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The disturbing rise of the corporate mercenaries

It’s not too late to rein in these unaccountable armed giants, but we need to act fast

Felip Daza Nora Miralles
6 August 2021, 12.00am
A Tier 1 Group instructor at one of the company's training sites in Arkansas, US
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The Commercial Appeal/ZUMAPRESS.com/Alamy

When the journalist Jamal Khashoggi was assassinated by agents of the Saudi government in 2018, it caused an international scandal. Now, it turns out that his killers were trained in the US. In June, The New York Times reported that four Saudis involved in the killing had received paramilitary training from Tier 1 Group, a private security company based in Arkansas.

This was no renegade operation, however. Tier 1 Group, whose training had approval from the US State Department, is part of a burgeoning global industry. Corporate mercenaries – or, more properly, private security and military companies – are increasingly taking over functions that were once carried out by states, with grave implications for human rights and democracy worldwide. It’s big business, too: Cerberus Capital Management, the private equity fund that owns Tier 1 Group, also owns a string of arms manufacturers. In April 2010, Cerberus merged with DynCorp International, one of the world’s largest corporate mercenary companies.

Mercenaries – soldiers for hire – have existed for centuries, but this new breed is different. The Observatory Shock Monitor, which tracks the impact of privatised war, argues that the corporate mercenaries stand out because of the internationalised, business-like services they provide. These companies are registered in one state but often work in another, offering their services via slick websites and a network of offices and facilities around the world. In the countries where they operate, they employ both foreign and local personnel. And the services they offer go far beyond the traditional role of mercenaries: from acting as security guards and patrolling public spaces, to military combat and operational support, to humanitarian work, clearing landmines or rescuing hostages. In short, they’re a replacement for a whole set of functions traditionally carried out by states, with access to the kind of military equipment that modern armies have at their disposal.

As state security functions have gradually been privatised under neoliberalism, corporate mercenaries have reshaped the way that power is exercised, as well as tapping into a new source of profit.

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Human rights impact

States have increased their reliance on private security contractors not only for international conflicts, but to strengthen their coercive power domestically. Corporate mercenaries have begun to focus on emerging sectors in the field of national security, such as protecting critical infrastructure from terrorism and cyber attacks, managing migration flows, running prisons and detention centres, and policing-like tasks including the ‘neutralisation’ of activists opposing the interests of states and multinationals.

During the recent widespread protests in France, for instance, companies such as Groupe DCI provided training and advisory services for the government’s security forces. Groupe DCI is one of several companies that offers support to riot police in locations as diverse as the US and Bahrain, despite the heightened sensitivity that its deployment may arouse in public opinion.

When activists stand in the way of corporate mercenaries, they can find themselves targeted

Corporate mercenaries have also been instrumental in the US-funded international ‘War on Drugs’, in countries such as Colombia and Mexico. They have provided training, maintenance and logistical support to state forces that are directly and indirectly responsible for human rights violations. They are also increasingly responsible for maintaining public order, performing roles that could typically be those of public security forces. In Cape Town, South Africa, corporate mercenaries such as Professional Protection Alternatives take on the role of police forces, patrolling wealthy neighbourhoods and carrying out operations to evict people from public spaces.

The privatisation of prisons and detention centres has sparked the greatest opposition, because of its impact on human rights. In the US, for instance, the three corporate mercenary companies that dominate the market – CoreCivic, Geo Group and Management and Training Corporation (MTC) – have a long history of complaints about alleged degrading treatment, forced labour, abuse, violence and sexual assault in prisons, correctional facilities, and detention centres holding children and migrants.

Threats from cyberspace

When activists stand in the way of corporate mercenaries, they can find themselves targeted. There are numerous reports of human rights defenders being spied on or even killed by private security companies, with one of the most notorious cases being the plot to murder Berta Cáceres in Honduras, and more examples in Colombia and Brazil. In the US, The Intercept revealed that the security company TigerSwan, on behalf of the firm Energy Transfer Partners, was conducting fraudulent intelligence activities by infiltrating the Standing Rock indigenous and environmental protest movement that opposed the oil pipeline project in North Dakota. Reports produced by TigerSwan were used by the local police, the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security.

Indeed, the privatisation of intelligence has increased since the attacks of 9/11. Tim Shorrock, the author of ‘Spies for Hire: The Secret World of Intelligence Outsourcing’, states that 70% of the US intelligence budget in 2007 was outsourced to security contractors. A year later, an investigation by The Washington Post found that 1,931 private companies were collaborating on national security, counter-terrorism and intelligence tasks from 10,000 US locations.

These services have evolved with the use of new technologies and now also include deployment against threats from cyberspace. Corporate mercenaries supply and maintain software technology and hardware systems; gather data related to national security by intercepting calls, hack mobile phones and IT systems; analyse and systematise data related to national security; produce risk-assessment reports for the military high command; operate reconnaissance drones during protests or in armed conflicts beyond borders; and conduct secret operations that involve illegal activities such as infiltrating social movements or interrogating suspects.

Cyber espionage has thus become a key service offered by corporate mercenaries, who subcontract large armies of hackers and run IT departments within their companies. Hamilton Booz, RSB Group, G4S and Control Risks have all emerged as major corporate players in this field.

Government intelligence agencies contracting from corporations producing surveillance technologies is nothing new. What is unusual is the contracting of specialised staff for intelligence and national security work. In 2019, a former NSA agent uncovered the Raven project, an intelligence unit set up by the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and staffed by cyber-mercenaries, including some previously hired by US intelligence agencies. The Raven project spent years monitoring dissidents and others critical of the Abu Dhabi government, such as British journalist Rori Donaghy, Emirati activist Ahmed Mansoor, and Tawakkol Karman, leader of the ‘Arab Spring’ protests in Yemen.

The need for international regulation

The corporate mercenary industry is strikingly opaque, a fact that has helped its growth worldwide. It limits public scrutiny of both domestic and overseas operations, and reduces the political impact of casualties in conflict zones, since states know that their citizens do not react in the same way to the death of a contractor as to the death of a soldier. One such example is the US air strike of February 2015 in the Deir Ezzor region of Syria. The strike killed hundreds of employees of the Russian corporate mercenary company, Wagner Group, making it the most lethal (if indirect) clash between the US and Russia since the end of the Cold War. Yet Russia, following its usual policy, denied any connection with Wagner and the incident has since been largely forgotten.

Given their size and scope, corporate mercenaries must now be reined in by politicians, and held accountable for their actions by the media, social movements and the wider public. One significant step would be effective international regulation of privatised war and security. Its absence gives corporate mercenaries – and, by extension, the states and multinational companies that hire them – impunity for human rights violations. Even when mercenaries have been convicted of crimes, politicians sometimes step in to exonerate them, as Donald Trump did in December 2020 when he pardoned the former employees of Blackwater, a corporate mercenary company now known as Academi, who were serving prison sentences for the massacre of civilians in Baghdad’s Nisour Square in 2007.

The current regulation relies on weak and non-binding standards, such as the International Code of Conduct for Security Providers and the 2008 Montreux Document, which Russia has not even signed up to. This legal vacuum is a particular threat to human rights defenders in fragile countries where civil and political rights are already restricted. The neoliberal logic of profit over public interest that gave birth to the industry will only make the situation worse, since it leaves states unable to provide economic and social protection to their citizens – thus creating the conditions in which security and military solutions are deemed necessary. People must demand an end to the privatisation of security by stealth, otherwise our safety will end up being sold off to the highest bidder.

This is an edited version of an essay in the Transnational Institute’s State of Power 2021 report: Coercive World

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