The northeast African country of Somalia has been one of the world's most notorious failed states for more than two decades. Its current government has been pushed out of most of the country's territory and now controls a fraction of the capital city, and high-seas piracy off the country's coast has been the scourge of shipping companies for years.
But for Erik Prince, founder of the notorious security contractor formerly known as Blackwater, that's not a reason to flee the country -- it's a financial opportunity.
According to news reports published Thursday, Prince has partnered with an African-based security company, Saracen International, to win security contracts from the Somali government that would see the mercenaries fight the on-land part of the war against Somali high-seas pirates, and would also go after al-Shabab, the Islamist militant group that has the Somali government cornered in parts of Mogadishu, the capital.
According to the New York Times' Mark Mazzetti and Eric Schmitt, Saracen's head is Lafras Luitingh, a former officer in South Africa's Civil Cooperation Bureau. During the apartheid era, the CCB acted as a hit squad, killing or attempting to kill anti-apartheid dissidents.
After apartheid ended, South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission found the CCB guilty of numerous killings. It has also been alleged that the CCB poisoned the water supply at a Namibian refugee camp, bombed a South African kindergarten, and even attempted to bewitch Bishop Desmond Tutu with a baboon fetus.
Luitingh was evidently a major in the CCB, and was in charge of its Zimbabwe operations.
An Associated Press investigation found it very difficult to track down Saracen International, with many of the company's addresses proving to be a dead end and uncertainty surrounding even which country the company is registered in.
There are at least three Saracens [--] the one registered in Lebanon, and two run by Luitingh's business partner and based in Uganda, where government office employees told the AP the registration papers have disappeared. An AP reporter in Beirut could not find the address Luitingh's company provided in the Somali contract. Lebanese authorities had no address listed for Saracen in Lebanon and said it is based in the United Arab Emirates.
Afloat Leasing, which owns two ships that have been working with Saracen, said it was Liberian-registered, but an AP reporter didn't find it at the address given or in Liberian records.
There is also confusion about the degree of Erik Prince's involvement with the company. According to a report from the African Union, seen by the Times, Prince “is at the top of the management chain of Saracen and provided seed money for the Saracen contract.”
But Mark Corallo, a spokesman for Prince, said the Blackwater founder had "no financial role'' in the Somalia project. According to the AP's sources, Prince is overseeing anti-piracy training.
Both the Associated Press and the Times report that the United Arab Emirates has contributed financially to the project. Prince -- facing lawsuits and criminal investigations -- moved to the UAE last year, and is known to have close ties to the country's ruling family.
The idea that Somalia's long-running, chaotic civil war could be "privatized" to the benefit of for-profit security contractors has some critics concerned.
"You could see the privatization of war, with very little accountability to the international community,'' E.J. Hogendoorn, an analyst with the International Crisis Group think tank, told the AP. "Who are these private companies accountable to and what prevents them from changing clients when it's convenient for them?''
Hogendoorn suggested Arab countries may be backing the Saracen effort because they have previously donated to the Somali government's efforts to end the civil war, and found the money couldn't be accounted for.
Prince severed his relationship with Blackwater -- which has been renamed Xe Services -- last year, selling off his shares in the company.
Blackwater has become an emblem of private contractors' growing roles in military conflict. The company gained notoriety over the 2007 Nisour Square massacre, in which 17 Iraqi civilians were killed when Blackwater mercenaries opened fire in an intersection.
A criminal case against five Blackwater agents in that shooting was dismissed last year, when a judge determined the US had promised the accused immunity in exchange for testimony.