one man private army

One Man Private Army

Invading an impoverished country mostly by himself, legendary gun-for-hire Bob Denard created a whole class of modern mercenary—and a new way of war

An excerpt from my new book Shadow Wars, available for pre-order from Potomac Books.

In the early 1960s the former Belgian Congo came apart at the seams. U.N.-backed Congolese troops battled the forces of the breakaway region of Katanga, which in turn was supported by hundreds of foreign mercenaries.

Surely no one realized it at the time, but the seeds of a new way of war were planted in the Congo’s rich soil at that time—a way of war cultivated in large part by one man.

Among the pro-Katanga fighters was a tall, handsome, 30-something French soldier-of-fortune named Gilbert Bourgeaud, better known by his nom de guerre “Bob Denard.” The Frenchman was notorious for fearlessly manning a mortar while under heavy attack.

The Congo crisis was the young Denard’s first war-for-hire. He would later take part in conflicts in Yemen, Benin, Gabon and Angola, among others.

The Katanga rebellion failed and Denard fled. In late 1965, the mercenary reappeared in Congo, this time fighting on the side of strongman Mobutu Sese Seko, a one-time opponent of the Katanga regime.

Following the money, Denard had switched sides.

Mobutu consolidated power and declared himself president in November. Fearful of the mercenaries who had fought against him then for him and who still lingered in “Zaire,” as Mobutu had renamed the country, the new president asked Denard to help disarm one of the more notorious foreign fighters, a Belgian named Jacques Schramme.

Instead, Denard switched sides again. He joined Schramme in trying to overthrow Mobutu.

The coup failed when the mercenaries ran into a platoon of North Korean soldiers accompanying their vice president on a visit to Pyongyang’s African ally. The North Koreans didn’t hesitate to open fire on Denard’s men. Denard was shot in the head and lay paralyzed for two days, as a woman, later to be his first wife, tended his wound with ice and herbs.

Denard’s men then stole a plane and evacuated their wounded boss. Denard walked with a limp for the rest of his life. But the then-37-year-old Frenchman was not done fighting. He returned to Congo for one more (ultimately failed) coup attempt before drifting into other African wars.

Denard’s hasty attack on the leader of Benin in 1977 faltered after just three hours; he left behind live and dead mercenaries, weapons and other gear, and, most damning, documents describing his entire battle plan.

Families of victims of the attack filed suit in France and Benin. In France, Denard was sentenced to five years in prison. In Benin, he was given the death penalty.

But by then Denard was far beyond the reach of either court. He was on a boat, armed to the teeth at the head of a mercenary army, bound for the Indian Ocean island nation of the Comoros in the opening move of what would become a private war lasting nearly 20 years.

Denard’s army in the Comoros would breed an entire generation of mercenaries who, three decades later, would find gainful employment waging war on behalf of a much wealthier client.

The United States.

Mercenary king

A certain class of warrior deliberately obscured their origins, intentions and methods. They fought not for nation or state, but for money. More often than not, they didn’t even use their real names.

They were mercenaries. In the 1970s and ‘80s, Bob Denard was their king, and the East African island nation of the Comoros was their realm.

The three islands of the Comoros together represent Africa’s third-smallest country, with just 863 square miles of tropical forest-covered mountains and hills, beaches and dense, seedy, labyrinthine cities for its nearly 800,000 people.

The Comorans are poor people in a poor land. They hunt, they fish, they grow vanilla for export. A quarter of the countries country’s external trade is in the form of old, frequently toxic, decommissioned ships that the desperate Comorans dismantle and recycle or throw away—for a fee.

The islands were French until July 1975. Ahmed Abdallah, then 56 and the founder of his own political party, became the first president of the newly independent nation.

But not for long. In August he was overthrown. And so began one of the most bizarre, and grotesque, political successions in modern history. Abdallah’s overthrower, Said Mohammed Jaffar, was himself overthrown in January 1976 by Denard, acting on behalf of a man named Ali Soilih.

Soilih’s agents had found Denard in Paris, where he was bored and despairing. Africa’s wars of decolonization in the 1960s had been pretty good for the old “dog of war,” as the press liked to call Denard. But several of the Frenchman’s most ambitious gigs had ended in disaster. He found his reputation, and demand for his lethal services, waning.

The future Comoran president’s men offered Denard a $15,000 advance in exchange for his help raising an army against Abdallah. Denard called in some old cronies from Gabon and France, purchased 10 tons of weapons, ammunition and other supplies; and caught a commercial flight to Moroni, the Comoros’ biggest city.

There Denard equipped some overeager Comoran youths with unloaded weapons and sent them racing across the island in a show of force. There was one fatality: a young relative of Soilih who was decapitated by a machete-wielding guard.

Denard and his mercenaries flew to a neighboring island and laid siege to Abdallah in his villa. The president surrendered. Soilih handed him a passport and a million dollars and made him swear to never re-enter politics. Abdallah left for Paris.

Soilih held on for two years, himself surviving no fewer than four attempted coups.

He was a terrible leader. His drug and alcohol abuse, and his tendency to look to his witchdoctor for strategic guidance, compounded his policy failures. Soon the treasury was empty, and the country was growing hungry.

When the witchdoctor told Soilih he would be killed by a white man with a black dog, the increasingly mad president sent men to kill all the dogs on the island—an obviously fruitless task.

Deposed former president Abdallah watched Soilih’s implosion from the comfort of exile in Paris. Abdallah allied with two wealthy Comoran businessmen. Together they came up with a surprising plan. They would hire the man who had overthrown Abdallah two years ago to restore the former president to power.

They called Denard.

Back to the Comoros

The old mercenary was a desperate man. His attempted coup in Benin the year before had left him with a bullet in his skull and prison and death sentences in France and Benin. He accepted Abdallah’s contract—thus switching sides in a conflict for at least the third time in his career—and quickly spent millions of dollars of the conspirators’ money recruiting and arming his troops.

When the money ran out, a determined Denard sold a garage he owned and became a shareholder in “Abdallah, Inc.”

Denard bought a 200-foot trawler he renamed Masiwa, stocked it with weapons, and brought aboard 50 of his best men and a pet German Shepherd—the black dog of Soilih’s nightmares.

They sailed from France in March. On May 13, 1978, they slipped ashore wearing black uniforms, prophetic dog in tow. Killing four guards and cops en route to the presidential palace, they found Soilih drunk in bed with two young girls. “I should have known it would be you,” Soilih said to Denard.

Abdallah resumed his interrupted presidency. Sixteen days later, the imprisoned Soilih was shot dead, allegedly by Denard’s men.

And Denard reaped the rewards. Installed as chief of the 500-strong presidential guard—in effect, the military of the Comoros, equipped with machine gun–armed jeeps—Denard was widely considered the real power in the Comoros.

He recruited friends and fellow Europeans as guard officers. With his salary of more than $3 million a year, he built a luxurious estate on 1,800 acres. He married a hotel receptionist, his sixth wife, and had eight children. He converted to Islam. Or claimed to, at least.

Denard also claimed to have the support of the French government, which had been keen to retain some influence over its former colonies. But if that claim was true, Paris never publicly confirmed it.

But it seems Abdallah resented and feared Denard’s power. The Frenchman had, after all, helped overthrow rulers in Nigeria, Angola and Yemen. After 11 years of unofficial joint rule, in 1989 there were rumors Abdallah planned to replace Denard as chief of the guard.

The timing seemed right. All over the world, old alliances were weakening. The poor nations of the world were throwing off the chains of superpower conflict, ejecting its agents and realigning their interests.

But Abdallah never got the chance for his own version of the Soviet Union’s perestroika, or “reform.” On the night of Nov. 26, the president was shot and killed in his bedroom.

Newspaper accounts, what few there were, varied wildly. At least one breathless article described a mercenary firing a rocket-propelled grenade into Abdallah’s bedroom. The scant press actually paying some attention assumed Denard or his men killed Abdallah. Everyday Comorans believed it, too. They rioted in the capital city Moroni, chanting, “Assassin! Assassin!” when Denard appeared.

But Denard, who fled to South Africa after Abdallah’s death, later told a French court he was in the president’s bedroom when Abdallah’s personal bodyguard, Abdallah Jaffar, burst into the room and fired at Denard. Abdallah was hit by accident. Denard said he shot back and killed the assailant.

“I was a soldier,” Denard said tearfully. “I was never a killer,” he told the court.

Said Mohamed Djohar, former head of the Comoros Supreme Court, succeeded the slain Abdallah and ruled until 1995, when he was overthrown by … Denard, again, out for one last adventure.

That time, French troops swooped in to restore order. The old dog of war Denard, née Bourgeaud, was arrested and jailed. He died of Alzheimer’s in Paris in 2007, at the age of 78. The truth concerning that bloody November night died with him.

The same year that Denard died, one of his former lieutenants, a man who had served under the self-styled warlord as an officer in the Comoros presidential guard in 1985, flew to Mogadishu, where he was to fulfill the destiny denied Denard.

Richard Rouget, a.k.a. “Colonel Sanders,” was 47 years old when he helped conquer an African nation with the full but largely unspoken support of the U.S.

Rouget fought for his own personal gain. But America was happy to benefit. And it didn’t hurt that almost no one called Rouget a “mercenary.” Decades after Denard’s bloody heyday, mercenaries had learned to go by other names.


Guns for hire

In the late 1990s there was a seismic shift in the way governments waged war in Africa and across the globe. Bob Denard’s bloody antics in the Comoros had established a precedent.

Men like Denard but perhaps a little less theatrical—many of them South Africans—took the next logical step. They founded businesses with boring-sounding names but a deadly purpose: to fight Africa’s nastiest conflicts on behalf of corrupt, inept governments, and for profit.

They found willing customers in governments and international organizations increasingly unwilling to, or incapable of, waging war alone—inhibitions that only deepened following the Somalia bloodletting.

“In the post-Cold War era … this cross of the corporate form with military functionality has become a reality,” security expert P. W. Singer wrote in Corporate Warriors. “A new global industry has emerged. It is outsourcing and privatization of a 21st-century variety, and it changes many of the old rules of international politics and warfare.”

In 1989 former South African commando Eeben Barlow, a lanky, hook-nosed man with one blue eye and one green one, founded Executive Outcomes, a U.K.-based company offering security training services to the South African military and businesses. Barlow was in his mid-30s at the time. For five years he was Executive Outcomes’ sole employee.

Then, in March 1993, Angolan rebels seized Soyo, a major state-owned oil facility on the country’s lawless coast. The Angolan army was busy battling rebels elsewhere, so the government approached Barlow with an offer the former commando could not refuse: $80 million to oversee the liberation of the captured oil facility.

Barlow quickly assembled a strike team of 50 of his old Special Forces colleagues. With Angolan helicopters flying top cover and two chartered Cessnas shuttling in supplies, the Executive Outcomes strikers assaulted Soyo.

In a week of hard fighting, the mercenaries liberated the facility. Three of Barlow’s men were wounded.

The Angolan government was impressed. In June they offered Barlow an even more lucrative contract to train up an entire army brigade to fight the rebels. For this task Barlow recruited 500 former South African commandos and chartered a small air force, including 727 jets.

Executive Outcomes’ responsibilities gradually expanded. Soon the company was also providing pilots for Angola’s Russian-made helicopters, propeller-drive attack planes and MiG-23 jet bombers.

In November the Angolan brigade Barlow’s men were training attacked the rebels, initiating what would be an 18-month campaign fought in equal parts by Executive Outcomes and its Angolan trainees, but with the South African company providing all the expertise and air power.

The Angolan brigade was a front for a mercenary army. Two Executive Outcomes aircraft were shot down and several employees killed.

The battered rebels sued for peace and in January 1995 Barlow pulled his men out of Angola. They were not idle for long. The government of Sierra Leone, under pressure from rebels of its own, was Executive Outcomes’ next client.

In April, a hundred of Barlow’s mercs, led by a South African ex-commando named Duncan Rykaart, flew into the tiny coastal country in a chartered 727. Their plan: to evict the rebels from the capital Freetown and the country’s diamond fields, then locate and destroy the rebel headquarters.

Again with native troops fronting and Executive Outcomes’ aircraft in support, Barlow’s fighters advanced. A year later the rebels sued for peace.

Riding high, Executive Outcomes alongside another security firm began negotiations with Mobutu Sese Seko, the dictator of the Congo facing a determined rebellion led by Laurent Kabila. “Neither firm took the contract, as the regime was on its last legs,” Singer wrote.

Instead, Executive Outcomes waited until after Mobutu fell … and signed a contract with Kabila, now president of the Congo and facing rebellions of his own. In a daring operation, Barlow’s commandos captured the strategic Inga dams. But Kabila failed to pay up, and so Executive Outcomes abandoned Congo, leaving Kabila and his ragtag army to fight on alone.

In the wake of Executive Outcomes’ successes, so-called “private military companies” sprouted like weeds. Nowhere were they thicker than in South Africa. The government in Cape Town moved to regulate the merc companies, and in 1998 Executive Outcomes folded. Its chief officers went to work for other PMCs or founded companies of their own. “Rather than truly ending its business, it appears EO simply devolved its activities,” Singer wrote.

Rykaart joined NFD, a security company with strong ties to Executive Outcomes and which was allegedly helping the Sudanese government in its battle with U.S.-allied southern rebels.

Later, Rykaart worked in American-occupied Iraq for Aegis Defense Services. In 2009, while working in Somalia for yet another security company, he was killed when the plane he was riding in crashed shortly after takeoff.

The company’s name was Bancroft Global Development. Among its roughly two- dozen mercenaries was Richard Rouget, former lieutenant of Bob Denard in the Comoros.

Private war

If the bush wars of the 1990s sparked the explosive spread of private security companies, then the U.S-led invasion and subsequent eight-year occupation of Iraq starting in 2003 was fuel poured directly on the fire.

“In the early days of the Iraq war, there weren’t enough troops,” Steve Fainaru explained in his book Big Boys Rules. “As the situation deteriorated, a parallel army formed on the margins of the war: tens of thousands of armed men, invisible in plain sight, doing the jobs that couldn’t be done because there weren’t enough troops.”

In just the first 18 months of the war, the U.S. government spent $766 million on security contracts with private companies. The governments of Iraq and various U.S. allies added untold millions to the total.

In July 2005 the Government Accountability Office estimated there were at least 60 major security companies operating in Iraq with 25,000 employees. In those first two years of the war, no fewer than 200 contractors died in combat.

It was apparent that the Pentagon could no longer—or would no longer—fulfill its national security responsibilities without the assistance of mercenaries. That raised some profound questions,. Not the least of which: accountability.

On Sept. 16, 2007, private soldiers from Blackwater, a North Carolina firm that provided security for the State Department, gunned down 17 civilians in Nisoor Square in Baghdad.

The mercenaries later claimed they had come under attack, but the U.S. Army found no evidence of insurgent fire. “The incident almost certainly would have been buried but for the sheer number of people whom Blackwater killed,” Fainaru wrote.

The Iraqi government protested. Blackwater attempted to settle the issue with payments to victims’ families. In the U.S. criminal and civil suits were filed. At least one of the shooters got off on a technicality. Another pleaded guilty to manslaughter and agreed to cooperate with investigators.

As of late 2012 four cases were still open, with the defendants facing manslaughter and weapons charges. Blackwater was barred from Iraq but held onto its State Department contract. The company changed its name twice in an attempt to distance itself from the killings.

The Nisoor Square shootings shone a light on the shadowy world of security companies but did nothing to reverse the trend towards more and more corporate involvement in America’s wars. Nor did the killings and the subsequent legal cases necessarily resolve the confusion over accountability.

At worst, a few of Blackwater’s employees could go to prison for manslaughter. But the business itself survived and even thrived, as did other companies like it.

“Public militaries have all manner of traditional controls over their activities, ranging from internal checks and balances, domestic laws regulating the activities of of the military force and its personnel, parliamentary scrutiny, public opinion and numerous aspects of international law,” Singer explained. Security companies, he added, “are only subject to the laws of the market.”

“Who can and should be punished for these crimes?” Singer asked. “It is very clear that privatizing security actions only complicates the issue.”

But that was the point. The more the Pentagon relied on hired guns, the greater the distance between the government and the conduct and consequences of the wars it waged.

Mercenary playground

Michael Stock’s family had made a fortune in banking. In 1999, shortly after graduating from Princeton, he used a portion of that fortune to found, in Virginia, a non-profit organization called Landmine Clearance International.

Its mission statement: to “rehabilitate populated areas in the aftermath of armed conflict through land-mine clearance and explosive ordnance disposal.”

In 2007 Landmine Clearance International got a new and fancier-sounding name—Bancroft Global Development—and new headquarters in a $4-million mansion on Embassy Row in Washington, D.C.

And in 2008 Bancroft scored a new client: AMISOM, the 7,000-strong African Union peacekeeping force in Somalia, staffed mostly by Ugandans and funded by the U.S. to the tune of several hundred million dollars a year. With American money AMISOM hired Bancroft to provide training for peacekeepers in close combat and bomb disposal. By 2010 Bancroft would be taking in $14 million in a year.

It took Bancroft four months and “a lot of lawyers and money” to set up facilities at the A.U.-controlled seaport-and-airport complex in Mogadishu, according to Somalia Report, an online publication run by adventurer and war correspondent Robert Young Pelton.

The new digs would expand to include rooms for rent for $155 a night plus a bar popular with military advisers, journalists and visiting government officials.

Stock’s approach was careful, deliberate. “You better know the rules,” he said. After 17 years of war, those Somali bureaucrats who had survived were a hard and dangerous bunch. There were negotiations, mountains of paperwork, and not a few bribes to be proffered.

To staff its Somalia ops, Bancroft recruited two dozen veteran mercenaries—a mix of Europeans and South Africans. One of them was Richard Rouget, formerly of the Comoran presidential guard.

After a stint organizing safaris, Rouget had returned to the gun-for-hire business. In 2005, a South African court convicted him of illegally recruiting mercenaries to fight in the West African nation of Ivory Coast.

His fine was just shy of $9,000. But Rouget was evidently broke. He reportedly borrowed some money from a friend and raised some more leading a safari to Mozambique. Clearly badly in need of cash, in 2007 or 2008, it seems, Rouget signed on with Bancroft and flew to Mogadishu.

He was assigned to teach Ugandan troops, long experienced in forest fighting, how to do battle door to door, building to building. Though unarmed, Rouget routinely accompanied his trainees into the dust and clamor of urban fighting.

In five years of hard combat, the Ugandans and their allies, funded by the U.S. and trained by men like Rouget, steadily pushed back Islamic militants, gradually restoring an internationally-backed regime to Somalia after more than two decades of bloody warfare.

It was one of the first widely-sanctioned modern wars led, and in large part won, by mercenaries. The guns-for-hire helped Washington to keep its distance from Somalia and still wage war there.

Honoring the spirit of his mentor Bob Denard, that famed dog of war, Rouget told The New York Times he relished his work. “Give me some technicals”—gun-armed pickup trucks—“and some savages and I’m happy.”