Wednesday, October 7, 2009

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan | A firm providing security for U.S. diplomats in Pakistan was equipped with sophisticated weaponry that appears more suited to Special Forces commandos, raising questions about its real role in a country facing a serious terrorist threat.

Two police raids last month on Inter-Risk - a subcontractor for the big U.S. firm DynCorp International - turned up dozens of unlicensed weapons including 61 assault rifles, police officials told The Washington Times.

Islamabad Police Senior Superintendent Tahir Alam said police also briefly detained the head of the security firm, retired Capt. Syed Ali Jaffer Zaidi, a veteran of more than a decade in the special forces of the Pakistani army.

The raids appear to have exposed mixed signals within the Pakistani government and the lack of trust that continues to plague U.S. relations with Pakistan, an on-and-off ally in the war against Islamic extremism.

Police took action against Inter-Risk six months after U.S. Ambassador to Pakistan Anne W. Patterson wrote a letter to Interior Minister Rehman Malik asking for licenses for normally prohibited high-caliber weapons.

A copy of the two-page letter, dated March 30, was obtained by The Times. It notes that “security concerns have greatly diminished our ability to administer and expand the programs we would like to expand.” It referred to Peshawar, the capital of the North West Frontier Province on the border with Afghanistan, as a “special challenge.”

Ms. Patterson went on to say that “extraordinary measures” were needed in a “complex environment” and that the U.S. Embassy had signed a “commercial contract with DynCorp International and its Pakistani subcontractors Inter-Risk and Speed Flo Filters Industries to provide specialized security support.”

Based on this, she said, she asked the Interior Ministry to provide licenses for high-caliber weapons “to operate in the territorial limits of Pakistan and as soon as possible.”

It is not surprising that the U.S. would want extra firepower in a country where dozens have been killed in suicide bombings. Five employees of the U.N. World Food Program died Monday in Islamabad in the latest such attack.

However, a senior Pakistani defense official, who has knowledge of the situation but was not authorized to speak on the record about it, said there has been “extraordinary concern among government officials and the people of Pakistan regarding DynCorp, as well as other U.S. security operations firms in our country.”

“If the U.S. government or [nongovernmental organizations] use the security provided by DynCorp or its subcontractor Inter-Risk, then they must comply with Pakistani law,” the official said.

“They were not in possession of the licenses required for the weapons. First, they have to officially notify the government before they enter the country and the Pakistan government has to be on board - getting the appropriate permission takes a few weeks. Things go terribly wrong when you try to short cut the process.”

The “secrecy leads only to suspicions,” said the official, who added there is concern that security groups are being used to infiltrate former or current “U.S. special forces personnel or CIA operatives into the country without the knowledge of the Pakistan government.”

The Pakistani intelligence agency, the ISI, also objected earlier this year to the issuance of visas for 50 DynCorp personnel, according to Pakistani media reports, which said the visas were issued anyway.

“If anybody is here, they have to declare it,” the Pakistani official said. “We expect people to respect our rules, just as we respect the rules and regulations whenever we enter the U.S.”

Douglas Ebner, spokesman for DynCorp International in Washington, said his company “is working in Pakistan under contract with U.S. Department of State to provide security for U.S. diplomatic personnel and we also have a contractual relationship with Inter-Risk. We comply with local law.” He declined to elaborate on the Pakistani official’s complaints.

A U.S. official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the matter, denied that the U.S. was sending CIA operatives or special operations forces commandos to Pakistan under the guise of DynCorp guards. The official said this claim was “a reflection not of truth but of unfortunate paranoia.”

However, an employee of Inter-Risk said the company dos employ former Pakistani commandos.

“There were security guards like me who are simply paid a basic salary of [$100 to $120] and we are only given antiquated rifles,” said Riaz Hussain. “We are sent to some offices and homes, and we have very basic training such as how to open gates, et cetera.”

Mr. Hussain said the company also employs former Pakistani commandos who are paid upward of $400 a month and are trained to use sophisticated automatic weapons.

“We had no contact with these people,” he said. “We don’t know what they did and where they were deployed.”

Superintendent Alam of the Islamabad Police said the raids on Inter-Risk were ordered because the company “had more weapons than needed in their stores, many of their weapons were unlicensed and also we were suspicious of the fact that a good number of people working there were former commandos, which is not the norm for security companies.”

Two employees of Inter-Risk were arrested, and many others fled the premises.

U.S. Embassy spokesman Richard Snelsire confirmed that the embassy had signed a contract with Inter-Risk that took effect at the beginning of this year. He also confirmed that the ambassador had sent a letter to the Interior Ministry seeking licenses for advanced weapons, but said “this was no big deal.”

“As part of the contract, we provide the weapons and arrange the licenses,” he said. “None of the unlicensed weapons picked up by the Islamabad police have anything to do with our contract.”

When asked why there was a need for automatic weapons for security guards at the U.S. Embassy, he said that the matter was being blown out of proportion, adding it “wasn’t as if we were getting bazookas here.”

Superintendent Alam said police had been observing the activities of Inter-Risk for some time and earlier in September conducted a raid on a secret training center being run by Mr. Zaidi, head of Inter-Risk, under the cover of Care & Craft, an automobile workshop located in front of a flour mill.

Retired Brig. Imtiaz, former chief of Pakistan’s powerful spy agency, suggested that the security contractors had a broader function. He noted that during his tenure as chief of Inter-Services Intelligence in the early 1990s, the ISI had conducted two separate operations against Americans suspected of spying in Pakistan.

“In both cases, the Americans involved had diplomatic clearance and were working with retired or serving army officers,” he said. “Zaidi is a retired army captain, and once again the U.S. Embassy seemed to have been providing cover.”

Abdur Razzak, who was working in the human resources department of Inter-Risk, told The Times that in addition to the U.S. Embassy, the company was providing security for the embassies of Japan, Brazil and Italy, the Kenyan High Commission and numerous international and Pakistani nongovernmental agencies.

Sara A. Carter contributed to this report from Washington.

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