IF it had not been for a sudden family emergency, Erik Prince, the CEO of Blackwater, now renamed Xe, would have possibly been killed in the terrorist attack on the Islamabad Marriott in September 2008.
According to a rare interview given to Vanity Fair magazine, Prince reveals that an accident involving his son in America forced him to back out of a trip to Islamabad where he would have been checking into the hotel at the very time that the catastrophic blast took place.
News about the newly renamed Blackwater and Prince's exploits in connection with assassination plots in Karachi and impending drone attacks in Balochistan and South Waziristan have been proliferating in the global news media for the past several weeks. This latest addition, an in-depth interview to a journalist who himself once worked as a CIA attorney, attempts to detail Prince's own frustration at having been made the CIA's scapegoat.
The story of Prince's involvement in a secret CIA programme, was revealed by CIA chief Leon Panetta in a congressional hearing in June last year where Panetta insisted that he himself had learned of its existence only a day ago and had ordered it to be shut down. During the hearing, Panetta revealed two names that of Blackwater and its CEO Erik Prince. Both, he stated, had been heavily involved in the programme to conduct highly sensitive operations.
As investigative reports published in the New York Times, the Washington Post and most recently The Nation (US) have shown the CIA programme planned to target various Al Qaeda terrorists overseas by dispatching small hit teams made of highly trained special operatives. Not only did the New York Times release reports of the existence of the hit teams, it also asserted that it was Blackwater/Xe operatives who were assembling the missiles and often gathering the intelligence needed for drone strikes in Pakistan.
According to Jeremy Scahill's report in The Nation these special Blackwater cells also had bases in Karachi and other parts of Pakistan from which they ran their operations. In the Vanity Fair report, Mamoun Darkazanli, an Al Qaeda financier, is revealed to have been taken out by the supposed secret CIA programme without any knowledge of the German government. According to the interview, a similar attack was planned on A.Q. Khan in Pakistan but was never carried out.
The cavalcade of controversy that has followed recent revelations regarding Blackwater/Xe are notable for the marked turn they represent in the nature of warfare as defined by the age of terror. In essence, they represent the implicit admission that liberal democracies, even those as strong as the United States, are unable to fight transnational terror without giving up the very core principles that define their ideological positions.
The democratic process, with the necessity of congressional oversight and the authority of defined legal parameters, all impose a cost on the speed and alacrity with which warfare can be carried out. Borders interfere, laws constrain and elected assemblies meddle, adding cumbersome burdens to national security objectives as defined by intelligence agencies.
Most annoyingly, transnational terror groups like Al Qaeda are exempt from having to contend with such red tape, leaving them free to pursue their objectives with impunity and speed as helpless democratic governments watch and weep. In the case of Blackwater and the United States, this story of changed warfare could not have been told in this way until after President Obama assumed office.
Until the Bush regime ended, the use of Blackwater, the embrace of legal limbo in the fight against terror and the refusal to let go of tactics that evade oversight could ostensibly be discarded as the tools of a neo-conservative cabal that was out to get blood based on its own imperialist goals. But the advent of the Obama administration and its ongoing refusal to relinquish links with such tactics has proved however that the shift cannot simply be ascribed to a particular administration. Indeed, President Obama himself has authorised at least three of these targeted killings since assuming the presidency.
Drone attacks have increased markedly during his nine months in office and he has refused to authorise a moratorium on extraordinary rendition. Finally, the recently authorised expansion of drone attacks into Balochistan, a continuation of the illegal regime targeted killings programme reiterates this point.
The emergence of this new dynamic reveals how the tools at hand are defining both fronts of the war on terror.
Islamist groups like Al Qaeda, Harkatul Mujahideen and others use faith as a mobilising factor to motivate hordes of poorly educated, impoverished people to chase a transcendent reward in the afterlife. The global south, home to countries like Pakistan and Afghanistan, and heavily populated by miserable and war-weary masses provides an endless supply of potential recruits to further their aims. Poverty-stricken, they eagerly strap bombs to their bodies, their only weapons in their misguided quest for glory, and provide the low-cost fuel for Al Qaeda's aims.
Meanwhile, the global north with an excess of resources and a dearth of ideology has produced private contractors as its answer to non-state fighters. Mercenaries such as those trained by Blackwater/Xe, DynCorp's and Triple Canopy all mobilise with money instead of ideology. Like transnational terrorists produced by Al Qaeda, these mercenaries are bound by nothing other than the mission defined and the sum paid.
By not being tied formally to a military fighting force, they are unconstrained by the laws of war and by operating as a corporation they do not have to undergo the hassle of being accountable to or funded by elected bodies.
Furthermore, when governments subcontract their dirtiest tasks to them, they retain the option of denying ties or assuming responsibility — a win-win situation for carrying out politically unpopular actions without incurring the costs.
The new terms of the war on terror are thus being defined not by Obama or Karzai or Zardari but Osama bin Laden and Erik Prince. In being the leaders of the lawless frontiers where truth is ill defined and law merely an inconvenience, they operate beyond accountability and are untouched by political opinion. While one uses faith and the other money, the recipes of both are simple they employ and operate the tools at their disposal to maim kill and destroy on a global scale. Together they have revealed the war on terror as a conflict of evil vs evil where good is either invisible or altogether absent.
The writer is an attorney and director at Amnesty International, US.