Mercenaries make headlines again

‘Mercenary’ is a dirty word in today’s politically-correct environment;  yet mercenaries – those who fight for money, rather than for loyalty or patriotism or some other ideal – have been around almost since the first armies were organized.  It’s no different in the modern world.  In fact, the USA re-legitimized the entire concept during its wars in Afghanistan and Iraq by employing so-called ‘private military companies‘ and their ‘contractors’.  At the height of the war in Iraq, in 2007, the USA employed more ‘contractors’ than troops in that benighted country.  With the drawdown of US forces, contractors have become more important than ever in those countries.  There are still tens of thousands of them on the payrolls of governments and ‘other organizations’.

Firms such as Blackwater International (later Xe Services, today Academi) became household names as a result, and former members of the armed forces of many nations (particularly the USA and Britain) have found lucrative employment.  I’m informed by former colleagues of mine that at least 6,000 combat-experienced South African ex-servicemen have worked in the ‘sandbox’ over the past dozen years or more.  Many are still there.  Hundreds of them also served in some of the ‘small wars’ that erupted in Africa over the past couple of decades.  The most well-known company involved was Executive Outcomes, which served in Angola and Sierra Leone.  British firm Sandline International was linked to EO, and hired many of its personnel for later ‘campaigns’.

The demand for well-trained, combat-experienced former soldiers grew so great that the companies supplying this market could no longer attract enough suitable candidates.  Therefore, a ‘second tier’ of mercenaries came into being.  These were initially local personnel who had at least some military or security training, and showed greater aptitude than most of their counterparts.  The mercenary companies would hire them, provide better training and equipment than they’d received before, and deploy them as support troops to back up their ‘first-line’ mercenaries.  In due course they expanded their recruiting activities to nations around the world, particularly those still conscripting their citizens for military service.  A time-expired conscript could be given better training and put into service much more easily than a complete novice;  and salaries several times higher than they could earn in their home countries, paid in US dollars into any bank account they chose, anywhere in the world, with no tax deducted and no questions asked, proved an irresistible attraction.  Tens of thousands have joined the throng of ‘contractors’ at work all over the world.

As the first crop of experienced mercenaries began to grow old and/or battle-weary, they had to be replaced;  but most current first-world military servicemen prefer to go home, take their discharges, and enjoy the tax-free combat pay and bonuses they’ve saved up.  Relatively few of them are willing to serve as contractors, even at higher pay.  The need therefore arose to develop the ‘second tier’ mercenaries even further, so they could replace the ‘first tier’ over time.  This process has been under way for almost a decade.  Several of my former military colleagues are hard at work training the ‘second tier’ people, getting them to the point where they’re as effective in combat as the ‘old guard’.  By all accounts it’s been an uphill battle, but they’re seeing greater success over time – particularly as those who aren’t suitable or capable are ‘winnowed’ in combat, which is a great leveler.

I’ve known what’s been going on for many years, but I was reminded of it today by this article in the New York Times.

The United Arab Emirates has secretly dispatched hundreds of Colombian mercenaries to Yemen to fight in that country’s raging conflict, adding a volatile new element in a complex proxy war that has drawn in the United States and Iran.

It is the first combat deployment for a foreign army that the Emirates has quietly built in the desert over the past five years, according to several people currently or formerly involved with the project. The program was once managed by a private company connected to Erik Prince, the founder of Blackwater Worldwide, but the people involved in the effort said that his role ended several years ago and that it has since been run by the Emirati military.

The arrival in Yemen of 450 Latin American troops — among them are also Panamanian, Salvadoran and Chilean soldiers — adds to the chaotic stew of government armies, armed tribes, terrorist networks and Yemeni militias currently at war in the country. Earlier this year, a coalition of countries led by Saudi Arabia, including the United States, began a military campaign in Yemen against Houthi rebels who have pushed the Yemeni government out of the capital, Sana.

It is also a glimpse into the future of war. Wealthy Arab nations, particularly Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the Emirates, have in recent years embraced a more aggressive military strategy throughout the Middle East, trying to rein in the chaos unleashed by the Arab revolutions that began in late 2010. But these countries wade into the new conflicts — whether in Yemen, Syria or Libya — with militaries that are unused to sustained warfare and populations with generally little interest in military service.

“Mercenaries are an attractive option for rich countries who wish to wage war yet whose citizens may not want to fight,” said Sean McFate, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and author of “The Modern Mercenary.”

There’s more at the link.

I’m familiar with this development through the activities of a former colleague of mine, now living in a South American country that I probably shouldn’t name.  He’s been there long enough to have become respected, both by the government’s armed forces and by the ‘guerrillas’ operating in that nation, as someone you really don’t want to mess with.  His primary occupation is to recruit, train and operate a company-size security force for a commercial operation, including providing armed escorts to local and visiting executives who are potential targets for kidnapping and ransom.  He’s been very successful in his work.  He’s a hard man, and ruthless.  I’m told three out of four he’s recruited have been dismissed before completing their training because he didn’t think they were up to scratch, and more than a few have been injured or killed in the process.  His operations against those seeking to disrupt company operations have also caused numerous casualties, not all of whom may have been guilty of any crime.  Nevertheless, in that environment, success covers a multitude of sins . . . and, as almost always in the Third World, life is cheap there.

‘Danie’ (not his real name) tells me that he makes money out of three lucrative ‘side deals’, over and above his salary.  The first is to steer members of his security team to recruiters for international mercenary ‘contractor’ organizations.  When they’ve served him for a few years and proved themselves, as he puts it, ‘the hard way’, he can earn a commission of several thousand dollars per person by referring them to those needing the skills he’s taught them.  By then he’s trained replacements for them, so he can afford to let them move onward and upward – and they usually remain grateful to him for giving them their start, which can be useful further down the road.  (As far as international recruiters are concerned, it’s a bonus if those they’re hiring are from different countries, backgrounds and cultures to the areas where they’ll serve.  They’re less likely to be sympathetic to local groups or tribes, and more likely to stay loyal to the person paying them.)

The second is to offer what we used to call a ‘sheep-dipping‘ service to members of criminal organizations such as the cartels in Mexico.  They’re usually highly trained and experienced in their murderous trade.  Some would like to break away from their criminal past and ‘go straight’;  but their present employers aren’t likely to allow them to simply resign and fade away.  Danie’s built up a network of contacts that lead some of them to him.  In return for a (substantial) cash payment and a few years of service, during which they have to prove themselves to him, he’ll help them to ‘disappear’ from their present countries.  He’ll build on their previous experience, retrain them in his way of fighting (learned in the African bush over many years) and help them forge a new identity as residents of the country where he’s working.  (I’m sure money changes hands with the local bureaucracy to provide new birth certificates, passports, education diplomas, employment histories and so on.)  In due course, once they’ve ‘paid their debt’ to him, he’ll steer them to the international ‘contractor’ organizations, where they can go on to make new lives in another country if they wish, under their new names.  (That way he makes money from them twice;  first in what they pay him, then in commission for referring them to other employers.)

The third way Danie makes money is to provide referrals to former bush war colleagues who are getting old, as he is, and want to get out of front-line mercenary service.  He’s built up a network of contacts in companies and ‘other organizations’ that run (or want to run) their own security operations.  There are many parts of the world where that’s essential, because local security and police forces are either corrupt or totally ineffectual.  In return for a suitable fee (probably from both sides), he’ll introduce his former comrades in arms to people and organizations looking for their skills and experience in senior positions.  The ‘finders fee’ for such people can run into thousands of dollars, because there are a lot of ‘posers’ out there, but not too many who really are what they claim to be.  A solid introduction from a known quantity like Danie is worth money to the right people.

Danie is just one example of the kind of people who are right at home in the often murky waters of the ‘contractor’ world.  There are many middlemen like him, and a few at higher level who are making millions out of the knowledge, skills, organizational abilities and contacts they’ve built up over many years.  Erik Prince is perhaps the best-known example, but there are others.  It’s a difficult environment, one where suspicion, betrayal and intrigue are the order of the day;  but it’s a very lucrative one for those who are prepared to take risks and accept challenges.

The deployment of Latin American mercenaries in Yemen is merely the latest chapter in a tale that’s been going on for a very, very long time.  It’s probably as old as the human race, and probably won’t die out until we all do.



  1. I liked what one of Jerry Pournelle's characters in his novel "Mercenary" called mercenaries: "Military Consultants."

    While there is a large amount of money to be made in the merc trade, it's rather risky if you find yourself on the losing side, as several Americans found when they joined "Mad Dog" Callan at the wall in Angola back in the mid 70s. Alas, for those guys, they weren't even "second tier" mercs. The most highly trained of the bunch had his military service aboard a US Submarine. I'm sure he learned a lot about infantry combat on a Sub.

  2. Lonrho employed significant forces back around 1980. I believe the vast majority of NCOs and officers were foreign trained professional soldiers.
    These days there is greater separation between corporations and security contractors.

    I believe several professional soldiers from Lonrho retired to Costa Rica.

  3. I've heard that many of enlisted and NCO's in the Saudi army are from other Muslim nations (Pakistan, Philipines, Malaysia, etc) and that just the officers are Saudi, and that throughout the Arab world Pakistan is the source of many of the technicians, mechanics, and other skilled workers; in some quarters there is a concern that this provides access for terrorists into those military units and the technologies and equipment they have.

  4. Machiavelli has a whole chapter of "The Prince" devoted to the use of mercs in which he recommends using them in the high-risk positions as they have a better chance of winning and a higher casualty rate which reduces the danger of them changing sides later.

    His recommendations are directly transferable to hiring contractors in private industry to get the tricky jobs done and avoid having to pay people when the project is complete.

    The Prince is the nuts and bolts of an MBA in a single book. The rest is software.

  5. Even a guy who served on a submarine is going to be a couple of steps up on someone who has never been in the military. If I understand the military correctly, discipline counts for a great deal.

  6. Sorry to hear that Latin Americans are being employed against the rebels in Yemen. Because Saudi Arabia made peace with Israel, they are now are 'ally', and now our 'allies' are leading us into all sorts of shit. Kind of like the tail shaking the dog.

  7. The UAE had folks from Triple Canopy, Kroll and Michael Stapleton doing training for their military and Home Guard. There were a fair amount of Brits and Germans in the mix as well. The one Emirate officer wondered if they (contractors)would fight if the UAE ended up in a shooting war. The group I taught was led by an UAE LTCOL and a retired USMC Force Recon NCO acting as a warrant officer. Qatar was similar.

    The Pope is guarded by one of the oldest merc groups, The Swiss Guards.


  8. Change a few terms, and you've described the financial system that operates parallel to official nation state channels, just like the mercenaries operate a military system parallel to official nation state channels. The unofficial financiers have contact with official bankers just like the combat mercenaries have contact with official militaries.

    It seems black markets tend pop up when official markets fail in one area or another.

  9. Chuck, I was in the Navy, a surface type. I also served in the Army later, and the mentality is much, much different. The discipline is entirely different as well. Add in the fact that the men would have barely seen any personal weapons, training, and you get a pretty useless "merc."

    Callan got what he had coming to him. The Submariners were mere dupes that had no business in theater.

  10. Another anon

    Some guesses:

    Columbian troops get $3k per month vs $400 at home. Great incentive to work overseas.

    First world troop cost probably $10k per month, or more.

    Probably several levels of mercenaries, as reflected in the costs.

    Mercenaries don't seem to be going coups as they once did in Africa.

    Many Middle East governments dont trust their own population.

    Due to tribalism and social media body bags from your own population are very unpopular in the Middle East.

    Body guards is probably a lucrative market. And where Danie is placing people due to the fees involved…


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