Erik Prince, co-founder of now-defunct private mercenary outfit Blackwater and brother of Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, is working with China to train private security forces. One’s initial reaction could and probably should be, isn’t Erik Prince an American whose private army once fought in the name of American interests? Why would he be working with China, especially as American relations with the nation are on somewhat unclear terms?
Well, Erik Prince is a businessman, first and foremost. While he did, at one time, lead Blackwater as it professed to aid the American cause in the Middle East, it’s not as if he did it on a voluntary basis. Since scandal rocked Blackwater, forcing it to change its name twice, Prince – a former Navy SEAL – has continued to administer his military security expertise to virtually anybody willing to pony up. An examination of his record as a contractor outside of Blackwater and shows that China may not even be the most controversial client Prince has agreed to counsel.
When considering what kind of expertise Prince has provided, remembering just how Blackwater got in hot water in the first place is helpful for context. Four Blackwater Worldwide security guards, the term given to what are essentially privately contracted soldiers, were convicted on murder, manslaughter, and weapons charges in connection with a 2007 incident in which 17 Iraqis were killed, referred to as the Nisour Square massacre.
‘A jury in Federal District Court found that the deaths of 17 Iraqis in the shooting, which began when a convoy of the guards suddenly began firing in a crowded intersection, was not a battlefield tragedy, but the result of a criminal act.’ (New York Times)
The cases would be tried, dismissed, re-tried on appeal, and after three sentences of 30 years and one of life in prison were handed down, a three-judge panel in the U.S. Court of Appeals for District Columbia overturned the murder conviction of Nick Slatten, who had been given life. It was also ordered that Slatten’s three co-defendants be re-sentenced.
While the American government initially employed the services of Blackwater in helping to train some of their military forces, eventually the government would find itself in court attempting to convict Blackwater security guards as part of an effort to assure citizens in nations where Blackwater contractors operated that they would be held accountable in the case of misconduct.
However, Blackwater – which was renamed Xe Services in 2009 and now is a privately-held company known as Academi – continues to operate as a contractor of the United States government. From protection in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina to the occupation of Iraq, and now as a globally operating private security outfit under the umbrella of Constellis holdings, Blackwater and its latter forms have been awarded over $2 billion in government contracts, and continues to acquire much of its revenues from governments across the world.
Erik Prince’s personal contracts have mirrored Blackwater’s global reach. As Blackwater, Xe Services, and Academi security guards have turned up in conflict zones that many may not suspect, Prince’s services have also taken him to regions and nations that seem far from Blackwater’s original purpose as an outfit aligned with the American military.
Both Prince and Blackwater began their international defense activities linked at the hip, and they began them in the United States. After retiring from the military, Prince established the base for Blackwater at the 4,000-acre property formerly known as the Blackwater Training Center in Moyock, NC. Now under the control of Academi, the site offers 54 tactical ranges, five ballistic houses, four ship-boarding simulators, two airfields, a three-mile driving track, and much more to train its residents and visitors. It’s the site where Blackwater became a collective that would be prepared to deploy across the globe.
And, that’s just what they did. The controversial time in Iraq was the first major Blackwater contract, and the company would go on to protect diplomats abroad, provide armed backup for military personnel, and carry out several contracts, the details of which remain classified. As Prince felt the heat from the Nisour Square incident and also said that the Obama administration had found it convenient to throw him and his organization under the bus – all while continuing to grant the company over $100 million in contracts – he decided to resign as CEO in March of 2009 and sold the company in 2010.
But Blackwater, aka Xe, aka Academi, would continue to execute contracts abroad, and so would Prince, this time in the capacity of an individual contractor lending his military expertise out to foreign governments. The first to hire Prince directly was, fittingly, a prince. Specifically, the crown prince of Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates. Prince would move to Abu Dhabi, assembling an 800-deep battalion comprised primarily of foreign troops from nations such as Colombia. With over half a billon dollars in funding, the troops would be trained to do it all, and Prince was a fitting choice to prepare them.
‘The force is intended to conduct special operations missions inside and outside the country, defend oil pipelines and skyscrapers from terrorist attacks and put down internal revolts, the documents show. Such troops could be deployed if the Emirates faced unrest in their crowded labor camps or were challenged by pro-democracy protests like those sweeping the Arab world this year.’ (New York Times)
Nations such as the U.A.E. want top-flight military support, but are often not equipped with the knowledge to train them adequately, nor the individuals willing to take on the most grueling missions. That is precisely where Prince comes in, and why he has proven himself as an asset – somewhat of a mercenary in his own right – helping nations spanning the globe to attain top-flight training and personal armies at a cost that Prince clearly finds compelling.
Having established a capable regimen of foreigners for the crown prince, Erik Prince’s hired and trained guns began turning up on battlefields in war-torn Yemen. In 2015, the New York Times detailed this development, suggesting that the U.A.E. had used Prince’s men to influence the conflict tearing apart Yemen, a nation being further derailed by both Iranian and Saudi influence. It is also thought to be the first foreign deployment of the Emirati regimen.
‘The arrival in Yemen of 450 Latin American troops — among them are also Panamanian, Salvadoran and Chilean soldiers — adds to the chaotic stew of government armies, armed tribes, terrorist networks and Yemeni militias currently at war in the country…. It is also a glimpse into the future of war. Wealthy Arab nations, particularly Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the Emirates, have in recent years embraced a more aggressive military strategy throughout the Middle East, trying to rein in the chaos unleashed by the Arab revolutions that began in late 2010.’ (NYT)
Again, if one is looking to form a mercenary army that is equipped to do a given job, Prince is clearly the man to see. Whether these nations were spreading the word about Prince’s quality troops, Prince was doing so himself, or both, a pattern of expanding Prince-fluence began to emerge. Prince’s influence next popped up in Azerbaijan, where he reportedly came under investigation for attempting to sell ‘secretly modified paramilitary aircraft’ to the Azerbaijani military, reportedly to keep an eye on their Armenian neighbors.
‘The King & Spalding findings centered around a deal Prince tried to make with Azerbaijan’s Ministry of Defense for several American crop dusters that Prince had secretly modified into attack and surveillance aircraft. The deal was Prince’s last-ditch effort to realize a long-held desire to sell small offensive aircraft to governments around the world for small and low-intensity conflicts.’ (The Intercept)
Prince’s armed crop duster even made an appearance at the Paris Air Show in 2017. Fittingly, considering Prince’s international footprint, it was brought to the show by Bulgarian firm LASA Engineering. These aircraft would be highly useful for any government looking to monitor and secure borders, as well as fight terrorists or other hostile forces through small, maneuverable means. It’s thought of as a more cost-conscious yet effective means for less cash-rich governments.
But, apparently, the Azerbaijan sale, considering the country’s history of sordid human rights violations, could have landed Prince in hot water.
‘In February 2016, Chris Wray of the law firm King & Spalding, who led the investigation, “informed the Justice Department that Prince had likely violated U.S. law” because he offered weapons systems and services to Azerbaijan’s ministry of defense. The U.S. government is known to restrict military sales and other forms of military cooperation with Azerbaijan.’ (USC)
Chris Wray is now top cop in the land, so it remains to be seen if this issue takes on a more prominent role in foreign affairs headlines once Russia – or if Russia – ever fades from prominence.
The Intercept, a site that is particularly critical of Prince, believes that subsequent sales to African and Chinese intelligence agencies could prove to be the larger thorn in Prince’s side. Operating through his new company, Frontier Services Group, Prince is alleged to have offered military services to governments which would not be legal considering his status as a U.S. citizen.
‘What began as an investigation into Prince’s attempts to sell defense services in Libya and other countries in Africa has widened to a probe of allegations that Prince received assistance from Chinese intelligence to set up an account for his Libya operations through the Bank of China. The Justice Department, which declined to comment for this article, is also seeking to uncover the precise nature of Prince’s relationship with Chinese intelligence.’ (The Intercept)
Even considering the Intercept’s reputation as anti-Prince, it’s fair to at least investigate the nature of any relationship between Prince and potentially unfriendly governments. After all, he got his start in the U.S. military, and while he’s retired, he is still a citizen.
This is especially true of nations such as Libya and China, who are relatively shameless in their continuing violations of human rights. It seems unlikely that the current administration will put the full-court press on bringing any sanctions upon Prince, but that’s assuming that the current DOJ is inclined to be swayed by the president’s wishes. That’s unclear right now.
However, we do know that Erik Prince and his company, Frontier Services Group, is working to sell potentially military-grade weaponry to foreign governments, and that he is now far from the original trappings that he established as a contractor with Blackwater, working exclusively for the U.S. government.