Erik Prince, the failson face of privatized war

If the face long associated with modern mercenaries were more successful at his business, we might already live in a much more dystopian world.

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It’s been a little more than 15 years since Erik Prince, scion of one of Michigan’s wealthiest families, came onto the radar of the North American press and public. The Prince family has been associated with far right causes for two generations; Erik’s father co-founded the Family Research Council, a Christian fundamentalist organization that still advocates for discrimination against LGBTQ+ communities, among others, in the name of supposed ‘family values’.

Blackwater, the private military company Prince and a partner founded in 1997, was contracted by the U.S. State Department to protect diplomatic staff (and separately, CIA personnel) on the battlefields of Bosnia, Iraq and Afghanistan but soon became infamous, earning the former Navy SEAL officer a dubious reputation he has yet to escape.

In recent years, there’s been an explosion in the number of these mercenary armies, who are usually not subject to the somewhat low standards of military justice, far beyond the United States and its allies, including in rival nations like the Russian Federation.

The first time the dangers of this somewhat obscured privatization of war became apparent to many of us was after an incident in Baghdad’s Nissour Square on September 16th, 2007.

On that day, a Blackwater convoy roared through the streets of the city of more than 7.5 million without regard for those peacefully going about their daily lives, something the company already had a reputation for, to get to the site of a car bombing that had taken place earlier that day. Soon after, some in the convoy opened fire on the many innocent civilians in the square, killing 17 of them and wounding 20 others. 

Four of the contractors convicted and serving time in the U.S. for this war crime were pardoned by President Trump in late December of last year, one of his last acts in office.

Due to Blackwater’s gruesome behavior in Iraq, which led to the implosion of the company and its sale in 2010, Prince’s long association with the CIA, which included, as reported by Seth Hettena in Rolling Stone in October of last year, training a “terrorist hit squad”, has not been the subject of as much scrutiny as it should be.

The ‘security’ focused entrepreneur’ s alleged connections to ‘Project Opus’, an attempt to overthrow the internationally recognized government of Libya, was also reported on by Hettena, whose story, which could have been drawn from a fictional thriller, had Prince associates promising attack helicopters and other equipment to a known former agency asset and American citizen, Field Marshall Khalifa Haftar, in 2019.

The very real danger that this attempt to end the country’s civil war represented, as it pitted NATO ally Turkey and others, who support Libya’s Islamist GNA government against the UAE and Egypt, who support Haftar, should have raised more eyebrows than it did at the time beyond some public ridicule of the epic bumbling on the part of those it employed and its ultimate failure.

Regardless, Prince’s post Blackwater life has at times been shrouded in mystery, with reported ties to powerful people who figure into stories about his activities like UAE Crown Prince Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan (often shortened to MBZ like his sometime ally and fellow despot, the Saudi crown prince, MBS or Mohamed Bin Salman), whose country, besides supplying Haftar’s forces in Libya, has deployed a mainly mercenary army allegedly put together by Prince to Yemen, with the seeming goal of taking control of that country’s Red Sea ports.

The Blackwater founder’s newer brand, Frontier Services Group (FSG), bills itself as a kind of privatized air force, with reports about weaponized crop dusters and reportedly has, at the very least, business ties to Chinese neo-colonialism in Africa far beyond oil rich Libya.

Prince has also used his connections and the pulpit handed to him by rightwing outlets like Fox News to try and influence American policy makers, including the last president, who sometimes seemed like his only intended audience during a 2018 media blitz calling for the privatization of the war in Afghanistan. While the man himself may not, in the end, be involved, farming out the conflict to contractors is something that actually seems likely now, as NATO forces draw down.

More recently, there have been two big stories involving this advocate of for profit war, and now, it seems, private but politicized intelligence operations. The first also shows his behind the scenes influence on the American far right.

As the New York Times reported on June 25th, Prince was involved in clandestine efforts in three western American states last year that targeted Democrats, liberal and progressive organizations and some moderate Republicans in an effort to dig up dirt for the former president and other far right forces to use against them. We’ve seen similar efforts before, with amateurish ‘stings’ by people posing as journalists like James O’Keefe.

Interestingly, O’Keefe’s Project Veritas supplied some of the recruits who were trained for these more recent efforts at the Blackwater founder’s family ranch in Wapiti, Wyoming. Beyond providing training facilities, Prince is believed to have been central to efforts after Donald Trump’s election in 2016 to recruit former British and American spies overseen by a retired MI6 officer, Richard Seddon to train conservative activists in the, ‘”basics of espionage”

Much of the funding for these efforts reportedly came from Susan Gore, another wealthy far right activist based in Wyoming, whose family wealth came out of the Gore Tex brand.

While it isn’t really known how successful these efforts were, as detailed in the Times story, two operatives, Beau Maier, the 38 year old nephew of conservative firebrand Glenn Beck, and 28 year old Sofia LaRocca, infiltrated a number of groups and campaigns, their large donations sourced from Gore bringing them insider seats at the Democratic primary debate held in February of last year in Las Vegas. There were even plans for the pair to attend the Democratic National Convention before the in person event in Milwaukee was canceled due to the pandemic.

Using what are called ‘straw donations’, with the money provided by someone else and avoiding limits on individual campaign contributions as the pair are believed to have done, is illegal under American law. 

Besides showing the willingness of Prince and his allies to go to extreme lengths against their perceived ideological enemies, the story also conclusively shows how vulnerable American politics are to manipulation by wealthy ideologues like Gore and Prince. It’s also another example of how the constant scramble for money on the part of both major U.S. political parties makes their corruption inevitable.

While a few outlets picked up on the Times’ reporting, another story featuring Prince published by Reuters in early June mostly flew under the mainstream radar. It also clearly demonstrates that the businessman is as concerned with making money out of a global tragedy as he is with pushing American politics to the right. 

Prince reportedly got into the Covid 19 vaccine distribution business late last year after signing a deal with a company called Covaxx to distribute their proposed product, UB-612, if it receives regulatory approval. At present, it has only received a small trial in Taiwan but this hasn’t stopped its boosters from singing its praises, reaping windfalls for stockholders in Vaccinity, the company that owns it.

A letter obtained by Reuters dating from October, 2020, “said that an entity called Windward Capital, with an address in Abu Dhabi” would, “assist in the process of creating distribution networks,” for UB-612. While they couldn’t find records for Windward Capital, reporters for the news wire did find a company called Windward Holdings registered in Abu Dhabi, “with Erik Prince the sole named shareholder”.

The company’s name is easily confused with Covax, the organization co-led by the World Health Organization, the vaccine alliance called Gavi and the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, which has been trying to ensure access to vaccines, especially in the developing world. Conveniently, this is the exact market that Vaccinity is looking at for UB-612.

Prince likes to portray himself as an American patriot but, even when obscured, his actions over the years seem focused on cynical self-enrichment at best and a callous lack of concern with any harms he has done at worst. Thankfully, like many who grow up knowing they’ll never have to worry about economic hardship, Erik Prince has a remarkable record of failure in his endeavors. If the face long associated with modern mercenaries were more successful at his business, we might already live in a much more dystopian world.

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