Colombo, Peace and Conflict

Our very own Blackwater? Sri Lankan mercenaries in Iraq

I walk into the bar at the Sapphire, knowing I’m early for this interview, but I don’t want to keep my contact waiting. He’s obviously a busy man, but has been convinced by a mutual friend to give me half an hour of his time.

The bar itself has a certain well-worn charm that reminds one of friendly little pubs in Europe – all dark wood, fake leather and dim, smoky corners. Except that there’s no smoke anymore. Sri Lanka’s draconian anti-tobacco laws have banished smoking to a glass-walled cage at the far end of the room. I curse softly and park myself in a cubicle, ordering a gin-and-tonic, and wait for the man.

The place is more or less empty – it’s not yet 6pm – and ten minutes later, I’m on my second G&T, when he walks in. Or at least I assume it’s him. I’ve no clue what he looks like, though he should recognize me since I mailed him the link to my blog the day before. It’s all a bit James Bondish, and I feel quite silly until he spots me and veers over to the cubicle.

Major Rohan – I’ve agreed to use only his first name, and not take any pictures – shakes my hand and sits down. He’s a big guy in his late thirties, close to six feet, but athletically built, with shortish hair and skin that’s negro black from long hours in the sun. He’s dressed in a short-sleeve button-down shirt and jeans, and looks exactly what he is – a businessman out for an informal drink.

He orders a Lion lager and we begin to chat. He’s amused that a web site would want to interview him, but is firm about keeping certain details off the record. I have agreed to this beforehand, and it’s the reason he’s condescended to meet me.

The bar is filling up now, mostly locals from Wellawatte, obviously regulars who look curiously at us before joining their own cliques, leaving the cubicle to us.

David Blacker: So you don’t mind staying here in Little Jaffna?

Major Rohan: (With a shrug) It’s just a short visit. Besides, I’m not bothered about Tamils. My war with the Tigers is over now, no?

DB: So tell me a bit about yourself. You’re ex-Sri Lanka Army, right?

MR: Correct. I joined in the early nineties. My background’s mostly infantry, and later special forces. Towards the end I was also in Int, but not very long.

DB: So the question you must hear a lot – why did you leave?

MR: Actually it’s usually “Why did you join?” but anyway. Yeah, I left because I thought I was wasting my time. I saw a hell of a lot of combat in the nineties, first as an infantry officer, and then in special forces. My time with Int was what convinced me to get out. The war wasn’t really going well, no one cared about fighting it properly. There was a stupid CFA on with our fellows getting the worst of it. I was married with a young daughter, and wanted a better life for my family.

DB: But Iraq?

MR: It’s not so bad (laughs). My wife and daughter live in Dubai and are very safe and happy.

DB: So didn’t you feel you’d had enough of war?

MR: It wasn’t really a war or no war choice. Just a career move. I’m trained and experienced in this business. When I was thinking of leaving the Army, I met a batchmate of mine. He had resigned his commission a year or two previously and was working as a security consultant in Oman. He had this idea of setting up his own company for operations in Iraq, and wanted me to be his partner. He’s not a combat man – logistics and supply is his field – and he needed an infantryman. I agreed and quit the Army soon after, and we set up a security firm in Kuwait called Vampyr Group.

DB: So it was just you two?

MR: No, no, of course not. I convinced two other officers to join us. Both have special forces backgrounds, and one of them is probably the best close protection expert Sri Lanka has ever had.

DB: Then what?

MR: Well two of us moved to Kuwait immediately and started looking for business. The other two stayed here and started recruiting ex-soldiers to move to the Middle East and begin work. Soon after, we decided to move our HQ to Qatar for logistical reasons, and it was easier to shut down Vampyr and set up a new company altogether.

DB: So what are you guys called now?

MR: I don’t want that publicized, sorry.

DB: Why not? Won’t it be good for business?

MR: We have plenty of business, thanks, and whoever wants us knows how to find us. (He doesn’t point out that probably none of his potential clients read my blog, and I’m grateful for that) Our main problem is that some of the soldiers we recruit are deserters and we have to do various things to get them out of the country. I don’t want to get into problems with the government so better I keep a low profile. That’s why I don’t want my name or picture publicized either. I rarely even come to Sri Lanka these days, but I had a funeral in my mother’s family so I was forced to visit.

DB: OK, no problem. But why are you using deserters? Do you think they’re good soldiers?

MR: It depends. Some are, and some are not. We want the good ones. Most of our guys have left the Army legitimately with good records. And just because some have deserted doesn’t mean they’re cowards, OK? Soldiers go absent from the Sri Lanka Army for many reasons, and mostly it’s not because they’re scared. Many are highly decorated for bravery. Usually it’s because of family and personal problems. A girlfriend is being promised to another man because the boyfriend is in the Army and never around. So he absents himself to marry her. Sometimes he comes back and everything is OK, but sometimes the wife doesn’t want him to go back to the Army and he has to choose between loyalty to his unit and love for his wife. So he deserts. Or a parent is sick and has no one to care for them. The soldier is stuck in the north, and can’t get leave. So when he does get some leave, he doesn’t go back. There are lots and lots of reasons. Many of these fellows like military life, just not the Sri Lankan military life, so my company offers them a better one, working with like-minded professionals and earning a good salary. They’re all well insured, medical and life, so they don’t need to worry about their families if they are killed or crippled.

DB: So what are their contracts like?

MR: I don’t want to go into financial detail, but it depends on their experience. We need all sorts – bodyguards for close protection details, security teams for convoy and perimeter protection, specialist drivers, things like that. We even have IT guys and electronics experts, plus our own mechanics for our vehicle pool. Usually it’s a one-year contract that’s renewable. Many of our chaps just come for a year or two, make their money and then go back, but some like the work and stay with us, or move to other markets like Afghanistan or Africa. We also hire consultants for short-contract work, depending on what we need.

DB: So it’s an all-Sri Lankan company?

MR: Almost totally. All our operators, NCOs, and almost all the officers are Sri Lankan. There’s a bit of a language issue at the lower level because most of the operators speak only Sinhala, though we’re always pushing them to learn English, so it’s easier to just have Sri Lankans. But one of our original partners quit the company a year ago, and we replaced him with an Indian ex-police officer who is an anti-terrorism expert, and that’s gone off quite well. Also, many of our consultants are non-Sri Lankan. We have used UAVs for some jobs, and we had an ex-USAF lady attached to us for six months (our only female employee!), and later an Israeli guy doing the same thing. We also do some training jobs for other security companies that are new to the area, so we have their people attached for short periods.

DB: Isn’t there a lot of competition? I mean, the private military business in Iraq is huge, with big boys like Blackwater getting all the headlines and big contracts. How do smaller outfits like yours survive?

MR: It’s like any business, David. There are big clients and medium and small clients. Companies like Blackwater get all the big government contracts and that’s fine. We’re not interested in those. We specialize in other areas and cater to a smaller-sized clientele, mostly commercial companies doing business in Iraq who need our expertise. I mean, there are tiny outfits in Iraq, with less than twelve people, but they have enough of work and are making good money.

DB: So how is your company set up? I mean, do you operate like a military unit with platoons and sections, or more like a mercantile firm, with business teams and managers?

MR: I think we’re definitely set up along military lines, and discipline is very very tight. It has to be. But there’s no shouting and saluting like in the Army! If you don’t do your job you’ll be sacked like any private firm. You can’t come late to work and just expect your salary to be cut, no? Someone might get killed because of your negligence. In structure, we’re like a special forces squadron, but a bit bigger. We have a recruiting centre here in Sri Lanka, and a training and logistics base in Qatar. Our forward operating base is in an Iraqi city, and that’s where most of our personnel are based. The company is divided into troops, we have a Support Troop under one managing partner, which handles logistics and other support, including finances and most of its people are in Dohar; a Training Troop under another partner for recruitment and training, which has people here and in Qatar; a HQ Troop in Iraq, with two of the managing partners, and then four rifle troops which are used for jobs as and when needed.

DB: Don’t you feel at a disadvantage when looking for clients. Wouldn’t clients be more inclined to pick European or American security companies with white personnel from more recognized armies?

MR: Not really. I think we have a more discerning clientele who need our more specialized skills. For instance, being Asian, we attract less attention in a place like Iraq, where an American or British operator with their white skin will be immediately identified as a target. Our clients are often Asian companies doing business in Iraq – Indians, Southeast Asians, and even South Americans or Africans – and our guys can just blend in with them and look like part of their staff. Also, you won’t believe what a reputation the Sri Lanka Army has built over the years. Clients know we’ve been fighting terrorists for decades, so they know we have a lot of experience.

DB:OK, but what about the danger? We all know Iraq’s one of the most dangerous places on earth, and you are right there doing a very dangerous job. We hear about the kidnappings and executions of security personnel, about ambushes. Have you ever thought you were going to be killed over there?

MR:Well things are not as unstable as they were a couple of years ago, but three months ago I was personally involved in an incident. We had a client based in Baghdad, and he was expecting a senior board member to arrive on an inspection. The guest was a Bangladeshi, and because he was a VIP, the client had requested I personally handle the security. He flew into Baghdad and everything went well for the thirty-six hours he was in the country. He was due to fly out to Amman in Jordan, but changed his mind. He was supposed to visit one of their sites in Jordan, close to the Iraqi border, and instead of flying to Amman and then going out to the site, he decided he would drive across the border and check out the site on the way. We advised against it but the guy insisted. We started the trip late in the morning, but an hour out of Baghdad, we noticed two cars shadowing us. Fifteen minutes later, we spotted a pickup truck broken down by the side of the road. We were suspicious, and moving at high speed in a four-car convoy. I was in the client’s car, with one lead car and two trail cars. I slowed the entire convoy down, and sent the lead car past the pickup at high speed with guns ready. Just after the lead car passed it, the pickup blew. Luckily they were armoured and the terra who triggered the IED mistimed it a bit. But their tires were in pieces and they couldn’t move on their own. So I got the client’s car to do a U-turn with one trail car, while the other trail car went and picked up the three men from the lead car. In the middle of the U-turn, we took fire from the embankment on the other side of the highway, as well as an RPG from the nearer side. The terras were trying to RPG the trail car escorting us and block the road so that they could kidnap us. Luckily, the RPG missed and we took off in three cars back to Baghdad. I counted six bullet holes in my car later. That doesn’t happen very often these days, but you can’t say.

DB: We see all these pictures of American PMCs in full combat kit, with night vision and M16s and stuff. What kind of weapons and kit does your company use?

MR: Well we use whatever technology we need to get the job done, but when it comes to small arms and support weapons we usually use Chinese and Russian stuff. Our operators have been using these for years in the Sri Lanka Army, so it saves a lot of training time.

DB: So what about the ethics of what you do? I mean you’re fighting and maybe killing just for money – not for your country, or for a cause. Many people think of PMCs or mercenaries as criminals at worst or slightly shady characters at best. What do you think about that?

MR: I’m not bothered about people like that. I’m a businessman providing a service. It’s a very useful service. I provide security, and that helps save the lives of many many people who just want to go about their own business without being killed or captured by terrorists or criminals. What’s wrong with that?

DB: Just recently, Equatorial Guinea sentenced Simon Mann, an ex-SAS mercenary to a long prison term for his activities in the same field as you. Don’t you worry about that?

MR: You mean that bugger who tried to overthrow the government in Guinea, no? (I nod) Well what he did was totally different. Those ‘Dogs of War’ days are over, you know. He should have known better. Security companies are now very legitimate and there’s lots of legitimate, legal, lucrative business available for professional soldiers and security experts. Why do you need to overthrow a country. I think he was stupid, and now is paying for it. Sad, but stupid.

DB: So where do you see yourself in ten years – not in Iraq, I guess?

MR: Hopefully not (he laughs). No, I don’t want to be based in the middle of the action all the time. I’d like to diversify a bit more, provide more services that are useful outside of immediate war zones. There’s a trend even among NGOs and the UN to use private contractors now more and more, and that’s an area I’d like to look into.

DB: Do you think your services will ever be required here in Sri Lanka?

MR: Not really. Not the sort of services I provide now, but as I said, diversification’s the name of the game, so we’ll see. The MoD contracts many foreign specialists for particular jobs, and maybe those contracts could be taken by guys like me.

DB: I’m ex-Army myself. Do you think you could give me a job?

MR: I think you’re a bit too ex for us, but thanks for asking.

DB: Fuck off.

MR: You’re welcome.


This post sent to Groundviews by the author and originally appeared here.