Emily B. Hager & Mark Mazzetti / The New York Times – 2011-05-16 01:48:26
Foreign Mercenary Army in United Arab Emirates
Emily B. Hager & Mark Mazzetti / The New York Times
ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates (May 15, 2011) — Late one night in 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 US-led mercenary army being built by Erik Prince, the billionaire founder of Blackwater Worldwide, with $529 million from the oil-soaked sheikhdom.
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 United Arab Emirates, according to former employees on the project, US 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 in crowded labor camps or democracy protests like those sweeping the Arab world this year.
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 since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. And by relying on a force largely created by Americans, they have introduced a volatile new 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 US officials indicated that the battalion program had some support in Washington.
“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,” 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 US citizens from training foreign troops if they did not secure a license from the State Department.
Mark Toner, a spokesman for the department, would not confirm whether 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 US laws. 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 Emirates’ ambassador to Washington, Yousef al-Otaiba, declined to comment for this article. A spokesman for Prince also did not comment.
Prince is hoping to build a new empire in the desert far from the trial lawyers, congressional investigators and Justice Department officials he is convinced worked in league to taint 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.
Protect Nuclear Plants
To help fulfill his ambitions, Prince’s new company, Reflex Responses, obtained another multimillion-dollar contract to protect a string of nuclear power plants now under construction and 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, 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 Prince’s central role.
Prince made the deal with Sheikh 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.
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