Going local for oil and people protection in Iraq
Tim Compston, features editor at SecurityNewsDesk, speaks to Mike Lord, business development director, at Harlow International – an international conglomerate based in Iraq – and representatives from the company’s security businesses, about what is involved in the protection of economically-critical oil facilities and key personnel working across the war-torn country.
Mike Lord’s background means that he is no stranger to the high level demands of the security and defence sectors. Prior to joining Harlow International – which works across oil and gas, defence, construction, government services, and the media – he was the founder of the well-respected Stirling Group, a global HSE (Health, Safety, and Environmental) business, and also enjoyed a long and distinguished British military career, serving in the Parachute Regiment and the Royal Military Police.
In addition to the new business remit, which he has taken-up with Harlow, Lord is now tasked with managing Harlow’s security operations in Iraq which – he reports – can deploy the largest private security armoured vehicle fleet in the country – worth an estimated £50 million. Looking at these businesses in more detail, Al Thaware Security Services (ATS-109) is headquartered in Baghdad and specialises in construction, defence, and VIPsecurity services. Further south, Al Murabit Security Services (AMS-91) centred on Basra focuses instead, primarily, on the vast oil and gas industry.
In terms of vertical markets, Lord is well acquainted with all things oil and gas as during his tenure at Stirling – which he founded and chaired – he dealt with many of the major international oil companies like BP, Shell, Exxon Mobil and Repsol. One tragic event which has left a deep impression on Lord was the January 2011 attack by heavily armed militants on the vast In Amenas gas plant situated in Southern Algeria: “That was my guys that were killed in that attack – we lost 39. After that I sold the business and kind of retired,” he explains. The catalyst for rekindling his career, Lord recalls, was a positive meeting with the chairman of Harlow International in Dubai: “He was Iraqi and had lived and studied in the UK before going back and forming a company in 2003 and had built-up quite an empire. He was looking for somebody to head-up business development and also two security companies he owned in Iraq.”
According to Lord the two security companies he now oversees – ATS-109 and AMS-91 – originally cut their teeth providing security services internally to the group (Harlow): “We do a large amount of construction work so you can imagine there was there was a significant internal security requirement and they wanted to turn that into a commercial business to create a profit,” says Lord.
A major milestone on the way to offering Iraqi security services externally, to challenge the dominance of global security providers, was, in Lord’s view, PSC1.1 accreditation: “This is the highest external accreditation out there for international security companies. This has allowed us to take what has been quite an interesting road for the Iraqi security sector and put in for large security projects,” he says.
Moving forward, Lord expresses the view that there is wide agreement that Iraqis need to take, and want to take, greater ownership of their own security responsibilities in the country: “We saw that as a real opportunity and have put that into an outfit which is now 95 per cent Iraqi and five per cent expat. People training is done by expats, operations management by expats – and I’m British – but we are now effectively 100 per cent Iraqi owned and a 95 per cent Iraqi-led entity. I have a lot of good Iraqis in my team, young guys who may have been born in Iraq, came to the UK, and now want to go back and join the security industry. As professionals we are mentoring and helping develop an Iraqi industry.”
Turning to the thoughts of one of Lord’s Iraqi colleagues Dr. Shawqi Salman Ali, who is the director of administration for AMS- 91 (Al Murabit Security Services) centred on the port of Basra in the south of the country, on the importance of the oil and gas sector: “It [oil] is the main source of revenue for the Iraqi government and its future success will be an important element in ensuring stability.”
Drilling down to the security challenges that AMS-91’s oil industry customers face on a daily basis, Dr. Shawqi Salman Ali believes that, sadly, the political instability that the country suffers from has a very direct impact. He goes on to reveal that the majority of the oilfields that AMS-91 is involved with are surrounded by or in vicinity of local tribal areas: “Sometimes there are disagreements and conflicts in these areas that pose a security challenge and can increase the threat level.” Liaising with partners on-the-ground is vital, says Dr. Shawqi Salman Ali, to ensure that AMS-91 can tap into the best local knowledge and then advise its clients on how to operate in the region despite these difficulties.
Although no one would deny that southern Iraq doesn’t have its well documented problems Dr. Shawqi Salman Ali is keen to put this into a broader context: “In comparison with other provinces in the country, southern Iraq is actually more stable and the threat level has lessened in recent years.” He is also adamant that, whatever the issues, Iraq is still a country that provides businesses with plenty of opportunities and, in his view, the ‘threat levels can be managed.’
Expanding on the benefits for oil companies who decide to work with a local Iraqi security provider, Dr. Shawqi Salman Ali says that essentially they know the local security situation better as they actually come from the region and understand the local history, leaders, and systems.
Dr. Shawqi Salman Ali believes that a high level of training is critical for a provider like AMS-91 who wants to work with international oil businesses. He believes that expert instructors need to cover elements such as advanced protective techniques and driving, plus the use of weapons with trainees. He adds that personnel should complete monthly training schedules: “This might comprise local and national law, codes of ethics, and human rights.”
Heading north from Basra to the capital of Iraqi – Baghdad, which is much closer to the frontline of clashes between Iraqi forces and so-called Islamic State (IS), one of the key requirements from a security perspective is the ability to provide VIP protection to keep the wheels of business and government moving. This is an area that another of Harlow International’s local Iraqi businesses ATS-109 (Al Thaware Security Services) specialises in. Interestingly, Ali Muhe the Baghdad manager for ATS-109 reports that the attacks and security situation in northern Iraq, which so often hits the headlines, isn’t really influencing the need for protection in Bagdad itself: “The security requirements in Bagdad and in the northern area are very different,” says Muhe, “The government doesn’t allow us to travel to areas like Mosul or Ramadi.”
Typical VIP protection work for ATS-109, according to Muhe, involves delivering mobile security from the airport to Baghdad and for visits to government offices and places of business: “We have also provided static site security for VIP villas in the past.”
For VIP protection to run smoothly Muhe points out the necessity of ongoing communication with the Iraqi government and other authorities: “We have to acquire the government’s approval for movement. Without close coordination with the government there could be problems with delays at checkpoints that could leave clients in danger.” He adds that by working with the government it is possible to have some assistance from government agencies, the police, and the army during ATS-109’s operations.
Muhe reiterates that for a successful VIP protection other key elements need to be built into the equation: “We [ATS-109] do the right things; we check the safety of the area in advance of any task. Our operations staff evaluate the area and manage and monitor all of the operations.”
Added to this, Muhe feels that one aspect where ATS-109 has a definite edge over the competition is on the armoured vehicle front. Unlike some providers who mix armoured and soft skin vehicles, Muhe says for ATS-109 armoured vehicles are the order of the day. Regarding how vehicle protection levels have improved, Muhe says that B6 armoured vehicles are ‘indispensable for our mission’. Of course with these being much heavier than normal road-going vehicles those operating them require additional skills: “Drivers also need to know how to take cover or to avoid a threat and how to react to an incident.”
The message that comes out of speaking to Mike Lord and his colleagues about security in Iraq is that, whether it be helping to protect oil installations, or making sure that VIPs are able to travel to and from their destinations, combining good on-the-ground knowledge and relationships with expat expertise, having the right training in place to field a predominantly local workforce, meeting key international standards, and deploying well protected vehicles adds up to a very competitive proposition.