It's an ordinary, middle-class row house, with firewood stacked neatly outside and a closely-mowed lawn, part of a development of similar houses in a small town somewhere in Germany. But the unremarkable house is home to a man -- who would prefer it if both he and the town remain anonymous -- who makes his living from war. His office on the second floor marks the starting point of a journey into a war zone for those Germans willing to undergo the risks. For an unlucky few, it's a one-way journey.
The owner of the house runs an agency which sends Germans to crisis zones around the world, especially Iraq, where they work as highly-paid bodyguards, security guards and civilian contractors to the US government. They come from a country that never wanted to get involved in the seemingly endless Iraq war, but which -- through businesses like the one being run from this small office in a nondescript house -- has nonetheless become entangled in the conflict.
Some of these German civilian contractors have lost their lives in Iraq, returning to their native country in coffins. The bodies of others were never found. The man in the row house, one of a handful of such agents operating in Germany, has himself lost some of his colleagues.
The row house is the main office of a company that provides security services, sending civilian contractors to protect others in a country where providing protection is an almost impossible task. The work, though borderline illegal, is extremely lucrative. The distinction between mercenaries and those providing security services in Iraq is blurred at best. German law does not bar German citizens from fighting in other countries, as long as they are not involved in war crimes. However, it is illegal to recruit Germans as mercenaries for other countries' wars.
But there are gray zones and ways of getting around the rules. There are Arab and African countries willing to provide German firms with shell companies outside the jurisdiction of German courts. Nevertheless, these arrangements could end up involving the German government if, for example, a German security officer participates in a massacre -- or merely happens to get kidnapped.
"We urgently caution Germans not to go to Iraq," says a spokesman of the German Foreign Ministry. "This also applies to Germans working for private security firms." The Foreign Ministry has no statistics on how many of these civilian contractors have already been killed. Their bodies are usually sent home on American aircraft -- without going through diplomatic channels.
The man in the row house has the good fortune of resembling actor Brad Pitt, only with a more muscular body. He has the look of a man who has kept himself in excellent shape in the past -- first as a member of a special forces unit and later as a bodyguard for an East German negotiator. Nowadays his direct involvement with weapons is limited to rabbit hunting. Only a few dozen men work for him, making this particular broker a bit player in the high-stakes personal protection market, which is largely in the hands of American companies.
Those with courage and the right skills can earn a very good living, he says, especially in Arab countries, where the members of ruling families are willing to pay a fortune for their security. In Iraq, this also applies to members of the government and many employees of foreign companies. The demand for security services is higher in Iraq, where survival comes at a high cost. The Iraqi capital currently sees an average of 1.8 attacks by insurgents daily.
In Baghdad, international security firms operate in a virtually lawless environment and, in many cases, have assumed paramilitary roles. The number of civilians working in Iraq, 180,000, already exceeds the number of US troops in the country. Around 30,000 of these civilian workers are involved in security. Most of these private warriors are Americans, some of whom work for the scandal-plagued US company Blackwater. No one knows how many Germans are involved with such firms.
For a long time, these foreigners in their bulletproof vests enjoyed immunity from prosecution. In a decree issued in 2004, the US civilian administrator removed them and their activities from the jurisdiction of Iraqi courts. However, the Iraqi government recently presented a draft bill that would eliminate this immunity for foreign security personnel. At a minimum, the law would require that they register their weapons and their armored vehicles in the future.
Nevertheless, there have been numerous cases of attacks on the civilian population, often leading to the deaths of innocent people. Given the constant risk of terrorist attacks on every street corner, it's not surprising if private security personnel can sometimes be trigger-happy. In mid-September, for example, Blackwater contractors killed 17 Iraqi civilians at a Baghdad intersection because they believed they were under fire. Nevertheless, the company is unlikely to face prosecution in the United States or in Iraq, although US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates recently decided that the Pentagon will exert tighter control over private contractors in the future.
A Spartan Lifestyle
The German broker recommends that in places where attacks are likely, a high-risk individual such as a company executive needs four bodyguards working around the clock. He charges at least $2,000 a day for each of his well-trained bodyguards, who receive in turn between $800 and $1,200 a day in pay.
The broker works almost exclusively with Germans, and occasionally with Austrians. He says that what he values most about Germans is their reliability, professionalism and high level of education. His competitors also clearly value such uniquely German qualities, highlighting them as they do in their advertising. Praetoria, a firm based in the northern German city of Bielefeld, promises German companies security in crisis regions, discreetly calling itself a "strategic security partner" of the Iraqi reconstruction program.
These firms recruit most of their security personnel from among former members of elite units of the police force and German military, or Bundeswehr. They include members of the Bundeswehr's KSK special forces, combat swimmers, sharpshooters and members of special state police force units. The broker is pleased to report that the supply is ample.
Although young police officers and soldiers enjoy a secure livelihood in Germany, their incomes are not high. A KSK soldier earns a monthly gross salary of about €2,500. Working for a private security service, he can make that much in two or three days -- tax-free. The German tax authorities have little or no control over money earned in war zones. Those who are willing to risk their lives in Baghdad can easily put aside several hundred thousand dollars in two or three years.
The men live spartan lives during their deployment, living as they do in a place with few opportunities to spend money. Most of the Germans live in barracks in US camps, where the rooms are small, cold and sparsely furnished. They work in four-man teams, six to eight weeks at a time, followed by three weeks off. A job usually lasts between six months and a year, and most contracts are extended automatically.
According to the broker, the bodyguards have learned to quickly move their earnings to offshore bank accounts in places like Mauritius or the Philippines. For some, their sheltered earnings become a means of starting a new life. After completing their contracts, they move abroad for a few years, perhaps to some tropical paradise where it is easy to forget the rigors of working in a war zone.
No one apart from their families is usually aware that the German specialists are in Iraq. Germany's rough-and-ready civilian contractors often work for themselves, entering into direct contracts with their employers as freelancers. The German brokers have little official connection with the men.
Nevertheless, the anonymous manpower broker in his row house must make arrangements to keep his team in shape. For this reason, he has obtained two premises -- one in an Arab country and one in southern Africa -- which he uses as training camps. The camps make it possible for the men to hone their skills -- in marksmanship and the use of explosives, for example -- far from the watchful eyes of nosy officials. "Of course this sort of thing would be impossible in Germany," says the broker. "It would cause a huge fuss if I conducted this sort of training somewhere in the country. The next thing you know, they'd be calling us a neo-Nazi militia and the cops would be knocking at the door."
To get the bodyguards to Iraq, the broker works with business partners who are accredited as subcontractors to the US military. This ensures that his men are housed in a protected camp and are given access to security zones, even when the people they are assigned to protect are employees of private Western companies. Without military protection, working in the war zone would be impossible, and even these hardened bodyguards would not be safe for long if they lived in private accommodation.
It is possible that Bert Nussbaumer, supposedly one of the members of the German broker's team, is relaxing on a remote island somewhere. But it's more likely that he is dead. The 25-year-old Austrian national has been missing for the past year. In November 2006, Nussbaumer, who officially worked for the US firm Crescent Security Group, and four American colleagues were escorting a convoy of construction engineers in southern Iraq. The convoy came under attack and Nussbaumer and the Americans were taken hostage. It was later claimed that Nussbaumer had been shot.
Shortly after the attack, Iraqi security forces said that they had identified one of the dead as Nussbaumer. This information proved to be wrong.
Another civilian contractor dreamed of buying a house with the money he planned to earn during a dangerous mission in Iraq. Karl Saville, a 33-year-old former soldier from the northern German city of Osnabrück, was killed in his car on May 7, 2006 in a suicide bombing in Baghdad. Saville worked for Danubia Global, a Bucharest-based security firm that performs contracts for the US government in Iraq. According to Saville's widow Yvonne, when she was notified of her husband's death, Danubia Global called it an unfortunate "accident" and provided no further details.
'Being in Iraq is Damned Hard Work'
Saville, who worked for an American company that uses dogs to search for explosives, was relatively experienced. But he apparently became increasingly afraid as the months dragged on. Shortly before his death, he wrote: "It's horrible out there sometimes. But that's the reason we get paid so well. Motorcycle and car bombs are our biggest threat."
Saville's widow and their young son Christopher now receive an annual pension of $110,000, courtesy of the US Department of Labor, which compensates the survivors of the Americans' helpers -- no matter where they live.
Officials at Danubia Global have refused to talk about Saville's death. They are also keeping quiet about an extensive investigation of the US firm Custer Battles, a partner in Danubia Global, by prosecutors in the western German city of Darmstadt. According to prosecutors, Jacqueline Battles, the wife of one of the company's former owners, laundered €1.5 million in earnings from dubious security deals through various German bank accounts. She denies the accusations, however. Due to lack of solid evidence in the US, the case was withdrawn in return for a payment of €5,000.
The fact that the work of the security services is not only dangerous but can also sometimes be messy doesn't bother the bodyguards too much, however. The German Iraq mercenary Volker Schmidt (not his real name) considers most German firms to be respectable. It depends mainly on who they employ, he says: "Those who hire people from, say, Uganda run a higher risk that something negative will happen."
He has been working in Iraq since the summer of 2004, making him something a veteran of the profession. Prior to that, he was in Colombia and Bosnia. He has learned that in Baghdad you have to move around the streets in a very specific way. "Of course, we often have to fire warning shots," he says. You have to maintain space around yourself, creating a security zone which is as empty as possible, he says. After all, space is life -- if a large car bomb explodes, you need to be far away to make sure you survive. Generally the bomb planters don't work alone, but bring along snipers who can pick off their victims in the chaos after an explosion.
"Being in Iraq is damned hard work," says the bodyguard. "You're expecting to die at any second -- you're constantly under pressure."
It's a warning also for the ever-increasing numbers of young German adventurers who dream of going to war zones as security guards or mercenaries. Enticing Internet forums with names such as "Arbeiten in Krisengebieten" ("Work in Crisis Zones") or "Civilian Contractor Jobs" promise them quick money -- and an endless supply of adrenaline.
Many wannabe fighters use the forums to find out about training institutes such as Lübeck's Bodyguard Academy. Gun-for-hire Schmidt is one of the founders of the company. Students at the academy take strenuous courses in hand-to-hand fighting and how to survive in a war zone. There are plenty of 20-year-olds who fancy themselves as heroes and want to go abroad, brandish heavy assault rifles and wear cool sunglasses. The academy rejects many applicants however -- because they are either too young, too crazy, or don't speak good enough English.
Sam, who comes from near Cologne, certainly meets the age requirement. He is 35 and spent 11 years as a soldier in the German army before leaving the service of his own accord. Since then he has been dreaming of a mission in Iraq, attracted as much by the risks as the money. "Of course I am afraid," he says. "But I do everything humanly possible to make a deployment in Iraq possible. I don't have any family yet, so I think that I can do it."
But he hasn't received a suitable job offer yet. Maybe his skills are simply not sufficient -- after only, he only served in the communications corps. Instead of living out his dream in the Gulf's desert sand, Sam spends a lot of time surfing Internet forums, where young men indulge in violent fantasies. Most of it is possibly just swagger, but professionals with the right training could certainly translate words into deeds, even if competition is tough.
Sam finds it unfair that the Americans or Brits in the profession have much better chances than the Germans. Nonetheless, he clings to the belief that he will soon have his ticket to Iraq.