May 15, 2011

Latest Blackwater Bombshells Target Iran, Arab Spring

They’ve scrubbed and scrubbed and scrubbed. Cleanliness had been pounded into their brains as ex-military - in their bunker or a sensitive area - and a persistent re-branding campaign displays marks of this repetition. Some stains can’t be washed away though, and labels such as Xe, US Training Center, Jellyfish and Reflex Responses remain mere formalities.

No matter how many times Blackwater sheds its skin, its ruler will always find Blackwater underneath.

On May 4th USTC Holdings made waves by announcing its new Independent Director: former U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft. Selected to chair the company’s Subcommittee on Governance, Ashcroft has been tapped to, “focus on the company’s efforts to maximize governance, compliance and accountability, continuing to build and promote the highest degrees of ethics and professionalism within the private security industry.” The hiring provoked ridicule beyond liberal quarters, as the controversial Ashcroft appears a perfect fit for the Blackwater offshoot.

USTC Holdings, LLC, an investor consortium that acquired Xe Services in December 2010, now operates the U.S. Training Center, “a leading provider of training and security services focused on worldwide operations in support of the United States Government and other customers.”

Perhaps in the spirit of corporate competition, Keith Mahoney announced his new offspring the very next day: Jellyfish. As the former director of Total Intelligence Solutions, an early venture with Blackwater founder Erik Prince, Mahoney is now offering patches of Blackwater’s global network to the world’s largest corporations. Jellyfish’s press release headlined, "Operation Jellyfish Takes Intelligence Operatives to Frontlines of Fortune 500 Companies."

"We want to get away from image of guns and guards doing government contracts," says Jellyfish Intelligence president Michael Bagley. "We offer CEOs of Fortune 500 companies advice from the battlefield to the boardroom to make sense of the chaos in places like the Middle East."

After revamping their business model, Blackwater’s business sounds like it’s booming again.

However the more money its tentacles bring in, the more difficult avoiding the spotlight becomes. One must also change below the surface to have a real chance of convincing people, but Blackwater cannot run from what it is. Its members only want to get away from “the image of guns and guards doing government contracts” - not actually get away. Now Prince’s new bubble has been popped by The New York Times, which provides ample documentation of his fledgling army in the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

Nearly a year before the Arab Spring erupted, “a small team of Blackwater and American military veterans” found themselves debating strategy in the lobby of the Park Arjaan by Rotana Hotel. Led by Ricky Chambers, a former FBI agent and confidant of Prince, the team had been tasked to train a foreign battalion for the crown prince of Abu Dhabi, Sheik Mohamed bin Zayed al-Nahyan. The prince needed an off-grid emergency response team, a unit that could foil a terror attack, seize islands from Iran and quell domestic protests at the push of a button.

The other Prince was happy to oblige.

Despite the trouble Blackwater had caused in Iraq and later Afghanistan, Prince never could believe that the U.S. government “threw him under the bus,” as he told Vanity Fair last year. He felt underappreciated. So Prince decided to take every detail into his own hands, a dream that would plot the blueprint for a private army. This army, much like the UAE’s vision, could be summoned by any foreign government (“other customers”) in need of extra muscle, and included a logistic network of air and seacraft. Prince struggled to lift the entire operation off the ground, but he eventually found a willing test subject in al-Nahyan.

Abu Dhabi’s crown prince set Prince up at the aptly named Zayed Military City, a walled desert complex where U.S. and European trainers toiled to mold a functioning battalion. Chambers had previously run an Afghan training program for a Blackwater subsidiary called Paravant, and the new operation started bringing in theater veterans to train foreign ex-military. Colombians, other Latin Americans and South African were drilled by retired U.S. soldiers, British and Germany Special Forces, and the French Foreign Legion.

Adhering to Prince’s law, Muslims soldiers “could not be counted on to kill fellow Muslims.”

In all, Prince received an estimated $529 million from al-Nahyan, along with a substantial quantity of arms and military essentials. For now the battalion itself may be little more than a white elephant. The project already lagged behind schedule by November 2010, leading to a force reduction from 800 to 600, and some Western trainers have quit after realizing they had to fight as well. Although UAE officials have promised to fund a brigade of several thousand, they want to the test battalion prove itself in “a real world mission.”

So far no opportunities have surfaced, but Prince still believes he can secure contracts for additional battalions in order to fund a larger training complex in the UAE. Here he would train units for foreign governments, presumably to deploy against their own people. This must be part of USTC’s pledge to uphold “the highest degrees of ethics.” The New York Times reports that Prince, “knowing that his ventures are magnets for controversy,” has “masked his involvement” in the UAE by working under the code-name “Kingfish.”

Yet his attraction to guns, guards and government contracts is overpowering.

The damage of these leaks will range from moderate to severe, depending on how deep Blackwater sinks into the Arab Spring. The legality of Reflex Responses, formed by Prince in the UAE, remains ambiguous. However Washington will have to deal with the consequences of Prince’s exposure in more than one way, starting with Tehran. al-Nahyan is such a staunch opponent of the Iranian regime that the Obama administration appears to have tacitly approved the program.

“The gulf countries, and the U.A.E. in particular, don’t have a lot of military experience. It would make sense if they looked outside their borders for help,” said one Obama administration official with knowledge of the operation. “They might want to show that they are not to be messed with.”

The pairing of R2, as its members call it, and Jellyfish won’t sit lightly with Iran during the Arab Spring, as the latter was immediately singled out as a private spy agency. It’s hard to think otherwise. As Prince offers up hardened soldiers to the UAE, Mahoney and Bagley are working Wall Street with their image-laundering scheme, offering "over 200 intelligence assets" to prospective clients. These assets supposedly include, “people inside the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, clerical circles in Iran and tribal leaderships on the Pakistani side of the Afghan-Pakistan border region.”

In what could be the scariest part of this shadowy web, Jellyfish believes that, “corporate executives and government bureaucrats still needs someone to help them navigate the brave new world that is dawning after the revolutions in Tahrir Square and the turmoil in countries like Libya and Syria.”

What assets Jellyfish controls within the Egyptian Brotherhood or Iran’s religious circles remains unknown, but this is a disturbing revelation in its own right. Blackwater offers endless fodder for conspiracies, so is Prince offering insider information or could he actually be offering the prospect of influence? It seems impossible that Blackwater has positioned any decision-makers in foreign countries, and this bait is likely nothing more than a lure. Advising Fortune 500 companies during the Arab Spring is bad enough as it is.

Yet one certainty exists to fix onto: Prince will stop at nothing until his power is absolute.

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