EU deals with contractors in order to surveil migrants

By Andrea Palladino, first published in Domani

Sovereign Global UK, a company owned by the businessman Fenech, who was arrested for violating the embargo on the sale of arms to Libyans, appears in the ESA’s Rapsody project, which is supposed to control the Mediterranean with drones. 

It is a grey area in the heart of the Mediterranean, a shadowy zone where the word ‘sovereignty’ is above all business. Weapons and ammunition manufacturers, brokers specialising in security and the supply of contractors, ships loaded with automatic rifles that function as real floating santabarbara (powder keg). In this no man’s land where traffickers and governments meet, migrants are first and foremost a lucrative business.

The ultra-technological project named Rapsody and sponsored by the European Space Agency (Esa) is an unexpected gateway into this world. An acronym for Remote Airborne Platform with Satellite Oversight Dependency, it involves the creation of a latest generation drone system designed for the European Maritime Safety Agency (Emsa), the European Commission operational arm in the Mediterranean. The drones will have powerful cameras capable of filming and taking pictures of the waters, images to be used for Search and Rescue operations, an activity that in Italy, Spain, Greece and Libya means trying to save the lives of thousands of migrants crammed into fragile rubber dinghies. Or – according to Frontex philosophy – turn them over to the Libyan Coast Guard, to send them back to the detention centers in Tripoli.

The project has as main contractor the Portuguese company Tekever, which is specialized in drones. It is partnered by Dsl, a spin-off of the University of Bremen, which deals with electronics. Alongside these companies there is England’s Sovereign Global UK. Nothing to do with technology: it is a piece of a holding company created in 2013, operating between Britain, Djibouti, West Africa, the United Arab Emirates and Malta. It has a well-known specialization in the industry: private security, contracting and arms supply. Until a few years ago, it operated a small fleet, with ships transformed into arsenals, real depots of automatic rifles available to armed escorts of convoys in the Gulf of Aden. The founders and managers are two Frenchmen, Bruno Pardigone and Jerome Paolini. Entrepreneurs who, through a complex Maltese and English corporate network, report to one of the most important arms dealers in Europe, James Fenech, a businessman arrested last year for violating the arms trade embargo with Libya.

Sovereign Global is not a new name in the complex migration scenario. Until March 2017 it owned the ship Suunta, a vessel that after a quick change of ownership and name change – it is now called C Star – was leased to the neo-fascist and racist organisation Génération Identitaire. After its departure from Djibouti, the ship was used by far-right militants for a long anti-NGO campaign in the central Mediterranean.

On board were a dozen Italian, French, Austrian and German leaders of Génération Identitaire. From the on-board radio they contacted the rescue ships, ordering them to move away from the area where the migrants were shipwrecked. For the French Interior Ministry, which disbanded the neo-fascist organisation last March, it was a paramilitary militia.

Photo Credit: Domani newspaper

Esa’s silence
Little information is available on the Esa Rapsody drone system. On the project page of the European Space Agency website, there is a list of companies involved, a few hints about their use (maritime security, anti-pollution and search and rescue operations) and little more.

No information is available on the tender for the selection of contractors and the amount funded. A presentation published on 30 November on the ESA website provides some technical data: the drones used are equipped with various sensors, laser illuminators, maritime radar, and Ais sensors to track the position of ships.

The space agency did not wish to respond to a request for more information on the choice of partner and contractors: “It’s holiday season at ESA, the people you need are all out of the office,” was the press office’s response to an email sent by Domani.

The return of Blackwater
In the heart of the Maltese village of Mellieha, with just over seven thousand inhabitants, is the Fieldsports armoury. Seen from the outside, it is a small shop window, a stone’s throw from the main church: if you ask around,’ says the Maltese newspaper The Shift, ‘the inhabitants describe the shop as a simple meeting place for local hunters. It is an appearance. This is the starting point of the empire of James Fenech, a businessman who is now considered one of Europe’s leading arms dealers, including warriors. He sells to everyone, including the European Commission: Fieldsports turns out to have been in 2017 the supplier of arms and ammunition to the European Union’s Eucap Sahel mission, created six years ago to deal with the crisis in northern Mali, one of the key strategic nodes at the origin of migratory flows.

Fenech was, for more than a year, partner and co-director of Pardigon in a British company specialized in war material, the founder of Sovereign Global, the supplier company of the ESA. And the two also share solid ties with the giant contractor Blackwater.

The American group, which has become famous for the heavy shadows on its operations in Iraq, was founded by Erik Prince, a businessman who has always been tied to the world of contractors. Fenech uses the name and logo of Blackwater to produce – through its subsidiary Pbm limited – high precision ammunition. The factory is not so far away: for two years it has been operating in Poggibonsi, in the province of Siena, run by Fenech’s Italian partner Nicola Bandini, another well-known arms dealer.

James Fenech is today under investigation in Malta on the charge of having given logistic support to a group of mercenaries contracted by two companies of Dubai, traceable – according to Bloomber – to a former affiliate of the American Blackwater.

Pardigon itself has had close relations with the Blackwater world. According to a cable disclosed by Wikileaks, the founder of the Sovereign group in 2013 helped the American mercenary company to set up in Djibouti.

Erik Prince, the founder of Blackwater, had signed a long article in the Financial Times on 3 January 2017 proposing that the European Union should entrust contractor companies with the management of the migration crisis. In the financial statements of Sovereign Global, Pardigon and Paolini wrote clearly in 2014 that the future of their business lay in that direction.

After the collapse of the anti-piracy escort business, the group managed to secure a valuable contract to support the Nigerian Coast Guard. With one foot in the door of Esa’s space surveillance project over the Mediterranean, the Libyan front is not so far away.