Erik Prince, the ex-Navy SEAL who first gained notoriety as the founder and former head of the Blackwater security firm (which now goes by the name Academi), gained fresh notoriety this week after the Washington Post reported that last January, Prince went to the Seychelles islands to meet with an associate of Russian President Vladimir Putin in order to establish what the Post called “a back-channel line of communication between Moscow and President-elect Donald Trump.”
Prince’s sister is Betsy DeVos, Trump’s Secretary of Education. Their father, industrialist Edgar Prince, got rich in the auto parts business; among other things, Edgar invented the light-up visor mirror.
Here’s five things you need to know about Erik Prince:
1. He Moved to Abu Dhabi in 2010
The Virginian-Pilot newspaper reports that in 2010, Prince sold Blackwater and moved with his family to Abu Dhabi (though he still keeps a home in northern Virginia). While in Abu Dhabi, he worked on building private security forces for Arab princes, and also worked with Chinese investors extracting gas and oil from Africa.
The New York Times suggested that Prince’s exit from the United States was motivated by the series of Congressional investigations, criminal charges and civil lawsuits levied against various Blackwater executives and other personnel. Prince himself was not facing any charges, but as of August 2010, when the Times first reported Prince’s move, five former Blackwater executives had been indicted on federal weapons, conspiracy and obstruction charges, two former Blackwater contractors faced murder charges stemming from a shooting in Afghanistan the year before, and the Justice Department sought to prosecute five other Blackwater contractors over their role in the 2007 mass shooting of civilians in Baghdad’s Nisour Square. (Four of those contractors were later tried and convicted).
A year later, in 2011, the Associated Press reported that Prince was training troops in Somalia. Prince declined interview requests with the AP, but a spokesman at the time emailed that Prince’s goal was “helping Somalia overcome the scourge of piracy.”
2. He Plans to Open An Operating Base in China
Prince is currently the Chairman and Executive Director of Frontier Services Group, whose website says “We are experts at providing security consulting services to companies operating in highly volatile and high risk environments across the globe.”
In December 2016, Frontier put out a press release announcing plans to open “a forward operating base in China’s Yunnan province” so Frontier could “better serve companies in Myanmar, Thailand, Laos and Cambodia.” This inspired BuzzFeed reporter Aram Roston to wonder if Prince was creating “a Chinese Blackwater,” but a Frontier spokesperson told BuzzFeed that “FSG’s services do not involve armed personnel or training armed personnel,” and that the Chinese bases would “help non-military personnel provide close protection security, without the use of arms.”
The spokesperson also said that “Mr. Prince and [then-president-elect] Trump know each other and share mutual respect.”
3. He Has Suggested That Mercenary Armies Should Fight ISIS
In October 2014, in a since-deleted post on the Frontier Services Group company blog, Prince suggested that since “the American people are clearly war-fatigued” and Iraqi Kurds cannot fight effectively because “the U.S. State Department [is] blocking them from selling their oil and from buying serious weaponry to protect their stronghold and act as a stabilizing force in the region,” the best way to fight ISIS would be with mercenary armies: “If the old Blackwater team were still together, I have high confidence that a multi-brigade-size unit of veteran American contractors or a multi-national force could be rapidly assembled and deployed to be that necessary ground combat team.”
That same month, he told Foreign Policy magazine that private contractors would also be the best way to fight the Ebola virus. “We could carry 250 vehicles, couple of helicopters, couple of landing craft, and everything else — so that’s all your mobility equipment. Everything else was containerized: food, medicine, field hospitals, tents, water purification, generators, fuel — everything you’d need for a humanitarian disaster.”
The day before Prince’s October 2014 phone interview with Foreign Policy, an American jury found four former Blackwater contractors guilty of various charges related to the infamous 2007 mass shooting in Baghdad’s Nisour (or Nisoor) Square. Seventeen Iraqi civilians died and 18 were injured; the Blackwater contractors were convicted of charges ranging from first-degree murder to voluntary manslaughter.
4. He Said His Company Would Have Prevented American Deaths in Benghazi
In November 2013 Prince published a book titled Civilian Warriors: The Inside Story of Blackwater and the Unsung Heroes of the War on Terror.
As part of the book’s promotional tour, he made an appearance at a Philadelphia library. During the speech he gave to the hundred or so people at the event, he said that Blackwater could have prevented American deaths during the 2012 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya. “I’m confident if we had been on the job in Benghazi, Ambassador Stevens would still be alive,” Prince said.
He pointed out that no American diplomat ever died under Blackwater’s protection, but said the Benghazi consulate “depended on basically a local militia, a company that hired local Libyans – unvetted, untrained – and even ill-equipped” to go up against what he called “a very, very professional mortar team, which I believe to be Iranian Quds Force, an Iranian special-operations team. To get on target with three or four mortar rounds in an area … you don’t do that. That takes some skill.” (The Guardian pointed out that no investigation of the Benghazi affair ever made that accusation.)
5. In His Book, He Admitted to Cheating on His Dying First Wife
Prince’s first wife died of cancer in 2003. In his book, Prince admitted that while his wife was dying, he had an affair with their children’s nanny – whom he later married, and then divorced.
In the book, he also called Blackwater “a force for good in the world,” though he admitted that he was “aghast” at the reckless behavior of the two Blackwater contractors in Afghanistan who fired into a civilian vehicle in 2009, killing a passenger. He says that the thousands of contractors Blackwater hired over the years included a “handful of bad actors.”
However, he concedes no error or wrongdoing in the 2007 Nisour Square shootings, insisting that the Blackwater contractors who killed 17 Iraqi civilians were reacting defensively to eight or 10 aggressors – a claim in direct contradiction of a U.S. Army report which described the shootings as a “criminal event,” and says there was “no enemy activity involved.”