Private security contracting has grown as a profession in recent decades, particularly since the Global War on Terror began back in 2001. Before that, international security mainly consisted of companies providing site security services or small groups of independent security professionals who provided close protection to celebrities, politicians, and business travelers.
The U.S. invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan created a need for highly skilled security professionals who were willing to take on the high-risk security roles that the military was stretched too thin to address. U.S. involvement has pretty much ended in Afghanistan and Iraq, but U.S. businesses and professionals still live and work in high-risk locations worldwide. To operate in these locations, a force of skilled security professionals is needed.
Professionals with the necessary skills and temperament to put their lives at risk providing security and protection to expatriates working overseas are not easy to find, and they don’t come cheap. The pay is good, and the risks are high, but the work is interesting and rewarding. It is also demanding. Becoming a private security contractor isn’t as easy as submitting a resume and getting a job. It takes a very specific set of skills and an understanding of how to navigate the somewhat obscure network to get a start in the field.
What is a Private Security Contractor
Top-tier private security contractors (PSCs) are usually military veterans with a combat arms background. I have known a few who were former high-level law enforcement like SWAT team leaders and police chiefs. These usually worked in international police training organizations. I’ll talk more about them later.
I have worked with PSCs who were former U.S. Marines, Army Rangers, soldiers, and cops. There was even one who was a former member of Delta. I have also worked with South Africans who were former army and special police. I have a German friend who is a former member of the French Foreign Legion. I met him when I noticed his Legion tattoo at the airport in Amman, Jordan. He now runs his own PSD team, mainly working in Eastern Europe.
I’ll go into specific private security roles a little later, but in general, PSCs perform a variety of tasks that one would usually associate with the military or police security teams. They are most often individuals who enter into a contract either directly with the client or with a higher-level contractor providing services to the client. Some are employees of various security companies working around the world, but most are independent contractors.
A PSC is not a mercenary. Mercenaries take contracts to act as a private army and may become involved in full-blown combat operations. PSCs provide training and direct security services to individuals and corporations working in high-risk locations worldwide.
Places and Environments Where PSCs Work
Private security contractors work in any environment where there is a moderate to high risk of danger to corporations and non-profits and their personnel. Risks include things like abductions, assassinations, extreme crime, bombings, extortion, and hijackings. The bad guys can be anything from terrorists and insurgents to pirates and criminals. Extremism and insurgencies have added to the risk of working in what used to be called the Third World. The proper term these days is “developing nations.”
Private security contractors became a big business during the Iraq war and, to a lesser extent, in Afghanistan. On different contracts while working in Iraq, I was a Personal Security Team (PSD) member, a convoy escort for convoys carrying weapons and military equipment, a tactical driver, a site manager for a remote construction site in southern Iraq, and a security manager overseeing the security of 500 million dollars worth of construction contracts all over Iraq.
After Iraq, I provided security assessments, training, and direct security services to organizations all over the Middle East and Northern Africa. I completed assignments in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Jordan, Kenya, and the Palestinian West Bank, among others. I provided security support for six projects in Cairo during the Mubarak riots of 2011.
I know people providing contract security services throughout the world today. There are thousands of security contractors providing close protection in Europe and around the world and folks who provide maritime security for ships passing through pirate-infested waters. Anywhere there is risk and an inability to rely on local security and law enforcement, you will find private security contractors.
Types of Private Security Positions
There are multiple roles for private security contractors. Each has a specific skill set and requirements. That’s not to say there isn’t overlap, just that each role requires unique skills.
Personal Security Details move the client, or Principle, safely in high-risk environments. Common risks can include abduction, assassination, criminal activity like carjacking, and travel in unsafe environments like conflict zones or nations where the rule of law is weak.
They usually work in teams of anywhere from four to eight or more people. PSD duties include both vehicle travel and close protection when out of the vehicle. This means that a PSD specialist will have both tactical driving skills and dismounted close protection skills.
A close protection specialist is an expert at moving the Principle around and staying close when they are at an event. They are skilled in both armed and unarmed combat and use special skills to move and protect the Principle in the event of an incident or perceived threat. Most CP specialists are either independent contractors or come to the contract as part of a small team.
Force Protection and Site Security
These terms refer to the measures taken to provide security for sites located in hostile environments. Places like oil refineries and depots, gold and diamond mines, business centers, project sites, and other facilities that could be targeted by terrorists or gangs of bandits.
Site security has two components. The first is physical security measures such as bollards, chicanes, walls and barriers, checkpoints, gates, etc. This also includes developing tactics and procedures to maintain the security of the site.
The second is a guard force of trained and often armed individuals. In many cases, the top-tier security contractor (usually a Western Expat) acts as a supervisor and site security manager. The guard force itself is often lower-tier Third Country National (TCN) security contractors. For example, I have seen American, British, and South African security contractors manage and supervise guard forces made up of Iraqi, Afghan, Kurdish, Angolan, Peruvian, Nepalese, Fijian, and Filipino guards.
A security contractor in such a position has to understand security at all levels. They must also have the ability to relate to and work with people from vastly different cultures from their own.
Maritime security grew out of concern over numerous cargo ships being taken by pirates. This has been a particularly big problem in the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean off the coast of Somalia. Initially, security contractors on ships were unarmed. Several incidents demonstrated the folly and ineffectiveness of that approach. Maritime security professionals are now usually armed, both with conventional firearms and with less lethal weapons.
Obviously, along with security and weapons skills, a maritime security professional must be willing and able to spend long periods at sea. Before transferring to the Army, I spent four years in the Navy. After traveling many thousands of miles at sea, including North Atlantic storms and a fire on the ship while crossing the Atlantic, I can tell you it’s not for everyone.
A private security contractor might also be called upon to provide training. This training can take many forms. It might be providing HEAT (Hostile Environment Awareness Training) to employees of companies and nonprofits working in high-risk regions. I have provided HEAT training to multiple U.S. and international companies and nonprofits. This requires both knowledge and experience to do a good job and be credible.
Security contractors may also provide training to local security and guard forces in developing nations. Again, skill and experience are critical. But so are being able to relate to people from a different culture and having a firm understanding of the local environment your trainees will be working in.
There are many training facilities in the United States that provide security and military-style training to police departments and other security forces. Blackwater, the most famous security company during the Iraq war, got its start as a training facility in North Carolina. Trainers are usually former military, law enforcement, and private security professionals.
Finally, there is the IPLO (International Police Liaison Officers) program. I’ve known many former police officers who have provided training to police departments in developing nations everywhere, from Iraq to Indonesia. They usually worked for security companies or the United Nations.
Qualifications and Requirements
During the height of the Iraq war, there was a tremendous demand for private security contractors. Consequently, it was much easier to get into the field than it is now. Competition is keen, so you need to have your ducks in a row before applying to a company or looking for a contract.
Background and Experience
The first thing a prospective employer will look at is your background and experience. If you have military and previous security contracting experience, that will make the best impression. If you’ve never done private security work, then you should at least have some military experience, preferably Combat Arms for prior officers or a combat MOS for prior enlisted. A background in Finance or Culinary Services probably isn’t going to get your foot in the door. Combat experience is a major plus.
Solid training is a plus for many reasons. For one, it can fill in some of the gaps in your military background. For another, some roles, like close protection work in the U.S., require certification in some places.
There are numerous training facilities and companies out there, so finding one is just a matter of looking. Just be sure that the one you choose has a solid reputation and good credentials. Potential employers will look for training in areas like tactical driving, CQB, close protection, surveillance, and armed and unarmed combat. Emergency first aid is also critical.
First responders like EMTs and Paramedics are always in demand. Combat Medic Specialists are even more in demand. The combination of military service and combat medical training will get your foot in the door ahead of many other applicants. Even without military experience, security companies looking for medics will often provide the tactical and weapons training you need before deploying.
Some positions will require a background check or even a USG security clearance. If you have anything in your background that might raise a flag, rest assured they will find it. While working in Iraq, several of us needed special authorization badges to allow us to carry a firearm in the U.S. Embassy. The background check wasn’t even for a security clearance.
One of the guys had a misdemeanor charge years ago for getting in a fight in a bar. He was called in for a special interview to explain it before they would issue him a badge. If you don’t think you can qualify for a clearance or don’t want to go through the process for any reason, don’t apply for a position that requires one. Failing a background check is far worse than avoiding positions that require one.
Private Security Companies
In most cases, the easiest way to get started is to go to work for a private security company, either as an employee or as an independent contractor. There are lots of security companies that need contractors to work all over the world. I’m not going to list any of them here because I am not going to choose who to list and who not to. That comes under the heading of not burning bridges. Do an internet search for security companies, and a big list will pop up. Do some research to get to know their specialties and reputations. Even better, check with your network to see if anyone knows someone in a security company.
Which companies you decide to apply to is going to depend on what sort of contract you are looking for and which companies are working where. Some work worldwide, and some specialize in specific geographic regions. Language skills can help you out depending on where you decide to work.
The selection process for most companies can be pretty long. On the other hand, once you are selected, the company will walk you through the process to take care of everything you need to before deploying. They will also usually cover all your travel expenses and have everything ready for you when you arrive.
Networking is critical. I got my first shot at a security contract because I knew someone who knew someone. I was actively looking for my first contract, and my network put me in a position to have that all-important first discussion.
If you are prior service and still have a network of friends from your time on active duty, reach out and see if anyone knows anyone. If you don’t have an existing network, try to make some connections through veterans’ forums or organizations. You might also be able to make some connections through the training programs you attend.
If that’s not an option for you, then start making applications to private security companies. If nothing else, seeing what they require and working on their application packets will give you an idea of what they are looking for.
When a company needs independent contractors for deployment, they usually need them right now. From their perspective, it’s okay if you have to sit around for a few weeks waiting for the deployment date, but it’s not okay if you aren’t ready to go when that deployment date arrives. There are some things you can do even before you apply to make yourself more attractive.
- Be sure your passport is current and has more than six months left before it expires. They won’t want to hear that you have to wait weeks for your passport to come through.
- Take some first aid training and be sure you have current certifications for first aid, CPR, and any other medical skill you can.
- Ensure your shots are up to date. You may have to get more that are specific to whatever country you are deploying to but get all the usual ones. These include tetanus, malaria, dengue fever, MMR, hepatitis A & B, polio, yellow fever, and DPT.
- Ensure you are physically fit. Be prepared to pass a PT test.
- Be sure your shooting skills are up to speed. Not just standing on a range punching paper. Participating in USPSA and IDPA is a good idea. I shot thousands of rounds on the range and at USPSA competitions before my first deployment.
- Be ready to leave on short notice.
Critical Things to Know
Becoming a private security contractor is not a casual decision. It’s a big undertaking that can and probably will have life-changing outcomes. Be sure to go into it with your eyes open.
Employers Have Networks Too
The private security world is a fairly small community. Many of the top folks know each other, and they all know a lot of well-networked people. Never make any claim on your CV or resume that isn’t one hundred percent accurate. If you say you have been assigned to a particular unit or that you have a particular military skill, like being a Ranger, for example, somebody will know somebody that can check up on it. If you aren’t completely honest, word will get around, and you will never get a job.
Know What You’re Getting Into
One day we went to Baghdad International Airport (BIAP) to pick up three new security contractors who were flying in from Jordan. They got off the plane and looked at the armed security at the airport, the dusty, dirty conditions, and smelled the typical Iraq smell of burning rubber and raw sewage that filled the air. They said it wasn’t what they were expecting. They were on the next plane back out.
Know what you’re getting into. There are many risks in this line of work that go well beyond getting shot or abducted. In my years of being a private security contractor, I was shot at with small arms, RPGs, mortars, and hit with IEDs. But I was also in a high-speed vehicle crash, got serious food poisoning twice, contracted leishmaniasis, and almost got caught in a riot in Cairo. One winter, half of our team was down with severe flu and walking pneumonia. It’s not an easy life.
Contracts for private security professionals often take place in not-so-nice conditions. Sure, the layovers in Dubai and Amman are nice, but those are the exception rather than the rule. I’ve slept in tents and the cab of a gun truck, lived off MREs and bad local food, and had one of my client’s employees throw a tantrum and scream into my face because I wouldn’t allow her to walk down the street in Kabul to buy a Snicker’s bar. It’s all in a day’s work.
Know Your Employer
It’s wise to do some research into any company you apply to before you accept a position. I was on a contract once when the company lost the rebid for their contract with the client. Suddenly, they had no contract. We were still in Baghdad, and they promised us we’d all have work soon.
I and two other guys flew home to look for a new contract after a couple of days, but most of the guys stayed. I found out later that the owners skipped town a few days after we left. They just got on a plane and left. All the other guys were left sitting in Baghdad with no job and no pay. Some of them were out as much as $20K. The owners were long gone.
Do some homework on the company. Check and see if they have any litigation against them. It’s also good to use your network to see if you can find anyone who has worked for them in the past.
Know The Country Where the Contract Is Located
You should also do some research on the country where you will be working. Understand their laws and how they apply to private security contractors. Things can go bad without warning.
Toward the end of the U.S. involvement in Afghanistan, the laws there concerning security companies got very strict. All their weapons had to be registered with the Afghan government. One company there followed the law and provided a serial number list of all their weapons. However, they had a few inoperative AKs in their arms room that were used for spare parts and didn’t think to include them.
The Afghans came to inspect their weapons and found the inoperative and unregistered AKs. They arrested the British country manager. He sat in jail for weeks with little to eat or drink. Fortunately, the embassy ensured that his friends could bring him food. He was eventually released but had to leave the country immediately.
In another case, a contractor got off the plane in Riyad, Saudi Arabia. He walked out of the airport and lit up a cigarette. A Saudi soldier walked up and, without saying a word, hit him in the face with his rifle butt. The contractor, bleeding and with a broken nose, was drug back into the airport and put on the next plane leaving Saudi Arabia with no consideration of where it was bound. Turned out it was Ramadan. The contractor had failed to respect the very strict Islamic prohibition on smoking or eating anything during daylight hours.
Laws in other countries don’t always work the way they do here. Be sure you understand them and follow them while you’re there.
Be Prepared for Anything
Life as a high-risk security contractor isn’t for everyone. But if you like adventure and an element of danger, it can be very rewarding. You will find it is a life of contrasts. I’ve flown business class on Royal Jordanian Airways (one of the best airlines in the world) and huddled in a small plane flying over the Hindu Kush in the dead of winter. I’ve stayed in 5-Star hotels and slept in an Iraqi army barracks.
I’ve looked down the street from my nice hotel in Nairobi and seen the tin huts where the locals lay around chewing khat. I’ve seen skyscrapers in Dubai, the pyramids, and the ancient City of Ur. I’ve walked through a hotel in Kabul the day after it was attacked by terrorists and seen the bullet holes, broken windows, and blood stains.
Be prepared to spend a lot of time standing and sitting around. Get used to airports and strange cities. You will miss a lot of meals and eat a lot of things you never imagined eating. But if you really want to do it, you can make it happen. I did, and I’ve never regretted it.