HONG KONG — A Hong Kong–based security and logistics company founded by Erik Prince is working in the south of Iraq, according to documents obtained by BuzzFeed News.
Prince, a former Navy SEAL and the brother of US Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, is best known for founding Blackwater, a private mercenary company that was banned from Iraq after contractors opened fire on and killed unarmed civilians in Baghdad.
Backed by Chinese money, Prince started the Hong Kong–listed Frontier Services Group (FSG) as a logistics company in 2014. Since then it’s expanded from operating Africa-based projects to offering logistics and security services for China’s One Belt, One Road initiative, a global infrastructure strategy adopted by the Chinese government. FSG has additional offices in mainland China; Southeast Asia; and Dubai, United Arab Emirates.
A subsidiary of the company based in Dubai — Frontier Logistics Consultancy DMCC — registered as a foreign company with Iraq’s Ministry of Trade, a document from February 2018 shows. The office is based in Basra, an oil-rich region in the south of the country, a source said.
FSG did not respond to requests for comment about the nature of its business in Iraq.
Rep. Jan Schakowsky, a Democrat from Illinois and a longtime critic of Prince and Blackwater, said the document was “troubling.”
“This should sound alarm bells for the Iraqi government, who expelled Blackwater from Iraq for deadly behavior,” she said.
FSG has not publicly stated it has operations in Iraq. The company’s latest annual report referred to new offices it had opened in the Middle East last year, but did not specify which countries.
In March, Prince told Al Jazeera that FSG did trucking and transportation in southern Africa, along with grocery delivery and medevac operations. He also added that it would be “supporting, hopefully, oil operations in countries like Iraq or Pakistan or the hydro dams.”
Before FSG, Prince ran Blackwater, which reaped hundreds of millions of dollars in US military contracts after the Sept. 11 attacks. In a particularly grim moment of the Iraq War in 2007, Blackwater contractors killed 14 unarmed citizens in a public square.
Iraq booted the company from the country. Blackwater changed its name. And Prince sold the company. Convictions and lawsuits followed.
Years later, Prince founded FSG. The state-owned Chinese company CITIC is its biggest investor. In December CITIC’s chairman, Chang Zhenming, was appointed FSG’s board chairman. Prince stepped down from the position and became the deputy chairman.
Peter Singer, the author of a book about the private military industry, laughed when asked about FSG operating in Iraq. He said that while it was controversial because of Prince’s record with Blackwater, the other question raised by the move is in whose interest the company is operating by supporting Chinese projects.
“It’s hard to argue that Prince is on the right side of US national security,” he said.
Prince’s record has remained a point of tension for the company. When FSG announced it was shifting from solely logistics to security projects a couple of years ago, two board members resigned, BuzzFeed News previously reported.
William Fallon, a retired US Navy admiral and one of the board members who resigned, said he had “nothing to do with those guys anymore” and had no comment on the Iraq business arm.
In 2017 Prince told the Financial Times newspaper that FSG was not a Chinese version of Blackwater. “None of our people have been or will be armed. But security management is certainly part of the logistics process.” However, today the company’s website notes that it can provide “armed and unarmed guarding” as part of its security services.
A Chinese-language hiring notice for the company from 2017 for 50 overseas positions requested that applicants have at least five years of military experience or more than three years of experience in law enforcement.
Candidates would be trained at the International Security Defense College in Beijing, a private anti-terrorism training school that FSG has a 25% stake in, the notice said. One of the teachers and founders of the school, John Shi Yi, is head of FSG’s southwest division, which includes operations in Myanmar, Laos, and Cambodia.
In February, FSG came under fire for announcing it was planning a training center for Xinjiang — China’s far-west region where heavy surveillance and detentions of the Muslim population of Uighurs have drawn condemnation around the world. It later removed the posting from its website. Prince said he had no knowledge of the deal.
Foreign private security companies in Iraq are required to obtain a license in order to operate.
Iraq’s Ministry of Interior, which regulates private security companies, did not respond to inquiries about whether the company had applied for or obtained an operational licence.
Other private security companies working in Iraq told BuzzFeed News they were unaware of the group’s activities. “This is the first I’ve heard of it, but it’s certainly something I’ll be looking into,” said Grant Brigden, president of Virginia-based Reed Inc.