A private military contracting firm has stirred up a storm for Estonian soldiers-for-hire, allegedly swindling them out of thousands of euros and arming security guards with World War II era guns on dangerous missions along the coast of northern Africa.
EDITOR'S NOTE (August 2013): This story was originally aired on Pealtnägija, a well-regarded Estonian-language investigative journalism program. ERR has no reason to question the integrity of the sources quoted in the story. However, Advanfort maintains it is the target of a smear campaign by competitors, a claim that is also borne out by the disproportionately large number of spam-type comments this 2011 story drew. The company has currently declined to provide a full, separate response because it says its policy is to avoid additional negative exposure in the form of unmoderated comments made to a follow-up story.
The company, Advanfort, first became a known name in Estonia when it coaxed dozens from the Estonian Navy to quit their jobs for the promised monthly salary of 2,000 euros - much more than the Navy could offer, ETV reported.
Advanfort now claims to be the biggest anti-piracy contractor in Estonia, although it is not even actually registered in the country. The company has admitted that the 100 Estonian men it has working for it - who risk their lives on the job - don't have written contracts. The Estonian representative of Advanfort works from home and uses his personal bank account to pay salaries - which haven't always been paid. Meanwhile, Advanfort cashes in a daily 1,000 euros per security guard to protect freighters from pirates in the Indian Ocean.
A Voyage to Djibouti
Earlier this year, Estonians Rainer - a long-time member of the Estonian Defense League, and Almar - an Iraq and Afghanistan veteran, joined a four-man Advanfort team to protect a Ukrainian vessel during its voyage from Sri Lanka to Djibouti.
Upon boarding, the four men were given nothing more than two firearms that lacked sights to defend the ship from pirate attacks. The team was forced to use desperate if imaginative tactics, covering the boat with barbed wire and booby traps, and even building human dummies armed with fake firearms.
Advanfort has on some occasions put Estonians aboard ships without arming them at all. Another problem is that the weapons provided lack the necessary legal documents.
Rainer and Almar, it can be assumed, got lucky on their first two-week trip because, in several instances, they listened in on radio calls for help from other boats that had been hijacked by pirates in the same waters.
On their second mission, the two men were armed with WWII German carbines. "It was shameful boarding the ship with those guns - they weren't lookers. And the sailors also wondered what we were doing - we might as well have been armed with bows and arrows," said Rainer.
Visas and transportation between missions were yet another issue. In one case, the team was stranded for weeks, basically held hostage by a travel agency because Advanfort owed it money.
Then, when pay day arrived, Advanfort accused its Estonian chief - a former NATO officer who served in the Estonian Navy for 11 years - of having stolen 100,000 euros. A lawyer was hired to investigate the matter, but the issue was soon dropped. Now that Rainer has quit Advanfort, he said the company owes him 3,000 euros.
The experiences of Rainer and Almar aren't the most outrageous, but they have been the only ones willing to go on the record.
For instance, there is allegedly a ship that serves as a hotel and weapons storehouse for several companies, including Advanfort, at the 15th parallel on the Red Sea. If Yemeni authorities discovered the ship, those aboard could even face the death sentence.
The company's CEO is a rather well-known name in some circles - Samir Farajallah's New-Fields Exhibitions has been a notable, if suspicious, player in the rebuilding of Iraq, according to journalist Adam Lichtenheld's report “Unlicensed 'New-Fields Exhibitions' Claims to Provide Clients Easy Access in Iraq.”
That company, which organizes networking conferences for major corporations, has some disappointed customers as well, reported Lichtenheld, whose public records investigation found that New-Fields’s corporate license has been revoked several times.
Samir's son Ahmed, who manages Advanfort, was arrested in July in Virginia, along with two others, for illegally purchasing 26 automatic weapons. His US citizenship was pending at the time.
Incorporated in the US, Advanfort has offices in London and apparently related ventures scattered elsewhere. According to company press releases, its number of employees grew dramatically from 200 in February to 400 in April. Around 100 of those are said to be Estonians.
No one in Estonia seems to have actually met face-to-face with the Farajallahs, whose company's ties with the US appear to be as significant as its formal presence in Estonia.