Mercenaries in Yemen: Nationalities, numbers & horrors
American. French. Sudanese. German. Colombian. Yemeni. Eritrean. You name it.
It’s the twenty-first century. Corporates have armies. With as little as a few ID papers and almost no governmental regulation, you can take up state-of-the-art arms and be sent to a war that’s not your war, not your battle, and kill people whose names you can barely pronounce. The trade offer? You receive some $10,000 a week. That’s $40,000 a month. That’s more than 30x the American minimum wage for some honest work. You need not read some Veronica Roth, because we’re already living in a dystopian novel.
Let’s address the word “mercenaries.” In the very far away bureaucratic world of secret operations where sharp terms are smoothed down (recalling comedian George Carlin’s usage of post-traumatic stress disorder as a euphemism for shell-shock!), “mercenaries” is a taboo word. Instead, they’re called special forces to drive people away from the clandestine, underground nature of foreign soldier recruitment. An ancient ‘job’ dormant since the Middle Ages, the United States revived the mercenary industry with Bush’s War on Terror, and continued the venture into the UAE and Saudi-led war on Yemen, and now in Ukraine.
Putting Saudi Arabia aside for now – UAE is the perfect orbit state for Washington. With a population of only 1 million with a total of 9 million expatriates, Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan does not want to risk it all for a wealthy population that can barely manage a home without housemaids – the UAE is largely operated by foreigners rather than locals. So how was the UAE going to fight this war? An army operated by foreigners – namely US lieutenants and colonels and allies.
But why mercenaries? One reason is numbers. There was no way MBZ was going to send soldiers from his local population of 1 million to war. A foreign population, however, is cost-effective, could be bought in abundance, and will guarantee to prolong the war - especially if major terrorists like ISIS are on the ground.
Another reason is accountability. Because mercenaries operate outside the scope of direct military command – or, at least that’s what we know – Abu Dhabi benefits from zero accountability. Mercenaries can kill, maim and commit other war crimes with no investigation from a legitimate governmental body. They’re bought and sold like a commodity, where corporates, on the long run, can transform into superpowers like states in the new world.
A third reason would be, as an ex-Navy SEAL – Erik Prince – once said: Muslim soldiers could not be counted on to kill fellow Muslims. Sending Muslim soldiers, Emirati or Saudi, to kill Yemenis will bear a conflict of interest.
The Yemeni armed forces and the Popular Committees in Yemen can testify to witnessing American, Australian, Sudanese, Colombian, Eritrean, and even Yemeni mercenaries, working for Gulf and US interests in Yemen. Some were recruited out of ignorance and poverty, others were recruited out of coercion and deception, and many bear arms for major cash.
Erik Prince is a former US Navy SEAL who was behind the revival of the private security industry.
He also calls himself ‘Kingfish.’
Notoriously known for Blackwater and his involvement in the Iraq War, he established another private military company called Reflex Responses – or R2 – after he sold Blackwater to investors as an escape from controversy. The UAE secretly hired both companies, Blackwater and R2, to go to Yemen.
Blackwater, which has massacred scores of Iraqis and is despised in Iraq more than the US soldiers themselves, has taken pride in employing Colombians and other Latin American military personnel, from soldiers to commanders.
But, why did MBZ’s private army, a project originally launched by Blackwater, consist mostly of Colombians?
As Professor of Strategy at the National Defense University Sean McFate put it, think of the private military industry as the t-shirt industry. In America, it costs 20$ to make, but in Bangladesh, it costs 1$ to make.
Colombian mercenaries are not only cheap, but they are also trained by Washington and are more violent and rigorous than others given they are hardened by guerrilla warfare in Latin America.
The UAE hired 1,800 Colombians on the ground and tripled and quadrupled their salaries.
“They’re pretty tough warriors in my experience,” McFate said. “They obey chain of command, and they have American training.
“When you take them out of Latin America and put them in the Middle East, they have no sort of political affiliation to any Middle Eastern action or country, so they’re just truly loyal to their paymaster. So they got a lot of Latin American ex-special soldiers in Abu Dhabi. Then, as the Emirates went to war with Saudi Arabia in Yemen, that’s when the Emirates deployed these mercenaries into Yemen to kill Houthis. And they did. And now we have mercenary warfare in Yemen almost like it’s the Middle Ages again.”
Under the guise of construction workers, Colombian mercenaries became part of an American mercenary army, led by Erik Prince, who scored a $529 million budget from the UAE to create a monster.
“That is to me a pretty crazy part of the evolution of the mercenary business model that was taken from Erik Prince developing it in the US then exporting it to Abu Dhabi – then, all of the sudden, there are Colombians dying in Yemen. It’s hard to track,” said McFate.
Spear: A Delaware-based firm with an Israeli touch
“Give me your best man and I’ll beat him. Anyone,” said Abraham Golan, the Israeli-Hungarian owner of Spear Operations Group that has also operated in Yemen to commit targeted assassinations.
Golan was able to convince, over spaghetti and maybe some wine, the security advisor to MBZ that hiring his security company would be more effective than his own army – and, it worked.
On December 29, 2015, a group of mercenaries from the Delaware-based military firm planted a bomb in the Islah political party headquarters in Aden, Yemen. Escorted by UAE military vehicles front and back, one of Golan’s mercenaries, Isaac Gilmore (also an ex-Navy SEAL and Delta Force veteran), jumps from the vehicle, fires bullets at civilians around the block, as his comrade rushes to plant the explosive device just under the building. With an Emirati soldier behind the wheel, the SUV zooms off as soon as the deed is done.
The group that Golan and Gilmore pieced together was a 12-man army, mostly consisting of former French legion officers and ex-US soldiers. The French officers were paid half of what Golan intended to pay – around $10,000 a month – which was even less than half of their American counterparts, a testimony to the commodification of military personnel and ‘market’ value.
The assassination plot to kill Anssaf Ali Mayo, a leader of the conservative Islah party in Yemen, was plotted out over spaghetti at a UAE military base with MBZ’s security advisor and ex-Fatah member, Mohammed Dahlan.
Dahlan fell from grace when he was accused of collaborating with the CIA and “Israel” – and that’s exactly what he did as he sat with Gilmore and Golan. The MBZ security advisor has his hands in a lot of political mess.
A report by Al-Khaleej Online in 2018 exposes Dahlan’s complicity in holding secret training camps in occupied Palestine.
The secret training camps, which held hundreds of Nepalese and Colombian mercenaries, were situated in the Naqab desert in occupied Palestine, where the geological nature of the region looks synonymous with that of Yemen.
Dahlan personally supervised the training and made regular visits and check-ups.
"Mohammed Dahlan visited these camps on more than one occasion to be informed," sources revealed to Al-Khaleej Online. Dahlan was filled in on the progress of the preparations, in addition to the mercenaries’ training.
And by the way, the Aden operation failed.
The price of Washington lip service? The blood of young Sudanese men
There were two ways through which young Sudanese – even minors under 18 – got recruited to Yemen. By force and deception, and by Omar Al Bashir’s thirst for power.
Estimates and reports suggest that up to 15,000 Sudanese mercenaries were fighting in Yemen.
By force and deception: Many Sudanese became victims of forced conscription into becoming mercenaries for a private US firm, Black Shield Security Services.
Responding to online job posts as “security guards,” the UAE-based company would trick the job applicants into signing the contract, only to the surprise of the young men that, all of the sudden, they’re redirected to a military training camp in the UAE to be sent off to either Libya or Yemen. They were offered ‘large’ sums of money, more than they can ever get in an average job in their country which has been experiencing an ongoing political crisis.
The contracts signed by young Sudanese men, which had an e-Visa to enter the UAE from Khartoum attached to it, had “profession: Security Guard” written on them.
تأشيرة دخول لأحد الضحايا تابعة لشركة بلاك شيلد #الاماراتيه تقوم باستخراج عقود للسودانيين للعمل في الإمارات كحراس وبحسب معلومات نشرت في وسائط أخرى فإن السودانيين عند وصولهم يتم إرسالهم إلى معسكر الغياثي وسحب هواتفهم وإعلامهم بأنهم سيقومون بتأمين #منشات في ليبيا أو اليمن.#واكب pic.twitter.com/JPPMw66qqi— واكب | Wakeep (@WakeepAr) January 24, 2020
Up to 15,000 Sudanese mercenaries were reportedly deployed in Yemen, who, according to the current Sudanese Prime Minister Abdallah Hamdok, were reduced to 5,000. Many of them were children.
Official recruitment is also the culprit. Omar Al Bashir, Sudan’s old ruler, whose throne was strangled by sanctions and international pressures, sold his pro-Iran alliance for financial help from the Gulf – which meant sending thousands of Sudanese men and children to kill in Yemen.
To go through with the recruitment, a private company – Rapid Support Forces – or the Janjaweed, a die-hard Bashir-backing militia, scored major bags with Saudi and Emirati officials. Both groups face allegations of systematic rape, indiscriminate murder and other war crimes from the Darfur war in which 300,000 people were killed.
Arriving by the thousands from Sudan to Saudi Arabia, the Sudanese mercenaries were handed US-made weapons and uniforms. Then, they were taken to Al-Hudaydah, Taiz and Aden. Paid in Saudi riyals, 14-year-old amateurs were paid some $480 a month, while experienced officers from the Janjaweed were paid $530 a month – both cheaper than any other mercenary, including Colombians.
The RSF profited $350 million from its role in Yemen.
Ahmed, who was 25-years-old at the time when he was sent to Al-Hudaydah, commented on this experience: “The Saudis would give us a phone call and then pull back.
“They treat the Sudanese like their firewood,” he told the New York Times.
Other than Sudan, the UAE and Saudi Arabia have also been paying Eritrea to provide troops and assistance. In 2015, the UN Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea revealed that Riyadh and Abu Dhabi signed a deal with Eritrea which allowed the coalition to use Eritrean military bases to attack Yemen. Chad isn’t left from the equation either: RSF mercenaries include hundreds of Chadian men, whose alignment lies with Bashir, hence maintaining an interest to keep him in power.
#Yemen Ansar Allah shares photos, names and ranks of 12 soldiers (10 #SaudiArabia & 2 #Sudan) captured during the last successful attack on Jizan that Saudi denied.— Elijah J. Magnier 🇪🇺 (@ejmalrai) June 15, 2021
The aim is to exchange Yemeni prisoners with occupiers and mercenaries fighting in Yemen since 2015. pic.twitter.com/7BTDcR0XIV
There are also some 1,000 Pakistani mercenaries fighting in Yemen, despite a majority no-vote in Islamabad’s parliament.
Yemenis fighting Yemenis
As poverty, war and uncertainty brought millions of Yemenis to prolonged angst, many contemplated turning their back on their own kind.
For around $1,200 a month, Yemenis were compelled to join the Al-Fateh brigade, a mercenary-militia based in Najran, Saudi Arabia, which was formed in 2016. The brigade is an all-Yemeni mercenary hub.
The Saudis recruited over 1,000 mercenaries to the Saudi-Yemen border to defend it.
In a report by the Middle East Eye, one mercenary that goes by the name Anees narrates that some thousand Yemenis were forced to advance towards Jabara valley in Saada province, Yemen, knowing that the valley is under control of the Yemeni armed forces, and that they were positioned just behind them in Najran.
The leaders of Al-Fateh forced the mercenaries to move forward, assuring that Salafi fighters would follow and protect them.
He narrates, “Suddenly, the Houthis started to attack us from the mountains. We tried to withdraw but there were no Salafi fighters backing us up and only the Houthis besieging us from all directions."
The Yemenis were besieged for four days, abandoned by both the Saudis and the Salafis.
“We were about to die from hunger. We had run out of food. The Saudis and the Salafis did not break the siege on us, so we fought and pushed towards Najran and only few were escaped including me,” Anees said.
Last year, former German soldiers and police officers lodged in an offering to Saudi Arabia to form a group of mercenaries - or, according to German prosecutors, a terrorist organisation - to be sent to Yemen.
Two Bundeswehr soldiers were charged with terrorism by state prosecutors for conspiring to recruit 150 men and former soldiers from the Bundeswehr armed forces. The mercenaries were to be paid $46,400 a month to conduct operations in the Arabian peninsula.
The goal of the mercenary force to be formed was to capture land held by the Yemeni Armed Forces - however, it does not stop there. The mercenary force was also to be sent to other protracted conflicts around the world, with the two convicted terrorists in full conscious awareness that the fighters will have to commit murder and kill civilians to achieve strategic goals.
If the Saudi and Emirati armies were to fight and bleed, the war would not have lasted long with a population of 30 million willing to resist barefoot. Mercenaries played a significant role in the war on Yemen by sustaining the violence on the ground, continuously causing grief.
Many experts would say that the future of warfare is private. The effectiveness of state armies is diminishing, while private firms have proven to get more tasks done - however bloody and sinister.
As corporations overshadow governmental authority, warlords and investors will be more keen on keeping 'security firms' going in so-called "conflict zones in the Middle East," where the flow of weapons and the funding for violence come from Western neoliberal democracies.
While the use of mercenaries was dishonorable in recent times, the West has been promoting its use. As the foreign fighters are used to carry out targeted assassinations and other forms of murder, states and governmental bodies take in less and less responsibility and accountability for the humanitarian disaster that comes with the recruitment.
A UN Mercenary Convention in 2001 forbids the recruitment of mercenaries in conflict: Only 36 countries supported the convention. Some of the countries that did not ratify it are the United States, the United Kingdom, China, France, India, Japan and Russia.