Although soldiers of fortune have always been with us, since at least the turn of the century they’ve become an ever larger component of many of the world’s conflicts. This growing penchant for privatized war is visible not only in interventions led by the United States and other NATO countries, but also in militaries as diverse as those of Russia (in Syria) and Saudi Arabia (in Bahrain and Yemen).
While the vast majority of private military and security contractors (PMSCs) provide non-combat services like translation, besides supplying armed security for diplomatic and other personnel (‘close protection’ in their parlance), some take on combat roles, especially when deployed by smaller countries like the wealthy Persian Gulf monarchies.
PMSCs often operate in grey areas of the law, contracted by governments but not having the status (and accountability mechanisms) of military personnel. In Iraq and Afghanistan they were given legal immunity under Status of Forces Agreements (SOFAs), leading to many problems in the process.
In Iraq, Blackwater (now renamed Academi) employees killed 17 civilians in Nisour Square and the Abu Ghraib prison scandal led to two US PMSCs, CACI and L-3 Services, being accused of participation in the torture of detainees. These incidents, more than the executive weakness perceived on the right, made the negotiation of another SOFA in the country almost impossible, which in turn led to the American pullout starting in December of 2007 before President Obama even took office.
More recently, local sources in Yemen have noted the large role played by the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in the two US led special operations missions that we know of so far under the Trump Administration; raids which have left as many as 40 civilians dead. A tiny country, the UAE seems to be relying heavily on foreign contractors for its growing military machine.
According to an Economist Intelligence Assessment from late 2015, when the intervention in the Middle East’s poorest country was just getting underway, a mixed Latin American force led by Oscar Garcia Batte, who served as a Commander in the Colombian special forces, amounted to around 1800.troops, at least 450 of whom were already deployed in combat. Some of them were reportedly trained “with assistance from Erik Prince” who founded the now infamous Blackwater and currently runs Frontier Services Group (FSG), a Hong Kong based company.
Another, admittedly less famous mercenary, the head of the UAE’s elite national guard, which is heavily involved in the fighting, is an Australian, Major General Mike Hindmarsh. The former head of Australia’s elite Special Air Service regiment, “oversaw the guard’s formation in early 2010 after he took up his estimated $500,000-a-year-tax-free job in Abu Dhabi, where he reports directly to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan.”
And it isn’t just American companies involved in these operations. Some of the biggest hail from the UK, Australia and Canada. As explained by Yves Engler last year, Canada’s own version of Blackwater, GardaWorld, “operates in Iraq, Afghanistan, Colombia, Pakistan, Nigeria, Algeria, Yemen, Somalia, Libya and elsewhere.”
In terms of expanding their operations, the largest of these military contractors are looking toward more involved and lucrative contracts. Erik Prince, through yet another company, Airborne Technologies, is allegedly already supplying both pilots and crop dusters outfitted with missiles to one faction in Libya’s continuing civil strife.
While government sponsored air and drone strikes are scary enough, the idea that private companies will now supply weaponized air support to non-state actors and repressive governments in unstable countries seems like a recipe for disaster.
These kinds of questions are of less interest to the business press, which is at least honest in its amorality, than profitability. In pursuit of this, PMSCs continue to look for ways to expand.
According to The Economist, “One thing that would greatly improve the industry’s prospects is if the United Nations began using private contractors for peacekeeping missions, as it is said to be considering.”
The practice of using contractors to perform functions normally undertaken by law enforcement has also spread locally in conflict zones like Afghanistan where former warlords now sell their services in this manner. What this means for the future of basic policing in these areas remains to be seen, but we shouldn’t be surprised that there is now at least one contractor offering its services to militant groups.
As reported by Foreign Policy in February, Malhama Tactical, a small company staffed mainly by former soldiers and militants from Muslim majority former Soviet Republics, has been paid to fight, train and consult in Syria with Al Qaeda affiliate Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (formerly Al Nusra) and the Turkistan Islamic Party in Syria.
Mercenary chickens come home to roost
Even when we first saw PMSCs acting as paramilitaries in North America, after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, only left wing media reported on the dangerous precedent being set. Although it may have faded into memory, we shouldn’t forget that it was mainly African American residents of the city who were treated as if they were criminals or worse by law enforcement and the PMSCs hired by the government, wealthy individuals and companies to protect their assets as the city descended into chaos.
As reported by Jeremy Scahill in The Nation at the time, during the crisis, heavily armed Blackwater personnel contracted by the American Department of Homeland Security became a law unto themselves patrolling the streets, joined by a host of other companies. The gated community of Audubon Place even had black suited, M-16 toting Israeli mercenaries paid for by James Reiss, a rich businessman who served in the Mayor’s office.
In the years since, the issue of private military contractors providing their services in the United States hasn’t really been a subject of conversation. That may change with the publication of an explosive story and accompanying documents by a team of reporters at Scahill’s current employer, The Intercept.
The revelations concern a PMSC called TigerSwan, hired by Texas-based Energy Transfer Partners to oversee and coordinate with a number of other companies providing security for the Dakota Access pipeline project. The company, started by a former Delta Force commander, Col. James Reese, had previously operated in war zones, including Afghanistan and Iraq.
The documents, especially the company’s daily in house Situation Reports, use language one might expect in reference to a military campaign to describe their surveillance of and confrontations with peaceful Water Protectors. They also make clear that there was a close relationship with some law enforcement agencies, with the company collecting evidence on protesters and passing it on to police.
As The Intercept reported, TigerSwan also, “attempted a counterinformation campaign by creating and distributing content critical of the protests on social media”. Although much of this has since been scrubbed from the internet, thanks to the Wayback Machine, you can view one of their efforts, “I Am Netizen”, which offered incredibly slanted coverage of the unrest.
In one email thread, an American citizen, whose name has been redacted, is said to be “a strong Shia Islamic from iatola (sic) Konkani” who, “also made several trips overseas.” This, along with an assessment of some ethnic Palestinians who were supporting the peaceful struggle, show that TigerSwan was promoting the idea that Standing Rock could be infiltrated by potential ‘terrorists’.
Although DAPL has gone ahead under the Trump Administration, officially beginning operations on Friday, June 2nd, TigerSwan continues to be employed by Energy Transfer Partners, preparing for future ‘pipeline insurgencies’.
The idea that these private war-making firms would only be used on faraway battlefields and the murky ways they are often financed and registered have left them off activist radars. As the academic Sarah Percy of the University of Western Australia explains in her paper, “Regulating the private security industry: a story of regulating the last war”, “It is true that the private security genie is out of the bottle. At the moment, however, states are largely letting the genie do what it wants and then disciplining it for going too far, rather than setting the parameters for action from the beginning.”
With so much money to be made in an increasingly insecure world, it’s unlikely that we’ll be able to return the PMSC genie to its bottle anytime soon.