Baghdad Airport’s Employees Flag Concerns Over Security Company

Опубликовано: 21 Декабрь 2023

Employees of Canadian company Biznis Intel allege they are owed hundreds of thousands of dollars, and cast doubt on the company’s ability to secure the airport.

Babylon TerminalBabylon Terminal, Baghdad Airport, Iraq. (Photo: Safa Daneshvar / CC BY-SA 4.0)

Innocent Odar, a 37-year-old Ugandan security contractor and canine expert, says he was expelled from Iraq in late September after he and five colleagues wrote a letter to police complaining about their working conditions and trying to tell them that the country’s biggest airport was in danger.

Biznis Intel, the Canadian company that had brought Odar to Iraq, was hired last year to secure Baghdad International Airport, which handles around two million passengers annually.

But Odar and over a dozen other current and former employees told OCCRP the company stopped paying its airport staff regularly in May. Reporters corroborated their testimonies using documents from the company provided by the current and former staff, including a leaked spreadsheet of staff salaries, payslips, employment contracts, and letters the company asked staff to sign waiving their demands for outstanding salary.

OCCRP agreed to give those still in Iraq, or those who fear retaliation from the company in the future, anonymity for their own protection.

“By not paying employees … this is a security breach,” Odar and his colleagues told Iraqi police in the letter dated September 11, which was obtained by OCCRP. They had become “weak and frustrated,” and could not focus at work. They said their movements were monitored by “the company.” (It’s unclear what action, if any, Iraqi police took.)

The following week, Odar claimed, a Biznis Intel duty officer escorted him from the airport and sent him back to Uganda without three months of pay, an allegation which was supported by information in the leaked spreadsheet and a written claim he made when leaving the company.

Three employees told OCCRP they and their colleagues risked losing their homes because they could no longer make their mortgage payments back home. “We are running on air,” one wrote in a message.

Andy Higgins, a British aviation specialist who worked at Biznis Intel for over six months, said the lack of payment could endanger the airport’s security. “As soon as you stop paying your staff, they’re open to bribery and coercion,” he said “It’s very simple. These are direct threats to aviation.”

Firas Hashem Al Azzawi, Biznis Intel’s “branch manager” in Iraq, admitted there had been delays to salaries but denied they had lasted multiple months and blamed them on employees having banking issues.

Two senior staff members said they had heard from the company’s owners that the Iraqi Civil Aviation Authority (ICAA) paid Biznis Intel late in 2022 and then didn’t pay for nine months of 2023. When contacted for comment in October, Imad Abdul Razzaq Al-Assadi, ICAA president, told OCCRP that “all the [payment] issues have been solved,” but did not add further detail or respond to follow-up questions.

The Iraqi prime minister’s office did not respond to requests for comment. The Transport Ministry declined to comment, saying airport security was handled by the ICAA.

Biznis Intel Takes Over

Biznis Intel’s takeover of security at the airport was controversial from the start. The company secured its contract in October 2022, after the ICAA ousted the British security firm G4S — one of the world’s largest security companies, which had guarded the airport for 12 years.

At the time it was contracted, Biznis Intel was registered in Ontario, according to Canadian business records, with third-party websites listing it as a tour operator or an electronics company. The company’s CEO is Hafeez Oki, an Afghan-Canadian businessman whose previous work included selling bedding to hotels and running an orthotics NGO making prosthetic limbs in Kandahar in the 1990s.

As early as August, Alia Nassif, an Iraqi member of parliament, flagged problems with the way the contract was given out. That month, she asked Iraq’s Integrity Commission to investigate the Biznis Intel contract, saying the company had not provided accreditation for its capital assets, expertise, or previous security work, and that it had just two employees.

Nassif also said Biznis Intel had no private security license at the time it won the contract, a claim which was widely quoted in Iraqi media.

Contacted by OCCRP, Biznis Intel’s manager Azzawi said the company was only obliged to apply for a license within the first three months of being granted the contract, which it did, and that it has one at present.

As reports of the company’s apparent lack of license spread, Oki circulated a letter and a proposal for the “sustainable development” of the airport and other key sites to officials including the prime minister of Iraq, the former employee Higgins told OCCRP. The proposal, since obtained by reporters, asserted that Biznis Intel had experience worldwide, and that it “played a major role in the security” of four airports in Afghanistan.

But four of Biznis Intel’s hires, including Higgins, who had previously spent years working in the security industry in Afghanistan told OCCRP they had never heard of Biznis Intel or Oki operating in the country.

Despite these problems, Biznis Intel won a renewal of its contract for another six months in early October.

Assadi, the ICAA president, told OCCRP in October — shortly after the license was renewed — that the Iraqi cabinet had issued a decision to provide Biznis Intel with a security license and “to approve the request of ICAA to provide them with all outstanding dues.” Assadi urged the foreign employees who “were pressured or faced wrong treatment” to send a letter to his office.

The ICAA did not respond to follow-up questions.

Lax Standards

Biznis Intel hired nearly a hundred security professionals from around the world to staff the airport. Ugandan security specialist Odar said he transferred from G4S’s team at Baghdad airport to Biznis Intel.

For his part, British aviation expert Higgins said he flew to Baghdad to work for the company after struggling to find work for 18 months.

When they started work for the company, they said they encountered practices that did not seem up to normal standards. For instance, their onboarding was done via WhatsApp, Higgins said. Three other hires said they weren’t asked to provide their qualifications or undergo medical examinations, which would usually be routine.

A Biznis Intel senior manager told OCCRP the company signed up for life and accident insurance for its staff, but lost the policy a few months into the contract after failing to pay the insurer. Gate Insurance confirmed to OCCRP that Biznis Intel did not pay the premiums to insure its staff, and said that after some time they had to inform the company they were canceling its policy.

Current and former staff said that when they first arrived in Baghdad, the only staff they met was Oki, his university-aged son, and Azzawi. A document, which Higgins said was submitted to Iraq’s prime minister, highlighted the CVs of ten security professionals, who it claimed comprised Biznis Intel’s “Managing Team.” Reporters found contact details for five of the people on the list, but those reached did not want to comment.

Five current or former employees, including Higgins, separately described how Oki himself appeared to lack a background in the subject, to the point of looking up airport security topics online while in their presence and then instructing the team based on his findings.

“He kept on scrolling on the internet, saying ‘That’s the way you have to do something, that’s the way you have to manage,’” said Arnaud Massot, a 62-year old from Avignon, France who worked as security operations central manager for Biznis Intel.

Higgins said the same of Oki’s instructions: “Everything [was] from Google.”

Employees told reporters that, month by month, their situation grew more unsettling and they began to worry about the airport’s security. People who worked with the company’s canine unit, including Odar, said it doesn’t have enough dogs to sniff explosives, and those it has are old and sick.

Rolando Haro, a Peruvian security contractor working as a ground trainer at the airport, said he’d reviewed airport security at the request of management and written a report at the start of the year. “You can go inside the airport, into the middle of the airport, without any security checks,” he told OCCRP. “There are three or four big holes.”

Azzawi said Oki had hired people with sector-relevant experience. Oki did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Payment Issues

Haro and Massot said salaries came late from the very first month of their contracts. So did Ljubo Kutlesa, formerly with Croatian special forces in Afghanistan, who also worked at Biznis Intel.

Early this year, according to employees, some money came through, but they said Oki invented reasons to deduct pay — charging staff for plane tickets the company was supposed to cover, or simply paying them less than their contract specified. OCCRP was shown a payslip for less than the employee’s contracted monthly salary, and a deduction for a flight.

In late spring, pay stopped coming altogether, the staff told reporters.

Massot resigned in March. He says he was owed three months of pay. He decided to stay at the company’s accommodation in the airport, known as “Camp Smith,” and ask every day for the money he says he was owed — nearly $12,000. (The figures were confirmed in a contract Massot provided to OCCRP and the leaked spreadsheet.)

Massot also provided reporters with a complaint he submitted to Canadian authorities over the three months of pay he says he is owed. A spokesperson for the Canadian government told OCCRP it could not comment on Biznis Intel’s operations in Iraq, but that it expects Canadian companies abroad to “abide by all relevant laws … and to adopt best practices and internationally respected guidelines on responsible business conduct.”

Massot said that after four months of waiting in Camp Smith he finally gave up in July and resigned, leaving Iraq without his money.

Other employees voiced similar complaints. In May, Haro, the Peruvian security consultant, said Oki told him to leave before he became violent after Haro had asked for his salary. (Odar and Massot said they were told about the confrontation at the time.)

Haro left Iraq soon after, and says he is still owed $9,500. Oki did not respond to questions about the incident.

False Charges

Kutlesa, formerly with Croatian special forces in Afghanistan, said he and other employees decided to strike twice this summer. OCCRP obtained a video showing Oki exhorting staff to work and telling them they were committing an “act of violence” against Iraq’s strategic assets. In the video, he promised staff that the money would come.

But, the staff said, it didn’t.

Kutlesa said that, three days into the strike in August, he was summoned by Iraqi police and taken to the police station near the airport. Oki was waiting for him there, he said, along with a police officer Kutlesa believes was Oki’s friend.

Oki and the officer accused Kutlesa of burning classified documents, endangering Iraq’s strategic assets, and stopping people from working, Kutlesa said, and he was put in a cell and held for several hours.

The Croatian consulate in Iraq, who intervened in the matter, confirmed to OCCRP that Kutlesa was briefly jailed on false charges and then released. The Biznis Intel representative confirmed Kutlesa’s arrest but denied the charges were false, without giving further details.

Four employees who were still working at the airport within the past month said that salaries still haven't come, although they said some were able to negotiate partial payouts as they left.

Back home in northern Uganda, Odar said that Biznis Intel was the end of his international career. He’d worked abroad for several years, in Somalia and Afghanistan, as well as Iraq, and had made enough money to buy property for his family, but said he had to sell some of it after his losses with Biznis Intel.

He said the experience had left him too drained to take a job outside of his country again.

“Emotionally, spiritually, I was totally damaged,” he said.

Additional reporting by Sharad Vyas, Lara Dihmis, and Raheem Al-Shabbani in Baghdad

CLARIFICATION: After publication of this article, Hafeez Oki told OCCRP that he and his company abide by all relevant laws, won the airport contract after a "competitive bidding process," and had "met all the legal contractual requirements." He said Biznis Intel had raised salaries and improved employee benefits, and that he had only fired staff for serious misconduct. He said there had been no security breaches at the airport since Biznis Intel was hired.