On September 11, 2001, British Special Boat Service (SBS) commando Simon Chase (this is not his real name) was in Kabul, Afghanistan with a team of eleven other contractors proving security to Agha Khan IV – the Iman of Nizari Ismailism, which is a denomination of Shia Islam – when the World Trade Center and Pentagon were attacked by al-Qaeda terrorists.
The very next day members of the CIA’s Special Activities Division started to arrive at the Kabul guesthouse where Chase and his colleagues were staying. The director of SAD pulled Chase aside and asked him if he and his men would be willing to join the US effort to drive the Taliban out of power and help destroy al-Qaeda.
He answered, “yes,” and remembers the day as “the exact moment the business turned from private security work to private military.” In Chase’s word, we “exchanged the concealed Glocks and business suit we had previously been wearing for M4s, military gear and armored vests, and returned to our old skills and drills.”
While that was undeniably true for Chase and thousands of other former UK and US soldiers in 2001, private military contractors (PMCs) have played a role in our nation’s wars since the Revolutionary War. In 1777, the French the Marquis de Lafayette purchased a ship, staffed it with a crew of adventures and set sail for America to help fight British colonial rule.
During the twentieth century, as standard military equipment became more technologically advanced, the Pentagon became increasingly reliant on civilian contractors for equipment maintenance and repair. In March 1965 Business Week called the Vietnam War a “war by contract” because of the large number of former military contractors who were hired to service advanced equipment, fly airplanes, and conduct covert operations.
Spending on private contractors continued to increase throughout the 1980s as Western powers become reluctant to get entangled in the increasing number of local conflicts where no national interests were at stake. The collapse of state structures in weak and failing states like Somalia, Haiti, and Sudan led to demands from incumbent regimes, dissidents, NGOs, and even multinational companies for private security and military services.
Following the Cold War, most major powers in Europe and North America made substantial cuts in their defense budgets and privatized or outsourced roles previously fulfilled by their police and military forces – including prison security, immigration control, and airport security. By 9/11 Western militaries were not only smaller in manpower, but also substantially different in terms of organization and composition – concentrating on their core competencies and outsourcing other aspects of their operations to other providers.
Before 9/11, Simon Chase and scores of ex-soldiers like him – especially members of elite groups like the Special Forces, Navy SEALs, and British Special Air Service (SAS) and SBS – made a living guarding foreign dignitaries and high-profile individuals, training special forces in other countries, guarding ships in transit, and providing security to mining and oil and gas companies overseas.
After the attack, they were hired to play more direct military roles as the US and its allies started spending massive amounts of money on the war against terrorism. Tasks that had once been the exclusive purview of the regular army were transferred to private contractors – including static guards, mobile security teams, air assets, recce teams, intelligence gathering, and quick reaction forces. For Chase and other top-tier operators that meant long deployments in the warzones of Afghanistan and Iraq, where he conducted top-secret military operations including going after Bin Laden in 2004. Retired Special Forces Master Sergeant Changiz Ladhiji was hired to train Afghanistan President Karzai’s personal security detail and guard supply convoys in Iraq. Former SEAL Team 6 member Don Mann also worked as a PMC training President Karzai’s personal security detail and conducted top-secret military and intelligence missions in Iraq.
According to a study conducted by the Centre for European Studies, of the $3.7 to $4.4 trillion that the U.S. spent from 2001 to 2011 fighting wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, “undeniably, the services by contractors were a large proportion of the overall cost.”
Ten years after the attacks on New York and Washington, private security and military contracting had blown up into a $100 billion per year global industry. A study on contracting to private military and security companies by the Centre for European Studies concluded, “the PSC sector has become so important that in states as different as the U.S., U.K, India, and Bulgaria, the number of PSC contractors is much greater than the number of employees in the respective state security agencies.” According to the Christian Science Monitor, the US Department of Defense employed 155,826 private contractors in Iraq in the 2008, versus 152,275 actual troops.
To fill the need for private contractors, huge multinational companies sprang up overnight. London-based G4S boasted in 2012 that it was the second-largest private employer in the world, operating in 120 countries, with over 625,000 employees. Its annual revenues swelled from three billion pounds in 2004 to ten billion in 2010. G4S’s closest rival, Securitas AB, based in Stockholm, Sweden had around 300,000 workers spread out over fifty-three countries and an annual revenue of $10 billion in 2012.
US-based private military firms like MPRI – a subsidiary of L-3 Communications – now operates out of forty offices in the US and other countries, and specializes in military training. Its officials boast that it employs more generals (retired) than the U.S. Army has in service. Triple Canopy, founded by former U.S. Special Forces operators and headquartered in Chicago, rose to prominence in 2004 when it secured a U.S. government contract in Iraq valued at $1.5 billion.
Small companies that were once being run out of home offices took up plush suites in London and Washington, hiring former ambassadors, cabinet ministers, and military officers to serve as their CEOs, COOs, and board advisors. Their leaders became a common sight in the corridors of Whitehall and the Pentagon as they advertised their services and lobbied for future contracts.
The reality today is that PMCs play a vital part in the war against terrorism. Wherever US military operations are taking place – Iraq, Kurdistan, Libya, Syria, or Nigeria – you can bet PMCs are somehow involved.