations of cruel detentions, censoring of correspondence with the media, and racial discrimination. Having attracted no clients, the company canceled its Arabian Sea plans.
Just last week, the parliament of the embattled Somali government ordered an inquest into the operations of a shadowy private security firm, “Saracen International,” operating on its soil.
Little such scrutiny has yet occurred in Yemen, and government officials told the Wall Street Journal that the private escorts on the part of the Yemeni coast guard were neither a betrayal of trust nor unethical, as proceeds returned ultimately to the government.