Welcome to the future of warfare; privatised, deadly, unaccountable, brutish, secretive and increasingly attractive to so-called democracies and autocracies looking for a stealth force to repress or kill. A stunning New York Times investigation yesterday:
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.
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.
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.