When Erik Prince, founder of the infamous mercenary company Blackwater, claimed in early 2010 he was leaving the soldier of fortune business, he said he'd decided to pursue a less dangerous and controversial line of work. “I’m going to teach high school,” he said, straight-faced, in an interview with Vanity Fair. “History and economics. I may even coach wrestling. Hey, Indiana Jones taught school, too.” It was an interesting comment. As fans of Indiana Jones will recall, the whip-wielding archaeologist was indeed a professor. But what he did on the side—traveling the globe in search of potentially history-altering artifacts—was his real passion. In one confrontation with his arch-nemesis, archaeologist René Emile Belloq, who is working for the Nazis, Jones threatens to blow up the Ark of the Covenant with an RPG. "You're going to give mercenaries a bad name," Belloq tells him.
Erik Prince did leave the US, but he isn't teaching high school and is certainly not out of the mercenary business. In fact, far from emerging as a neo-Indiana Jones, the antithesis of a mercenary, Prince is more like Belloq, offering his services to the highest bidder. Over the weekend, The New York Times revealed that Prince was leading an effort to build an army of mercenaries, 800 strong—including scores from Colombia—in Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates. They would be trained by US, European and South African Special Forces veterans. Prince's new company, Reflex Responses, also known as R2, was bankrolled to the tune of $529 million from "the oil-soaked sheikdom," according to the Times, adding that Prince was "hired by the crown prince of Abu Dhabi" Sheik Mohamed bin Zayed al-Nahyan. Erik Prince is not mentioned by name in corporate documents outlining the deal, but is instead referred to as "Kingfish."
The contract between R2 and the UAE kicked in last June and is slated to run through May 2015. According to corporate documents on the private army Prince is building in the UAE, its potential roles include "crowd-control operations," defending oil pipelines from potential terrorist attacks and special operations missions inside and outside the UAE “to destroy enemy personnel and equipment.” Other sources said the Emiratis wanted to potentially use the force to quell potential rebellions in the country's massive labor camps that house the Filipinos, Pakistanis and other imported laborers that fuel the country's work force. Prince also has plans to build a massive training base, modeled after the 7,000 acre private military base Blackwater built in Moyock, North Carolina.
The US government is aware of the arrangement. “The gulf countries, and the UAE in particular, don’t have a lot of military experience. It would make sense if they looked outside their borders for help,” one Obama administration official "who knew of the operation" told the Times. “They might want to show that they are not to be messed with.”
Rep. Jan Schakowsky, an Illinois Democrat who serves on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence told The Nation she is launching an investigation into Prince's work in the UAE. "The man who brought us Blackwater, a company whose name has become synonymous with the worst of contractor abuses in Iraq and Afghanistan, has been hired to put together a mercenary army that could be used to suppress a revolt or attack pro-democracy protesters," Schakowsky said. "I will be pursuing the question of whether Mr. Prince obtained the necessary licenses to conduct the training of foreign troops and whether his actions in UAE have broken any U.S. laws. Regardless, I do not believe private US citizens should be providing mercenary forces for foreign governments."
While much of the focus on R2's arrangement with the UAE has detailed its work within the Emirates, an official statement from General Juma Ali Khalaf Al Hamiri, of the UAE military, suggested that the services of R2 and other Western firms have helped the UAE "to make meaningful and significant contributions in theatres of operations such as Kosovo, Iraq, Afghanistan and most recently Libya."
The Times reports that part of the UAE's motivation in getting into bed with Prince was the hope that his "troops could blunt the regional aggression of Iran," adding: "Some security consultants believe that Mr. Prince’s efforts to bolster the Emirates’ defenses against an Iranian threat might yield some benefits for the American government, which shares the U.A.E.’s concern about creeping Iranian influence in the region. 'As much as Erik Prince is a pariah in the United States, he may be just what the doctor ordered in the U.A.E.,' said an American security consultant with knowledge of R2’s work."
In a speech Prince delivered in late 2009, a copy of which was obtained by The Nation, Prince spoke of the need to confront Iranian influence in the Middle East, charging that Iran has a "master plan to stir up and organize a Shia revolt through the whole region." At the time, Prince proposed that armed private soldiers from companies like Blackwater be deployed in countries throughout the region to target Iranian influence. "The Iranians have a very sinister hand in these places," Prince said. "You're not going to solve it by putting a lot of uniformed soldiers in all these countries. It's way too politically sensitive. The private sector can operate there with a very, very small, very light footprint." In addition to concerns of political expediency, Prince suggested that using private contractors to conduct such operations would be cost-effective. "The overall defense budget is going to have to be cut and they're going to look for ways, they're going to have to have ways to become more efficient," he said.
Former employees of R2 "said that in recruiting the Colombians and others from halfway around the world, Mr. Prince’s subordinates were following his strict rule: hire no Muslims," according to the Times. "Muslim soldiers, Mr. Prince warned, could not be counted on to kill fellow Muslims." One of the Colombians who worked for Prince in the UAE told the Times, “We were practically an army for the Emirates,” adding: “They wanted people who had a lot of experience in countries with conflicts, like Colombia.”
This particular choice is interesting given the past treatment of Colombians by Prince's companies. In 2006, thirty-five former Colombian troops on contract in Iraq with Blackwater claimed that the firm had defrauded them and was paying them just $34 a day for a job that earned exponentially more for their US and European counterparts. The Colombians said they were originally promised $4000 a month but learned of their greatly reduced pay only after arriving in Iraq. When they protested and demanded to leave Baghdad, Blackwater officials reportedly “threatened to remove us from the base and leave us in the street in Baghdad, where one is vulnerable to being killed, or, at best, kidnapped.” Eventually the Colombians were repatriated. In 2007, one of the Colombian recruiters who had hired the men for Blackwater, was gunned down in Bogotá. This time around, the Colombians were reportedly paid about $150 a day and were recruited by a Caribbean-based company called Thor Global Enterprises. The Colombians were issued visas by the UAE's military intelligence branch, allowing them to breeze through customs without being questioned.
An American who runs another security company in the UAE told The Nation that news of Prince's company is "a fricking PR disaster" for the UAE, adding that it will mean "some of the other Sheikhs will want answers about what a private Christian army was intended for." Prince's name has also surfaced in connection with another mercenary company, Saracen, in Somalia. The United Nations has suggested that the company violated a UN arms embargo.
Among the other Americans working closely with Prince on building the private army in the UAE is a former FBI Agent named Ricky "CT" Chambers. He recently ran Blackwater's training program in Afghanistan that was registered under the shell company name of Paravant. That arrangement remains the subject of multiple Congressional and federal investigations in the US and two former Paravant operatives were convicted in March of the manslaughter of two Afghan civilians. Chambers is being paid about $300,000 a year, while US contractors, with experience in Iraq and Afghanistan, are being offered pay packages worth up to $200,000 a year to work for Prince in the UAE.
When Prince moved to the UAE last summer, he said he chose Abu Dhabi because of its "great proximity to potential opportunities across the entire Middle East, and great logistics," adding that it has "a friendly business climate, low to no taxes, free trade and no out of control trial lawyers or labor unions. It's pro-business and opportunity."
The timing of Prince's move was auspicious to say the least. It came just month after five of Prince's top deputies were hit with a fifteen-count indictment by a federal grand jury on conspiracy, weapons and obstruction of justice charges. Among those indicted were Prince's longtime number-two man, former Blackwater president Gary Jackson, former vice presidents William Matthews and Ana Bundy, and Prince's former legal counsel, Andrew Howell. The UAE does not have an extradition treaty with the United States. "If Prince were not living in the US, it would be far more complicated for US prosecutors to commence an action against him," said Scott Horton, a Columbia University Law lecturer and international law expert who has long tracked Blackwater. "There is a long history of people thwarting prosecutors simply by living overseas." The UAE, Horton told me when I first learned Prince was moving to the UAE last summer, is "definitely a jurisdiction where Prince could count on it not being simple for the US to pursue him legally." The UAE is made up of seven states, the most powerful among them being Dubai and Abu Dhabi. Since 9/11, they have emerged as hubs for the US war industry. "Global service providers" account for some three-quarters of Dubai's GDP, while oil represents only 3 percent. "They have established themselves as the premiere location in the Middle East for offshore banking and professional services," said Horton, who has legal experience in the UAE. "If you have connections to the royal families, then the law doesn't really apply to you."