By Brock Burton
29 December 2015. An SUV stops outside the Al-Islah headquarters in Aden, Yemen. Armed men fan out, one rushing to the door with a satchel over his shoulder. One of his compatriots aims down the street at an unseen target and opens fire. Bystanders flee. The man carrying the satchel deposits it at the door to the building and runs away. The satchel charge detonates. The armed men jump into waiting United Arab Emirates (UAE) military vehicles that speed off, leaving behind the settling smoke of an explosion, spent shell casings, and their SUV, which explodes seconds later. A drone circling above captures it all.
The attackers were employed by a private military company (PMC) called Spear Operations Group. Their target that night was Anssaff Ali Mayo, the local leader of Al-Islah, an Islamist political party. The UAE considers Al-Islah to be a terrorist organization, in part due to its connection to the Muslim Brotherhood. External experts consider Al-Islah to be a legitimate political party. Mayo survived the attack.
That night marked a change in the ongoing war in Yemen. Not because of its violence, but because of the perpetrators and the nature of their mission. A group of American and French ex-special operations soldiers, hired by a Hungarian-born Israeli named Abraham Golan, were sent to kill the political enemies of the UAE. In Golan’s own words, “There was a targeted assassination program in Yemen. I was running it. We did it.” Like much of post-modern warfare, this operation falls into a legal grey zone.
Private Military Companies have surged in prominence and popularity since 9/11. The War on Terror has relied on these companies for everything from catering to security details. While these private organizations are supposedly barred from combat roles when employed by the US, contemporary war has blurred the lines of conflict and pushed some of them into combat. Hiring mercenaries, or PMCs, makes sense for the UAE. A country with a low population and large amounts of oil wealth, the UAE depends on foreign labor for nearly every facet of its economy and has now expanded this reliance to include war. American and Australian officers have found post-service positions commanding elements of the Emirati military, including the Presidential Guard.
The unfortunately named PMC Blackwater achieved notoriety after four of its contractors opened fire on a crowd in Baghdad in 2007, killing fourteen. The company and its operations have returned to press attention in recent years as former-President Trump pardoned the contractors for the massacre. Blackwater was since renamed to Xe Operations, then later Academi by founder Erik Prince, brother of Trump’s education secretary, Betsy DeVos. The company has been a continuous presence in Middle Eastern conflicts, a symptom of continued privatization of war.
It is easy to look at recent events in Yemen, Iraq, or Libya and state that two decades of wars in grey zones have irreversibly changed the character and conduct of war. It would also be false. The names of companies may change and the mercenary market fluctuates, but war has long been a private-public venture. From Saudi Arabia’s contracts with Vinnell, now owned by Northrop Grumman, starting in the 1970s to Executive Outcomes in Sierra Leone, mercenaries have consistently found their way onto modern battlefields.
Privatization is a growing but well-established trend in militaries around the world. Putting “boots on the ground” is a phrase best avoided if one wants to be successful in Washington. The same hesitance for casualties that pushed the US to rely increasingly on armed drones is pushing other governments to hire foreign mercenaries.
PMCs offering services abroad are supposed to be regulated but the State Department, which claims to have never licensed a PMC for combat roles. However, the US does not ban mercenaries. As long as one does not engage in treason by joining a military fighting the US, it is legal to join a foreign military. Americans have joined the French Foreign Legion and the Israeli Defense Force. Spear Operations Group is distinguished from its American peers by its use of former, and at times current, US service members in combat roles.
Following the attack on Mayo, Golan decided to fire the French ex-soldiers he had hired and to replace them with an entirely American force. Americans were more expensive, but more effective. Among those who joined in 2016 was Daniel Corbett, a veteran of SEAL Team 6. At the time Corbett joined Spear and went to Yemen, he was still a member of the US Navy Reserve. The legality of his employment in Yemen and the entirety if the operation is decidedly grey.
It is this legal ambiguity that defines most post-modern conflict . Mercenaries are perfectly suited to such conflicts. The changes seen over the past two decades have been in degree and kind, with PMCs often taking over non-combat duties during the War on Terror. As conflicts across the Middle East and the rest of the globe continue to evolve, mercenaries like Golan and Corbett have returned to the roots of the trade: killing for money.
Where companies like Blackwater facilitated the delivery of foreign mercenaries to their employers, Spear Operations Group diverged from the norm by making Americans the trigger pullers. It would not be surprising for others to follow suit. Whether the Biden administration will act to reign in such activities through regulation remains to be seen. The legality is sufficiently ambiguous to make it difficult and it is unlikely Biden’s team will want to draw more attention to American involvement in the Middle East, especially as he attempts to distance the US from the war in Yemen and reign in the Saudis.
Golan claims companies like his are the future of warfare. He is incorrect. Mercenaries never went away. They just changed their name and printed business cards.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and may not reflect the opinions of the St Andrews Economist.
Photo by jamesdale10 under CC BY 2.0