For 5,500 euros he flies you out of Afghanistan and for a little more you can hire the premium package ‘door to door’ that includes mercenaries who pick you up at home and make sure you arrive alive at Kabul airport. The offer It would be incredible if it did not come from the founder and former president of Blackwater Erik Prince, a true war entrepreneur with decades of experience in pulling away from despair, chaos and violence.
It’s unclear whether that express evacuation service was real or one of his usual bragging rights. Perhaps it was simply his way of looking for a plan B, since the fall of Afghanistan has complicated your ambitious proposal for the US to “privatize” the country’s occupation and entrust its management for a small fee. He says he was almost convinced by Donald Trump, but the almost simultaneous return to power of Joe Biden and the Taliban does not bode well for that revolutionary idea.
With such outlandish proposals, Prince may seem enlightened, but it wasn’t so long ago that his trigger-happy mercenaries were doing secret jobs for the CIA and roaming occupied Iraq murdering civilians. In the six years following the 9/11 attacks, Blackwater billed the US Government almost 850 million euros for different services, so its founder cannot be blamed for keeping alive the hope that the fat cows will return.
A decade ago Erik Prince had to leave Blackwater beset by controversy. The company is still alive, although to get away from its terrifying public image it has been renamed Academi, a brand that sounds more like a neighborhood language school than a battalion of ex-military for hire. Its founder has also reinvented himself and is now dedicated to traveling the world advising (and swindling) a multitude of dictators or would-be dictators. There are still many clients looking to “create a Blackwater”.
A millionaire in the special forces
Erik Prince cannot actually be said to have become a millionaire with the war, since he has been a millionaire from the moment he was born. The Princes were one of the richest families in the state of Michigan and also had enormous political influence for decades. His parents already financed the struggles of the religious right long before Erik will be spent more than eight million euros in supporting Republican candidates in 2016 or that another of his daughters, Betsy De Vos, became part of the Trump government.
Erik Prince may even have been in professional politics. In his youth he was a fellow at the White House during the term of Bush Sr., but says that he was disenchanted quickly to observe that the then president “invited homosexual groups” and reached agreements with the opposition that included tax increases. Soon after, he made a decision that was going to change his life forever: Prince enlisted in the US Navy’s special forces, the SEALS, in 1997.
In his four years in the special forces, the United States was at peace and Erik Prince never experienced a real combat situation, but when he left his military career he already had in his head the idea that would make him famous. With a small part of his inheritance, he bought a piece of land in a swampy area to create a military training ground which, because of the color of the waters in the area, he called Blackwater. In the late 1990s it was little more than a shooting range, but then Al Qaeda murdered 3,000 people on September 11, 2001, and everything changed for the company and its founder.
If Bush Senior had disappointed Prince, Bush Junior was going to make him gold. The US Army was not big enough to deal with the monumental ‘war on terror’ that was starting, so the government did what governments almost always do in such a situation: outsource. The problem is that there weren’t as many companies that could handle the security of a base in Iraq or protect American diplomats in Afghanistan. That’s where Erik Prince saw an opportunity and turned Blackwater into more than just a private security company.
The key to its success was that, in its early days, Blackwater primarily hired former US military personnel. The hard core of his mercenaries were special forces veterans like Prince himself who earned much more money as “contractors” than as professional military personnel. Although they soon acquired a well-deserved reputation for having an easy trigger, American personnel in Iraq and Afghanistan felt safer in their hands than in those of newly arrived soldiers or Iraqi troops. Public contracts rained down on him.
In addition to the multi-million dollar awards from the Pentagon and the State Department, Blackwater soon did business with the CIA as well. Erik Prince himself has explained that, apart from training the spies of the agency and start his controversial drone bombing program, he was also hired to create a secret team that was to locate and kill al Qaeda leaders. Several million were spent on this operation, but none of the murders took place.
Although the attacks did not finally occur, the fact that the CIA had a private company to mount a secret extrajudicial assassination operation illustrates well the extent to which Blackwater had penetrated the US military and intelligence apparatus of those years. Those were golden times for Erik Prince, but everything was going to change suddenly on the morning of September 16, 2007.
The disaster that buried Blackwater
In a business as complicated as Erik Prince’s, it’s impossible not to hear bad news from time to time. In 2004 your company lost four employees in an ambush in Iraq and a crowd dismembered and burned the corpses. Their families sued the company, but the real disaster that forever changed Blackwater did not come from the deaths of their own at the hands of the insurgency, but from the slaughter that their own mercenaries carried out in a central Baghdad square.
It was a tense morning in the Iraqi capital because a bomb had exploded. Two groups of ex-Blackwater soldiers were escorting US diplomats through a traffic jam in Nisour Square when, for unknown reasons, one of them fired at the driver of a car. Apparently the vehicle continued to advance with the deceased at the wheel and that led the Americans to believe that they were being attacked. Then the killing began for real.
The mercenaries began firing like mad. Machine guns, grenades … People were trapped in the traffic jam and could not flee, while some Blackwater employees tried loudly to convince their colleagues to stop. When I finish the shooting 14 Iraqi civilians were killed, including two boys aged nine and 11, and nearly twenty wounded. None were related to the insurgency and it has never been shown, despite Blackwater’s explanations, that anyone fired at the Americans first.
The massacre sparked enormous popular outrage and led the Iraqi government to announce that it was withdrawing authorization for Blackwater to operate in the country, but then someone discovered that the company had never actually had such authorization. When the Iraqi prosecution set out to prosecute the mercenaries for the crime, someone reminded them that the occupying authorities they had assured that mercenaries will enjoy full immunity from the courts of Iraq.
After a lengthy legal process in the US, a Blackwater employee was condemned to life in prison for murder and other three to sentences of more than 10 years, although all were pardoned by Donald Trump shortly before leaving the White House. The company, however, had begun to feel the consequences of the disaster almost from the day of the shooting. At first, Blackwater tried to silence the crisis bribing to various senior officials in the Iraqi government, but the real problem was at home.
For the US Government, the Nisour Square massacre confirmed all the suspicions about the company and its tactics, typical of a western movie. The last months of the Bush administration have already been cooling, but the arrival of Obama to the White House marked an almost complete break with Blackwater. They did not renew their millionaire contract to protect American diplomats and, in addition, the new director of the CIA reported to Congress’s secret targeted assassination program and then canceled it.
Blackwater and Erik Prince himself had already become the symbol of the excesses of the ‘war on terrorism’ and its soaring price. The founder tried to leave that reputation behind by renaming the company and disassociating himself from its day-to-day management, but it was not enough. In late 2010, three years after the Baghdad massacre, Prince sold his share of the company and went to Abu Dhabi to start new businesses, which to this day look a lot like his old businesses.
To the highest bidder
His past may have kept Erik Prince from doing business with the US government lately, but that same ruthless reputation has made him highly attractive to other leaders. In the last decade he has mounted a small army personal to the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, has tried to end piracy in Somalia, he has attempted a coup in libya and has been selling around the world Fumigation planes modified to carry all kinds of weapons. Along the way, it has left many unhappy customers, but new ones keep coming.
Gone are those years when Prince was outraged when his employees were called mercenaries and bragged that they were simply “Americans working for the US government.” Now he has no problem serving the Chinese government And even, in an unusual move for an ultra-conservative like him, he has been exploring business opportunities with the Venezuelan regime by Nicolás Maduro when we have the information. He also has no religious scruples, as the vast majority of the countries in which he has worked since leaving Blackwater are Muslim-majority.
Erik Prince does not lose hope of doing business with his government, the United States, but right now it is not easy. In recent years he has been investigated for alleged violations of arms export rules, Congress has accused him of to lie in a commission of inquiry and the special counsel who studied relations between the Trump campaign and Russia says that served liaison with Putin. When the former president was still in power, Prince told his clients that he was going to be defense minister, but now, with Biden, not even that. Either way, it’s not the first battle that Prince has emerged from unscathed. In fact, in 20 years he has done nothing but land on his feet.