Sept. 3, 2016, for a deal of $300 million (USD), Erik Prince, the founder of Blackwater and chairman of Frontier Services Group(FSG) promised Salva Kiir’s government planes that drop bombs, attack helicopters, medical evacuation capabilities, a strike team, drones and training for 4,000 mercenaries, a deal that would have ended rebellion in South Sudan in 2014 but it turned out the underpriced deal was too unrealistic to be delivered at the capacity of FSG.
Begin the full report by the Intercept below ……
In the summer of 2014, Prince brought a project to FSG that he believed could serve as a test run for the newly modified Thrush planes and help get the infant company on its feet. It involved South Sudan, where Prince had a long track record dating back to the Blackwater era. Prior to South Sudan’s independence in 2011, Blackwater was fined by the U.S. government for brokering defense services to southern Christian rebels without a State Department license. In 2006, ignoring explicit U.S. government instructions, Blackwater proposed a security contract with forces loyal to rebel leader Salva Kiir, a devout Christian and the future president of an independent South Sudan.
Nearly a decade later, when Prince brokered FSG’s deal, South Sudan was ruled by Kiir, whose trademark cowboy hat was a gift from President George W. Bush. In the summer of 2014, the young, oil-rich country was several months into a civil war that had reduced oil production by a third, and Kiir needed Prince’s support. But, as was the case with many of Prince’s proposals, the services he claimed he was offering stood in stark contrast to his real plan.
FSG, according to the proposal Prince presented to the company, would provide South Sudan’s Ministry of Petroleum and Mining with logistical services to help get the country’s oil fields and refineries back online. The 12-month contract, which company officials said was worth $150 million, called for FSG to operate overflight surveillance of several oil fields in South Sudan, build and supply camps next to the fields, and ferry workers and engineers by helicopter and plane.
Willingness to operate in a civil war reflected the new company’s appetite for risk; FSG recognized an opportunity for profit in parts of the African continent where competitors were afraid to venture. Prince, as chairman and founder of the company, saw himself as opening the door for business on the African “frontier.” But, according to multiple sources, the services FSG understood it would provide to South Sudan never included defense assistance. The company had not applied for, nor did it possess, the required defense export licenses from the U.S. government.
“This is not supporting the army,” Gregg Smith told Bloomberg News in December 2014. “The contract is clearly with the Ministry of Petroleum and Mining to support the oil field services and to make sure the production of oil keeps flowing.”
In Austria, Airborne had already drawn up blueprints detailing how different weapons configurations would affect the Thrush’s fuel consumption and flight times, according to a copy of the plans. The blueprints offered three configuration options: mixed-attack mission, ISR mission, and bomb mission. All of them involved arming the planes with a combination of machine guns, bombs, or rockets.
ONTRARY TO WHAT the Airborne employees had been told, the Thrush was not intended for a Kenyan operation. The plane was ultimately flown from Austria to Juba, South Sudan. In the meantime, San Marino aviation authorities had seen the picture of the Thrush posted by the plane spotter and canceled the aircraft’s registration. They informed FSG that the plane did not appear to be the civilian aircraft for which they had issued an operating certificate. Within a few weeks, the Thrush was transported from Juba to an air hangar in another East African nation, where it remains to this day.
By the end of 2014, the South Sudanese government had stopped paying FSG. When FSG executives inquired with the oil ministry, the South Sudanese were evasive, saying they would only speak directly to Prince. “They quit paying and they wouldn’t talk to anyone and they said, ‘You need to have Erik Prince come up here,’” recalled the source with direct knowledge of the company’s operations. “They wouldn’t talk to us, wouldn’t pay us, wouldn’t do anything.”
FSG dispatched personnel to Juba to determine why the contract was falling apart. Although the government wouldn’t tell FSG what the problem was, one South Sudanese official told an FSG employee in the country that Prince had promised to provide the government with attack aircraft. The South Sudanese, according to a person with knowledge of the encounter, were initially confused, and then angry, when the militarized planes never arrived.
“[The South Sudanese] thought they were buying attack aircraft that could go after the rebels in a very serious manner,” said the source knowledgable about FSG’s internal affairs. “Erik had promised things to these guys, capabilities that we didn’t have and that we were never going to have.”
Prince had promised the South Sudan government a foreign mercenary force if it hired FSG to provide logistics and aerial surveillance. Prince did not inform FSG executives of this side deal, claiming he had offered only “monitoring the oil fields, monitoring any activity in and around them, to give the government line of sight so they could keep the oil flowing,” according to the source familiar with internal FSG matters.
“Erik promised them ISR, planes that drop bombs, attack helicopters, medical evacuation capabilities, a strike team, and training for 4,000 soldiers,” said the second person with knowledge of the plan. “The contract was for logistical support and camp building, things to support the oil fields. [Prince] verbally promised the rest.”
In the meantime, one of Prince’s lieutenants, a retired South African special forces officer, began building a proposal for Prince that could be pitched to President Kiir. Code-named Project Iron Fist, the proposal stated that Prince and his colleagues had been “invited” by South Sudan to “design a proposal” for “oil field security training, security intervention and protection support services to the government of South Sudan.”
Prince’s associates explicitly plotted a business structure for the contract that would expose no traceable connection to them, according to a document reviewed by The Intercept. They believed this would enable them to hide violations of U.S. and international defense regulations.
At the time the plan was being prepared, the United Nations Security Council was considering a set of sanctions and an arms embargo against Salva Kiir and his political rival’s armed faction.
Prince’s $300 million proposal to aid Kiir’s forces explicitly called for ground and air assaults, initially to be conducted by a 341-person foreign combat unit. Prince’s forces would conduct “deliberate attacks, raids, [and] ambushes” against “rebel objectives,” to be followed by “continuous medium to high intensity rapid intervention,” which would include “search [and] destroy missions.” Various drafts of the proposal, obtained by The Intercept, reveal meticulous planning, down to the exact number of munitions and specific hand-held radios that would be purchased. Iron Fist called for the acquisition of at least 600 bombs, 3,500 rockets, 7,500 mortars, and more than 30 million rounds of ammunition.
Among the aircraft offered in the plan were two weaponized and surveillance-equipped Thrush planes.
Iron Fist represents — more than any other known document — Erik Prince’s vision of contemporary warfare on the African continent, where the mere presence of an armed crop duster offers an opportunity to defeat a rebellion, terror group, or insurgency. While the proposal’s overt focus was on protecting South Sudan’s oil industry, two people with direct knowledge of Prince’s efforts said his actual intent was to provide a foreign force, loyal to President Kiir, to be used in a civil war fought largely on ethnic and religious lines. Iron Fist promised that the rebels would be “neutralized.” According to one of the people with knowledge of the project, Prince and his team then planned to establish and train a force to defend President Kiir’s agenda. They would also offer “spin-offs” of the original foreign mercenary unit, according to the Iron Fist proposal.
After FSG’s logistics contract fell apart and the government halted its payments to the company, Prince traveled alone to South Sudan several times in early 2015 in an effort to salvage the deal. FSG officials said that Prince never briefed the company on his meetings and they were never given a formal explanation of what they had failed to provide the South Sudanese government. “We never got paid and I made the decision to shut it down,” said Smith.