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The Middle East: The world’s playground for the privatization of war

James M. Dorsey




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Hello and welcome to the Turbulent World with me, James M. Dorsey, as your host.

The United States had no idea that its employment in the 2000s of private military companies. like Blackwater in Iraq, would institutionalize and legitimize mercenaries, one of the world's oldest professions.


Nor did the United States envision it would create a template for the outsourcing of the state's monopoly on violence that country. Countries such as Russia, Turkey, China, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates would adapt often with devastating consequences.

Even so, US President Donald Trump took conceptualizing military force as a commodity rather than a tool of defense and statecraft to an extreme in 2019 when he made retaliation for Yemeni Houthis rebel attacks on Saudi oil installations contingent on the kingdom paying for the service.


Today, one just has to switch on the news to realize that mercenaries and private military companies live a life of their own and shape headlines.


Chaos and mayhem dominate the streets of Haiti after Colombian mercenaries killed the president. Russia's Wagner Group played a key role in the invasion of Ukraine and at one point appeared to revolt against President Vladimir Putin. This is just to name a few recent histories shaping events.


Russian mercenary group Wagner, Yevgeny Prigozhin -- shows Yevgeny Prigozhin addressing the Russian army's top brass standing in front of Wagner fighters at an undisclosed location. Credit: AFP - Getty Images file

 

My guest, Alessandro Arduino, one of the world's foremost experts and author of a recently published book, ‘Money for Mayhem, Mercenaries, Private Military Companies, Drones, and the Future of War,’ cautions that outsourcing violence opens the door to what he calls ‘private wars.’ Haiti is a prime example.


The irony is that the latest phase in the evolution of mercenaries and private military entities first emerged in the Middle East, a region racked by wars and conflict in which states like the United States, Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar and Turkey backed armed to the teeth, non-state actors of different stripes.


These actors range from private military companies to ideologically driven militias to rebels, who in some cases, like Syria, created their own commercial mercenary enterprises.

With massive investments across the globe, and particularly in the Greater Middle East that stretches from the Chinese border into Eastern Africa, in which Chinese personnel and assets are targets for the likes of Baloch nationalist and Islamist militants.


In Pakistan, China has created the world's largest domestic private security force populated by commercial companies. Increasingly, those companies are flexing their muscles in the protection of Chinese investments along the People's Republic's massive Belt and Road initiative.


Research into this latest phase in the history of guns for hire is in its infancy.

Alessandro Arduino, or simply Alex, is one of its foremost midwives. Alex, congratulations on your latest book. It's wonderful to have you on the show.


Alessandro Arduino (00:03:55):

James, thank you so much. It's a pleasure to be here.


James M. Dorsey (00:03:59):

Let's start on a personal note. Private military has been a key focus of yours over the many years that we have known each other. What initially sparked your fascination with the evolution of China's private military industry and then with the industry more globally.


Alessandro Arduino (00:04:19):

Let's say James, that it started with a very tiny research, not even for a paper, it was an article and at the time China, it was moving on a first step in protecting the Belt and Road Initiative.

So, I just had one question into my mind. Is China going to have a Chinese Blackwater company? Meaning is the Chinese state going to localize private assets all over the world on Chinese private company to protect its investment?


And the answer, at the beginning, was quite straightforward from the military industry complex in China and it was ‘no,’ the state is going to protect the investment. But then I realized that already on the oil and energy side, several Chinese state-owned enterprises were employing foreign, private military companies and private security companies to protect their assets and it slowly percolated to what is now the growth and the rise of the Chinese private security sector.


James M. Dorsey (00:05:27):

In my mind, this latest phase in the evolution of mercenaries and private military companies starts with a significant presence in Iraq of military contractors during the US led invasion in 2003. These contractors were symbolized by Blackwater, headed by Eric Prince, one of the industry's leading and most controversial figures. What was the thinking behind the outsourcing of tasks to contractors and in what way did this create a template for others?


Erik Prince, the former head of Blackwater Worldwide and the brother of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, has at times served as an informal adviser to Trump administration officials. Credit:  Jeenah Moon/Reuters


Alessandro Arduino (00:06:00):

As you correctly point out, James, the Middle East, it's the area in which we can trace the evolution of the private military security sector and especially now how other actors, namely China, Russia, and Turkey, are moving away from the corporate path that the US traced in the last 20 years. At the time, it was to protect the ministry of foreign affairs personnel, State personnel, and security installations and also to augment training and capabilities of the army. There was a growing market for force and the main driver was basically related to the assumption that was topical during the Reagan and the Bush era that the private sector is better than the publc sector, meaning private military company are more efficient, cost efficient, effective and produce better result than just the army or in conjunction with the army. And it was the idea behind the outsourcing and of course for the US that worked well.


The US didn't have to go back to draft more able young men to be part of the conflict and, of cource, it could outsource a lot of service that are not related to kinetic service.


Let me be more clear. When a modern army goes to war, there is the necessity for a lot of support in the back line, meaning you need cooks, you need people for the mail, you need people washing dishes and uniforms and so on.


So, the private sector was able to provide a third-country national that were doing this kind of job without involving military personnel. And, of course, this kind of service evolved even to include kinetic service.


So, at the time of the war in Iraq and after even in Afghanistan, an important part of this duty were done by contractors. We can see in the history of US warfare that with the war in the former Yugoslavia, then in Iraq and in Afghanistan, the ratio of military and contractor increased almost exponentially.


In Afghanistan you have 1.5 contractors for each military man deployed there. So, this trend was also highlighted by a crisis, the one that you mentioned before. Blackwater contractors in Baghdad Nisour Square opened fire killing 17 innocent Iraq civilians. And that was a topical moment when the West started to ask if outsourcing the state private monopoly of violence was the right thing to do.


The Nisour Square Massacre. Credit: tidingsmedia.org

 

One answer to that crisis was the establishment of the Montreal Code of Conduct on how to regulate the private military and security sector. But now again, if we look at the Middle East as a focus, as a topical area, we see that China and Russia learned from the US / Blackwater lesson developing their own private security in the case of China, private military / mercenary and quasi private military or even better armored militia in the case of Russia.


So we can see this transformation in the Middle East in which for example, the Wagner Group that is now basically the flavour of the month in discussing mercenaries from Ukraine to Africa. It started its first steps in Syria and then we can see in other areas in the Middle East when there are not only private military company legally registered and law abiding private military company, but a rise in group of unaccountable, private military, rogue private military and even mercenaries.


Unfortunately, nowadays, the gray area in the definition of private military companies, private security companies and mercenaries is increasing and it's being exploited by states that use this quite loose definition to basically being legally and accountable while using mercenary to do their bidding.


James M. Dorsey (00:10:30):

This raises two questions. One is, should the incident in Bagdad not have raised the red flag? And, second of all, it's not clear to me what the lesson learned is beyond the fact that they've established their own private military entities. I mean there's no guarantee that those private military entities would not have incidents like you mentioned in Baghdad in 2007 with Blackwater. In fact, we know certainly with the Wagner group that those incidents are multiple,



Alessandro Arduino (00:11:03):

No disrespect, the problem is related to several overlapping national and international laws. If someone commits a crime in a country, there is that country law that applies, but when we are talking about PMCs (private military companies), if they are under code of conduct or regulation of the military is one case and you have to see if these operate in an area that is basically without law.


And the second part is related to the fact that also mercenary organizations are used just for this because plausible deniability is one of their biggest assets. They are employed by countries that want something horrific like killing of an innocent civilian. A country that can just use plausible deniability saying they are independent private operators and they have nothing to do,  even if they're nationasl from that country as the case of Wagner in multiple times.


But again, if we are looking at the broader sphere of the state privatization of the monopoly of violence, there are different trends and there are different needs.


So, we don't need to put everything in one basket. For example, if we look at the US model, the Western model, basically the state privatization of the monopoly of force is being efficient, economical, and especially when states are not inclined to send their own kids into a war zone. Then, if we move to other area still staying in the Middle East, to the Gulf for example, in this area there are very wealthy countries that don't have the necessary manpower to wage war or to defend themself. So, they use private soldiers, contracted soldiers.


Then we move to China, as you mentioned it before, the necessity to protect the Belt and Road Initiative, sending private security to protect Chinese personnel all over the world.

And finally, you have the Russian hiding military force in plain sight saying that is nothing to do with Russia. I remember when at the United Nation Foreign Affairs Minister (Sergei) Lavrov was asked why they send a military force in Mali and his answer was very straightforward, ‘It's a private matter, a private military company and the Mali government is discussing with this company. Ironically, PMCs are illegal according to the Russian law.


Russian mercenaries in northern Mali. Credit: French Army/AP


James M. Dorsey (00:13:41):

PMC being private military companies?


Alessandro Arduino (00:13:43):

Correct.


James M. Dorsey (00:13:46):

I mean, sorry to belabour this, but it strikes me that the major lesson learned then is plausible deniability.


Alessandro Arduino (00:13:58):

Plausible deniability is one of the lessons.


Now it'll be, for example, for Russia more difficult since the demise of (Wagner founder) Yevgeny Prigozhin  to claim plausible deniability when Russia just mentioned that all the Wagner force, especially the one positioned in very lucrative areas, mining areas in Africa and the Middle East, are related and directly controlled by the ministry of defense and of state security.


Founder of Wagner private mercenary group Yevgeny Prigozhin. Credit: Yulia Morozova | Reuters

 

But then the problem is not only plausible deniability when atrocities are being convicted. How to find the culprit and how to bring them to justice? This is a huge problem because the law against mercenaries is quite old. It's a 1949 law that looks at mercenaries as individuals, not as a group, and basically it was done as a reminiscence of the atrocities committed by mercenaries during the Africa post-colonial war.s Then there was an update in 1999 in the crime of recruiting mercenaries.


But then again, if we look the UN level, there has been more than a hundred discussions on how to arrest and to find mercenaries. But then it is very difficult from a legal point of view. Let me explain.


In a nation, in a country that is ravaged by war is very difficult per se to have some kind of law that make the country police able to arrest this person. And then just try to go with the police force to arrest someone that is heavily armored and then can shoot back.


So, one problem is that mercenaries are on the rise. So, one takeaway from my book, Money for Mayhem, is that basically mercenaries are back and are here to stay. Mercenaries prosper in preserving mayhem uncertainty and instability.


So, they don't have any, let's say inclination to change their pattern. Again, let me be more specific. In areas like the Middle East that are rich of oil and gas, in other areas in Africa that are rich in diamond, copper, and gold, mercenaries are paid to protect local government and related entities. But if there is stability, if there is peace, they are out of the job.


So, it is in their own interest as it happened for thousand years for all mercenary groups to keep preserving uncertainty and instability.


James M. Dorsey (00:16:45):

Let's stick for a moment with Wagner because Wagner really was after the Americans in Iraq, the next major mercenary entity to appear on the international stage. And the question is, is there a comparison with Blackwater as well as other private military companies in Iraq, and the emergence of the Wagner Group in Syria in 2015 when Russian forces came to the aid of embattled present Bashar al-Assad during the Civil War?


Alessandro Arduino (00:17:23):

In this respect, first and foremost, American private military company are registered entities, registered companies, mostly in the United States, and they abide by certification and some certain code of conduct.


So, if something bad happens, there is accountability and the responsibility then definitely if we are looking at the massacre in Nisour Square, it took more than seven years to put the culprits in jail, but it happened.


This is a scare in Baghdad where the 17 people were killed. Yes, correct. It happened. They were on trial, it was not an easy trial, it was very difficult to prove manslaughter, but at the end they ended up in prison. They didn't last long in prison, I have to say, because they were pardoned by at the time president who was Donald Trump.


But without saying that Blackwater was rebranded into Frontier Services Groups and now it's part of a bigger conglomerate of PMCs and security providers that is the Consella Group.


Then if we move in what Russia learned out of the Blackwater experience and we can see in Syria the first step of what became the Wagner playbook, meaning when Russia needed to expand its economical influence and security interestsis, doing it below the radar sending military trainer. Most of these military trainers at the time in Syria were part of the Slavonic Corps that was the name before the Wagner group and part of the people from the Slavonic corps moved out of the group and founded with the support of a businessman, criminal businessman. Mr. Prigozhin founded Wagner Group. One of the leading figures moving from the Slavonic Corps to Wagner Group is Dmitry Utkin that he perished in a plane accident that Mr. Prigozhin was flying to St. Petersburg.


Having said that, what is the Wagner playbook? Basically small number a hundred, 150, 200 trainers arriving in country.

That was the case in Syria. Everybody knew that they are Russian. Most of the time, they  moved with Russian military planes and Russian military logistics, but they claim to be a private military company, so nothing to do with the Russian state after they take place.


They also are supported by the Internet Research Agency who is St. Petersburg registered. A troll factory that use media propaganda, misinformation, and disinformation to promote the Russian view that Russian PMCs and Russian contractors are a force for good.


At the same time, they increase their local operations and when the operations are stabilized, meaning control of oil, assets, land, then finally the Russian army can jump in and claim the day. It started in Syria, it moved the same modus operandi, the same playbook to Libya. But Libya was a particular case because, like the Middle Ages, you have mercenary against mercenary from one side to the other of the conflict.


But where the Wagner playbook worked extremely well for Mother Russia is in Africa. In Sub-Saharan Africa, same playbook as played in Syria, military trainers.


Let me give you the example of Central Africa Republic. The president was besieged by rebels. At the time the French-led operation counterterrorism was not showing result. The president was feeling under siege by several insurgent forces in the country and he basically was just by himself in the capital.


Wagner Group mercenaries protect President Faustin-Archange Touadéra. Credit: Leger Kokpakpa/Reuters

 

Russian trainers arrived, 150, with military planes from Russia. After that they started to expand in numbers reaching the thousands and they start to training the local presidential guard and also have operation on the ground expanding the control of the presidential force in the territory.


There are allegedly numerous war crimes that have been committed, killing of innocent civilians, even entire villages being erased. But I have to say allegedly because up to now we still have to have this confirmation of this mass murder, mass rape, and so on committed by the Wagner Group.


But I say that modus operandi worked because, at the same time, Russia expanded its geopolitical control and in compensation for the service received part of the diamonds and the gold coming from the very lucrative mining industry in the area.


And then if you move this playbook in other country from Burkina Faso from Mali and then the next one could be, for example Niger, or even Chad. That's the area in which the Wagner plausible deniability worked until Prigozhin’s demise.


James M. Dorsey (00:22:54):

It seems to me that the lines between private military companies and rebel forces offering mercenary services are blurred at times two interconnected regions where this is the case are the horn of Africa and North Africa. Libyan rebel commander Khalifa Haftar has allowed military bases under his control to be used for weapons shipments to the rebel Rapid Support Force (RSF) in Sudan headed by Mohamed Hamad Dagalo, better known as Hemedti. At the same time, the UAE Haftar and Wagner partnered with Hemedti on lucrative gold smuggling and illicit mining operations in Sudan. What does this tell us?


Alessandro Arduino (00:23:38):

This definitely is a trend and one should not look at mercenary groups in a vacuum. They are part of a broader network.


So, as you correctly mentioned it, while the Wagner Group was and is still deployed in Libya fighting in support of Khalifa Haftar, there is an important rising in relationship with other mercenary groups that have been fighting before as mercenaries in Libya.


Gen. Khalifa Haftar. Credit: AP

 

Now we call the RSF with this fancy name, but we don't have to forget the name they were called before. Yes, that is Janjaweed. Janjaweed were operating already in Libya at the time of Moammar Gaddafi as a mercenary force. Libya at the time was hosting different sets of mercenaries, if I recall correct, Gaddafi was even using Serbian snipers in his forces.


James M. Dorsey (00:24:38):

Let me iterrupt me for a minute. The Janjaweed were essentially the government-backed forces during the major crisis in Darfour.


Alessandro Arduino (00:24:50):

Correct. And the link forces forged in Libya between the Wagner Group and RSF helped to move for example into Sudan in 2017, if I recall correct, in support of the time president of Oma al-Bashir that used the RSF as his personal pretorian.


And then now during the ongoing civil war there are inklings that there is an important link between Wagner and RSF in terms of weapons smuggling and augmenting the capability of the RSF.


Rapid Support Force in Sudan. Credit: RSF

 

So again, as I mentioned earlier, this mercenary modus operandi that we saw in the last thousand years in increasing insecurity, increasing instability is also there. Wagner have no necessity to see a peaceful resolution of the civil war in Sudan for example.


The more the war gone, the more they can support the instability, the more they can gain from local mining operation and, looking at Russia long-term geopolitical objectives that are ports, for example Port Sudan is extremely important for Russia as the case.

 

For example, if we shift back to Libya, the port on the Mediterranean Sea, and also the control is a very important intangible asset, it thehe tap valve on migration. Libya is one of the area that is mostly used for migrant to move into Europe and then controlling the coastal area with the mercenary force is also a very important geopolitical leverage that Moscow can use via the Wagner Group.


So again, let me summarize the case from Sudan to Libby and so on is mercenaries as it happened in the past and can ignite conflict. They are essential in creating and preserving instability. They also where they operate promote corruption and accountability. They use already the very limited resource of the state for their own ends.


So, it's money coming from the sale of diamonds, gold, and oil that could have been used to develop the country, for schools, for hospitals, for finding proper jobs. And then at the end there is also a part that is not much researched and that is the fact that mercenaries need more mercenaries.


So, when they arrive in country they tend to absorb to poach talent from that country, meaning police force and skilled military special force. The irony is that most of the time they were trained with trainers from the West and with money from the West.


So, in a nutshell, mercenaries that operate in all this areas create a huge problem for the national state and they promote instability


James M. Dorsey (00:27:59):

And they of course attract national police and special forces personnel and so forth because they offer more money.


Alessandro Arduino (00:28:07):

Absolutely. At the end, the golden rule for mercenaries is getting money and getting paid on time. When I was researching for my book, Money for Mayhem, I interviewed a lot of private military contractors, mercenaries I even spoke with people that were related to Wagner and they were saying that among the world of PMCs in Russia, Progozhin was well respected because he was paying in cash and on time. If someone was getting maimed, disabled or even death, they're killed, there was a compensation always paid to the family.


So, this is quite important, if we look from the individual, the mercenary, then we have to ask the question, why someone wants to be a mercenary that again, it's a thousand years old question and we have different groups of people. You can have most of the time former special forces or former combat veterans that have issue in finding a proper way, a proper work in the civilian life.


So, they perpetuate the cycle of violence. Then you have a tiny part, but it's still a component of psychopath people who really enjoy doing that kind of work.


And then unfortunately there is a rising trend that in my opinion is very disconcerting, is the fact that there is a kind of modern slavery, individuals that are forced in being mercenary or individuals who have limited choices.


We see in Ukraine for example, a Russian prisoner given the choice to stay in prison, where most of the time if they are not protected by the local inmates, they end up being raped or going to die in behind bars.


And if someone choose to die in the Russian war of invasion of Ukraine looking at the possibility of staying in prison, you can see what kind of life they are having in the Russian prison system. So, these basically are the trend in the cycle of violence and the cycle of recruitment.


And we don't have to forget when conflict are going to end. Ukraine will end sometime in the future. You are going to have  thousands of young soldiers that have grown up, they're basically auto life fighting a war and they are going to be the preferred recruit for the next cycle of new mercenaries.


And it's something that we really need to look at right now. For example, who were the first to get recruited by Wagner, the were veterans from the church and war before Wagner Group. There was other outfits that were fighting a kind of mercenary war for Mother Russia and the recruit were so-called Afghanis, the ones who were so scarred by the experience in Afghanistan that they choose to go on in this kind of line of work.


James M. Dorsey (00:31:17):

I want to come back to something that you said earlier about Libya and ask you to expand. You said Libya was different from the other basically from the playbook of Wagner in Syria and elsewhere in Africa because Libya was a situation in which  in which mercenaries were pitted against mercenaries. Can you elaborate on that?


Alessandro Arduino (00:31:44):

Yes. And that Libya definitely for Wagner contractors like Ukraine is not the place of their choice of operation. If you look at the age group in Africa for example, most of the Wagner contractors are above 30 years old, meaning they are former special forces coming from GRU (military intelligence) and so on and they find a very lucrative way to employ their skill. Africa is the perfect environment for the rise.


The return of mercenaries means fragile states, a lot of natural resources prone for grabbing, chance to making good money for this individual. And at the same time the conflict are low-level conflict, friction is very limited.


Libya is not the case. It's a war. And in one side you have the Wagner Group improving augmenting the capability of Kaar army and on the other side the support of Turkey supporting the GNA.


James M. Dorsey (00:32:53):

The GNA being the internationally recognized government of Libya.


Alessandro Arduino (00:32:57):

Correct. And for the first time in the modern era you have two lines of mercenaries fighting, one against the other. Then it was very common in Europe during the medieval time but also in other areas of the world. We don't have to forget that in Europe during the time of Westphalia, we start to think that mercenaries is evil is a bad thing while dying for your flag and not dying for the coin is the right thing to do.


But in other parts of the world, mercenaries never disappeared In Africa. We are talking about post-colonial wars with executive outcomes of sand lines. Then we can move to other areas, like China, where in 1911 you had warlords that were employing mercenaries coming from all over the world. And this is a trend.


So, as we're seeing right now, there was United Nations, I think a publication not long ago was saying that the biggest impediment in Libya in finding a solution between the two warring parties is the role of mercenaries. And they advised both parties to get rid of mercenaries. As I said before, mercenaries preserve their status, their income with instability. If there is peace, they are out of the job.


So, basically if they win the battle, they get themselves out of a job. If they lose the battle, they die or they end up in prison. So, they need to preserve constantly the state of unaccountability and instability and that's the case of Libya.


James M. Dorsey (00:34:32):

Syria is important in this discussion not just because of the role of Wagner but also because it produced the world's first jihadist private military company, Malhama Tactical or what some call Islam's Blackwater. Tell us more about Malhama Tactical, its impact, commercial viability, and whether the fact that Uyghur militants play an important role in the company is significant.


Alessandro Arduino (00:35:00):

Yeah, the case of Malhama Tactical is quite interesting. When I was researching the overall outfit of mercenaries because one distinct character of mercenaries all over is the fact that they are looking at the coin, at getting money at the end of the mountain and they were not driven by ideology.


Malhama Tactical members. Credit: Instagram via Malhama_Tactical_

 

And this case it's different because Malhama Tactical was and is still now in very limited capability. And Al-Qaeda affiliated private military outfit as they called themself that was working in Syria, mainly operating in the Syrian city of Iblid for Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham, better known as HTS, it's pro alqaeda terrorist group.


They according to their website, leveled themselves as a private military company, meaning they were offering a kind of service in training guys in Syria to fight and Russian forces. And basically, their motto was to improve the combat capability but not to forge the suicide fighter.


And in this respect, it was quite strange because there is this link about private military and ideology and at the same time this link was the biggest problem for them because several other militant organizations in the area affiliated to Al-Qaeda called them as not a rightful Muslim force because they were doing it for money and then it was a perversion of Islam.


And in this respect, there has been a lot of discussion online on the real effectiveness role of Malhama Tactical. And then at the end, especially when the leader and the founder was killed during the Russian bombardment, with the new leader, the group moved to a normal, let's say jihadist outfit without claiming to be the Blackwater of jihad.


James M. Dorsey (00:37:32):

We find a similar link between ideology and commerce, not only in Malhama Tactical but at least in some of the Turkish companies like Sadat which appear to be inspired by Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s mix of religion and Turkish nationalism. Is that a correct assessment?


Alessandro Arduino (00:37:55):

Yeah, that's correct. Again, you don't need much of intelligence on any other thing. You just go on the website of Sadat Defense Group, the company, and they mentioned on their website that they are a defense security company that is providing training and military training for all the Muslim countries.


Adnan Tanrıverdi, founder of SADAT, visited Libya in May 2013 and met with Libyan military officials.

 

So. it worked very well with the vision of the Turkish president Erdogan of neo-Ottomanism. So, we have a company that have the romantic view of the Ottoman Empire and we don't have to forget that army, the Ottoman army from the 15th century to the 17th century was extremely skillful in using and deploying mercenaries.


Most of the time people think about the Janissaries but is not the case. Janissaries were not mercenaries, they were inside the chain of command of the Ottoman army. So, it's like saying that Wagner is a private company, Wagner is not registered, it is not a private company.


But then, at the time, the Ottoman army was using specialized mercenaries for different tasks. If I recall correctly, for example, there were some sort of combat engineers that they were following the Ottoman Army, building bridges and roads and then you have the Ottoman artillery that was basically built by Hungarians or by Italians.


That was the kind of mercenary that they were using. So, we can see now Turkish private military companies are a new arrival, a new kid on the block in terms of devolution of PMCs and Sadat is spearheading this evolution.


It was founded in 2016 I think by former retired Brigadier General Adnan Tanriverdi. who was a security advisor of President Erdogan. And then you can see a link now with Prigozhin and Utkin be very near to Putin until it wasn't.


And with a strong man in Turkey being near to this new private military company, then there is a lot of discussion going on now, especially from researchers from the UAE and Israel pointing the finger at Sadat as the link in between the use of Syrian mercenary in areas from Nagorno Carrabba to Libya.


But we have to say allegedly because Sadat strongly denied this fact. But we can see that there is an evolution and we are very far now from the path traced by the United States in economic terms and  its ideology, its policy and its authoritarian state that have closed link with this tool of geopolitical expansion. But at the same time of plausible deniability.


So, if we look specifically at Turkey is something that is really important to look at the future trend. But for example, Turkish police in terms of international trading is extremely well-known and well respected. They are in Somalia now in Mogadishu airport. They have been advising during the FIFA World Cup in Qatar and so on.


But then now you have this line, the gray area getting more broad if you are going to have the service as a private security, the service as a military augmenting or at the end having involvement with mercenary outfits. One thing that is important to say is that the evolution, for example Sadat, it's a tool of Turkish foreign policy that is neither pro-Ukrainian, neither pro-Russian, is essentially Turkish.


James M. Dorsey (00:42:01):

Contrary to Wagner, Sadat isn't really a household name. How important is Sadat on the international stage compared to for example, the successor company to Blackwater or Wagner itself?


Alessandro Arduino (00:42:22):

I think it's important to chart the rise of private military companies that have an ideological background, a very strong ideological background and essentially is important because it's still operating in several area of the world, hot area flashpoints and being able to fly below the radar.


The fact that there is not much faster talk about Turkish private military company is quite important because US private military company become famous or infamous after the accident, after the killing. The tragedy of Noursi Square by Blackwater, Wagner again become famous long after it started to operate because of this atrocity.


But more important it become the flavor of the month after Mr. Prigozhin’s U-turn against Putin. And that was quite surprising for me, not that he did that because that's the way 4,000-year mercenaries have been renegotiating their pay when they are in arms. When you are defending the Roman empire and the mercenary of the gate, that's the time when the mercenary look at the emperor and just say, that's time to renegotiate our pay.


And in my opinion, what Prigozhin indeed is was basically a renegotiation of what he could gain after that. Of course, he didn't play the end properly and we saw that when it happened to his kind of aborted vertical landing or I don't know how you want to call it, what it happened to his airplane in mid-flight, but even so, we have to see one thing. Everyone was surprised at the time and that shocked me because everyone was surprised and why I say so because if we look at history 4,000 years, very successful mercenary groups have only one option becoming the king or basically getting killed by the king. And I think for the history of Prigozhin, we already know the answer.


James M. Dorsey (00:44:26):

Just for the benefit of our listeners and the viewers, Prigozhin, the head and  the founder of Wagner, essentially turned on Vladimir Putin, marched on Moscow, and that  led to Wagner  coming under the control full official control of the Russian government and ultimately to the death of Prigozhin and his number two in a plane crash on route from Moscow to St. Petersburg. Just so that everybody knows what we're talking about here.


Coming back to something else that you said earlier, Iraq was not just the fulcrum for American private military companies but also for the venturing abroad of Chinese entities seeking to secure Chinese assets. Talk to us about the significance of overseas operations of Chinese private military companies where and how they operate and how they compare to their US counterparts.


Alessandro Arduino (00:45:34):

Yes, even before the start of President Xi’s, flagship foreign policy initiative, the Belt and Road, Chinese private security companies started to venture abroad protecting oil fields in Iraq at the time as it happened. Now, most of this companies have a security manager meaning people that are in between the Chinese engineers, the Chinese workers, the Chinese infrastructure and local armored militia contractors or international armored PMCs that work for China. At the time, for example of Iraq, Chinese entiies were located in safer areas in the south and they were protected by Western forces mostly controlled by Control Risk Group from the United Kingdom.. The situation has evolved. Chinese private security are augmenting their capabilities but still there is quite a mismatch in what they are think they're capable of and what they can deliver. If we look at the market structure in China, private security is extremely well regulated since 1993.


The law has been updated in 2009 and there is going probably in few months to be a new law that detaisl every very little issue that the private security can encounter is very difficult or a private security in China to be an armored, there isn't a necessity. And also when moving outside China, most of the time they are unarmed and they contract locally armored forces and personnel. I say mostly because there are some Chinese private security companies that offer armored service in international water against pirate and against threats in chain of communication.


And we can see now with the issue of the Houthi threatening chain of communication near the strait of Bal al Mandab. This is a current quite big issue that has been discussed in China, but getting back to the Belt and Road Initiative, China still abides by the decades-old principle of non-interference, meaning if a crisis up at an international level, China is not willing and, in some respects, not able to send the People’s Liberation Army to protect its interest.


Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy has been increasingly getting better in blue water operations very far from the land. So, we can see when the Muammar Gadaffi regime collapsed in Libya, they were able to evacuate more than 30,000 Chinese workers.


sBut then again we are not seeing PLA boots on the ground. That's the case. There is a vacuum and this vacuum is increasingly filled by Chinese private security companies. So, these companies are protecting Chinese investments and Chinese personnel against criminal violence, terrorism or act such as  theft against Chinese property all over.


But then there is a rise and as you, James, mentioned correctly in several areas, especially in Pakistan, if we look at Balochistan, China invested in that area, US$63 billion CPEC, the China Pakistan Economic cCorridor and there is an increase of terrorist violence against Chinese workers because China, Beijing is perceived as an ally of Islamabad and then the insurgents want to punish China for supporting the Punjabis in their area.


Having said that, we don't have also to forget that since the US withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021, now China become the enemy number one for the Islamic State in Khorasan. And then again there is this fear of increasing security moving from Afghanistan to Pakistan to all central Asia and that's where China is looking at an increase more capable role for its own private security companies.


And again, Chinese private security companies at home are from 7,000 to 10,000 outfits registered and working in mainland China. And if you move this huge number to the one operating with good capabilities outside China, we are talking about 20 and no more companies that are very professional and operating outside China.


There has been some discussion about Chinese private security, but most of the time this discussion looks at China trying to picture Chinese PSC (private security companies) as the Blackwater or now as the Wagner group.


So, in my personal opinion, Chinese private security companies are not Blackwater and not the Wagner group. Definitely, both groups tried to work with the Chinese. Eric Prince, the founder of Blackwater, even opened shop in Hong Kong. The company is called FSG Frontier Service Group and the business partner of Mr. Prince is Citi group is one of China state oldest economic financial juggernauts.


And then if you have that as a partner you know very well with who you are working with. And then at the same time during the Trump administration when there was an increase of friction between China and the United States, Chinese private security companies and most important their client, the state owned enterprises, they were feeling insecure in contracting Western private security or private military companies.


A Chinese private military practicing. Credit: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

 

And then it was the time for several Russian companies,  private security and even quasi PMC, so meaning Russian PMC registered outside Russia, to pitch their service to the Chinese because at the time there was this perception that the Belt and Road security is a huge market.


There is a lot of money to be made. It was not the case but there is still some idea. So basically to summarize the Russian offer, there are three points.


Rirst point, they are not going to tell SOEs, state-owned enterprises, secrets to the west. The second point is that it works extremely well in the Chinese market and they say they are efficient but they are very economical in respect to their western counterparts And the last one is the fact that they underline experience contractors with better capabilities, meaning you can tell them where to go and they are going there shooting.


There is something that's still in the masculinity of the Chinese private security sector worked very well and it worked for Blackwater too. We don't have to forget that the last time the Chinese fought a war was in 1979, if I am correct, against Vietnam. So, it's been really long time since there was a conflict and there are basically no veterans in the army.


So, most of the PSC are composed by former PLA people, Liberation Army, special forces soldiers, policemen or even people from army police, the PAP, but not many of them have seen real combat. So, this masculinity coming out of Blackwater or even the Wagner Group had some echo in Beijing.


James M. Dorsey (00:53:04):

If I may, I want to switch gears for a moment. Technology is changing the landscape of mercenaries and private military companies, particularly with the emergence of mercenaries in the cyberspace. Beyond the threat this poses to a country's critical infrastructure, does this also elevate the significance of information wars alongside wars fought on the battlefield?


Alessandro Arduino (00:53:32):

When I was working on my book, the role of cybersecurity and drones were my big question about what next, what is the future of mercenaries? And definitely, technology is already playing, not is going to play. It's already right now playing a very important role.


There is a huge problem in cyber mercenaries defining who is a cyber mercenary up to now, as I mentioned earlier, since 1949, from a legal standpoint it's already very difficult to point the finger at someone who is a mercenary that mostly the law says is a foreign national that is taking part of a conflict, getting paid for that but is not part of one of the army that is waging war.


Then the problem is that if we go to the cyber, to the cyberspace, it's very easy for a cyber mercenary to clock themself just saying that legally it's a software company,a software security company, or even just disappear under alias in the dark web.


So, the first and foremost problem in looking at cyber mercenaries is the definition is something that in the book I've been trying to address looking at the United Nation work group on mercenaries that is currently working on the issue of cyber mercenaries.


But why cyber mercenaries are very important because hacking as a service is a very fluid area in a very poorly regulated at international level industry but is very profitable. So, we have all the component of a mercenary ward, meaning there is a lot of money to be made, there is not much of accountability, is not easy to get caught by the police .and even if they get you is difficult to get indicted. So, it is a perfect storm just waiting to be unleashed. There are issues now addressing this fact. For example, if you look at Project Maven in the UAE, there was some former intelligence officers specialized in AI who were contracted.


So, the question is they were cyber mercenaries or not, or if you look at the use of spyware and malware, malware for compaies that sell this service to states and legitimate police forces, but when this software, this app moves into the gray zone and then is received by criminal organizations or is used and abusest against civilians, against journalists and so on, that's the case to start to ask question if we consider this company cyber mercenaies or not. And as I mentioned it before, is a perfect storm. All the component of boots on the ground mercenaries is already there and we are just waiting to see what's the worst coming out from this.


James M. Dorsey (00:56:47):

You also talk in your book about the booming emergence of drone mercenaries and competition between China and Turkey and possibly Iran for dominance in the global market for combat drones. What do you mean by drone missionaries and how is this competition shaping up?


Alessandro Arduino (00:57:08):

Yeah, the competition for the market share is between China and Turkey for market share or armored UAV unmanned aerial vehicles or better known as combat drones. In this respect, I was attempting in my book Money for Mayhem to look at the what next.


So, in my personal opinion, as we have mercenaries that have hacking capability, mercenaries that have information and disinformation capabilities, the next logical step is to have mercenary groups that have combat drone for underwater drones or terrestrial drones, meaning that you can have a military force on the ground, but also that a country, a warlord, a dictator can rent an air force for hire and that's the next logical step.


But up to now, normally when people think about the market for combat drone, what comes to mind are the US Reapers and this kind of very high level, very expensive and sophisticated drones, but in reality the fight to reach the top of the sales  worldwide for this kind of drone is between China and Turkey.


Why essentially, as I just mentioned, US has probably the best drone on the market, but is the kind of Rolls Royce of the drone, meaning it's expensive and is not for everybody. US is not willing to sell drones to a lot of countries, even countries that are all allowed to buy it, while China and Turkey don't have this kind of call. They sell drone to a lot of different countries.


China started first with economically affordable drones that can deliver and, for example, the kingdom of Saudi Arabia acquired an entire drone production line, but then after the 44 days war in Nagorno Carrabba with basically the Turkish drone TB 42, showcasing how in matter of weeks they can defeat an entire line of armor, main battle tanks and so on. Turkish drones became the darling of the combat drones  and even President Erdogan was used to say that every time he moved to a foreign land, the first thing they ask him is, can I buy your Turkish drone?


Bayraktar TB2 UCAV. Credit: Yulii Zozulia/ Ukrinform/Future Publishing via Getty Images

 

So, this trend is ongoing. Turkey is having an upper hand in selling drones, but then as you said before, James, Iran is getting into the fray, supplying allegedly drones to Russia. And this underlying is a trend in terms of quality versus quantity.


lranian drones are very low level dronesccompared to the American one or even with the Chinese Chengdu or the Byraktar yar, but are easy to assign, are cheap, they get the work done and they can overwhelm as unfortunately we saw in Ukraine aerial defense.


So. they are economically efficient and I recall there was an economic paper by a scholar from the Royal United Services Institute that he mentioned that there was no surprise in seeing arms transfer between Iran and Russia, but the surprise is the direction of the vector that is from Tehran going to Moscow, what nobody was looking at.


So, we are seeing that this kind of situation when quantity over quality is getting better in the world of arms, we are going also to witness a rise of mercenaries that are going to have better disinformation and propaganda capabilities, better armament in term of drones because drones are getting vehicles and they're getting cheaper.


James M. Dorsey (01:01:21):

Alex, time is not our friend even. This has been a fascinating conversation. I learned a lot and I hope so has our audience.


Thank you for joining me on the show and thanks to our listeners and viewers, please share any comments or questions you may have in the comment section of this podcast on Substack and please stay tuned for my twice weekly episodes best wishes. Take care and see you soon.


Alessandro Arduino (01:01:53):

Thank you for having me.



James M. Dorsey (01:01:55):

Thank you for joining me today. I hope you enjoyed today's column and podcast. The turbulent world with James M. Dorsey depends on the support of its readers. For the past 12 years, I have maintained free distribution as a way of maximizing impact.


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Dr. James M. Dorsey is an award-winning journalist and scholar, a Senior Fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute and Adjunct Senior Fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, and the author of the syndicated column and blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer.


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