Want to do a deal in post-Qaddafi Libya? Head to the Cafe Oya in the back of Tripoli’s Radisson Blu Al Mahary, where visitors without proper ID must check their AK-47s at the hotel door. Diplomats, reporters, businessmen, and representatives of the National Transitional Council (NTC)—the rebel government set up in February—sit at a dozen small tables discussing the country’s volatile future through a haze of cigarette smoke. Conversation over strong coffee flits between the fighting around Sirte, who will hold positions in the soon-to-be-created interim government—delayed by bickering between Islamists and secular Libyans—and who gets the billions of dollars of still-frozen Qaddafi assets.
Never far from view are the hulking frames of security details, mostly British ex-military men, transparent wires corkscrewing out of their ears. Their taciturn shadows tail the diplomats and visiting NTC members they protect.
Other security consultants are staked out at the hotel in search of the business that inevitably accompanies Mideast turmoil. One NTC insider compares the consultants to flies buzzing around. Contractors are trying to gather as much information as possible about anybody willing to pay—security companies, oil companies, business ventures who are already here or want to start here.
Scott Wilcox and Jonny Hart sit at a table wearing matching blue shirts with SicuroGroup emblazoned on the back in white letters. They’re collaborating with GardaWorld, represented in Tripoli by Andrew Gibson. The two companies have worked separately in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, and Haiti. Wilcox, strategy director for SicuroGroup, and Hart are former Royal Marines; Gibson is ex-British army. While in the military they did tours in Northern Ireland, Kosovo, Albania, and Afghanistan.
GardaWorld’s parent company trades on the Toronto exchange, and it generated $1.2 billion in fiscal 2011 revenue by transporting cash from banks with armored cars, running airport security in Canada, and protecting oil fields and NGOs in tough parts of the world. In Libya, the two companies figure they can offer traditional security services for oil installations, reopened embassies, and aid missions. “We’re there to facilitate the reentry of clients in Libya,” says GardaWorld President Oliver Westmacott. GardaWorld is much larger than the privately held SicuroGroup, which had $11 million in revenue last year and is based in Dubai.
The companies also say they have a special expertise in tracking devices which, when affixed to vehicles or people, can help move personnel safely around a country rife with flashpoints. Tracking technology can also be used to help Tripoli’s city government develop a more effective ambulance system—one project SicuroGroup and GardaWorld are pursuing with a local partner. Both companies have experience bringing together security personnel, drivers, translators, and cultural advisers for special projects.
What’s missing from Libya for now is violence toward foreigners. “It’s not Iraq or Afghanistan, we understand that,” Wilcox says. Gibson adds: “We’re not here like these Guns ’R’ Us guys: They want a high-threat environment. We’re looking at the long term.”
The trio arrived Sept. 11 to set up their own operations in a villa, a compound where they’ve ensured security is good (but no blast walls like in Iraq), and services include Internet, TVs and DVD players, and housekeeping staff. They are scouting for other residences to turn into secure outposts for potential clients.
Being first on the ground comes with complications. SicuroGroup and GardaWorld need a business license: There’s nowhere to apply for one. “We want to be compliant. If you tell me there’s tax to be paid, I’m happy with it, tell me the rules,” Wilcox says. Yet, he adds, every official they speak with is afraid to sign anything now, for fear of being accused of abusing his interim power.
Wilcox says an NTC official has approached them to create a medical care and evacuation network. The idea is to connect the rebel forces besieging the pro-Qaddafi stronghold of Sirte to hospitals in Misrata. The tricky part is securing and insuring a plane to fly the seriously wounded from Misrata to hospitals in Amman or Rome. The cost of a flight can reach $300,000.
NTC officials are taking their time making up their minds about whom to hire for the medical evacuation service, while Wilcox and Gibson worry about whom they could trust to sign a legitimate contract. For now, there’s nothing to do but sit in the Cafe Oya and wait.