Mercenaries are back! After a three-century hiatus, sensible people are once again realizing that renting an army is cheaper than owning one: the United States in Iraq and Afghanistan, Putin in Ukraine and Syria, even Nigeria against Boko Haram. It’s boom time, boys! But why work for someone when you could be king? Countries are ripe for the plucking these days, from the Crimea to the Gambia to large swaths of the Middle East. Just don’t be an amateur about it. Here are some tips to be a professional coup maker.
1. Choose your country. Select a country that has been consigned to the trash heap of history, preferably one without strong regional allies. The discerning mercenary looks for the following qualities in a potential selection: exploitable natural resources, corruptible and/or incompetent military, and at least one functional airstrip.
To facilitate recreational activities, make certain your target country has a good brewery, beautiful beaches, and women sans veils. Although this rules out central Africa, most of the Middle East, and some of Asia, you’ll have a much more enjoyable war with beer, bathing, and babes.
2. Find a warlord and co-opt him. Taking over a small country can be exhausting work, so don’t do it alone. Local knowledge (and muscle) is best. Win a native strong man to your side. This is the easiest part. He will handle the recruitment of local talent and interrogation of sources, and will generally keep trains running on time.
To make him dependent on you as the access agent, exploit his vulnerabilities. Common leverage points include: hookers, cocaine mountains, tankards of favorite libations (Chivas Regal for the English speakers and Hennessy XO for the French ones), chromed AK-47s, a supercar fleet, statues of himself, and excessive flattery to foster images of megalomaniacal grandeur.
3. Secure funding. Unless you’ve got oodles of cash in unmarked bills lying around the chateau, you’re going to have to find someone else to pay for your king-making enterprise. The U.S. government might bankroll your private army, and USAID will throw money at anything. Be sure to mention “capacity building” using “holistic modalities” that establishes the “rule of law” to “counter violent extremism” and deny “terrorist safe havens” in your proposal. List your strongman as an “implementing partner” with the highest respect for human rights. They won’t check, so it’s alright.
Another good bet are Big Oil companies, especially if you fabricate “third party” geological surveys indicating strategic-reserve levels of oil. If everything else fails, seek out the son of a former British Prime Minister who is politically connected, massively rich, galactically stupid, and fancies himself a latter-day Lawrence of Arabia. Or better yet, Erik Prince, founder of Blackwater and now working for China.
4. Create a shell company. To get people to give you huge amounts of cash, you need the pretense of legitimacy. Have a look at the advertisements in the back of the Economist magazine. For $398 you can have your own offshore company in the Bahamas and go scuba diving too. Make sure your offshore company is located in a country with no extradition treaties. That will come in handy later.
Branding note: Don’t call your new company something obvious like Sharp End International. Choose something vague and dull using any combination of the following words: operations, options, strategy, group, global, international, solutions, or just use the name of your college alma mater or a famous statesman. Nifty combinations might include Harvard Operations Group (HOG) or Polk International Strategic Solutions (PISS).
5. Raise your mercenary army. More likely than not, there is a huge labor pool of raw talent in your country’s neighborhood. Don’t bother with a TV or radio recruitment campaign (they won’t have electricity), billboards (no roads), or posters in villages (they can’t read). Instead, lean on your local strongman to put the word out in the ungoverned countryside through the beer delivery trucks, who intrepidly venture where CIA agents don’t dare and are beloved by everyone.
Initially, you’re going to need some battle-hardened combatants, preferably from disenfranchised ethnic groups or tribes that used to be in power and are surly about it. Anyone identified by Human Rights Watch as a systematic violator of human rights is a sure bet for real talent. Offer $100 a rebel (in crisp U.S. greenbacks), an all-the-enemies-you-can-kill deal, and promise a massive keg party at the end of it. That should do the trick. A few hundred recruits will do in the beginning, and the rest will join at gunpoint later. If you have trouble making your numbers, children are easily pressed into service. Alternatively, you can always start your own cult.
You will soon learn that your new recruits have a great deal of shooting experience, but little ability to shoot accurately. You will have to break bad habits, such as: shooting with one hand over their eyes, shooting their legs off, shooting colleagues, and disco-shooting — a technique involving shooting AK-47s while dancing in the middle of a firefight. Expect to lose one quarter of your recruits during basic rifle marksmanship. Whatever you do, don’t give out the grenades until game-day. Remember — your army doesn’t have to be well trained, just better trained or crazier than your adversary’s army. If you’re lucky, you’ll be squaring off against an American trained force.
If you are operating in Africa, you will find that most of what you require can be purchased cheaply and easily at the village market. For example, an AK-47 should cost no more than $20 or a small goat. Other equipment to procure includes: ammo, RPGs, crew-served weapons, and the ubiquitous Toyota Hilux pickup truck with .50cal attachment (aka a “technical”). Avoid pistols, as they tend to be used against you by overly ambitious subordinates, typically once you have seized power.
If you have problems sourcing equipment, try the local United Nations mission, who spend months collecting weapons from former warring parties. For a little baksheesh, UN peacekeepers (especially those from South Asia or Nigeria) are often willing to under-report a few tons of weapons. If all else fails, go on a shopping spree in Eastern Europe. Serbia, Bulgaria, and Romania are best. Avoid Russia. Ukraine is busy. Also, don’t bother with the middleman: go directly to the weapons factory. Expect to spend a lot of tush-time in dilapidated, four-prop AN-12 cargo planes flying with the aid of a Garmin suckered to the windshield. Bring earplugs. Pack a lunch, a few briefcases of cash, and some firepower in case the deal goes bad. While in flight, do not be alarmed by the drunken crew smoking on your live-ammo crates while drinking homemade slivovitz that tastes vaguely like distilled hydraulic fluid. This is normal, and you will be expected to participate.
6. Develop a propaganda campaign. You can count on the international press not caring about your country-to-be, unless white tourists are killed. However, noisome Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs), such as Amnesty International, may raise a stink after your coup, so pre-empt them by offering a counter-narrative to the complacent press. Claim that you “nobly plan to restore hope to a beleaguered people, victimized by a serial human rights abusing, terrorist-loving tyrant.” Be sure to flash pictures of starving babies with flies on their faces to attract Hollywood celebrities to your cause. Include some combination of the following buzz-phrases in your press release: “local ownership,” “human security” and “good governance.”
For NGOs who fail to get the message, don’t order a “disappearance” of their staff, as they will only use this against you. Instead, arrange for a sex-scandal involving the NGO’s country director, small native boys, and YouTube. With luck, the entire NGO will be declared persona non grata, and kicked out of the country by dawn.
7. Stage your coup. Once you’ve passed out the hand grenades, fueled up the technicals, and verified that your army is high on dope (you can’t stop this so you might as well channel it for the cause), you are ready to stage your coup d’etat. Most fragile states are so accustomed to coups that all you really need to do is take over the radio station and the Presidential Palace to achieve local “buy-in.”
First, attack at dawn, when government forces will be hung-over and thus incapacitated.
Second, take out the cell-phone towers. You will find that this eliminates 99% of the government’s ability to communicate (the last 1% comprise of hand-signals and verbal abuse).
Third, drive madly down the main streets shooting into the sky and cursing wildly. This is standard coup-protocol, and signals to the citizens: “Armed coup in progress; please remain inside your homes.”
Fourth, expect a final stand of semi-sober, loyal government forces at the palace front gate. This will be a paltry but fearless force of the president’s “elite” inner-circle bodyguard. Usually this means about a hundred deranged child soldiers who worship the president as father and king. The best way to defeat these mini-monsters is to take cover and taunt them via bullhorn, calling them names (e.g., teeny squirt, virgin-boy, lil’ pecker, mini-me-men, etc.). Inevitably, they will become enraged and shoot all their ammo at you. When it runs out, crash down the gates and crack heads.
Fifth, go straight to the president’s bedroom and dig him out from under his pile of whores (caution: he may be dressed as one of them). He will appear much smaller in real life than on TV, so it might take a while to recognize him. Almost immediately (within the hour) conduct a “war crimes” trial followed by a good old-fashion hanging, Saddam Hussein-style. A minimal level of pageantry is important. For some reason, the international community respects this more than a bullet to the head.
Finish up with a national feast, involving free beer from the local brewery, indigenous dancing, and virginal sacrifice (if culturally appropriate).
8. Cement your position. To your surprise, you will find that the citizenry will continue on with “business as usual.” However, you will have to act immediately to establish your authority among pesky rivals by eliminating the opposition entirely and making a few examples of ambitious allies (e.g., your co-opted warlord). You must do this on the same day as the coup, which will send ripples through the countryside, contain most of the bloodshed to a single day, and make good press.
Avoid becoming a global pariah by joining a “coalition of the willing” and/or becoming a U.S. partner in the “War on Terror” or whatever they call that now. Instead, volunteer your country as a secret U.S. air base or CIA prison center in exchange for Washington’s political cover at the United Nations and lots of military aid (it worked for Pakistan and Egypt for years).
9. Do some nation building. In order to avoid a coup yourself, you will need more than repressive secret police — you will need to generate some Gross Domestic Product for your country. If you can grow them, poppies or coca leaves yield more revenue than, say, rice or whatever the World Bank is pushing these days. And then people will pay you not to grow them, so it’s “win-win.”
However, becoming a narco-state is so yesterday. Instead, consider turning your country into an offshore tax haven for hedge funds and oligarchs. As the British Virgin Islands shows, laundering billions of dollars will not only pay handsomely, it will also put you in tight with the Fortune 500 cocktail circuit, who will pay to develop ultra-posh scuba resorts on your beaches, right next to your banks. Of course, this will land your new nation on the Financial Action Task Force blacklist, but think of this as free advertising.
Lastly, shore up customer confidence by not signing quaint extradition treaties. Let them know that they always have a “home away from home,” if they must suddenly flee their country. You may have missed out on the Arab Spring wave but you might get lucky with an African Spring, Latin Spring or Asian Spring. You will soon realize that once you have a vote in the United Nations, you can do whatever you want — enjoy!
10. Bask in your victory. You will find that ruling a small country is akin to being a rock star. Give yourself a new name in the local language, like “Rooster Who Gets All the Hens,” and even name your new nation after yourself like Cecil Rhodes did. You will have hoes-a-plenty, drugs, money, a private jet, an entourage, and no responsibility. People will expect you to misbehave, so don’t let them down.
Sean McFate is the author of The Modern Mercenary: Private Armies and What They Mean for World Order.