The covert war in Iraq
1. Assassinations, Terrorist Strikes and Ethnic Cleansing: Bush's Shadow War in Iraq
The constant sectarian violence in Iraq is not purely of domestic origin -- much of it is directed by covert U.S. and British military: Here is Bush's other war in Iraq.
By Chris Floyd/TruthOut.org
Imagine a city torn by sectarian strife. Competing death squads roam the streets; terrorists stage horrific attacks. Local authority is distrusted and weak; local populations protect the extremists in their midst, out of loyalty or fear. A bristling military occupation exacerbates tensions at every turn, while offering prime targets for bombs and snipers. And behind the scenes, in a shadow world of double-cross and double-bluff, covert units of the occupying power run agents on both sides of the civil war, countenancing -- and sometimes directing -- assassinations, terrorist strikes, torture sessions, and ethnic cleansing.
Is this a portrait of Belfast during "The Troubles" in Northern Ireland? Or a picture of Baghdad today? It is both; and in both cases, one of Britain's most secret -- and most criminally compromised -- military units has plied its trade in the darkness, "turning" and controlling terrorist killers in a dangerous bid to wring actionable intelligence from blood and betrayal. And America's covert soldiers are right there with them, working side-by-side with their British comrades in the aptly named "Task Force Black," the UK's Sunday Telegraph reports.
Last week, the right-wing, pro-war paper published an early valentine to the "Joint Support Group," the covert unit whose bland name belies its dramatic role at the center of the Anglo-American "dirty war" in Iraq. In gushing, lavish, uncritical prose that could have been (and perhaps was) scripted by the unit itself, the Telegraph lauded the team of secret warriors as "one of the Coalition's most effective and deadly weapons in the fight against terror," running "dozens of Iraqi double agents," including "members of terrorist groups."
What the story fails to mention is the fact that in its Ulster incarnation, the JSG -- then known as the Force Research Unit (FRU) -- actively colluded in the murder of at least 15 civilians by Loyalist deaths squads, and an untold number of victims were killed, maimed, and tortured by the many Irish Republican Army double-agents controlled by the unit. What's more, the man who commanded the FRU during the height of its depredations -- Lt. Col. Gordon Kerr -- is in Baghdad now, heading the hugger-mugger Special Reconnaissance Regiment (SRR), a large counter-terrorism force made up of unnamed "existing assets" from the glory days in Northern Ireland and elsewhere.
This despite the fact that a 10-year, $100 million investigation by Britain's top police officer, Lord Stevens, confirmed in 2003 that the Kerr-led FRU "sanctioned killings" through "institutionalized collusion" with both Protestant and Catholic militias during the 1980s and 1990s. Stevens sent dossiers of evidence against Kerr and 20 other security apparatchiks to the Blair government's Director of Public Prosecutions, in the expectation that the fiery Scotsman and the others would be put on trial.
But instead prosecuting Kerr, Blair promoted him: first to a plum assignment as British military attaché in Beijing -- effectively the number two man in all of UK military intelligence, as Scotland's Sunday Herald notes, then, with the SRR posting to Baghdad, where Kerr and his former FRU mates now apply the "methods developed on the mean streets of Ulster during the Troubles," as the Telegraph breathlessly relates.
The Telegraph puff piece is naturally coy about revealing these methods, beyond the fact that, as in Ireland, the JSG uses "a variety of inducements ranging from blackmail to bribes" to turn Iraqi terrorists into Coalition agents. So, to get a better idea of the techniques employed by the group in Baghdad, we must return to those "mean streets of Ulster" and the unit's reign of terror and collusion there, which has been thoroughly documented not only by the exhaustive Stevens inquiries, but also in a remarkable series of investigative reports by the Sunday Herald's Neil Mackay, and in extensive stories by the BBC, the Guardian, the Independent, the Times and others.
We will also see how the operations of the JSG and "Task Force Black" dovetail with U.S. efforts to apply the lessons of its own dirty wars -- such as the "Salvador Option" -- to Iraq, as well as long-running Bush Administration initiatives to arm and fund "friendly" militias while infiltrating terrorist groups in order to "provoke them into action." It is indeed a picture painted in black, a glimpse at the dark muck that lies beneath the high-flown rhetoric about freedom and civilization forever issuing from the lips of the war leaders.
Whacking for the Peelers
Gregory Burns had a problem. He was one of Gordon Kerr's FRU informers planted deep inside the IRA, along with two of his friends, Johnny Dignam and Aidan Starrs. But as Mackay noted in a February 2003 story, the already-partnered Burns had acquired a girlfriend on the side, Margaret Perry, 26, a "civilian" Catholic with no paramilitary ties. Forbidden fruit is sweet, of course -- but pillow talk is dangerous for an inside man. "Burns didn't keep his mouth shut and [Perry] found out he was working for British intelligence," an FRU officer told Mackay. "He tried to convince her he was a double-agent the IRA had planted in the [British] army -- but she didn't buy it."
Burns called his FRU handlers and asked to come in from the cold. He'd been compromised, he said, and now he and his friends needed to get out, with new identities, relocation, good jobs -- the usual payoff for trusted agents when the jig was up. But Kerr refused: "He said [Burns] should silence Perry," the FRU man told Mackay. Burns, panicking at thought of the IRA's horrific retributions against informers, insisted: he would have to kill the woman if they didn't bring him in, he told Kerr. Again Kerr refused.
And so Burns arranged a meeting with his lover, to "talk over" the situation. His friends, Aidan and Johnny, volunteered to drive her there: "On the way, they pulled into a forest, beat her to death and buried her in a shallow grave," Mackay notes. Two years later, when her body was found, the IRA put two and two together -- and slowly tortured Burns and his two friends to death, after first extracting copious amounts of information about British intelligence operations in Ireland.
"In Kerr's eyes, Burns just wasn't important enough to resettle," the FRU source told the Sunday Herald. "So we ended up with four unnecessary deaths and the compromising of British army intelligence officers, which ultimately put soldiers' lives at risk. To Kerr, it was always a matter of the ends justifying the means."
Then again, Kerr could well afford to sacrifice a few informers here and there to the wrath of the IRA's dreaded "security unit" -- because his own, prize double agent was the head of that security unit. Codenamed "Stakeknife," Kerr's man presided over, and sometimes administered, the grisly torture-murders of up to 50 men during his tenure in the IRA's upper ranks. The victims included other British double agents who were sacrificed in order to protect Stakeknife's cover, as the Guardian and many other UK papers reported when the agent's work was revealed in 2003. ("Stakeknife" was later identified in the press as Alfredo Scappaticci -- an Irishman despite the Italian name, although he continues to deny the charge.)
The FRU also "knowingly allowed soldiers, [police] officers and civilians to die at the hands of IRA bombers in order to protect republican double agents," the Sunday Herald's investigations found. As Mackay reports: "FRU sources said around seven police and army personnel died as a result of military intelligence allowing IRA bombs to be placed during Kerr's time in command of the FRU. They estimate that three civilians also died this way, with casualties in the hundreds."
But some of the worst excesses came from the FRU's handling of operatives on the other side, in the fiercely pro-British Protestant militia the Ulster Defense Association (UDA). Here, among the Loyalists, Kerr's top double agent was Brian Nelson, who became head of intelligence for the UDA. As John Ware put it in the Guardian: "Kerr regarded Nelson as his jewel in the crown ... For the next three years [from 1987], Nelson colluded with murder gangs to shoot IRA suspects. Month after month, armed and masked men crashed into homes. Sometimes they got the wrong address or shot the wrong person."
A wrong person like Gerald Slane, a 27-year-old Belfast man shot down in front of his three children. A gun had been found dumped on his property; this, and his Catholicism, was enough to get him assassinated at the order of Kerr's man Nelson. Afterwards, it was found that Slane had no IRA connections.
Another "wrong person" killed by the FRU's agents was the Belfast attorney Pat Finucane, who was shot 14 times in front of his wife and children. Finucane was a civil rights activist who had defended both Catholics and Protestants, but was considered an IRA sympathizer by Loyalists -- and a thorn in the side by British authorities. He was killed at Nelson's order by a fellow FRU informer in the UDA, Ken Barrett, who was convicted of the murder but freed last year as part of an amnesty program in the Northern Ireland peace process. Barrett was unapologetic about his FRU "wetwork" on Finucane. "The peelers [authorities] wanted him whacked," he told a BBC documentary team after his release. "We whacked him and that is the end of the story."
Kerr gave Nelson packages of intelligence files to help facilitate the assassination of UDA targets, including at least four "civilians" with no IRA ties, the Stevens inquiry found. The FRU also obtained "restriction orders" from other British security and military units in Northern Ireland, whereby they would pull their forces from an area when Kerr's UDA agents were going to make a hit there, allowing the killers to get in and get out without hindrance, investigator Nick Davies reports.
Yet the FRU was wary of sharing its own intelligence with other security services -- which was the ostensible reason for running the double-agents in the first place. Instead, Kerr engaged in fierce turf wars with other agencies, while "stovepiping" much of his intelligence to the top circles of the UK government, including the cabinet-level Intelligence Committee chaired by then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Indeed, when Nelson was finally exposed and brought to trial on five counts of conspiracy to commit murder, Kerr testified in his behalf, noting for the court that Nelson's intelligence "product and his reporting was passed through the intelligence community and at a high level, and from that point of view he has to be considered a very important agent."
As one FRU man told Mackay: "Under Kerr's command...the mindset was one of 'the right people would be allowed to live and wrong people should die.'"
This is the "mindset" now operating in the heart of the Green Zone in Baghdad, where the JSG is carrying out -- as we are told in glowing terms -- precisely the same mission it had in Ulster. a unit which has allowed its agents to torture, murder and commit acts of terrorism, including actions that killed local civilians and the soldiers and intelligence operatives of their own country.
The White House Green Light
Of course, Kerr and his Baghdad black-op crew are not alone in the double-dealing world of Iraqi counterinsurgency. The Pentagon's ever-expanding secret armies are deeply enmeshed in such efforts as well. As Sy Hersh has reported ("The Coming Wars," New Yorker , Jan. 24, 2005), after his re-election in 2004, George W. Bush signed a series of secret presidential directives that authorized the Pentagon to run virtually unrestricted covert operations, including a reprise of the American-backed, American-trained death squads employed by authoritarian regimes in Central and South America during the Reagan Administration, where so many of the Bush faction cut their teeth.
"Do you remember the right-wing execution squads in El Salvador?" a former high-level intelligence official said to Hersh. "We founded them and we financed them. The objective now is to recruit locals in any area we want. And we aren't going to tell Congress about it." A Pentagon insider added: "We're going to be riding with the bad boys." Another role model for the expanded dirty war cited by Pentagon sources, said Hersh, was Britain's brutal repression of the Mau Mau in Kenya during the 1950s, when British forces set up concentration camps, created their own terrorist groups to confuse and discredit the insurgency, and killed thousands of innocent civilians in quashing the uprising.
Bush's formal green-lighting of the death-squad option built upon an already securely-established base, part of a larger effort to turn the world into a "global free-fire zone" for covert operatives, as one top Pentagon official told Hersh. For example, in November 2002 a Pentagon plan to infiltrate terrorist groups and "stimulate" them into action was uncovered by William Arkin, then writing for the Los Angeles Times. The new unit, the "Proactive, Pre-emptive Operations Group," was described in the Pentagon documents as "a super-Intelligence Support Activity" that brings "together CIA and military covert action, information warfare, intelligence and cover and deception."
Later, in August 2004, then deputy Pentagon chief Paul Wolfowitz appeared before Congress to ask for $500 million to arm and train non-governmental "local militias" to serve as U.S. proxies for "counter-insurgency and "counterterrorist" operations in "ungoverned areas" and hot spots around the world, Agence France Presse (and virtually no one else) reported at the time. These hired paramilitaries were to be employed in what Wolfowitz called an "arc of crisis" that just happened to stretch across the oil-bearing lands and strategic pipeline routes of Central Asia, the Middle East, Africa and South America.
By then, the Bush Administration had already begun laying the groundwork for an expanded covert war in the hot spot of Iraq. In November 2003, it created a "commando squad" drawn from the sectarian militias of five major Iraqi factions, as the Washington Post reported that year. Armed, funded and trained by the American occupation forces, and supplied with a "state-of-the-art command, control and communications center" from the Pentagon, the new Iraqi commandos were loosed on the then-nascent Iraqi insurgency -- despite the very prescient fears of some U.S. officials "that various Sunni or Shiite factions could eventually use the service to secretly undermine their political competitors," as the Post noted.
And indeed, in early 2005 -- not long after Bush's directives loosed the "Salvador Option" on Iraq -- the tide of death-squad activity began its long and bloody rise to the tsunami-like levels we see today. Ironically, the first big spike of mass torture-murders, chiefly in Sunni areas at the time, coincided with "Operation Lightning," a much ballyhooed effort by American and Iraqi forces to "secure" Baghdad. The operation featured a mass influx of extra troops into the capital; dividing the city into manageable sectors, then working through them one by one; imposing hundreds of checkpoints to lock down all insurgent movements; and establishing a 24-hour presence of security and military forces in troubled neighborhoods, the Associated Press reported in May 2005. In other words, it was almost exactly the same plan now being offered as Bush's "New Way Forward," the controversial "surge."
But the "Lightning" fizzled in a matter of weeks, and the death squads grew even bolder. Brazen daylight raids by "men dressed in uniforms" of Iraqi police or Iraqi commandos or other Iraqi security agencies swept up dozens of victims at a time. For months, U.S. "advisers" to Iraqi security agencies -- including veterans of the original "Salvador Option" -- insisted that these were Sunni insurgents in stolen threads, although many of the victims were Sunni civilians. Later, the line was changed: the chief culprits were now "rogue elements" of the various sectarian militias that had "infiltrated" Iraq's institutions.
But as investigative reporter Max Fuller has pointed out in his detailed examination of information buried in reams of mainstream news stories and public Pentagon documents, the vast majority of atrocities then attributed to "rogue" Shiite and Sunni militias were in fact the work of government-controlled commandos and "special forces," trained by Americans, "advised" by Americans and run largely by former CIA agents. As Fuller puts it: "If there are militias in the Ministry of Interior, you can be sure that they are militias that stand to attention whenever a U.S. colonel enters the room." And perhaps a British lieutenant colonel as well.
With the Anglo-American coalition so deeply embedded in dirty war -- infiltrating terrorist groups, "stimulating" them into action," protecting "crown jewel" double-agents no matter what the cost, "riding with the bad boys," greenlighting the "Salvador Option" -- it is simply impossible to determine the genuine origin of almost any particular terrorist outrage or death squad atrocity in Iraq. All of these operations take place in the shadow world, where terrorists are sometimes government operatives and vice versa, and where security agencies and terrorist groups interpenetrate in murky thickets of collusion and duplicity. This moral chaos leaves "a kind of blot/to mark the full-fraught man and best indued/With some suspicion," as Shakespeare's Henry V says.
What's more, the "intelligence" churned out by this system is inevitably tainted by the self-interest, mixed motives, fear and criminality of those who provide it. The ineffectiveness of this approach can be seen in the ever-increasing, many-sided civil war that is tearing Iraq apart. If these covert operations really are intended to quell the violence, they clearly have had the opposite effect. If they have some other intention, the pious defenders of civilization -- who approve these activities with promotions, green lights and unlimited budgets -- aren't telling.
(Chris Floyd’s work has appeared in print and online in venues all over the world.. He is the author of Empire Burlesque: High Crimes and Low Comedy in the Bush Imperium, and is co-founder and writer/editor of the political blog, Empire Burlesque. He can be reached at email@example.com.)
2. The Business of War
Iraq's Mercenary King
As a former C.I.A. agent, the author knows how mercenaries work: in the shadows. But how did a notorious former British officer, Tim Spicer, come to coordinate the second-largest army in Iraq—the tens of thousands of private security contractors?
By Robert Baer/Vanity Fair
Last spring, in Los Angeles, I met with a producer and a screenwriter who were trolling for a good story to turn into a movie—specifically, a story about a pair of colorful adventurers, maybe mercenaries, who get into serious trouble seeking a fortune in Africa. I wasn't much help. I had spent little time in Africa—only a couple of brief trips to Nigeria and Liberia during my time in the C.I.A. But I promised them I'd ask around when I got to London, a city with more colorful adventurers per block than anywhere else in the world.
I knew my share of them: rogue oil traders, art forgers, exiled presidents, disgraced journalists, arms dealers. There was also the Jordanian prince who had once offered to smuggle me into Ramadi, in Iraq's anarchic Anbar Province, in exchange for 100 sheep. People like these are pretty much the currency of C.I.A. agents.
Tim Spicer at his London home. Photograph by Les Wilson.
In London, the consensus was that if I wanted a good African yarn I needed to talk to Tim Spicer. He knew or could get to every mercenary, adventurer, or promoter who had ever cast a shadow on that continent.
I knew who Spicer was. He'd popped up on the C.I.A.'s radar after he retired from the British Army and went to work, in 1996, as the C.E.O. of Sandline International, a private military company offering "operational support" to "legitimate governments." A year later Spicer was in Papua New Guinea, where he fielded a mercenary army for the government in order to protect a multi-national copper-mining company. After Spicer was expelled, he moved on to Sierra Leone, this time helping to ship arms to coup plotters. Spicer's name resurfaced in 2004 in connection with a putsch aimed at Equatorial Guinea, allegedly led by Simon Mann, his friend, former army colleague, and onetime business associate. Though questioned by British officials, Spicer was not implicated in the incident.
But then, somehow, two months later, Spicer's company, known as Aegis Defence Services, landed a $293 million Pentagon contract to coordinate security for reconstruction projects, as well as support for other private military companies, in Iraq. This effectively put him in command of the second-largest foreign armed force in the country—behind America's but ahead of Britain's. These men aren't officially part of the Coalition of the Willing, because they're all paid contractors—the Coalition of the Billing, you might call it—but they're a crucial part of the coalition's forces nonetheless.
The atrium of Spicer's slick, modern building, near Victoria Station, drinks light. The polished floors, smoked glass, silent elevators, and polite, efficient receptionist put you in mind more of an A-list Hollywood production company than of the lair of a mercenary and arms dealer. I thought I knew what Spicer was after: to clean up his past, achieve respectability.
Still fit and agile at 54, Spicer stood up behind his desk and walked across the office to shake my hand. The lime cardigan sweater, a desk piled with files and books, the French bulldog asleep in the corner—it all proclaimed that Spicer hadn't quite settled into his new role as a C.E.O. He's a field man at heart, more comfortable on the front lines of some war—at the "sharp end," as he puts it.
Spicer liked the idea of a movie about Africa. He mentioned the names of a couple of friends, old Africa hands, whose stories might contribute the spine of a plot. Most of them lived in South Africa. He proposed half a dozen locations where a pair of adventurers could get into particularly serious trouble, from the Congo to Mali. I suspected that talking about Hollywood was a welcome diversion for Spicer, given how badly things were going in Iraq.
Spicer and I had a lot in common. We had both spent much of our lives in the back of beyond, serving governments that preferred not to have to acknowledge us. We both left government service at a relatively young age and were tempted back into the same shadowy world we had come from, trying to sell a set of skills that weren't especially useful anywhere else.
We talked a little about spy fiction, agreeing that other than le Carré the genre was thin. I happened to have with me a copy of John Banville's The Untouchable, a fine novel loosely based on the Cambridge Five spy ring. Spicer copied down the title. He spent his life on planes these days and had a lot of time to read.
As I walked back to Victoria Station, I couldn't help wondering how Spicer had ascended so quickly from notorious mercenary to corporate titan. What had he done to wangle that fat Iraq contract from the Pentagon? Serving 20 years with the British military in the toughest parts of the world was certainly one qualification. So was being smart, connected, and personable. But how had he overcome the taint of Sierra Leone and Papua New Guinea, two scandals indelibly attached to his name? Apparently the Pentagon had decided that an Africa hand could do in Iraq what the American military couldn't: subdue the most xenophobic and violent people in the Middle East. But that was the problem. Iraq isn't Africa. Iraqis shoot back.
Frankly, I have always had my doubts about private military contractors. A few days after Baghdad fell, in 2003, I was in Iraq working as an adviser to ABC News. It was a time when Iraq was still wide open and you could pretty much go where you wanted to. I persuaded ABC to send me to Awjah, Saddam Hussein's natal village, a few miles south of Tikrit. Awjah was where Saddam drew his inner circle from (and it is where he is buried). It was his refuge when things were going badly. I thought Awjah's reaction to Saddam's fall would be a good story.
ABC arranged for a Suburban and a driver. Although I didn't see the need—I speak Arabic and had worked in Iraq before—ABC also insisted that a security escort go with me. The escort turned out to be a former British military officer. He was a pleasant enough fellow, but he didn't speak Arabic and had been in the country only a week.
Except for the occasional armor column moving north, there was almost no traffic on the main Baghdad-Tikrit road. Every once in a while, a low-flying F-16 shook the car. At the intersection with the road to Awjah we stopped and asked an army patrol if it was safe to drive into the village. The soldier didn't know; the army had bypassed Awjah. We would be on our own.
By the time we came around a bend and saw the roadblock manned by half a dozen armed men in kaffiyehs, it was too late to turn back. The driver, a Shiite, was in a cold sweat. Just the name Awjah struck fear in him—it was the heart of Sunni country, the monster's lair.
One of the men stuck a shotgun in the driver's face and asked who the hell we were. You could see these people wanted blood. It wasn't a surprise. They probably were all related to Saddam. The U.S. had just deposed the man who had kept them safe and prosperous for the last 35 years. Our British security escort wondered if it wouldn't be a good idea to show them our Jordanian press cards. No: that would actually be a very bad idea. The cards would identify us as Americans.
Instead, I stuck my head out the window and yelled in Arabic, "We're French. It's not our damned war." The man lowered his shotgun and let us pass.
That benign little ruse would do no good at all today; the situation is too far gone. Now anyone with the misfortune to have business outside the Green Zone travels in an armored car with heavily armed private military escorts. One of their tactics has been to shoot first and ask questions later, and Iraqis have referred to some of these contractors as "black death." Some of them have been accused of shooting Iraqis for sport.
In November of 2005 a disgruntled Aegis ex-employee posted a so-called "trophy video" on the Internet depicting Aegis contractors—Tim Spicer's men—shooting at Iraqis in civilian cars. In one sequence, the Aegis team opens fire with an automatic weapon at an approaching silver Mercedes. The Mercedes rams a taxi, sending the taxi's occupants running. In another sequence, an Aegis employee fires at a white sedan, running it off the road. Elvis Presley's "Mystery Train" provides the soundtrack. Aegis subsequently conducted an investigation and concluded that the actions represented "legitimate operations" undertaken in compliance with the rules of engagement. Aegis argued further that the video was "taken out of context" and noted that there was no evidence that civilians had been killed. The Pentagon looked into the video and declined to take further steps.
According to a February 2006 Government Accountability Office report, there were approximately 48,000 private military contractors in Iraq, employed by 181 different companies. There may now be many more. These are the kinds of people Tim Spicer and Aegis are supposed to coordinate. The bulk of the military contractors are American and British, with a sprinkling of other nationalities. Formal oversight is lax, to put it mildly. Many are retired from elite units such as the British Special Air Service or the U.S. Special Forces. According to a report in The Economist, a former British official who now heads a trade association for private military companies estimates that mercenaries are Britain's largest export to Iraq. Not food, medicine, or construction material—mercenaries.
No one planned for a private army of this size. Like most things in the Iraq war, it just happened. After the Iraq National Museum was looted, in April of 2003, and even four months later, after the U.N. headquarters was destroyed by a car bomb, the Pentagon assumed it was dealing with garden-variety crime and terrorism—nothing a good whiff of grapeshot couldn't quell. With U.S. forces stretched thin, why not let private military contractors deal with routine security? They could protect the coalition offices, the supply shipments, the embassies, and also the reconstruction teams, the journalists, the U.N. workers, and the aid organizations. After all, guns for hire in Afghanistan had been keeping Hamid Karzai alive.
As the security situation deteriorated and the insurgency became more sophisticated, the contractors were forced to adapt, operating as small military units, carrying automatic weapons and rocket launchers, and traveling in convoys of heavily armored S.U.V.'s. Their tactics included driving at 90 miles an hour or more and shooting at any vehicle that appeared to be a threat. In some cases, military contractors fought pitched battles. Today, when they get in trouble, contractors can call on help in the form of military air support or a quick-reaction force.
Who are these contractors? Watch the passengers in Dubai waiting for flights to Kabul and Baghdad and you'll get an idea. Half of them are fortysomething, a little paunchy, their hair thinning. They haven't done a pull-up or run an obstacle course in 20 years. You have to suspect that many are divorced and paying alimony, child support, and mortgages on houses they don't live in. The other half, in their late 20s and early 30s, have been enticed into leaving the military early, quadrupling their salaries by entering the private sector. They bulge out of their T-shirts, bang knuckles, shoulder-bump. They can't wait to get into the action.
The mercenaries crowd the duty-free counters buying boxes of Cuban Cohiba cigars and bottles of Jack Daniel's—nights on mortar watch can be very long. There's no doubt they can afford it. Men with service in an elite military unit have been known to make up to $1,500 a day. More typically a Western military contractor will earn $180,000 a year. Depending on the contract, benefits can include a hundred days of leave, kidnapping insurance, health insurance, and life insurance.
Iraq is not exactly a place you'd want to call home, but after a tough day on Baghdad's bloody streets there's always the Green Zone, an air-conditioned trailer, a Whopper, and an iced latte. Other than the very real threat of getting killed, the only cloud on the horizon is having your job outsourced. As private security companies have learned how to do business in Iraq, they also have figured out how to reduce costs, often by hiring less expensive help. Chileans, Filipinos, Nepalese, and Bosnians come a lot cheaper. Almost three dozen former Colombian soldiers are suing Blackwater USA, one of the largest private military companies in Iraq, for breach of contract. According to the Colombians, Blackwater at the last minute reduced their rate of pay to $34 a day. It's virtually slave labor compared with what a Brit or an American gets.
Spicer of Arabia
If you look at Tim Spicer's military career and his subsequent years as a mercenary, you won't be surprised that he has thrived in Iraq's Mad Max world of military contractors and easy money.
Born in 1952 in Aldershot, England, Spicer followed his father into the army, attending Sandhurst and then joining the Scots Guards. He applied to the S.A.S., Britain's elite commando force, but failed the selection course. Spicer saw his first combat in 1982, when he was pulled off guard duty at the Tower of London and sent to the Falkland Islands. He took part in the Battle of Mount Tumbledown, which led to the capture of Stanley, the capital; he likes to play up his sangfroid, recounting how before the battle he had hoped to enjoy a good cigar (unfortunately the cigar had been damaged). Spicer would serve in two other foreign wars, with British forces in the 1991 Gulf War and with the U.N. in Bosnia.
During a posting in Northern Ireland in 1992, Spicer experienced his first taste of public controversy when two soldiers under his command shot an unarmed teenage father of two in the back, killing him. The soldiers were tried, convicted of murder, and imprisoned for life. However, as part of a murky deal at the time of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, the soldiers were released. Spicer successfully argued for their return to their unit. In November 2006 the mother of the murdered teenager threatened to explore legal action against the British government unless Spicer's company was barred from other British-government contracts in war zones.
Spicer retired from the army in 1995, soon enough hanging out his shingle as a gun for hire, continuing a long tradition of British military officers who return to the colonies to make their fortune, or at least to compensate for a lean retirement. His friend Simon Mann introduced Spicer to Tony Buckingham, another former British military officer, with whom Mann had founded a security consultancy firm called Executive Outcomes in the early 1990s. According to Spicer's autobiography, upon meeting, Buckingham asked Spicer if he had any interest in setting up what would later become known as a private military company.
Spicer is led to court in Papua New Guinea in 1997. Hired to protect a copper mine, he and his associates ran afoul of the local military. By Rick Rycroft/AP Photo.
Ayear later, in 1996, with Buckingham's backing, Spicer started Sandline International, advertising its services as "special forces rapid reaction." The exact relationship between Sandline and Executive Outcomes has been unclear in press accounts, but Spicer has reportedly admitted that they were "closely linked." Sandline's first contract, in 1997, was with the government of Papua New Guinea, which wanted a mercenary force to protect a copper mine in Bougainville, in a rebellious part of the country. The deal fell apart when the P.N.G. Army found out that Sandline was being paid $36 million for a job the army thought it should be doing. The government was overthrown in a coup, and Spicer was arrested and brought before a military inquiry. He was eventually released and successfully sued Papua New Guinea for moneys owed.
With notoriety apparently not an impediment, in 1998 Spicer landed another contract involving Sierra Leone, this time helping ship 30 tons of Bulgarian arms to forces backing Ahmed Tejan Kabbah, the president in exile. At the time, Sierra Leone was under a U.N. embargo. When Spicer's activities became public, the "Arms-to-Africa" scandal reverberated through British politics, implicating Tony Blair's government. Spicer claimed to have told certain British officials all along the way about the arms shipment, allowing him to make the case later that there had been implicit British-government approval.
One thing you notice from his career is that Spicer has a flair for self-promotion, a skill he says he started to pick up by observing the press during the Vietnam War. After the Gulf War, Spicer served as military aide to the former British commander General Sir Peter de la Billière. Spicer reportedly persuaded British Airways to comp tickets on the Concorde for de la Billière, himself, and their wives to attend the postwar parade in New York. In Bosnia he served as the press attaché to General Sir Michael Rose, the commander of U.N. forces. Spicer is openly fascinated by Lawrence of Arabia, once pausing with an interviewer in front of Lawrence's motorcycle, in the Imperial War Museum.
In an attempt to burnish his reputation, Spicer paid a publicist, Sara Pearson, to arrange for his autobiography to be ghostwritten. Though largely ignored, An Unorthodox Soldier (1999) gave Spicer a platform to make the case that in Papua New Guinea and Sierra Leone he was working for legitimate governments. Companies like his, he argued, do have a place in the modern comity of nations. Spicer also made clear what he thinks of people who disparage men like himself but have never seen a shot fired in anger: "the gutless, the boring and the useless who pontificate and cower.… I feel sorry for them—they've never been to the edge and looked over. They'd be better off if they did."
Spicer doesn't like the term "mercenary" or "gun for hire," picturing himself rather as a 19th-century British adventurer, fighting on the side of civilization. There's more than a little of Flashman in Spicer. He cultivates a playboy image, driving an Aston Martin, dating beautiful women, and living in a mansion in South London. His annual compensation at Aegis has been estimated to be as high as $20 million. At the inquiry in Papua New Guinea, he was seen carrying what appeared to be a biography of Ian Fleming, the creator of James Bond. But Spicer has said that in fact under the dust jacket was a biography of General Vo Nguyen Giap, the Vietnamese Communist who masterminded the siege of Dien Bien Phu. One of Aegis's investors is Spicer's friend the novelist Frederick Forsyth, who wrote the classic mercenary novel The Dogs of War. You pick it up, read a few pages, and know exactly where it's going. The mercenaries are all intelligent and reserved, with square jaws and chiseled features. They've won the hard-earned respect of the natives and are prepared to give up their lives for African rebels who seek only to restore democracy and obtain a fair price for their countries' mineral wealth.
By 2000, the military-security business was in the doldrums. An unsettling amount of peace had broken out around the world, and the demand for mercenaries fell off sharply. For the next few years, Spicer's business activities seem to have been in some flux. A rough chronology can be ascertained from press accounts. (Spicer's company would not comment.) Spicer left Sandline in late 1999, and the next year launched Crisis and Risk Management. In 2001 he changed the company's name to Strategic Consulting International, and also set up a partner firm specializing in anti-piracy consulting, called Trident Maritime. In 2002, Spicer established Aegis Defence Services, which around the beginning of the Iraq war was consulting for the Disney Cruise Line. As Aegis grew, Spicer brought on a number of retired British generals, including Major General Jeremy Phipps, who had led the S.A.S. rescue of the Iranian Embassy hostages in London, in 1980, and Field Marshal Lord Inge, a former chief of the Defence Staff. He also brought on Ronald Reagan's former national-security adviser Robert McFarlane, best known for his involvement in the Iran-contra controversy.
Spicer in Iraq. His company, Aegis Defence Services, coordinates security for reconstruction projects and other contractors. By Jon Swain/The Sunday Times Magazine/nisyndication.com.
After U.S. forces took Baghdad, in April of 2003, Aegis, like every other private military company in the world, set out to elbow its way in. The pot of gold was the $18.4 billion reconstruction fund. And that money was in all likelihood just the beginning. If Iraq could be stabilized, there was the prospect of an oil boom such as the world had rarely seen.
Two things happened which, together, led to Spicer's big break. The first occurred in March of 2004, when four Blackwater contractors were ambushed and murdered in Fallujah. The Pentagon knew it couldn't dispense with military contractors, but it now had leverage to make them play by the military's rules. Henceforward, contractors would keep the military informed of their movements. They would also carry transponders, allowing the military to locate them in an emergency. What the Pentagon needed was a single military contractor to manage the new regime.
Spicer saw an opportunity after former colleague and British Army brigadier general Tony Hunter-Choat became the head of security for the Coalition Provisional Authority's Program Management Office—the office that set out the terms for what would become the Aegis contract. Hunter-Choat and Spicer had served together in Bosnia. And, like Spicer, Hunter-Choat had had a colorful military career, including fighting with the French Foreign Legion in Algeria in bygone days. Leading up to the Iraq war, Hunter-Choat provided personal security for the Aga Khan. Hunter-Choat's deputy, James Ellery, another former British general, now sits on the Aegis board.
In May of 2004 the contract for coordinating private military companies in Iraq was awarded to Aegis, which managed to beat out five other corporate bidders. One of the competitors, DynCorp International, protested, arguing that Aegis's bid had been more than $80 million higher than DynCorp's. The protest went nowhere.
Tim Spicer was now a big fish in a big pond. Aside from running a new Reconstruction Operations Center—a war room that tracks and coordinates security contractors moving around Iraq—and six satellite offices, Aegis also set up 75 security teams, and it serves as an information clearinghouse for security contractors. Aegis decides who can go where in Iraq. If a security detail is ambushed, Aegis coordinates with the military to call in air attacks and ground support. Apparently to cement his new status as the primus inter pares of Iraqi security companies, Spicer set up the Aegis Foundation, to deliver "low-cost, high-impact community development projects to people who live in, or have suffered from, global conflict areas"—a private humanitarian-relief fund. The message, one supposes, is that Aegis is not in Iraq just for the money.
Typically, Spicer also reached out to the press, making the case that Aegis was not really a mercenary army. In October of 2005 he led Jon Swain, of the London Sunday Times, on a tour of Aegis operations in Iraq. "We are not trying to fight a war," he told Swain. "There are others equipped and paid to do that. We can fight if necessary, but our whole ethos if we are attacked is to return fire and back off. We are not war-fighting people. If we are escorting a client, our job is to run."
"Those Were the Days"
The scramble into Iraq has led to the recruiting of hired guns who definitely shouldn't be there. Last December a small caravan of what looked to be Western mercenaries pulled up to a jail inside the Green Zone and sprang one of the prisoners, a former Cabinet minister accused of misusing about $2 billion. The Iraqi ex-minister also happened to be an American citizen.
Finding the right personnel can pose a problem. Hart Security, a private military company with roots in South Africa, recruited many of its contractors from the ranks of the apartheid-era South African army, among the most ruthless counter-insurgency forces ever known. One of Hart's men was Gray Branfield, a former covert South African operative who spent years assassinating leaders of the African National Congress. After Branfield was killed, in Kut during the 2004 uprising of the Mahdi Army, and his history became public, Hart Security said it had been unaware of his past. When I queried the company about Branfield recently, a spokesperson explained that he had been hired "through a subcontractor."
The private military company Erinys also had a South Africa problem. In 2004 an Erinys subcontractor, François Strydom, was killed by Iraqi insurgents. It turned out that Strydom was a former member of the notorious Koevoet, an arm of apartheid South Africa's counter-insurgency campaign in what is now Namibia. There have been press reports of a link between Erinys Iraq and Ahmad Chalabi (the onetime head of the Iraqi National Congress, which was a conduit for the fabricated intelligence used to justify the Iraq war), which both Erinys Iraq and Chalabi deny. After securing an $80 million contract to guard Iraq's oil infrastructure in 2003, Erinys did hire many of the soldiers from Chalabi's U.S.-trained Free Iraqi Forces as guards. Chalabi himself eventually became acting oil minister. He was probably not the best custodian of Iraq's national treasure. (Among other things, in 1992 he had been convicted in Jordan of defrauding the country's Petra Bank of at least $30 million.) His foot soldiers were not all that trustworthy, either. When I was in Iraq with Chalabi in the mid-1990s, he was trying to sell his army to Washington as an insurgent force that, properly equipped, could one day march on Baghdad. It was nonsense. When the Kurds took on Saddam's V Corps north of Kirkuk in March of 1995, overrunning three Iraqi divisions, Chalabi's men sat out the fighting.
I wasn't surprised that Chalabi's army never morphed into Delta Force. An F.B.I. official recently back from Iraq told me that agents billeted next to Chalabi's mercenaries (now no longer employed by Erinys Iraq) had had a real problem with them. They were stealing everything, from F.B.I. computers to batteries for helicopters.
In an odd but lethal twist, it came out last November that the rogue K.G.B. agent Alexander V. Litvinenko had visited the London office of Erinys shortly before his death, by means of radiation poisoning, leaving behind traces of polonium 210.
Step anywhere inside the world of private military companies and you're suddenly in a demimonde where everything seems connected to everything else. When retired general Jay Garner arrived in Iraq in April of 2003 to become the country's civilian administrator, he hired two former South African commandos as part of his security detail. They were known to Garner only as Lion and Louwtjie, and they worked for a company called Meteoric Tactical Solutions. (Where do they get these names?) After Garner was replaced by Paul Bremer, the two commandos went to work for Bernard Kerik, the former New York police commissioner, whom Bremer had brought in to create an Iraqi police force. Under a $600,000 contract, Meteoric agreed to provide Kerik's protection and to help train the police.
So it came as something of a surprise when, in March of 2004, Lion and Louwtjie were arrested in Harare, Zimbabwe, along with Tim Spicer's friend and associate Simon Mann. They had been preparing to collect 61 Kalashnikov rifles, 45,000 rounds of ammunition, and 150 grenades, and then to fly it all, together with 65 mercenaries, into Equatorial Guinea and overthrow the government.
Equatorial Guinea, on the Bight of Biafra, is run by Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, one of the most corrupt and bizarre leaders in the world. He has been accused of eating his opponents. To be sure, his predecessor and uncle, Francisco Macias Nguema, was no better. In 1975, after a failed coup attempt, the elder Nguema had his Moroccan palace guards shoot 150 accused conspirators in a soccer stadium, while the palace band played "Those Were the Days." The country's location in the armpit of Africa is all too apt. But among a certain stratum of operatives, Equatorial Guinea has long represented a kind of unholy grail—the subject of wistful, late-night "What if?" conversations. The idea of overthrowing the government there is tempting for two reasons. First, on a per capita basis Equatorial Guinea produces more oil than Saudi Arabia. Second, Equatorial Guinea has no military to speak of—nothing a lightly armed mercenary force couldn't take care of. Unfortunately for Lion and Louwtjie, the coup plans were an open secret, and South Africa tipped off Nguema just as the coup got under way.
When Garner was asked in an NPR interview about Lion and Louwtjie's arrest, he said he didn't see the significance. "Did it surprise me? No, because the guys are in that kind of work, and they're tough guys." Garner went on to compare fighting the Iraq war to playing football. "It was a game of audibles," he said. "And every day you walked up to the line of scrimmage there and you looked down to see what was across the line of scrimmage. You called a few audibles and changed it."
Whose Side Are They On?
It's easy to imagine how a young man in Fallujah, where the unemployment rate is now perhaps 70 percent, views private military contractors. They arrive in the form of an armored GMC Suburban, with smoked windows, bearing down at high speed. The closest thing to a visible human being is the turret gunner. But in his Kevlar helmet and blue-mirrored wraparound Oakleys, the gunner doesn't seem all that human. The young Iraqi knows that the gunner makes more money in a year than he will in a lifetime, that he is effectively immune from prosecution, and that he won't hesitate to shoot if people don't get out of the way fast enough.
One of the first things on the new Democratic agenda in Congress will be to get a grip on military contractors. The question is: How tight will that grip be? A five-word change in a federal provision, slipped into recent Pentagon legislation, has the effect of bringing contractors for the first time under the Uniform Code of Military Justice. (Up to now, as one industry newsletter has noted, "not one contractor of the entire military industry in Iraq has been charged with any crime.") We'll see what happens. Private military companies—companies providing security in the field—make up a $30-billion-a-year industry globally, and with all the lobbying clout that comes from that kind of money, getting any kind of grip won't be easy. And the mercenaries have many friends, who move in and out of government. The current deputy director of the C.I.A., Steve Kappes, came from ArmorGroup, a private military company that has security contracts in Iraq. Before Kappes was at ArmorGroup, he was at the C.I.A. Cofer Black, a former counterterrorism chief at the C.I.A. and then the coordinator for counterterrorism at the State Department, with ambassadorial rank, left to become the vice-chairman of Blackwater, which does much of its business in Iraq. The pieces all fit a little too snugly.
Iraq will wind down one day, and America and Britain will pull out. Tim Spicer talks bravely about how private military contractors will stay and finish the job, but Aegis and the other companies won't in fact be running the show. Some will be racing the troops to the Kuwaiti or Jordanian border. Others, especially in the relatively stable North and South, will stay on, living off the oil industry and worming their way into local business opportunities, not all of them on the sunny side of the street. Spicer and his caste of ex-soldiers turned mercenaries will never be out of work. There will always be wars in obscure places, where we won't or can't send our own soldiers, either because the military is too small or the political fallout is too large. You really want to do something about places like Rwanda and Darfur? Who are you going to call?
Last year Cofer Black addressed a convention of mercenaries in Jordan, and he floated a plan to create a full-size Blackwater brigade, ready to be deployed virtually anywhere, for a price. "It's an intriguing, good idea from a practical standpoint because we're low-cost and fast," Black explained. "The issue is: Who's going to let us play on their team?"
(Robert Baer is a former C.I.A. officer. His most recent book is Blow the House Down, a novel.)