[News] Secret UAE desert force set up by Blackwater’s founder

Anti-Imperialist News news at freedomarchives.org
Sun May 15 17:34:09 EDT 2011

Secret UAE desert force set up by Blackwater’s founder

Documents show 800-strong mercenary force is 
aimed at UAE's external ­ and internal ­ foes


(for this there is no call for a gang injunction - FA)

updated 5/14/2011 10:33:56 PM ET


DHABI, United Arab Emirates ­ Late one night last 
November, a plane carrying dozens of Colombian 
men touched down in this glittering seaside 
capital. Whisked through customs by an Emirati 
intelligence officer, the group boarded an 
unmarked bus and drove roughly 20 miles to a 
windswept military complex in the desert sand.

The Colombians had entered the United Arab 
Emirates posing as construction workers. In fact, 
they were soldiers for a secret American-led 
mercenary army being built by Erik Prince, the 
billionaire founder of Blackwater Worldwide, with 
$529 million from the oil-soaked sheikdom.

Mr. Prince, who resettled here last year after 
his security business faced mounting legal 
problems in the United States, was hired by the 
crown prince of Abu Dhabi to put together an 
800-member battalion of foreign troops for the 
U.A.E., according to former employees on the 
project, American officials and corporate 
documents obtained by The New York Times.

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 or were 
challenged by pro-democracy demonstrations in its 
crowded labor camps or democracy protests like 
those sweeping the Arab world this year.

The U.A.E.’s rulers, viewing their own military 
as inadequate, also hope that the troops could 
blunt the regional aggression of Iran, the 
country’s biggest foe, the former employees said. 
The training camp, located on a sprawling Emirati 
base called Zayed Military City, is hidden behind 
concrete walls laced with barbed wire. 
Photographs show rows of identical yellow 
temporary buildings, used for barracks and mess 
halls, and a motor pool, which houses Humvees and 
fuel trucks. The Colombians, along with South 
African and other foreign troops, are trained by 
retired American soldiers and veterans of the 
German and British special operations units and 
the French Foreign Legion, according to the 
former employees and American officials.

In outsourcing critical parts of their defense to 
mercenaries ­ the soldiers of choice for medieval 
kings, Italian Renaissance dukes and African 
dictators ­ the Emiratis have begun a new era in 
the boom in wartime contracting that began after 
the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. And by relying on a 
force largely created by Americans, they have 
introduced a volatile element in an already 
combustible region where the United States is widely viewed with suspicion.

The United Arab Emirates ­ an autocracy with the 
sheen of a progressive, modern state ­ are 
closely allied with the United States, and 
American officials indicated that the battalion 
program had some support in Washington.

  “The gulf countries, and the U.A.E. in 
particular, don’t have a lot of military 
experience. It would make sense if they looked 
outside their borders for help,” said one Obama 
administration official who knew of the 
operation. “They might want to show that they are not to be messed with.”

Still, it is not clear whether the project has 
the United States’ official blessing. Legal 
experts and government officials said some of 
those involved with the battalion might be 
breaking federal laws that prohibit American 
citizens from training foreign troops if they did 
not secure a license from the State Department.

Mark C. Toner, a spokesman for the department, 
would not confirm whether Mr. Prince’s company 
had obtained such a license, but he said the 
department was investigating to see if the 
training effort was in violation of American 
laws. Mr. Toner pointed out that Blackwater 
(which renamed itself Xe Services ) paid $42 
million in fines last year for training foreign 
troops in Jordan and other countries over the years.

The U.A.E.’s ambassador to Washington, Yousef 
al-Otaiba, declined to comment for this article. 
A spokesman for Mr. Prince also did not comment.

For Mr. Prince, the foreign battalion is a bold 
attempt at reinvention. He is hoping to build an 
empire in the desert, far from the trial lawyers, 
Congressional investigators and Justice 
Department officials he is convinced worked in 
league to portray Blackwater as reckless. He sold 
the company last year, but in April, a federal 
appeals court reopened the case against four 
Blackwater guards accused of killing 17 Iraqi civilians in Baghdad in 2007.

To help fulfill his ambitions, Mr. Prince’s new 
company, Reflex Responses, obtained another 
multimillion-dollar contract to protect a string 
of planned nuclear power plants and to provide 
cybersecurity. He hopes to earn billions more, 
the former employees said, by assembling 
additional battalions of Latin American troops 
for the Emiratis and opening a giant complex 
where his company can train troops for other governments.

Knowing that his ventures are magnets for 
controversy, Mr. Prince has masked his 
involvement with the mercenary battalion. His 
name is not included on contracts and most other 
corporate documents, and company insiders have at 
times tried to hide his identity by referring to 
him by the code name “Kingfish.” But three former 
employees, speaking on the condition of anonymity 
because of confidentiality agreements, and two 
people involved in security contracting described Mr. Prince’s central role.

The former employees 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.

Muslim soldiers, Mr. Prince warned, could not be 
counted on to kill fellow Muslims.

A Lucrative Deal

Last spring, as waiters in the lobby of the Park 
Arjaan by Rotana Hotel passed by carrying cups of 
Turkish coffee, a small team of Blackwater and 
American military veterans huddled over plans for 
the foreign battalion. Armed with a black 
suitcase stuffed with several hundred thousand 
dollars’ worth of dirhams, the local currency, 
they began paying the first bills.

The company, often called R2, was licensed last 
March with 51 percent local ownership, a typical 
arrangement in the Emirates. It received about 
$21 million in start-up capital from the U.A.E., the former employees said.

Mr. Prince made the deal with Sheik Mohamed bin 
Zayed al-Nahyan, the crown prince of Abu Dhabi 
and the de facto ruler of the United Arab 
Emirates. The two men had known each other for 
several years, and it was the prince’s idea to 
build a foreign commando force for his country.

Savvy and pro-Western, the prince was educated at 
the Sandhurst military academy in Britain and 
formed close ties with American military 
officials. He is also one of the region’s 
staunchest hawks on Iran and is skeptical that 
his giant neighbor across the Strait of Hormuz 
will give up its nuclear program.

“He sees the logic of war dominating the region, 
and this thinking explains his near-obsessive 
efforts to build up his armed forces,” said a 
November 2009 cable from the American Embassy in 
Abu Dhabi that was obtained by the anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks.

For Mr. Prince, a 41-year-old former member of 
the Navy Seals, the battalion was an opportunity 
to turn vision into reality. At Blackwater, which 
had collected billions of dollars in security 
contracts from the United States government, he 
had hoped to build an army for hire that could be 
deployed to crisis zones in Africa, Asia and the 
Middle East. He even had proposed that the 
Central Intelligence Agency use his company for 
special operations missions around the globe, but 
to no avail. In Abu Dhabi, which he praised in an 
Emirati newspaper interview last year for its 
“pro-business” climate, he got another chance.

Mr. Prince’s exploits, both real and rumored, are 
the subject of fevered discussions in the private 
security world. He has worked with the Emirati 
government on various ventures in the past year, 
including an operation using South African 
mercenaries to train Somalis to fight pirates. 
There was talk, too, that he was hatching a 
scheme last year to cap the Icelandic volcano 
then spewing ash across Northern Europe.

The team in the hotel lobby was led by Ricky 
Chambers, known as C. T., a former agent with the 
Federal Bureau of Investigation who had worked 
for Mr. Prince for years; most recently, he had 
run a program training Afghan troops for a 
Blackwater subsidiary called Paravant.

He was among the half-dozen or so Americans who 
would serve as top managers of the project, 
receiving nearly $300,000 in annual compensation. 
Mr. Chambers and Mr. Prince soon began quietly 
luring American contractors from Afghanistan, 
Iraq and other danger spots with pay packages 
that topped out at more than $200,000 a year, 
according to a budget document. Many of those who 
signed on as trainers ­ which eventually included 
more than 40 veteran American, European and South 
African commandos ­ did not know of Mr. Prince’s 
involvement, the former employees said.

Mr. Chambers did not respond to requests for comment.

He and Mr. Prince also began looking for 
soldiers. They lined up Thor Global Enterprises, 
a company on the Caribbean island of Tortola 
specializing in “placing foreign servicemen in 
private security positions overseas,” according 
to a contract signed last May. The recruits would be paid about $150 a day.

Within months, large tracts of desert were 
bulldozed and barracks constructed. The Emirates 
were to provide weapons and equipment for the 
mercenary force, supplying everything from M-16 
rifles to mortars, Leatherman knives to Land 
Rovers. They agreed to buy parachutes, 
motorcycles, rucksacks ­ and 24,000 pairs of socks.

To keep a low profile, Mr. Prince rarely visited 
the camp or a cluster of luxury villas near the 
Abu Dhabi airport, where R2 executives and 
Emirati military officers fine-tune the training 
schedules and arrange weapons deliveries for the 
battalion, former employees said. He would show 
up, they said, in an office suite at the DAS 
Tower ­ a skyscraper just steps from Abu Dhabi’s 
Corniche beach, where sunbathers lounge as 
cigarette boats and water scooters whiz by. Staff 
members there manage a number of companies that 
the former employees say are carrying out secret 
work for the Emirati government.

Emirati law prohibits disclosure of incorporation 
records for businesses, which typically list 
company officers, but it does require them to 
post company names on offices and storefronts. 
Over the past year, the sign outside the suite 
has changed at least twice ­ it now says Assurance Management Consulting.

While the documents ­ including contracts, budget 
sheets and blueprints ­ obtained by The Times do 
not mention Mr. Prince, the former employees said 
he negotiated the U.A.E. deal. Corporate 
documents describe the battalion’s possible 
tasks: intelligence gathering, urban combat, the 
securing of nuclear and radioactive materials, 
humanitarian missions and special operations “to 
destroy enemy personnel and equipment.”

One document describes “crowd-control operations” 
where the crowd “is not armed with firearms but 
does pose a risk using improvised weapons (clubs and stones).”

People involved in the project and American 
officials said that the Emiratis were interested 
in deploying the battalion to respond to 
terrorist attacks and put down uprisings inside 
the country’s sprawling labor camps, which house 
the Pakistanis, Filipinos and other foreigners 
who make up the bulk of the country’s work force. 
The foreign military force was planned months 
before the so-called Arab Spring revolts that 
many experts believe are unlikely to spread to 
the U.A.E. Iran was a particular concern.

An Eye on Iran

Although there was no expectation that the 
mercenary troops would be used for a stealth 
attack on Iran, Emirati officials talked of using 
them for a possible maritime and air assault to 
reclaim a chain of islands, mostly uninhabited, 
in the Persian Gulf that are the subject of a 
dispute between Iran and the U.A.E., the former 
employees said. Iran has sent military forces to 
at least one of the islands, Abu Musa, and 
Emirati officials have long been eager to retake 
the islands and tap their potential oil reserves.

The Emirates have a small military that includes 
army, air force and naval units as well as a 
small special operations contingent, which served 
in Afghanistan, but over all, their forces are considered inexperienced.

In recent years, the Emirati government has 
showered American defense companies with billions 
of dollars to help strengthen the country’s 
security. A company run by Richard A. Clarke, a 
former counterterrorism adviser during the 
Clinton and Bush administrations, has won several 
lucrative contracts to advise the U.A.E. on how to protect its infrastructure.

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.

The contract includes a one-paragraph legal and 
ethics policy noting that R2 should institute 
accountability and disciplinary procedures. “The 
overall goal,” the contract states, “is to ensure 
that the team members supporting this effort 
continuously cast the program in a professional 
and moral light that will hold up to a level of media scrutiny.”

But former employees said that R2’s leaders never 
directly grappled with some fundamental questions 
about the operation. International laws governing 
private armies and mercenaries are murky, but 
would the Americans overseeing the training of a 
foreign army on foreign soil be breaking United States law?

Susan Kovarovics, an international trade lawyer 
who advises companies about export controls, said 
that because Reflex Responses was an Emirati 
company it might not need State Department authorization for its activities.

But she said that any Americans working on the 
project might run legal risks if they did not get 
government approval to participate in training the foreign troops.

Basic operational issues, too, were not 
addressed, the former employees said. What were 
the battalion’s rules of engagement? What if 
civilians were killed during an operation? And 
could a Latin American commando force deployed in 
the Middle East really be kept a secret.

Imported Soldiers

The first waves of mercenaries began arriving 
last summer. Among them was a 13-year veteran of 
Colombia’s National Police force named Calixto 
Rincón, 42, who joined the operation with hopes 
of providing for his family and seeing a new part of the world.

“We were practically an army for the Emirates,” 
Mr. Rincón, now back in Bogotá, Colombia, said in 
an interview. “They wanted people who had a lot 
of experience in countries with conflicts, like Colombia.”

Mr. Rincón’s visa carried a special stamp from 
the U.A.E. military intelligence branch, which is 
overseeing the entire project, that allowed him 
to move through customs and immigration without being questioned.

He soon found himself in the midst of the camp’s 
daily routines, which mirrored those of American 
military training. “We would get up at 5 a.m. and 
we would start physical exercises,” Mr. Rincón 
said. His assignment included manual labor at the 
expanding complex, he said. Other former 
employees said the troops ­ outfitted in Emirati 
military uniforms ­ were split into companies to 
work on basic infantry maneuvers, learn 
navigation skills and practice sniper training.

R2 spends roughly $9 million per month 
maintaining the battalion, which includes 
expenditures for employee salaries, ammunition 
and wages for dozens of domestic workers who cook 
meals, wash clothes and clean the camp, a former 
employee said. Mr. Rincón said that he and his 
companions never wanted for anything, and that 
their American leaders even arranged to have a 
chef travel from Colombia to make traditional soups.

But the secrecy of the project has sometimes 
created a prisonlike environment. “We didn’t have 
permission to even look through the door,” Mr. 
Rincón said. “We were only allowed outside for 
our morning jog, and all we could see was sand everywhere.”

The Emirates wanted the troops to be ready to 
deploy just weeks after stepping off the plane, 
but it quickly became clear that the Colombians’ 
military skills fell far below expectations. 
“Some of these kids couldn’t hit the broad side 
of a barn,” said a former employee. Other 
recruits admitted to never having fired a weapon.

Rethinking Roles

As a result, the veteran American and foreign 
commandos training the battalion have had to 
rethink their roles. They had planned to act only 
as “advisers” during missions ­ meaning they 
would not fire weapons ­ but over time, they 
realized that they would have to fight side by 
side with their troops, former officials said.

Making matters worse, the recruitment pipeline 
began drying up. Former employees said that Thor 
struggled to sign up, and keep, enough men on the 
ground. Mr. Rincón developed a hernia and was 
forced to return to Colombia, while others were 
dismissed from the program for drug use or poor conduct.

And R2’s own corporate leadership has also been 
in flux. Mr. Chambers, who helped develop the 
project, left after several months. A handful of 
other top executives, some of them former 
Blackwater employees, have been hired, then fired within weeks.

To bolster the force, R2 recruited a platoon of 
South African mercenaries, including some 
veterans of Executive Outcomes, a South African 
company notorious for staging coup attempts or 
suppressing rebellions against African strongmen 
in the 1990s. The platoon was to function as a 
quick-reaction force, American officials and 
former employees said, and began training for a 
practice mission: a terrorist attack on the Burj 
Khalifa skyscraper in Dubai, the world’s tallest 
building. They would secure the situation before 
quietly handing over control to Emirati troops.

But by last November, the battalion was 
officially behind schedule. The original goal was 
for the 800-man force to be ready by March 31; 
recently, former employees said, the battalion’s 
size was reduced to about 580 men.

Emirati military officials had promised that if 
this first battalion was a success, they would 
pay for an entire brigade of several thousand 
men. The new contracts would be worth billions, 
and would help with Mr. Prince’s next big 
project: a desert training complex for foreign 
troops patterned after Blackwater’s compound in 
Moyock, N.C. But before moving ahead, U.A.E. 
military officials have insisted that the 
battalion prove itself in a “real world mission.”

That has yet to happen. So far, the Latin 
American troops have been taken off the base only 
to shop and for occasional entertainment.

On a recent spring night though, after months 
stationed in the desert, they boarded an unmarked 
bus and were driven to hotels in central Dubai, a 
former employee said. There, some R2 executives 
had arranged for them to spend the evening with prostitutes.

Mark Mazzetti reported from Abu Dhabi and 
Washington, and Emily B. Hager from New York. 
Jenny Carolina González and Simon Romero 
contributed reporting from Bogotá, Colombia. 
Kitty Bennett contributed research from Washington.

This article, 
Desert Force Set Up by Blackwater’s Founder," 
first appeared in The New York Times.

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