- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 4, 2008

Pirates beware — Blackwater Worldwide may be looking for you, and soon. That prospect certainly would shiver Bartholomew Roberts, better known as “Black Bart,” down to his timbers if the infamous pirate hadn’t been dead for the past 285 years.

The North Carolina-based security firm, which came under fire from Congress over a shooting incident in Baghdad last year that left 17 Iraqi civilians dead, announced in October that its 183-foot ship, the McArthur, stands ready to assist the shipping industry as it struggles with the increasing problem of piracy in the Gulf of Aden and elsewhere.

“Billions of dollars of goods move through the Gulf of Aden each year,” said Bill Mathews, Blackwater’s executive vice president. “We have been contacted by ship owners who say they need our help in making sure those goods get to their destination safely. The McArthur can help us accomplish that.”

The International Maritime Bureau estimated that more than 100 ships have been attacked off Somalia alone since January. A total of 14 ships and 250 crew members are still being held for ransom.

Among them, the Saudi oil tanker Sirius Star and its cargo worth more than $100 million are still being held. The ship and its 25-member crew were seized on Nov. 14.

Just this week, pirates fired on a U.S. cruise ship carrying hundreds of passengers as it steamed across the Gulf of Aden on a 32-day cruise from Rome to Singapore.

Blackwater spokeswoman Anne Tyrrell said more than 70 companies, including shipping and insurance firms, have contacted the security specialists for information on the McArthur, although she did not elaborate. She said meetings are taking place this week in London to explain to those interested what the company can provide.

“More than 70 different companies have reached out to find out our capabilities,” she said.

As a company with a 50,000-person database of former military and law enforcement professionals, Blackwater says it is uniquely positioned to assist the shipping industry in the Gulf of Aden and elsewhere.

Formerly known as Blackwater USA and founded in 1997 by former U.S. Navy SEAL members Erik Prince and Al Clark, the company recently focused on expanding operations and services, and acquired the McArthur for use in combating terrorists and for special missions.

The refurbished ship has what the company has described as state-of-the-art navigation systems, full Global Maritime Distress and Safety System communications, SEATEL broadband satellite communications, dedicated command and control battlefield air support, helicopter decks, a hospital, multiple support vessel capabilities, and a crew of 45 highly trained personnel.

Formerly a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration research vessel, the McArthur was put in service in 1966 and decommissioned in 2003. Reconfigured and modified in 2006, the ship is now considered a Blackwater Worldwide maritime security support craft. Blackwater´s aviation affiliate can provide the helicopters, pilots and maintenance required to support escort missions in the Gulf of Aden.

Company spokesmen said the dramatic increase of pirate attacks on merchant vessels in the Gulf of Aden had led to parallel cost increases for the shipping industry, resulting in 10-fold insurance increases this year alone. They said that with the added danger pay offered to crews willing to make the journey, pirate ransom demands that reach into the millions, and lengthy negotiations for hijacked ships, if left unaddressed the cost of the piracy boom to the shipping industry — and consumers buying their goods — will only increase.

“Some shippers have taken the step of arming their crews, or hiring private security to ride on board cargo ships,” the company said. “Rather than having armed guards on a cargo vessel, the McArthur´s ability to accompany a ship and deploy helicopters to patrol the area provides a safer option for the shipping industry.

The McArthur is a multipurpose maritime vessel designed to support military and law enforcement training, peacekeeping, and stability operations worldwide.

Blackwater Worldwide is the largest of the State Department’s three private security contractors. Of the 987 contractors Blackwater provides, 744 are U.S. citizens. At least 90 percent of its revenue comes from government contracts, two-thirds of which are no-bid contracts. The company is currently contracted by the U.S. government to provide security services in the Iraq war.

Twenty-seven Blackwater employees have been killed during various security missions in Iraq. In March 2004, four Blackwater employees were ambushed and killed in Fallujah, and their bodies were hanged on bridges.

In September 2007, Blackwater employees in Baghdad fatally shot 17 Iraqis, at least 14 of whom were killed “without cause” according to the FBI. Witnesses told investigators the attack was unprovoked, although Blackwater maintained that its guards were under attack and responded accordingly.

The Iraqi government initially said it expected to refer criminal charges to its courts in connection with the incident, but in October 2007 immunity from prosecution was granted by the State Department. While the Justice Department said any immunity deals offered to Blackwater employees were invalid, legal experts have said the U.S. government is unlikely to allow a trial in the Iraqi courts, because there is little confidence that trials would be fair.