Two weeks after three US contractors were kidnapped by Shiite militia in a suburb of Baghdad, the US and Iraqi governments have provided only a trickle of information about their activities in Iraq or the identity of their employer. In the mainstream and defense press, the story has focused on the kidnappers, their ties to Iran, and the possible impact the incident could have on the US-Iraqi fight against the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL.
The three kidnapped contractors were “military trainers” working for General Dynamics, the nation’s fifth-largest defense contractor. They were most likely grabbed by the “League of the Righteous” (Asaib Ahl al-Haq), one of three powerful Shiite militias that maintain close ties to Iran’s notorious Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. The Iran link is apparently so strong that Secretary of State John Kerry raised it with his counterpart, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif.
In late January, Kerry took time out from the World Economic Forum in Davos to ask Zarif for help with the case and on “getting the right kind of outcome” for the United States. Meanwhile, opponents of the recent nuclear deal with Iran are using the kidnapping to attack Kerry and the Obama administration’s policies toward that country. (On Thursday, US officials told Reuters that “criminal, not political motives likely were behind the kidnapping” and said they had no evidence of direct Iranian government involvement.)
But, as is usual when it comes to the murky world of contracting, there’s far more to the tale. The incident underscores the deadly nature of the private security business and the growing importance of defense contractors in the Obama administration’s military operations abroad. And the story of one of the companies involved, Sallyport Global, illustrates how war and profit have mixed since the US invasion of Iraq in 2003.
Whatever the circumstances, the Baghdad kidnapping underscores an important truth about the vast expansion of military contracting in war zones over the past 15 years: It’s an extremely dangerous occupation.
According to the latest statistics compiled by the Department of Labor, 3,712 people working for US and foreign companies under contract to the Pentagon and other US agencies were killed between September 1, 2001, and December 31, 2015. Not all were American; the numbers include citizens from many countries who were caught up in the war as contractors for US and foreign companies working for the US government.
“Most of the killed are local nationals,” who make up most of the work force and are predominantly translators and truckers, said Doug Brooks, a Washington consultant and the former president of the International Stability Operations Association, which represents dozens of private security contractors in Washington. Brooks said the Department of Labor numbers, which are compiled by DOL’s Office of Workers’ Compensation Programs, are considered accurate by the contracting community.
Most of the contractor deaths—3,259—took place in Iraq (1,630) and Afghanistan (1,629), where the United States has been at war for most of the past decade. Large numbers of contractors also lost their lives in Kuwait, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan. In comparison, over 6,800 US soldiers were killed in Iraq and Afghanistan between 2001 and 2015.
Companies linked to L-3 Communications, a key Pentagon and intelligence contractor, accounted for 378 of the contractor deaths—more than any other single company. Most of its dead worked for L-3’s Titan unit, which provided thousands of interpreters and linguists who served alongside US troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. (L-3 had no comment, but a spokeswoman noted that Titan was acquired by L-3 in 2005 and spun off in 2012 as Engility Holdings Inc.)
DynCorp International, the single largest US contractor in Afghanistan and a major contractor in Iraq, lost 169 people. The third-highest total, 151, were working for KBR Inc., the former subsidiary of Halliburton that became notorious for winning Army logistics contracts in Iraq due to its close ties to former Vice President Dick Cheney. Nearly all of that total, 140, were employed by KBR subsidiary Service Employees International Inc. It was a major provider to KBR of truck drivers, hundreds of whom were attacked during the early stage of the Iraq War.
Sallyport Global, which provides security services to General Dynamics in Iraq, has lost 23 contractors, according to the DOL statistics.
Training Iraqi Special Forces
The difficulty of tracking the activities of these companies, particularly those that operate as subcontractors, was amplified by the conflicting government and corporate responses to the kidnapping of the three General Dynamics contractors in Baghdad. According to the first reports, including a January 18 investigation by The Wall Street Journal’s Baghdad bureau, the subcontractors were seized at an apartment house in the Shiite suburb of Doura on January 16:
An Iraqi military official identified two of the three people…as Amro Mohammed, an Egyptian-American, and Wael al-Mahdawy, an Iraqi-American. They were kidnapped over the weekend from a private home in Doura, he said…. The third person kidnapped was Russel Furat, an Iraqi-American woman, an Iraqi police official said. It wasn’t known whether Ms. Furat works for General Dynamics…
An employee for Sallyport Global Holdings, a Virginia-based firm, said three people working for a company to which it is contracted to provide security had been abducted but didn’t specify the company’s name. Sallyport Global Holdings is under contract with General Dynamics to provide security for its employees in Iraq.
Sorting this out wasn’t easy. General Dynamics would not comment, and referred all of my questions to the State Department. John Kirby, a State Department spokesperson, said in an e-mail that the US government is “working with the full cooperation of the Iraqi authorities to locate and recover the individuals.” But, asked to clarify General Dynamics’ role in Iraq, he replied, “Due to privacy considerations, I have nothing further.” That is often the case with subcontractors, whose operations are usually overseen by their prime contractors rather than the government agencies that fund them.
US Army contracting documents, however, show that the corporation’s intelligence unit, General Dynamics Information Technology, is training the Iraqi Special Forces directly engaged in the fight against ISIS. On January 19, the London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism reported that two of the General Dynamics personnel were working on a “critical multimillion dollar deal to train Iraq’s counter-terrorism forces in the fight against” ISIS. According to the bureau:
The Bureau has learned that a contract for US defence giant General Dynamics to provide services to Iraq’s government was quietly renewed by Washington without any formal tendering process towards the end of last year. The deal had to be rushed through, according to a Federal procurement document, which stated: “Time is critically short due to the nature and complexity of international negotiations and agreement.” The value of the renewed contract, which started last month, is not yet known but the previous 12-month deal that expired in November was worth $4.4 million. The question of using American contractors to train Iraq’s special forces has now been thrown into sharp focus.
The “ISOF Training Solicitation” was posted on the US government’s Federal Business Opportunities website on December 7, 2015. A redacted document attached to the post explains the purpose of the contract and why it was single-sourced to General Dynamics:
In the current volatile security environment, the Iraqi Counter Terrorism Service continues to be the most relevant force in Iraq to deter, prevent, disrupt, capture, and prosecute known terrorists and terrorist organizations. To maintain the effectiveness of the organization, it is critical to conduct professional sustainment training at the appropriate levels and intensities to maintain the unit’s mission effectiveness. To this end, the Government of Iraq (GoI) has requested the assistance of the United States Government (USG) in obtaining goods and services through the Foreign Military Sales (FMS) process to establish a training case to ensure the continued effectiveness of Iraq’s Counter Terrorism Service…General Dynamics Information Technologies (GDIT), as the incumbent contractor, is currently in place performing in an acceptable manner.
This should be déjà vu to the US military. Just one year ago, three Americans working for a company contracted to train Afghan special forces were killed by a Taliban “insider” at Kabul’s airport. As I reported here on February 4, 2015, those contractors were working on a fleet of Pilatus PC-12 surveillance and intelligence aircraft “used extensively by US Special Operations Command forces in Afghanistan and covert wars throughout the world. In 2013, as part of its program to train the Afghan military, the Pentagon handed over a fleet of the planes to the government in Kabul.”
So the Iraqi kidnapping represents the second attack on US contractors training special operations forces within a year. Hopefully that will throw these policies into “sharp focus,” as suggested by the Bureau’s reporters.
Sallyport, Born from the Occupation
Finally, there’s the role of Sallyport Global, which was reportedly providing security to General Dynamics. This company, relatively unknown, is now a unit of the private-equity firm DC Capital Partners.
According to its website (“Enabling Global Operations”), Sallyport employs over “3,000 professionals in more than 20 global locations” who provide “security and global mission support services during periods of conflict, disaster, and uncertainty, follow-on development and reconstruction through transition to stability.” But a look into its history reveals a deeper story of crony capitalism in national security.
Much of the story came out in 2014, when the Sallyport’s founders—who were stationed in Iraq during the war—fought a bitter court fight in Pittsburgh over the company’s assets. As reported by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the company was founded in 2003 by Thomas Charron, a West Point graduate, with a $100,000 home equity loan; in 2004, he formed a partnership with John DeBlasio, who was an “adviser to the Coalition Provisional Authority, Iraq’s transitional government, during a 14-month tour in 2003-04.” Charron later sold his shares to DeBlasio for $40.7 million, according to court documents obtained by the newspaper.
The Post-Gazette also reported that Sallyport’s work
included security, shuttling Iraqi police trainees between Iraq and Jordan, and building secure compounds for the U.S. Agency for International Development…. Most of Sallyport’s work was done in hazardous, far away places. Court records indicate the company won no-bid contracts tied to Operation Iraqi Freedom or Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan. The company collected tens of millions of dollars in revenue annually for taking the kind of risks that included a 2006 incident in which 19 Sallyport employees were pulled off a bus in Iraq and executed, according to court records and other sources. “It was one of those businesses where people had to really swallow hard to get the hairball down,” Mr. DeBlasio told the court.
In 2014, Sallyport was sold to Michael Baker International, a subsidiary of DC Capital Partners that once “hired Sallyport as part of its post-war work in Iraq,” the Post-Gazette reported. But if providing security was Sallyport’s forte, it apparently didn’t do its job with General Dynamic in Iraq. According to several of the press reports about the Baghdad kidnapping, the contractors were captured in a brothel. Another story suggests that they were taken to the Dora suburb of Baghdad “without approval.” That’s not exactly good operational security.
Questions about the security provided to General Dynamics are compounded by the fact that Sallyport’s owners at DC Capital Partners are advised by a star-studded list of former Pentagon, intelligence, and State Department officials who should know something about security.
Among the members of the fund’s board of advisers are Michael Hayden, a former CIA and NSA director; Richard Armitage, a former deputy secretary of state; and Anthony Zinni, a former commander of the US Central Command. Tom Campbell, a DC Capital partner and spokesperson for the fund, would not comment, but urged me to instead “go to the Sallyport website.”
I did. It states that the kidnapped personnel were “not employees of Sallyport or any affiliated company,” and adds that Sallyport’s “first concern is for the individuals who were reported missing.” Meanwhile, as the search for the kidnapped contractors continued, Sallyport Global was awarded a $271.8 million extension of a US Air Force contract to provide support and security for Balad Air Base in Iraq. The contract was announced by the Pentagon on January 29.