Erik Prince: Energizer Bunny

Erik Prince

by David Isenberg

One has to give credit to Erik Dean Prince, the controversial co-founder and former head of the private security company once known as Blackwater. He is the Energizer Bunny. When it comes to getting involved in foreign wars and conflicts, he just keeps going and going and going.

The latest incident is a rather breathtaking article, by Mathew Cole and Jeremy Scahill published by The Intercept last Thursday, which reported that he “is under investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice and other federal agencies for attempting to broker military services to foreign governments and possible money laundering.”

Scahill, by the way, is a longtime critic and chronicler of Prince and Blackwater, having written a very popular book on the company. If Prince is the great white whale of private military contracting, Scahill is his Captain Ahab.

According to The Intercept, “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.”

Libya was hardly the only country Prince was pitching. He also drafted a proposal, code-named Project November, aimed at confronting the theft of Nigerian oil, providing VIP protection for Nigerian officials, and engaging in counterinsurgency operations.

Even experienced Prince-watchers are slapping their heads and, like Homer Simpson, saying “d’oh.”

A Brief History of Prince

During the years of its operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, Blackwater became the poster boy of private security companies. It wasn’t the biggest, but it was, by far, the best known—even if much of its reputation was for bad things that happened, such as the killing of Blackwater contractors in Fallujah, Iraq in 2004, or the killing of 17 Iraqi civilians by Blackwater contractors at Nisour Square, Baghdad in 2007.

Blackwater also served as an informal part of the CIA. Documents released in 2013 revealed that:

The CIA routinely used Blackwater in missions throughout the world,” it said. “These efforts were made under written and unwritten contracts and through informal requests. On many occasions the CIA paid Blackwater nothing for its assistance. Blackwater also employed CIA officers and agents, and provided cover to CIA agents and officers operating in covert and clandestine assignments. In many respects, Blackwater, or at least portions of Blackwater, was an extension of the CIA.

Prince resigned as CEO of Blackwater in March 2009 and remained chairman of the board until he sold the company in late 2010 to a group of investors. He subsequently helped assemble an 800-member force of foreign troops for the United Arab Emirates, exposed by The New York Times in 2011. He helped the UAE found a new company Reflex Responses, or R2, carefully not putting his name on corporate documents. In January 2011, the Associated Press reported that Prince was training a force of 2,000 Somalis for antipiracy operations in the Gulf of Aden.

In 2013, Prince published his memoir. In it, and in subsequent speaking engagements, he spent considerable time blaming the US government for persecuting Blackwater unfairly

He subsequently founded, and is chairman, of the Hong Kong-based Frontier Services Group (FSG), a publicly listed company firm active across the African continent in areas such as exploration, mining, and energy development. Since standing up FSG, Prince has said on numerous occasions that he has left his shooting days behind him, that henceforth his businesses would be strictly logistical, and that he was out of the armed-security business forever.

As this graphic shows, Prince knows how to set up companies, although managing them is another story. If he were in IT, instead of the private military and security contracting sector, he would probably be lionized as a startup entrepreneur. But given his wealth and globetrotting, he is better viewed as a member of the private security contractor (PSC) industry’s .01 percent.

Back in Business

According to The Intercept,

Prince sought to secretly rebuild his private CIA and special operations enterprise by setting up foreign shell companies and offering paramilitary services…

Since 2014, Prince has traveled to at least half a dozen countries to offer various versions of a private military force, secretly meeting with a string of African officials. Among the countries where Prince pitched a plan to deploy paramilitary assets is Libya, which is currently subject to an array of U.S. and United Nations financial and defense restrictions.

Prince engaged in these activities over the objections of his own firm’s corporate leadership. Several FSG colleagues accused him of using his role as chairman to offer Blackwater-like services to foreign governments that could not have been provided by the company, which lacks the capacity, expertise, or even the legal authority to do so.

Prince has obviously been willing to provide security or paramilitary services to foreign governments. He has long advocated the idea of using private security companies as “force enablers” in conflict zones and has helped major states or regional forces in counterterrorist or “peace operations” work. It’s not just the force he helped set up in the UAE. An earlier example is when former CIA counterterrorist official and Blackwater vice chairman Cofer Black announced in 2006 at a conference in Jordan that Blackwater was ready to provide brigade-size forces—i.e., 1,500 to 3,000 strong—for peacekeeping missions around the world. Or, as he subsequently spun it:

What I stated was that with the reviewed approval of the U.S. government, the U.N., and the African Union, Blackwater has the interest and capability to project highly qualified personnel into Darfur to administer to their health and welfare, and to protect itself in doing that. This was translated in some circles as “Army for hire!”

But why would Prince do this? He doesn’t need the money, and his experience with Blackwater seems to have left him genuinely embittered about doing anything on behalf of the U.S. government. He would also have to be extremely stupid to assume that he would not be on the radar of numerous intelligence agencies, not just those of the United States, who would be watching him for any indication that he was getting busy once again in the PSC industry. And while you might call Prince a lot of things, stupid is not one of them.

Whatever Prince has in mind, it seems to have been done entirely without the knowledge or approval of FSG.

Prince engaged in these activities over the objections of his own firm’s corporate leadership. Several FSG colleagues accused him of using his role as chairman to offer Blackwater-like services to foreign governments that could not have been provided by the company, which lacks the capacity, expertise, or even the legal authority to do so….

“He’s a rogue chairman,” said one of Prince’s close associates, who has monitored his attempts to sell mercenary forces in Africa.

Of course, it may be that Prince really wants to be what one of his associates calls ano-shit mercenary,” or at least the CEO of such a force. The Intercept article said:

The anti-migration force was seen as a vehicle for Prince to build a “backdoor” for so-called kinetic, or lethal, operations in Libya—a form of mercenary mission-creep. “During the day, you do interdiction of migrants—not kinetic,” said the person involved in the plan. “But those routes are used by weapons smugglers and drug traffickers at night. Insurgents too. Erik’s guys can then be offered to the Libyans to help with their other problems. That’s how you get kinetic.”

It is still unclear as to what exactly the Justice Department is investigating about Prince and whether he is actually doing something that can be prosecuted. But the specifics matter less than what Prince and many others like him mean for the international system.

After decades of privatizing in the security sector, coupled with unrelenting propaganda about the presumed effectiveness of this sector, corporate Milo Minderbinders like Prince are increasingly able and emboldened to pitch their projects to prospective clients. And when they do so it might end up igniting something they can’t put out.

As Matthew Cole said in a follow-up interview on the Democracy Now television program:

And what we found was pretty alarming in terms of a U.S. citizen, a private U.S. citizen and no longer really associated with the U.S. government, going around to countries and trying to exploit either their problems or their fears to present a—what they call turnkey solutions, which is a full spectrum of military services, intelligence, so that the countries that would potentially buy these proposals basically have to do nothing other than write a check, and he would be able to bring in everything from spy airplanes to paramilitary operatives on the ground and his own, you know, personal spying force and hunter killers, if you will. You know, so far, what we’ve found is that no one has purchased his services, but it didn’t stop him from trying and continuing to try to provide those things to as many countries as he—anywhere he could and could see a business opportunity.

David Isenberg

David Isenberg is an independent researcher and writer on U.S. military, foreign policy, and national and international security issues. He a senior analyst with the online geopolitical consultancy Wikistrat and is a U.S. Navy veteran. He is the author of Shadow Force: Private Security Contractors in Iraq. His blog, The PMSC Observer, focuses on private military and security contracting, a subject he has testified on to Congress.


One Comment

  1. Awesome. Good for Erik. A true patriot and innovator. I always thought he got a bad rap from the political class once the Iraq blame game started. Did everyone forget that it was a war????

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