Blackwater: the rise of the world’s most powerful mercenary army by Jeremy Scahill. Nation Books, New York, 2007.Pp: 464. Hbk: $26.95.
An American company, Blackwater, has hit the headlines in recent weeks because of the killing of 11 civilians in Iraq last month. However, Blackwater, one of several companies that have “private contractors” – i.e. mercenaries – working for the US in Iraq, long been known and controversial. This meticulously researched bestseller chronicles the rise of what has become the world’s most powerful mercenary army.
Based in North Carolina, Blackwater operates the largest private military facility on the planet. At present it has more than 2,300 private soldiers deployed in nine countries, including the US, and maintains a base of 21,000 former Special Forces troops, soldiers, and retired law-enforcement agents. It has a private fleet of more than twenty aircraft, including helicopter gunships, and a surveillance blimp division, and operates its own intelligence division.
Besides its 7,000-acre facility in North Carolina, Blackwater has training facilities in Illinois, known as Blackwater North, and is attempting to build a training-camp in California, to be known as Blackwater West. The company has a training center in thePhilippines and operates a training-camp in a remote mountainous area of Honduras, where it prepares mercenaries for deployment in Iraq. Blackwater holds hundreds of millions of dollars in US government contracts, including “black contracts” kept from public oversight. Besides US Navy Seals and Special Forces, Blackwater mercenaries include ex-soldiers from South African apartheid forces, including some from the notorious Koevoet. The company actively hires Chilean commandos, some of whom were trained under the regime of Augusto Pinochet. Blackwater hires mercenaries from countries with histories of brutal dictatorships, abuses of human rights, and government-controlled death-squads, and markets its services to countries that wage war against Islam and Muslims.
Founded and controlled by one Erik Prince, Blackwater is the private army of a radical right-wing Christian millionaire. A major bankroller of President Bush’s campaign, Prince is an active supporter of the broader Christian-right agenda. The Prince family has been deeply involved in the secretive Council for National Policy, which brings together the most powerful conservatives in the country to strategise on how to turn the country further to the right.
Erik Prince sits on the board of Christian Freedom, a group which uses “humanitarian aid” as a cover for missionary activities. Despite operating in largely Muslim countries, the group professes that the Bible is the only inspired, infallible, and authoritative Word of God. Prince is a close friend and benefactor of some of the country’s most militant Christian extremists, such as Gary Bauer and Charles Colson. In one of his most outrageous comments, Colson claimed that “Muhammad’s Qur’an” was the product of spiritual diarrhoea: “I think he’d had too many tamales the night before.”
As an indication of the ideological basis of Blackwater, some of its executives are members of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta, a Christian militia that was formed in the eleventh century to defend “territories that the Crusaders had conquered from the Moslems.” The outsourcing of US military operations in Muslim countries and in secular societies to such neo-crusaders reinforces the greatest fears of many in the Islamic world.
As Scahill unveils, the rise of Blackwater has been encouraged by the Republican Party. When George W. Bush came to power, he brought with him a team of ideologues and former corporate executives, many from large weapons-manufacturers. These rightwing Republicans had two plans when they came to office: “regime-change” in strategic nations, and implementation of the most sweeping privatization and outsourcing operation in the US’s military history.
As the foundational document of the Program for a New American Century states, such a revolutionary change could not be accomplished without a catalyst such as “a new Pearl Harbor.” On September 11, 2001, Bush, Rumsfeld et. al. were conveniently provided with a pretext to put their plans in motion: outsourcing the military, not to save money but to make money, to fill the coffers of the war-profiteers, and to embark on a mission to re-map the Muslim world by means of mercenaries. With mad money to be made, and the possibility of being able to rape and murder with impunity, thousands of mercenaries rushed off to Iraq to “make it rich quick”. By the end of Rumsfeld’s tenure, there were an estimated 100,000 private contractors on the ground in Iraq: almost as many as there were active-duty American soldiers there.
Scahill relates several stories of Blackwater militiamen being killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. In one incident, the Islamic Army of Iraq downed a Blackwater aircraft, resulting in six deaths. Although the dead men were all mercenaries, almost all the reports in the press and broadcast media referred to the aircraft as civilian or commercial.
The best-known instance, however, occurred in Fallujah soon after the removal of the Ba’athist regime. Readers will recall the headlines of the day: “Iraqi Mob Mutilates 4 American Civilians” (the Chicago Tribune); “US Civilians Mutilated in Iraq Attack” (the Washington Post), and “American Desecrated” (the Miami Herald). Apart from the few who read the independent media, almost all Americans believed that innocent American civilians had been butchered by barbaric Arabs. The men who died, however, were mercenaries, killers for hire, who died attempting to retrieve some catering equipment.
Although it has more mercenaries in Iraq than there are British troops, Blackwater is merely one of many mercenary firms operating in Iraq. Others include DynCorp (whose mercenaries traded in sex slaves in Bosnia in the 1990s), Military Professional Resources Incorporated, Control Risks Group, Erinys, Aegis, ArmorGroup, Hart, Kroll, Steele Foundation, and many others. In order to secure their immunity from prosecution, the US military hired mercenaries from the US-based Titan Corporation and CACI to conduct interrogations at Abu Ghraib. According to an investigation conducted by Major General Antonio Taguba, an interrogator at CACI and a translator for Titan “were either directly or indirectly responsible for the abuses at Abu Ghraib”. The Center for Constitutional Rights has alleged that Titan and CACI conspired with US officials to “humiliate, torture, and abuse persons” to win more contracts for their “interrogation services.”
Although depicted as a Mahdi Army assault against American forces, the battle on April 4, 2004 in Najaf took place between Muqtada Sadr’s militia and Blackwater mercenaries. The video of the battle shows Blackwater mercenaries firing hundreds of rounds indiscriminately into crowds of Iraqis, and slaughtering scores of ulama at one of the holiest sites of Shi’ism. The video’s audio reveals the mindset of these murderers: “Fuckin’ niggers!” yells a Blackwater mercenary as unarmed Muslims are massacred.
Although Blackwater mercenaries are known to operate as ‘security forces’ in Iraq, their role in “black contracts” are the subject of much speculation. Scahill has carefully put the available pieces together. Unable to uproot the resistance using conventional military techniques, US policymakers have turned to a strategy that is “as American as apple pie”: the death squad. In January 2004, journalist Robert Dreyfuss reported on the existence of a covert US programme in Iraq that resembles the CIA’s Phoenix assassination programme in Vietnam, Latin America’s death squads and Israel’s official policy of targeted murders of Palestinian activists and leaders. According to Allan Nairn, who exposed the US-backed death squads in Central America in the 1980s, “These programs, which backed the killing of foreign civilians, it’s a regular part of US policy. It’s ingrained in US policy in dozens upon dozens of countries.” According to Dreyfuss, the US established a three-billion-dollar “black fund” hidden within the Iraqappropriation fund which was approved by Congress in November 2003. The money would be used to create a paramilitary unit manned by militiamen from former Iraqi exile groups. Experts immediately warned that pro-American paramilitaries would engage in extrajudicial killings not only of armed insurgents but also of nationalists, civilians, Ba’athists, and other opponents of the occupation of their country. The plan was put into place by Jim Steele, John Negroponte and William Boykin.
Jim Steele, who acted as Paul Bremer’s deputy, served as a colonel in the Marines in the mid 1980s, coordinating US military advisors to San Salvadoran Army death squads in their battle against FMLN guerrillas. According to Scahill, Army Lieutenant General William Boykin, famous for his anti-Muslim rants, was charged by Rumsfeld to hunt down “high value targets.” Rumsfeld also placed Boykin in charge of the Abu Ghraib prison, sending him to Camp X-Ray in Guantanamo to learn new methods to be applied in Iraq. The main man, of course, was John Negroponte, who was appointed US ambassador to Iraq. A former US ambassador toHonduras, Negroponte coordinated covert support for Nicaraguan Contra and Honduran death squads in the 1980s. In Baghdad in the summer of 2004 Negroponte was visited by Duane Clarridge, an old colleague who ran the CIA’s covert war against communism in Central America. While Negroponte only spent a short period of time in Iraq, many analysts believe that he was sent to Iraq to establish death squads. As Andres Contreris, the Latin American program director of Non-Violence International, said:
It’s no coincidence that Negroponte, having been the Ambassador in Honduras, where he was very much engaged in the kind of support for death squads, was the Ambassador in Iraq, and this is the kind of policy that was starting to be implemented there, which is not just going after the resistance itself but targeting for repression, torture and assassination, the underlying support base: the family members, and those in the communities where the resistance is. These kinds of policies are war crimes.
Shortly after Negroponte’s departure, death-squad activity began to increase in Iraq. Newsweek described the new strategy as the “Salvador Option.” Instead of fighting the insurgents directly, US Special Forces were focusing on advising, supporting, and training Iraqi death squads. Hand-picked from Kurdish Peshmerga fighters and Shi’ite militiamen, the death squads would target not only Sunni insurgents but their support base: i.e. families, friends and the community in general (neighbours, colleagues and the like). According to Scahill’s sources, prime minister Ayad Allawi, a former CIA asset, was the most forthright proponent of the “Salvador Option”.
The shift from conventional warfare to a Central-American-style “dirty war” soon found support among some in the new, Shi’i-dominated Iraqi military. Scahill quotes on eofficer, Major Swadi Ghilan openly expressed his desire to exterminate most of the Sunnis in Iraq: “The army should execute the Sunnis in their neighborhoods so that all of them can see what happens, so that all of them learn their lesson.” Another Shi’ite, Sergeant Ahmed Sabri, said: “Just let us have our constitution and elections … and then we will do what Saddam did–start with five people from each neighborhood and kill them in the streets and then go from there.”
By 2005, death-squad activity was spreading through Iraq in a pattern uncannily similar to that of Central America during the 1980s. John Pace, a UN diplomat who served as the Human Rights Chief for the UN Assistance Mission in Iraq during Negroponte’s time in office, described the growth of death squads in Iraq: “They first started as a kind of militia…which was the military wing of various factions.” Eventually, “many of them [were] acting as official police agents as a part of the Ministry of Interior … You have these militias now with police gear and under police insignia … They have roadblocks in Baghdad and other areas, they would kidnap other people. They have been very closely linked with numerous mass executions.”
While discussing the emergence of US-supported death squads in Iraq’s military, Scahill fails to mention US support for Sunni death squads as well. As many analysts have observed, the US views Sunni militias as an insurance policy against the present government. Just as the US supported both the Contras and the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, and both the Taliban and the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan, so the US is using both Sunnis and Shi’ites to justify its occupation, ensure its control over oil reserves, preserve its strategic military presence, destabilize the region and debilitate the country, ensuring that it will not be a threat to Israel. As former UN weapons inspector Scott Ritter foretold several years ago: “the Salvador Option will serve as the impetus for all-out civil war.” By November 2006 a thousand Iraqis were being killed each week. From March 2003, when the US and its allies invaded, to the present, some 750,000 Iraqis have died.
While the fiasco in Iraq was in full flow New Orleans was struck by Hurricane Katrina, a disaster taken by Blackwater as an opportunity to “diversify” its business. With no soldiers or National Guard to respond to the disaster, “private contractors” were the first to reach the region. Mercenaries from Blackwater, DynCorp, American Security Group, Wackenhut, Krioll, and Instinctive Shooting International beat the federal government and most aid-organizations. Authorized to use deadly force, one hundred and fifty heavily armed Blackwater mercenaries spread into the chaos of New Orleans. Rather than help with search and rescue, they were sent to stop looting and confront “black gang-bangers.” Although Blackwater claims that it was there to help the relief effort, it profited from the disaster, raking in US$73 million from its Katrina work by June 2006. Residents of New Orleans, along with journalists, aid agencies, local police and firefighters, were shocked to see US and foreign mercenaries occupying their city.
Among the most unsavoury characters occupying New Orleans were Israeli mercenaries. Working for Instinctive Shooting International, they were billed as “veterans of Israel Defence Force, Israel National Police Counter Terrorism units, Instructors of Israel National Police Counter Terrorism units, Genera Security Service, and other restricted intelligence agencies.” As proof of his professionalism, one Zionist mercenary proudly stated: “We have been fighting the Palestinians all day, every day, our whole lives.”
With its own intelligence apparatus, Blackwater is years ahead of politicians in projecting future profit potential, strategically positioning itself in problem spots around the planet. To avoid drawing public attention, the US deployed private Blackwaterparamilitaries to Azerbaijan, just north of the Iranian border, in July 2004. In return for US$2.5 million, the company created a base where it trained an elite group of Azeri forces known as the Caspian Guard. Blackwater is also aggressively promoting itself for deployment in Darfur.
Despite claiming loyalty to the US, Blackwater also claims that its forces are above the law. The company claims that its mercenaries are “civilian contractors” who are not subject to the Pentagon’s Uniform Code of Military Conduct, while simultaneously claiming immunity from civilian litigation because its private soldiers are part of the US Total Force. Because the Department of Defence refuses to prosecute mercenaries who kill civilians and Congress grants military contractors immunity from state-court litigation, private contractors get away with murder and other crimes (rape, looting and the like) completely.
According to Scahill, Blackwater is a Praetorian Guard in the “war on terror.” For those unfamiliar with history, the Praetorian Guard provided security services to Roman emperors. The group was disbanded after its influence increased to the point where it could make and unmake emperors. As Michael Ratner, the President of the Center for Constitutional Rights, warns: “These paramilitary groups ... [are] functioning as an extrajudicial mechanism that can and does operate outside the law. The use of these paramilitary groups is an extremely dangerous threat to our own rights.”
Mercenaries, it must be remembered, are war-whores: guns for hire who can be bought and sold. Motivated by money, they sell their services to the highest bidder. Desiring only financial profit, they have no interest in peace because stability is bad for business. While they presently act as the imperial arms of US foreign policy, mercenaries do not serve the people, nor are accountable to them. As the rabid rottweilers of the right, private paramilitaries have historically been used to create and control totalitarian states.
At a time when Muslim teenagers cannot even go camping, play paint-ball, or practise martial arts without being prosecuted for plotting terrorist attacks, it is utterly inconsistent and hypocritical of the US government to allow Christian fundamentalists to form mercenary armies with tens of thousands of Timothy McVeighs. Thanks to George W. Bush and co., the American people now face a private parallel army, a fascist military force capable of supporting a Christian fundamentalist coup.
Scahill’s book is a slap in the face to the silent majority. As a result of the complacency, ignorance and indifference of the American public, US democracy is degenerating into a dictatorship. Following the fascist policy of “perpetual war,” the extreme right portrays Muslims as the enemies of freedom and foes of democracy. Deceived by Mephistophelian diatribes against Islam and Muslims in the press and media, the American people have overlooked the enemy within: the right-wing militias. Owned and operated by neo-crusaders, private paramilitaries are at present the single greatest threat to the United States of America and its people.
This book review was contributed by a Muslim academic in the US who prefers to remain anonymous.