MONTREAL — Seven employees of Montreal-based security giant GardaWorld languished in detention for nearly two months after their arrest earlier this year by a powerful Libyan militia.
The workers’ ordeal underscores the ongoing risks of operating in a volatile region as well as the financial toll on foreign companies exacted by armed groups and state actors amid a fluid power struggle in the Libyan capital, Tripoli.
GardaWorld, one of the largest foreign security firms operating in Libya, offers services ranging from armoured cars to security reports for diplomats and multinational corporations. But its role there came to a jarring halt on April 11, when the Rada militia at Tripoli’s Mitiga airport seized GardaWorld's contractors, who were providing security for the EU Border Assistance Mission in the country.
The company cited an “administrative imbroglio” as the reason for the arrest of the seven men, who were working under its partnership with another security firm, France-based Amarante International. The contractors were a mix of Libyan drivers and expatriate armed guards. None are Canadian.
“They and their families were provided with all necessary support,” GardaWorld said in an email.
“All releases were complete by the first week of June and the reason for detainment has not changed.”
However, Al-Rada, among the most powerful militias in Libya’s capital, made the arrests on the grounds the employees did not have a licence from the state to carry firearms, according to an article in Africa Intelligence. Rather, GardaWorld's licence was issued directly from the border assistance mission, the publication said, which supports Libyan authorities’ efforts to stop migrant crossings to Europe.
Libya watchers also say the arrests amounted to a power play by militias and government security services, resulting in the expulsion from the country of some foreign security firms, and a new "fee" imposed on those that remained.
“I would read this first and foremost as a measure of extortion that is part of the branching out of the dominant militias in Tripoli into various streams of revenue,” said Wolfram Lacher, a senior associate at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, in Berlin, and author of “Libya's Fragmentation.”
“They are becoming increasingly creative.”
After arresting the workers, Al-Rada, which reports to the Ministry of Interior and has links to the presidential council, likely handed them off to the state’s General Intelligence Service, Lacher said.
Ben Fishman, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, says all arrivals to Tripoli go through the airport, where the Rada militia operates a detention facility to support their security infrastructure.
“Various European and other missions have to negotiate these issues every day, and if they're not careful it can turn into a diplomatic incident," Fishman said in a recent interview.
Days after the detentions, a Tripoli court opened an investigation into alleged irregularities at GardaWorld, prompting some of the company’s workforce to leave the country, according to local news reports.
Ultimately, the Facilities Security Authority — another Libyan security arm in the tangle of official and semi-official appendages of the fractured state — stepped in. The authority approached embassies and international companies that were using foreign security contractors with an update — and a proposal.
“They were told, ‘Well, actually we are now the only party authorized to provide security.’ And they settled on a list of 18 authorized foreign security companies, GardaWorld among them. But in exchange, the FSA imposed a six per cent fee on the contracts of these foreign security companies,” Lacher said.
That “fee” is set to rise to nine per cent down the road, he said, noting that a large chunk of state funds flow to various rival militias and the oft-competing security services they’re linked to.
GardaWorld declined to answer further questions about the situation.
“GardaWorld does not provide information related to its people, client contracts or make public information pertaining to our operations in any of the countries in which we serve our clients,” according to an emailed statement from the company, which employs more than 132,000 workers across dozens of countries.
The firm’s eight-week crisis in Libya, where fresh clashes broke out last month between Al-Rada and rival militia 444 Brigade — killing more than 50 people — speaks to the dangers of operating in a region that experienced a six-year civil war and more recent intermittent fighting following the ouster of 42-year dictator Muammar Gaddafi in 2011.
Meanwhile, GardaWorld is down at least one client. German development agency GIZ said its relationship with the company was severed amid the fallout from the arrests.
“Our co-operation with GardaWorld in Libya has ended. Due to security reasons, we cannot disclose any further details about co-operation with service providers in Libya,” a spokesperson said in an email.
As of several months ago, GardaWorld’s clients in Libya included German electronics giant Siemens, Italian oil group ENI and the British embassy in Tripoli, according to media reports in Europe and North Africa.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 20, 2023.
Christopher Reynolds, The Canadian Press