The Disturbing Rise of the Corporate Mercenaries

Yves here. This post is a tad imprecise….a private equity firm would not “merge” with an operating business like DynCorp. But it still puts a little light on a widely recognized yet oddly hardly ever discussed issue, the outside role of big business mercenaries, aka private armies, like the firm formerly known as Blackwater.

Oh, and as for DynCorp, it appears to have long occupied a special place in the Pentagon firmament. See the start of this video through 3:23.

The wee problem is that these companies operate so openly that we know who many of them are. It’s hard to eliminate officially sanctioned contractors, no matter how unseemly the service they sell.

By Felip Daz and and Nora Miralles, researchers for the Observatory on Human Rights and Business in the Mediterranean Region ( and Shock Monitor (, projects led by Suds and Novact. Find them at: @fdazza, @NoraMMC, and @ObservatoriDHE and @ShockMonitor. Originally published at openDemocracy

It’s not too late to rein in these unaccountable armed giants, but we need to act fast

When the journalist Jamal Khashoggi was assassinated by agents of the Saudi government in 2018, it caused an international scandal. Now, it turns out that his killers were trained in the US. In June, The New York Times reported that four Saudis involved in the killing had received paramilitary training from Tier 1 Group, a private security company based in Arkansas.

This was no renegade operation, however. Tier 1 Group, whose training had approval from the US State Department, is part of a burgeoning global industry. Corporate mercenaries – or, more properly, private security and military companies – are increasingly taking over functions that were once carried out by states, with grave implications for human rights and democracy worldwide. It’s big business, too: Cerberus Capital Management, the private equity fund that owns Tier 1 Group, also owns a string of arms manufacturers. In April 2010, Cerberus merged with DynCorp International, one of the world’s largest corporate mercenary companies.

Mercenaries – soldiers for hire – have existed for centuries, but this new breed is different. The Observatory Shock Monitor, which tracks the impact of privatised war, argues that the corporate mercenaries stand out because of the internationalised, business-like services they provide. These companies are registered in one state but often work in another, offering their services via slick websites and a network of offices and facilities around the world. In the countries where they operate, they employ both foreign and local personnel. And the services they offer go far beyond the traditional role of mercenaries: from acting as security guards and patrolling public spaces, to military combat and operational support, to humanitarian work, clearing landmines or rescuing hostages. In short, they’re a replacement for a whole set of functions traditionally carried out by states, with access to the kind of military equipment that modern armies have at their disposal.

As state security functions have gradually been privatised under neoliberalism, corporate mercenaries have reshaped the way that power is exercised, as well as tapping into a new source of profit.

States have increased their reliance on private security contractors not only for international conflicts, but to strengthen their coercive power domestically. Corporate mercenaries have begun to focus on emerging sectors in the field of national security, such as protecting critical infrastructure from terrorism and cyber attacks, managing migration flows, running prisons and detention centres, and policing-like tasks including the ‘neutralisation’ of activists opposing the interests of states and multinationals.

During the recent widespread protests in France, for instance, companies such as Groupe DCI provided training and advisory services for the government’s security forces. Groupe DCI is one of several companies that offers support to riot police in locations as diverse as the US and Bahrain, despite the heightened sensitivity that its deployment may arouse in public opinion.

Corporate mercenaries have also been instrumental in the US-funded international ‘War on Drugs’, in countries such as Colombia and Mexico. They have provided training, maintenance and logistical support to state forces that are directly and indirectly responsible for human rights violations. They are also increasingly responsible for maintaining public order, performing roles that could typically be those of public security forces. In Cape Town, South Africa, corporate mercenaries such as Professional Protection Alternatives take on the role of police forces, patrolling wealthy neighbourhoods and carrying out operations to evict people from public spaces.

The privatisation of prisons and detention centres has sparked the greatest opposition, because of its impact on human rights. In the US, for instance, the three corporate mercenary companies that dominate the market – CoreCivic, Geo Group and Management and Training Corporation (MTC) – have a long history of complaints about alleged degrading treatment, forced labour, abuse, violence and sexual assault in prisons, correctional facilities, and detention centres holding children and migrants.

Threats from Cyberspace

When activists stand in the way of corporate mercenaries, they can find themselves targeted. There are numerous reports of human rights defenders being spied on or even killed by private security companies, with one of the most notorious cases being the plot to murder Berta Cáceres in Honduras, and more examples in Colombia and Brazil. In the US, The Intercept revealed that the security company TigerSwan, on behalf of the firm Energy Transfer Partners, was conducting fraudulent intelligence activities by infiltrating the Standing Rock indigenous and environmental protest movement that opposed the oil pipeline project in North Dakota. Reports produced by TigerSwan were used by the local police, the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security.

Indeed, the privatisation of intelligence has increased since the attacks of 9/11. Tim Shorrock, the author of ‘Spies for Hire: The Secret World of Intelligence Outsourcing’, states that 70% of the US intelligence budget in 2007 was outsourced to security contractors. A year later, an investigation by The Washington Post found that 1,931 private companies were collaborating on national security, counter-terrorism and intelligence tasks from 10,000 US locations.

These services have evolved with the use of new technologies and now also include deployment against threats from cyberspace. Corporate mercenaries supply and maintain software technology and hardware systems; gather data related to national security by intercepting calls, hack mobile phones and IT systems; analyse and systematise data related to national security; produce risk-assessment reports for the military high command; operate reconnaissance drones during protests or in armed conflicts beyond borders; and conduct secret operations that involve illegal activities such as infiltrating social movements or interrogating suspects.

Cyber espionage has thus become a key service offered by corporate mercenaries, who subcontract large armies of hackers and run IT departments within their companies. Hamilton Booz, RSB Group, G4S and Control Risks have all emerged as major corporate players in this field.

Government intelligence agencies contracting from corporations producing surveillance technologies is nothing new. What is unusual is the contracting of specialised staff for intelligence and national security work. In 2019, a former NSA agent uncovered the Raven project, an intelligence unit set up by the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and staffed by cyber-mercenaries, including some previously hired by US intelligence agencies. The Raven project spent years monitoring dissidents and others critical of the Abu Dhabi government, such as British journalist Rori Donaghy, Emirati activist Ahmed Mansoor, and Tawakkol Karman, leader of the ‘Arab Spring’ protests in Yemen.

The Need for International Regulation

The corporate mercenary industry is strikingly opaque, a fact that has helped its growth worldwide. It limits public scrutiny of both domestic and overseas operations, and reduces the political impact of casualties in conflict zones, since states know that their citizens do not react in the same way to the death of a contractor as to the death of a soldier. One such example is the US air strike of February 2015 in the Deir Ezzor region of Syria. The strike killed hundreds of employees of the Russian corporate mercenary company, Wagner Group, making it the most lethal (if indirect) clash between the US and Russia since the end of the Cold War. Yet Russia, following its usual policy, denied any connection with Wagner and the incident has since been largely forgotten.

Given their size and scope, corporate mercenaries must now be reined in by politicians, and held accountable for their actions by the media, social movements and the wider public. One significant step would be effective international regulation of privatised war and security. Its absence gives corporate mercenaries – and, by extension, the states and multinational companies that hire them – impunity for human rights violations. Even when mercenaries have been convicted of crimes, politicians sometimes step in to exonerate them, as Donald Trump did in December 2020 when he pardoned the former employees of Blackwater, a corporate mercenary company now known as Academi, who were serving prison sentences for the massacre of civilians in Baghdad’s Nisour Square in 2007.

The current regulation relies on weak and non-binding standards, such as the International Code of Conduct for Security Providers and the 2008 Montreux Document, which Russia has not even signed up to. This legal vacuum is a particular threat to human rights defenders in fragile countries where civil and political rights are already restricted. The neoliberal logic of profit over public interest that gave birth to the industry will only make the situation worse, since it leaves states unable to provide economic and social protection to their citizens – thus creating the conditions in which security and military solutions are deemed necessary. People must demand an end to the privatisation of security by stealth, otherwise our safety will end up being sold off to the highest bidder.

This is an edited version of an essay in the Transnational Institute’s State of Power 2021 report: Coercive World

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  1. Taurus

    There is a reason why the top 3 richest counties are in Virginia. Yet they do fly under the radar – I usually think of San Francisco or New York as the rich places. The parasites in Virginia, though are directly attached to the money printer. Much easier to be very, very profitable this way.

    Unfortunately, between the CDC obliterating the last vestiges of faith in government and “solutions” like defund-the-police, private security likely will continue to expand.

    “The Water Knife” tackles that aspect of a waterless future in the West. After the centrifugal forces of civil discontent render the Federal government impotent, states, corporations and municipalities are left to fend foe themselves.

    1. SufferinSuccotash

      An old story. The mercs take over after the demise of the military and police.
      After all, who’s going to stop them and why should they go on working for a thin slice of the pie when they can have the whole thing?

    2. Michael Fiorillo

      Yes, woke naifs and imbeciles are unable to see how Defund the Police, combined with a soon-to-be-upon-us Austerian political economy, will result in private police forces and that special ambiance that places like Colombia and Brazil are known for…

    3. Margret Brady

      Actually, ceberus mastermind, Stephen Fienberg, remains secluded in his armed and gated estate in Conn. while retaining his position as advisor to top Government officials.

  2. Tom Stone

    IIRC it was the Intercept that revealed that the CIA Station Chief and most of the case officers in Islamabad were private contractors.
    This is a predictable outgrowth of our “Fusion Centers” another Public/Private Partnership.
    Anecdotally, at the time of 9/11 I was studying the art of the pistol and shortly afterward recruiters starting showing up at our class ( And from classmates I learned they were showing up at Dojo’s across California)..
    Steele Corp and Dyn Corp are the names I remember.
    Very good pay, very good benefits including a big death benefit.
    I was too old and had the wrong past/attitude to interest them but I knew 4-5 ex military men who took those jobs.

    1. FluffytheObeseCat

      “Steele Corp and Dyn Corp are the names I remember. Very good pay, very good benefits including a big death benefit.”

      It helps the bottom line of any firm if all the (often excellent) job training has been paid for by the U.S. federal government, and tertiarily, therefore, by the people of the nation. I know MMT fans do not like any statements that suggest tax money pays for our government. However, at some level, we do pay for it, if only indirectly. The unseemly, floridly displayed wealth of the vast exurb that is now northern Virginia comes out of the sweat of our brows, just like in Fairfield or Marin Counties. All the ‘nice things’ we can’t afford to fund….. parks, child rearing benefits, tax breaks for the vast bulk of the people rather than just the upper 10%……. all that lack for us translates to the obscene splendor of their daily lives.

  3. The Historian

    When in Rome…..

    Since our government was founded on Roman principles, we seem bound and determined to follow Rome’s trajectory to the bitter end, don’t we? But instead of Senators, we’ve devised a new power structure – corporations. The end will be the same, though, because it isn’t what you call them, it is what they do.

  4. orlbucfan

    Art reflects life. American commercial fiction is filled with novels starring these private corporate mercenaries. They are generally portrayed as very evil, almost mindless, scary characters. The sooner private equity and entities like these are brought under very tight control, the better. However, I’m not holding my breath.

  5. Eustachedesaintpierre

    Echoes of the East India company which used a private army of around 260,000 to conquer India & were the first TBTF corporation which was responsible for the Bengal Famine, the Opium wars & much else while only being responsible to shareholders until receiving a massive bailout giving the British government some control, which of course they benefitted from in relation to the captured Indian jewel in the crown.

    James Dalrymple tells it well.

  6. Anonymous

    Most expensive weapons, least reliable weapons, most expensive military, waging war for 80 years and yet to be on the winning side, and citizens no longer have to participate.

    What could go wrong is going wrong.

  7. Skunk

    Although it’s not a recent book, P.W. Singer’s book Corporate Warriors is an excellent read.

  8. QuarterBack

    The corporate mercenary service portfolio is not limited to kinetic arms and wet work. It includes the services of spying, social media attacks, and torture. At a much smaller scale and focus, this has been going on for ages, but in better days, we knew enough to limit its use and keep it very secret lest we reap the whirlwind. Today however, there seems to be no shame in using mercenaries liberally, and no sense of a need to really cover it up at all. In fact, having it out in the open sends the message “If we want you. We have no limits. We answer to no one”. You know, “Gangsta”.

  9. rivegauche

    Cynthia McKinney — fellow student at Atlanta’s Saint Joseph Catholic high school (though a little bit younger, and I didn’t know her). Thank you for this video clip!

    The Jesuits there in the late 60s taught us to question everything, be curious, and that to follow the letter of the law was sometimes immoral. I am baffled that so many fellow students now live as though none of these teachings meant anything to them (known now thanks to regular reunions and seeing their Facebook posts). But not all of us remained unaffected!

    I haven’t lived in Atlanta for years (stuck in SC since 1993) but, as mentioned above, keep in touch with some of my fellow Saint Joe’s Catholic schoolmates and visit every now and again. The diocese sold the school in the 70s to a firm that turned the property into a parking lot (Joanie Mitchell song, anyone?)

    One classmate’s Atlanta law firm specializes in righting the wrongs of legal malpractice. Another classmate became a nun, left for love, and spent her life helping AIDS patients in other states.

    Other classmates moved to northern CA and were on search/rescue teams, or became an ethical, long-term county commissioner in metro Atlanta, or moved to another state to work on LGBTQ and other progressive causes in the 70s and 80s, and on and on.

  10. Susan the other

    A well-run society is the victim. So question: how do you run functioning, healthy societies? An economic model that plunders for profit just won’t be successful over the long run, as we are all aware of. And we are also aware that all governments, even the best, are not exactly scrupulous. But mercenaries? Off-the-record soldiers? The Neoliberal Foreign Legion? This nonsense might work toward a beneficial outcome if all the profits that accrue to the corporations in question were poured back into society and the environment. But this sort of business, like war, is hyper extractive. So far neoliberal corporatism and the push to privatize everything including national sovereignty is nowhere near so enlightened as to create a decent world. Nor do national governments make it happen, the UN doesn’t make it happen, and mercenaries and NGOs alike don’t have the means to make it happen. It’s not happening. We can either have volunteer cooperation or we can have sub-legal profiteering and so far profiteering is winning. We allow it by creating contraband and then telling our mercenaries to go trade in it for all they can get. Arms, drugs, human trafficking, toxic waste, various currencies and now crypto. Everything is for sale; transactional. Including a dying planet. Maybe we should just get rid of money altogether and deal directly with accomplishing things and achieving provisions as necessary.

  11. Jeremy Grimm

    Considering the nature of the opposing forces as described in this post, I believe the idea that change can be brought about through peaceful marches and peaceful demonstrations is definitely unwise and dangerous. Violent demonstrations in direct confrontation of the opposing forces is a death wish.

    This post argues for regulation and control of the Corporate Mercenary forces. I suppose that might happen around the same time the Government begins to regulate anything in the interests of the Common Good. But the Government serves other interests and I cannot imagine how that will change at this juncture.

    Thinking along different lines — if the mercenary companies have extensive hacking capabilities, it seems odd to me that they have not applied those capabilities for their own interests. Like J. Edgar Hoover, they could acquire some very nice leverage over Congressmen, judges, and Government officials. If they hack the right phones — Congressmen, CEOs, — they could engage in some lucrative investments in the stock market that might earn more than all their more standard military operations. I suppose the military side has its attractions as a nice accoutrement to the exercise of power and control — one desire that seems to accompany the acquisition of great wealth.

  12. Lluís

    After having read this piece of information I wonder if the “defund the police” movement is really so spontaneus and grassroots-driven.

    Cui bonno?

    And not to forget that some politicians and celebrities pushing this agenda already rely heavily on private security.

    Security for me but not for thee.

  13. Fritzi

    I don’t think history bodes all that well for the PTB that rely too much on mercenaries.

    Comparisons to the classic Latin American banana republics have been made.

    Well, the elites in most of those those countries would have been overthrown a hundred times without hefty support from the imperial US.

    Every function of goverment that was privatized was replaced by a much less effective and reliable private imitator.

    Now one would probably argue that most of that goverment functions were things that the oligarchs die not want done at all, while mercenaries being effective at supressing the populace is something they really, really want.

    I fully agree that corporate goons payed to keep poor people under the iron heel will be better motivated than corporate goons payed to pretend they were rendering any kind of service to the great unwashed.

    But incompetence and shoddiness are naked too deeply into the profit über alles mentality for it to not fall back on the people promoting it and profiting from it.

    When the regular military continues to detoriate, for example, there is zero chance that the US will retain the ability to globally project hard power the way it used to with private military contractors alone.

    Billionaires and mega corporations (not only American ones alone) rely heavily on that ability to project power.

    Blackwater and co will never suffice.

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