What Should We Make of Elite American Mercenaries in Yemen?


A recent Buzzfeed exclusive reveals that veterans of America’s elite military units, working for the United Arab Emirates, are responsible for a string of assassinations in Yemen. They worked for a company called Spear Operations Group, directed and led in the field by an enigmatic Hungarian-Israeli named Abraham Golan. After meeting in Abu Dhabi with former Palestinian Authority security chief Mohammed Dahlan, now a top adviser for the Emirates, Golan was supplied with weapons, legal cover in the form of military ranks for him and his employees, escorts into Aden, and a list of names.

This is an explosive story. Golan constructed his unit out of former (and in at least two cases still serving) U.S. military personnel, and paid them to kill specific individuals at the direction of a foreign country. Even if it were clear that the targets of these operations were combatants — and it is not — this would go far beyond the now-routine employment of former U.S. military personnel as guards, escorts, and trainers by private military and security firms.

I don’t know how this story is going to play out now that it’s in the open, but I have some initial thoughts to share, as a scholar of both targeted killing and mercenarism in the context of the counter-terrorism.

First, this is unabashed mercenarism. While U.S. citizens may serve as members of the armed forces of foreign countries so long as they are not at war with the United States, there is no plausible way to argue that Golan and his team were actually serving in the Emirati military in any regular way. The Emirates may have a long-standing tradition of employing foreign mercenaries, but even by that standard, Spear was an arms-length, more or less autonomous outfit, able to request materiel and a military escort, but otherwise free to pursue its targets as desired, with whomever Golan chose to recruit.

This is abnormal. It is not a thing that U.S.-based companies and contractors do. It is legally dubious. It is in violation of the private military and security industry’s code of conduct, the International Code of Conduct, which enjoys broad buy-in from the U.S. government — as elaborated in Deborah Avant’s superb research and referenced in her own recent take on Buzzfeed’s story. The code of conduct is still a regulatory work-in-progress, but is a widely supported standard by military contractors in the United States and Western Europe, where contractors are normally diligent in differentiating themselves from mercenaries in places like Ukraine, Syria, or Sub-Saharan Africa. It is thus far outside the normatively acceptable practices of private contracting available to veterans of America’s defense apparatus, which routinely supplies foreign firms and governments with guards, escorts, and trainers, but not combatants. There is an ongoing debate over whether services of this kind should be made normal, but it is currently a significant deviation from what is common and acceptable within the community of contractors and for the U.S. government, which has considerable formal and informal say over what kinds of private security and military contracting take place within U.S. borders and involve U.S. citizens.

Second, this is to some degree confusing. Superficially it makes sense as an example of “modular sovereignty” — a term I use in my work to refer to cases where governments temporarily augment their security apparatus with private actors because they lack an in-house capacity for a particular activity, and either don’t have the time to develop that capacity or do not anticipate needing it for very long. The Emirates wanted to engage in targeted killing, it has lots of money, and Dahlan knows a guy who knows a guy. There’s a delimited list of targets and when they’re all crossed off, the operation ends.

Yet I struggle to imagine why Spear was the best choice for this. Golan, according to Buzzfeed, intended to structure his operations along the lines of Israel’s targeted killing practices (details of which may be found in some of my own work), but he is not a veteran of any Israeli unit, nor did he appear to do anything out of the ordinary for urban warfare — targets were surveilled by foot, motor vehicle, and small drone, and struck with small arms and explosives. The United Arab Emirates have people who can do this, and arguably do it better in this case. Granted, their own forces or their proxies in Yemen may lack the tactical skills of SEALs and Green Berets, but their targets were not, by Buzzfeed’s account, particularly hard. The greatest risk was not encountering a fortified nest of veteran terrorists, but spooking targets into going into hiding, as indeed reportedly happened after the first failed operation. In this case it makes more sense to employ locals, or at least Arabs, who have the language skills and ability to move or collect intelligence as covertly as possible. Hiring American door-kickers seems inappropriately high-profile, or at least risky overkill.

What gives? I can only speculate, but I see a few possibilities.

One is that the Emirati leadership is hesitant to institutionalize targeted killing. An institutionalized targeted killing program requires tasking intelligence resources for gathering tactical information on targets, then establishing enduring operational coordination between intelligence units and those capable of doing the killing, whether military or paramilitary. These practices endure in organizational form and institutional memory, as does resistance to them (as I detail in forthcoming work on the CIA’s targeting program). The advantage of using mercenaries is that if the Emiratis decide they don’t want a targeted killing program, they simply end their contracts and that’s that. Nobody left to remember how it’s done, and no legacy within the Emirati security apparatus, in terms of relationships between units or agents. I leave it to others to wonder why the United Arab Emirates would be so averse, however.

Another is that by employing Americans, the Emiratis hope to insulate themselves from international consequences. Since the assassinations of Yemeni citizens on Yemeni soil is being carried out by U.S. citizens, working for a U.S.-based company, registered in the state of Delaware, the U.S. government may be more reluctant to apply any punitive measures. This episode is, after all, a regulatory failure and an embarrassment for America’s private military and security industry, and for the government. Again, though, I’m unsure as to why the Emirates would find this necessary, given how little the Trump administration seems to care about what happens in Yemen, and the broad alignment of U.S., Saudi, and Emirati interests there.

Or this was somebody’s pet project — Dahlan’s or someone else’s — and they lacked the authority to approve of a restructuring of the formal Emirati security apparatus or the use of its existing proxies in Yemen, but they did have access to some money and approval for some smaller scale diversion of the Emirati military for support.

Regardless, one thing is certain: We should very closely watch how the U.S. government responds to these revelations. It’s possible that some corner of the U.S. intelligence community knew about some aspect of it, but I suspect Buzzfeed’s story will come as a surprise to most in government. Will Golan be subject to penalties? Will those who worked for him as hired assassins — veterans of the America’s elite units — be subject to investigation, and face punishment if they have broken the law? Because if they do not, this will happen again, and unabashed mercenarism may well become the new normal for U.S. companies and contractors. This is something many contractors and their companies themselves are firmly against here, and which, at least in America and Western Europe, has until now been an institutionalized difference between professionals and rogues.


Simon Frankel Pratt holds a Ph.D. from the University of Toronto, and is currently a postdoctoral researcher affiliated with the Mortara Center for International Studies, Georgetown University. His current research is on private contracting in the intelligence and defense community. For more, visit his website: http://simonfrankelpratt.com.

Image: Sgt. Daniel Schroeder