Erik Prince, the American founder of the private security firm Blackwater
Worldwide, has cropped up at the centre of a controversial scheme to
establish a new mercenary force to crack down on piracy and terrorism in the
war-torn East African country of Somalia.
The project, which emerged yesterday when an intelligence report was leaked to
media in the United States, requires Mr Prince to help train a private army
of 2,000 Somali troops that will be loyal to the country's United
Nations-backed government. Several neighbouring states, including the United
Arab Emirates, will pay the bills.
Mr Prince is working in Somalia alongside Saracen International, a murky South
African firm which is run by a former officer from the Civil Co-operation
Bureau, an apartheid-era force notorious for killing opponents of the white
News of his latest project has alarmed, though hardly surprised, critics of
Blackwater. The firm made hundreds of millions of dollars from the "war
on terror", but was severely tarnished by a string of incidents in
post-invasion Iraq, in which its employees were accused of committing dozens
of unlawful killings.
Mr Prince, a 41-year-old former US Navy Seal with links to the Bush
administration, subsequently rebranded the company "Xe Services"
and sold his stake in it. But he remains entangled in a string of lawsuits
pertaining to the alleged recklessness of the firm.
For most of the past year, he has been living in Abu Dhabi, where he has close
relations with the government and feels better positioned to dodge lawsuits.
In an interview with a men's magazine, he recently declared that the UAE's
opaque legal system will make it "harder for the jackals to get my money".
The exact nature of his sudden presence in Somalia remains unclear. The
Associated Press said yesterday that the army Mr Prince is training will
focus on fighting pirates and Islamic rebels.
The leaked intelligence report which prompted the news agency's story was
compiled by the African Union, an organisation of African nations. It
claimed that Mr Prince's money had enabled Saracen International to gain the
contract to train and run the private militia. But that element of the
report was flatly contradicted by a spokesman for the Blackwater founder,
who claimed that Mr Prince had "no financial role of any kind in this
In a written statement, the spokesman, Mark Corallo, added: "it is well
known that he has long been interested in helping Somalia overcome the
scourge of piracy. To that end, he has at times provided advice to many
different anti-piracy efforts." He declined to answer any further
Whatever the exact details of Mr Prince's role, his presence in Somalia will
inevitably lead to renewed soul-searching about the growing privatisation of
warfare. Critics of mercenary organisations, which are often prepared to
operate where traditional armies fear to tread, claim they are often
trigger-happy and lack proper accountability. In Iraq, Blackwater employees
shot dead dozens of civilians; 17 people were killed in one incident alone
in Nisour Square, Baghdad.
Criminal charges were eventually brought in the US against five Blackwater
employees. However, they were dropped in 2009 after a federal judge ruled
that the defendants' rights had been violated during the gathering of
evidence. Iraq's Interior Ministry subsequently expelled all contractors who
had worked with the firm at the time of the Nisour Square shooting.
Somalia, where the country's UN-backed regime is fighting a civil war against
al-Shabaab, a group of Islamic insurgents with links to al-Qa'ida, is, if
anything, a more volatile country than post-invasion Iraq.
The government controls only a small portion of the capital, Mogadishu, where
it has the support of 8,000 UN troops from Uganda and Burundi. It is
training an army to extend its reach, but observers fear that its ranks will
be weakened by the arrival of Mr Prince – who will pay his troops a far
Saracen's shady corporate structure has not inspired confidence in its
accountability. In 2002, the UN accused its Ugandan subsidiary of training
rebel paramilitaries in the Congo. Recently, the firm has claimed to be
registered to addresses in Lebanon, Liberia, Uganda and the UAE, some of
which seemed not to exist when reporters tried visiting.