―Joel Vargas, Assistant Director for Law Enforcement Operations & Head of Intelligence, International Association of Airport & Seaport Police (InterPort Police)
―Don D. Mann, SEAL Team SIX (ret.), and author of Inside SEAL Team SIX
Armored cars, burner phones, top-notch weaponry and top-secret missions--this is the life of today's private military contractor. Like author Simon Chase, many PMCs were once the world's top military operatives, and since retiring from outfits like US Navy SEAL TEAM Six and the UK's Special Boat Service, they have devoted their lives to executing sensitive and hazardous missions overseas.
Working at the request of U.S. and British government entities as well as for private clients, he takes on jobs that require "zero footprint," with no trace of their actions left behind.
Chase delivers first-hand accounts of tracking Bin Laden in Afghanistan and being one of the first responders after the attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi. We see his teams defuse terrorist bombs, guard dignitaries, and protect convoys traveling through perilous territory--and then there are the really big jobs: top-secret "zero footprint" missions that include searching for High Value Targets and setting up arms shipping networks.
If you haven’t found yourself in the middle of the shit in places like Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, Pakistan, or Syria recently, you probably have little understanding of what we do. Or that we’re sometimes called upon to perform missions too sensitive and top-secret for even Delta Force or SEAL Team Six.
We’re mostly guys, and some women, who live in your neighborhoods, drive fast cars, work out a lot, and spend long periods of time away from home. We tend to keep to ourselves and avoid socializing with the neighbors. Some of you probably suspect that we’re spies, or former convicts, drug dealers, or maybe even internet entrepreneurs.
What we really are, are PMCs – private military contractors, or operators. There are hundreds of thousands of us living in the United States working for companies like G4S, DynCorp, Unity Resources, Erinys, Triple Canopy, and Aegis Defense Services. They hire us to do the dirty and dangerous jobs the military and intelligence services can’t or don’t want to do. Some of us are former Tier-One operators –– SEALs, Delta Force, Marines, or Army Rangers with extensive combat experience. My background includes fifteen years of service in the British Royal Marines, British Special Forces, and the Special Boat Squadron (SBS).
We defuse terrorist bombs, guard dignitaries, protect convoys traveling through perilous territory, battle drug runners, provide security to oil facilities, fly manned reconnaissance planes, and maintain military aircraft and equipment.
In my case, I’ve fought beside Afghan and Syrian rebels, rescued kidnapped children from inside Pakistan, battled Somali pirates, shoveled the ashes of my best mates off the streets of Baghdad, tracked down al-Qaeda High Value Targets (HVTs) -- including Osama Bin Laden ––, and performed “zero-footprint” missions for the U.S. government. One of those zero footprint missions put me in Benghazi on September 12, 2012, and resulted in the deaths of US Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans.
It’s a hard transition from military to PMC. In the former, we were hailed as heroes. As private operators we’re regarded as shadowy figures, or mercenaries who are in it solely for the money, which isn’t always true. Maybe the pay is better, but we’re pretty much doing the same work and employed by the same governments. And we’re motivated by the same standard of service to the ideals we hold true.
As PMCs we operate deep undercover without government backup or air rescue, public credit for what we do, or military honors when we die in combat. Maybe, as some commentators have suggested, we’re unsung heroes in the war against terrorism. That’s not my call.
My decade-plus career as a military contractor began during a black cab ride to London in 1999 with my mate Joel. My first assignments were cakewalks with a laugh or two along the way compared to some of the brutal missions that would follow after 9/11. But that was okay with me, because I was learning the ropes, and developing a sense of moral dilemmas I would face going forward.
Joel and I had been through thick and thin together, starting as young toughs from Romford in the East End, to our days as teenage carjackers, to the time we spent in juvie. At 5’9” apiece, neither of us was physically imposing at first sight, but we were both workout fanatics. While I was faster on my feet, Joel was the toughest man I’d ever met and training to become a UFC fighter.
From juvie we had both recruited into the Royal Marines. After fifteen years of British Military service, we were now two East End blokes going up the ‘smoke’, as we called it, on our way from Portsmouth to London in a cab with no idea what we were going to do next. That’s when my big, ugly NEC P100 cellphone rang.
It was Bernie Plunkett, our former PTI (physical training instructor) who had gone on to SBS (Special Boat Squadron, the naval partner of the infamous Special Air Service (SAS) – where I had served.
“Simon, what are you doing?” he asked. “You still in your RDP?” RDP was the four-month “rundown period” the Brit Mil gave us to transition into civilian life.
“We just got out, Bernie. And as for the future, I have no idea.” It was the truth.
“I’m in Qatar working for Nick Vaux.” Nick had been my former commanding officer in the elite Royal Marines – a charismatic man in his later fifties, and former commander of 42 Commando, which had played major role in the Falklands War. He was now running a company called SERAC International, which I’d never heard of. General Nick Vaux was someone who immediately commanded respect.
“Nick and some of the boys – Dolly Gray, Topsy Turner, and Bob Marley – are in Qatar now,” Bernie continued. All of them were former colleagues in the Brit mil in their late twenties and early thirties.
“They helped the sons overthrow the old man in ‘95. The coup was bloodless and the sons are now in power; one as the prime minister and the other as the foreign minister. We’re working for Sheikh Abdullah bin Khalifa Al Thani. He’s the PM and the boss. He wants us to act as his protection detail when he travels around the world, and to train a local security team.”
I’d run multiple personal protection courses during my years in the Brit Mil. Though I’d been to nearby Saudi Arabia and UAE, I’d never set foot in Qatar. It was one of those places nobody ever talked about.
“It’s a good gig,” he said. “There will be ten of you all together. Pays real well.”
I said, “Yeah. I’ll have some of that.”
After that it was pack the gear, hop on a flight east, and welcome to Qatar (pronounced KUT-ter), one of the smallest, most conservative countries in the Arab world, where Wahhabism (a strict interpretation of Islam) is the official religion and falconry and camel racing are national pastimes. It’s also one of the wealthiest nations on the planet because it sits on vast fields of oil and natural gas.
We were in the sweltering capital city Doha, where the average temperature from May through October topped a hundred degrees. We lived in a villa in the western compound, complete with pools, gyms, and tennis courts. Everything was provided for us – meals, food, drink, cars.
An adjoining villa housed a team hired by Saladin Security out of London whose job was to provide security to the boss’s brother, the foreign minister. The guys on the SERAC and Saladin teams all knew one another, so we cut a hole through the adjoining wall and turned a spare bedroom into a bar so we could hang and drink together. Since Qatar is a strict Muslim country, booze was forbidden.
One afternoon soon after I arrived, we were grilling lamb kebobs and drinking beer in our makeshift bar when one of the Saladin chaps named Dave told us that the foreign minister was conspiring against his brother, the prime minister – the man we had been sent to protect.
Thinking the heat may have affected my hearing, I asked, “Are you sure about that, mate?”
“Yeah, next week we’re supposed to overthrow your boss,” Dave answered casually.
I looked at Dolly, the leader of our team, who turned to Dave and said, “That’s not going to happen.”
Here we were, drinking beers together, same league, different teams, and now we were being asked to go up against one another with automatic weapons on behalf of the Al Thani brothers. Obviously, we weren’t going to allow that to happen. But it was a serious mind-fuck to a newcomer like myself and a rude introduction to the murky world of private military contracting.
Lesson number one: Stick close to your teammates and develop trust. They’re the only people you can depend on to have your back.
Our first task was to train a CP (close protection) unit made up of locals – a kind of Pretorian guard – that would protect the boss when he was in Qatar. (In the Middle East, it’s considered a sign of weakness to have FNs -- foreign nationals -- guard a leader in his own country.) We coordinated with a commander of one of the local Qatari elite military units, a guy with a thick black mustache named Musraf who spoke directly to the boss.
My mates and I designed an eight-week training program that we hoped to run in a timely manner. It was the same program that we did in the regiment and included small-unit tactics, counter insurgency, anti-surveillance, and passive surveillance.
The Qataris did the vetting process, drawing men from their elite Special Forces units. Though I speak Arabic, I used a local interpreter (we called them terps) so that we could move through the lessons quickly.
The first morning, I stood outside the training room waiting with my cup of coffee at 0755. All I saw in front of me was sand, crickets, and tumbleweed. None of the twenty men we were scheduled to train in the first group of three had appeared.
Turning to Musraf, I asked, “Where are the men?”
‘They’re all at the mosque,” he answered calmly. “They’re praying now. They’ll be here.”
The mosque? Trainees in the UK or US would have already been lined up in their uniforms, eager and ready.
Around 0830 the Qataris started drifting in. One guy was wearing an old Manchester United t-shirt and a pair of flip-flops. Another had no teeth; a third looked like he was about ready to drop dead on the spot; a fourth had brought his goat to the party. Several wore old, ratty sweatpants and carried their belongings in plastic shopping bags. Not a single one had a uniform on.
Confounded, I asked, “Musraf, these guys are elite military, right?”
“Oh, yes. Yes,” he answered like it should have been obvious to me.
“They’ve been vetted?”
“Oh, yes. Of course.”
“They’ve been through local training and done military service?”
It was clear right away that we had to scrap military training for the time being and spend a week or so on husbandry – basic things like how to take care of your uniforms, how to fold them, how to sew on a button, how to store them in your locker, and how to wash yourself.
Next day, five of the twenty Qatari trainees didn’t show up. When we located them, they said they didn’t realize that they had to return. The guys who did appear weren’t wearing uniforms.
To maintain our good humor, my buddies and I started taking bets on how many would show up on a given day and what they’d be wearing. A guy we called Elvis stood on the parade ground one morning in his uniform and bare feet. Through the terp, I asked him, “Where are your boots?”
“My brother’s got them.”
“Because he needed something to wear.”
We had issued every trainee a full military kit, complete with G1 respirator (the kind that fits fully over the head and face and filters out gases and other noxious airborne particles), but we hadn’t shown the trainees how to use them yet. One morning Elvis lined up at 0815 wearing his respirator for no apparent reason. Another guy had his on backwards.
The physical training part of the course wasn’t intense, but we had to factor in a certain level of fitness so that, if required, the Qatari CP unit could hustle people out of a car, or a bus, or pick up the VIP they were guarding and run him or her away from danger.
We took the trainees out for a short run and within 100 meters all of them were dying, and Abdul was wearing flip-flops.
“Why, Abdul?” I asked, trying not to lose it. “Why don’t you wear the sneakers we issued like the rest of the guys?”
After a couple of weeks, we selected ten of the best trainees out of the first group of twenty to graduate to vehicle and arms training. Instructing these gents how to care for their uniforms and do push-ups was one thing. But teaching them how to spot an ambush and drive through it without getting killed was quite another.