Blackwater: America’s PMC

Blackwater USA is a former private security company originating in America. And, more often than not, the target of politicised hit pieces and general scorn. The unfortunate nature of Blackwater’s negative media coverage misses the value it brought to US national security. Despite its failures, Blackwater USA had a noteworthy role in the private side of the Global War on Terror (GWOT).

Erik Prince, the co-founder and former CEO, frequently garners attention due to his associations with the Trump administration and conservative movements. Within the post-GWOT/Trump era, the US mainstream media often highlights easily accessible subjects with a prevailing inclination of hostility towards right-wing politics.

In contrast, this article does not focus on select personalities and the things Blackwater USA did wrong. Beyond the company’s publicised mistakes that have been covered ad nauseam, most of its employees formerly served honourably within the US military. They then used their inherited skill sets to continue serving the nation in a private sector capacity.

While not all-encompassing, this article will provide a general overview of Blackwater USA, its history, mission, and the machinery that kept it functioning until its ultimate end.

1. History and symbols

2.1 Blackwater USA History

2.1.1 Initial Origins of Blackwater USA

According to Blackwater lore, the initial idea for the company came from co-founder Al Clark. Like Erik Prince, Clark was a veteran of the Navy SEAL community and on his own a prolific firearms instructor. Consider that at the time – around 1996 – the landscape looked a lot different for private security training. Bill Clinton was still president, and the tragedy of September 11th and the following impetus of the GWOT was still five years away.

Together, Clark and Prince embarked on an industrious journey to carve out their own space within the security training sector. What began as an idea morphed into Blackwater USA. The company’s early mission consisted of providing specialized training for law enforcement personnel and special operations units.

Through private funding, the pair raised enough money to purchase a significant plot of land – roughly 6000 acres in the vicinity of the North Carolina side of the Great Dismal Swamp – the waters of which inspired the company name. Further, the initial roughly 6.5 million dollar investment in Blackwater USA centrally went towards the land and construction of a state-of-the-art training facility. (source)

Initially, the training-focused period of Blackwater history was successful. Clark and Prince carved their niche and clients from all across the nation booked spots in a variety of training courses on their swamp-bordered compound.

2.1.2 Transition from training to operations

Yemen, 2000: Blackwater USA earned its first federal contract. That year, Al-Qaida bombed the USS Cole during a refuelling phase in the port city, of Aden. 17 sailors died, and the ship took heavy damage. Blackwater exported trainers to Yemen to provide counterterrorism training for Naval personnel. Little did anyone know, counterterrorism would end up being the definitive security topic of the next two decades. (source)

September 11th, 2001: Indeed, this national tragedy simultaneously started a series of wars in the Far East, and jumpstarted the military-industrial complex. Modern conflict ushered in creative security solutions to the ever-evolving problem-sets. Not only that but the US government, whose executive branch was now helmed by the Bush administration, had to evaluate the best way to use its resources.

For Blackwater USA, this began a golden era of military contracts. The need for private industry to offer solutions overseas was in a crossing the Rubicon state, and Blackwater USA was a more than capable provider of professional security services.

Contrary to common public assumption, the early stages of the GWOT did not involve Blackwater. Initially, Afghanistan was best handled by special operations units and the intelligence community. However, in 2003, thanks to one of the worst intelligence failures of modern history, the US invaded Iraq.

The initial push was swift and effective, rapidly toppling the menacing regime of Saddam Hussein. In a perfect world, that would have been the end of the conflict. In reality, it was only the beginning. A power vacuum formed, and foreign militants travelled to Iraq to fight the West. Iraq became nation-building and counter-insurgency operations on hard-mode. Conditions were set for private industry to flourish. Thus, Blackwater USA carved out its place in history or infamy, depending on who you ask.

2.2 Symbols

The original Blackwater USA logo on the top, 2007 logo below
The original Blackwater USA logo on the top, 2007 logo below: wikicommons

2. Organisation of Blackwater USA

2.1 Place within broader government

As a private sector company, Blackwater and its sub-divisions are not a sector of government. However, from its origins onward, Blackwater USA received contracts from agencies within the US government. Similar to other private contracting companies that cultivated a legacy during the Global War on Terror (GWOT), Blackwater functioned not as an extension of government, yet as an apparatus that could perform tasks historically reserved for the US Armed Forces, Department of Defense, and elements of the intelligence community.

2.2 Financing

They achieved initial funding for Blackwater USA in 1998 through capital streams from private investors. Early investments enabled the original Blackwater team to purchase land and construct a bespoke training facility in Moyock, North Carolina – Blackwater’s nerve center and training site for its customers.   

The evolution of the company and its services drew interest from the US government, who began to contract Blackwater USA in various capacities in the early 2000s. In essence, that was the fabled turning point for the company from a revenue generation perspective. Within the burgeoning combat theaters in Iraq, Afghanistan, and beyond, the GWOT demanded more than the US government itself could handle. Blackwater offered the ability to fill in sensitive gaps without the need to divert government personnel or military units.

2.3 Business Structure

As stated, Blackwater USA operated with a high degree of privacy. Because of this, the exact nomenclature of its corporate structure is difficult to accurately portray. However, in general, open-source information corroborates the essence of the companies’ structure and sub-divisions up until its first re-branding in 2007.

  • Blackwater Training Centers
  • Blackwater Security Consulting
  • Blackwater Aviation
  • Blackwater Logistics
  • Blackwater Manufacturing

2.4 Key figures

2.4.1 Al Clark

Al Clark was a former Navy SEAL and co-founder of Blackwater Training Center. He was a prolific firearm and marksmanship instructor and worked with Prince to offer the military and law enforcement sectors training that was lacking in each community. Despite his involvement, Clark has remained relatively under the radar in public coverage on Blackwater. He was the company president from 2005 to 2007 and was involved in other private security companies until his unfortunate passing in 2015 because of medical issues. (source)

2.4.2 Erik Prince

Erik Prince was a Navy SEAL officer and co-founder of Blackwater Training Center with Al Clark. Prince is arguably the face of Blackwater USA, and the leader who helped steer it in the direction it went during the GWOT. Regarding his motivations for Blackwater, Prince is quoted saying, “We are trying to do for the national security apparatus what FedEx did for the Postal Service”. Private security solutions are cost-effective and efficient for the US government, under the lens of his view. (source)

Erik Prince
Erik Prince (wikicommons)

2.4.3 Gary Jackson

Gary Jackson is a bit of an enigma from a “publicly available information” perspective. He spent 23 years as a Navy SEAL, and was in Clark and Princes’ orbit during Blackwater’s early planning. Initially, Jackson offered to help with the technology side, but quickly ascended the company ladder. He was the company president from 2007-2009 following the departure of Clark. (source)

2.4.4 Cofer Black

Cofer Black changed to Blackwater in 2005 after an impressive career in the CIA. Black served on multiple counterterrorism-related teams within the agency and was tied to the Bush state department prior to the end of his government service. Indeed, Black exported his intelligence experience to Blackwater, where he served as Vice Chairman and helped bolster the company’s intelligence-related capabilities. (source)

Cofer Black standing behind former Secretary of State Colin Powell
Cofer Black standing behind former Secretary of State Colin Powell (State Department)

2.4.5 Robert Richer

Robert Richer, like Cofer Black, joined Blackwater in 2005 after a distinguished career at the CIA. He functioned as the Vice President of Intelligence, and later as the CEO of Total Intelligence Solutions – a risk management and consulting company owned by Erik Prince. (source)

2.5 Recruitment

In its infancy, the majority of Blackwater personnel came straight from the US special operations (SO) community. This was a similar recruitment tactic used by Triple Canopy, another GWOT-era private military contractor created by former Delta Force operators.

Apart from SO, Blackwater drew from specialized personnel within the civilian training sector of SO and law enforcement, as well as experienced professionals from the US intelligence community. As the GWOT escalated, Blackwater gained former active-duty military personnel seasoned with combat experience. In addition, the organisation was an appealing place for federal and local law enforcement personnel with the skillsets and traits that aligned with Blackwater’s growing list of specialities.

Working for the company was lucrative, as the benefits and salary far superseded military pay. Not only that, but Blackwater was able to maintain the same community element present within special operations and conventional warfare units, without the rank-and-file cultural aspects and inner-service politics that historically create issues with morale and retention.

3. Blackwater USA equipment

Given that Blackwater was founded and heavily staffed by operators, the assumption would be they used high-speed weapons, armour, and vehicles. In essence, they likely did to an extent. However, just like many other fine details of the company’s inner workings, public knowledge is limited.

The nature of Blackwater’s security work demanded a versatile and ever-changing suite of weapons and kits. Much like the conventional and special operations side of the military, as the battlefield environment evolved, tactics and gear demands did as well.

With this in mind, Blackwater contractors used the type of gear you would likely imagine. Small arms, marksman rifles, machine guns, body armour, etc.

One difference, perhaps, is the uniform. The media often stereotypes military contractors to follow the same dress and grooming standards as special operators. Less uniformity, more variety.

4. Tactical and operational information

4.1 Operations

Blackwater’s hallmark operations included:

  • Operation Iraqi Freedom
  • Operation Enduring Freedom (Afghanistan)
  • Hurricane Katrina (2005)

Beyond this, the company is reported to have served clients in regions outside of the GWOT. The true extent of these operations and the nature of the contracts they served is contested or under the veil of company privacy.

4.2 Core Purpose and Tactics

By the time of its prime, Blackwater specialised in a diverse and ever-expanding array of security solutions for its clients. What began with a training centre morphed into a conglomerate of sub-divisions, each with its own speciality. Details on the company’s internal tactics, techniques, and procedures are difficult to come by, as they are not publicly available knowledge. However, below is a summary of the known services offered throughout the company’s history (source):

  • Executive protection (personal security details, escorts)
  • Static security (fixed positions, guarding government infrastructure, etc)
  • Convoy security (providing security for mobile convoys transporting personnel, high-value individuals, and equipment)
  • Intelligence operations
  • Security training
  • Aviation support (through Blackwater Aviation)
  • Humanitarian support
  • Transportation and logistical support
  • K9 training and support
  • Maritime support

4.5 Blackwater USA controversies

Blackwater USA is no stranger to controversy, to say the least. In fact, a quick internet search query will likely result in overwhelming criticism – so much so, that the company’s history is difficult to evaluate without the stringent filtering of external noise.

While some of its controversies are unnecessary and politically charged, elements of Blackwater certainly committed acts that violated international law and basic universal human rights. It is worth emphasizing “elements”, as the misdeeds of some contractors do not represent the entirety of the company. Nor is it likely Blackwater was a “bunch of cowboys”, treating GWOT theatre like the wild west, without any care for the law.

The most publicly known controversy is the 2007 Nisour Square massacre in Baghdad, Iraq. In essence, Blackwater contractors conducting a mobile security detail engaged a crowd of Iraqi citizens, thereby resulting in 17 deaths and 20 non-fatal causalities. To this day, the true nature of the incident is highly contested. It ultimately went to trial and resulted in the guilty conviction of five contractors. Despite the conviction, all five men received a highly controversial pardon from former president, Donald Trump. (source)

And then, there are the findings derived from testimony in the congressional record. In accordance, Blackwater contractors reportedly conducted roughly 195 escalations of force incidents from 2005 to 2008. That translates to roughly 1.4 incidents a week – statistics that at face value, without any further context, do raise questions about why company personnel were finding themselves in so many skirmishes. (source)

5. The future of Blackwater USA

Blackwater USA ceases to exist. The company that was once in the crosshairs of early GWOT media coverage is now another chapter in the war’s history. That is, in name only. Indeed, the identity of Blackwater has carried on to the present day, through evolutions of re-branding and re-structuring.

The first re-structure happened in 2009. Blackwater Worldwide became Xe Services LLC. Not long after, co-founder Erik Prince stepped down from his position as CEO and ended his working relationship with the company. There is speculation about the genuine reason for this change, the general consensus suggesting it was to create distance from the now-tainted Blackwater brand. Nevertheless, Xe was later purchased by investors who renamed and restructured it into Academi, which is what it is known as today. Further, in 2014 a large merger took place with an array of private security companies to form Constellis Holdings. Constellis serves at the helm of its subdivisions, which continue to provide custom-tailored security solutions worldwide. (source, source, source)

6. Conclusion

Blackwater USA may not exist in name, but it continues to live under a new identity and owner. And, with the GWOT complete, it is apparent that the services it provides still have utility and benefit to the nation, in ways not achievable by the government alone.

The controversy surrounding Blackwater continues to haunt media and public opinion, like the spectre of the Bush era and years following 9/11, which surely altered the state of the US in an era-defining way. Despite that, it is uncharitable at best to reduce its legacy to the ways in which it failed. That is not to dismiss the gravity of those failures, but emotions aside, there was more to the Blackwater puzzle than met the eye.

Perhaps Al Clark and Erik Prince were onto something. Perhaps the privatisation of certain traditionally government-led security functions is better handled in the free market and without broad oversight.

Or, Perhaps not.

Nevertheless, the future of US private military contractors is a heated topic, in a national discourse that is, with much despair, properly suited for it.

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