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Blackwater chief's secret force

Erik Prince has been hired by the U.A.E. to set up a mercenary unit for the country.

New York Times

ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates - Late one night in November, a plane carrying dozens of Colombian men touched down in this glittering seaside capital. Whisked through customs by an Emirati intelligence officer, the group boarded an unmarked bus and drove 20 miles to a windswept military complex in the desert sand.

The Colombians had entered the United Arab Emirates posing as construction workers. In fact, they were soldiers for a secret U.S.-led mercenary army being built by Erik Prince, the billionaire founder of Blackwater Worldwide, with $529 million from the oil-soaked sheikdom.

Prince, who resettled here last year after his security business faced mounting legal problems in the United States, was hired by the crown prince of Abu Dhabi to put together an 800-member battalion of foreign troops for the United Arab Emirates, the New York Times reported Saturday, citingformer employees involved with the project, U.S. officials and corporate documents.

The force is intended to conduct missions inside and outside the country, defend oil pipelines and skyscrapers from terrorist attacks, and put down internal revolts, the documents show. Such troops could be deployed if the Emirates faced unrest in crowded labor camps or democracy protests such as those sweeping the Arab world this year.

In outsourcing critical parts of their defense to mercenaries - the soldiers of choice for medieval kings, Italian Renaissance dukes and African dictators - the Emiratis have begun a new era in the boom in wartime contracting since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. And by relying on a force largely created by Americans, they have introduced a volatile new element in an already combustible region where the United States is widely viewed with suspicion.

Breaking federal law?

The United Arab Emirates - an autocracy with the sheen of a progressive, modern state - are allied with the United States, and the New York Times said U.S. officials indicated that the battalion program had some support in Washington.Still, it is not clear whether the project has the United States' official blessing. Legal experts and government officials said some of those involved with the battalion might be breaking federal laws that prohibit U.S. citizens from training foreign troops if they did not secure a license from the State Department.

For Prince, the foreign battalion is a bold attempt at reinvention. He is hoping to build a new empire in the desert far from the trial lawyers, congressional investigators and Justice Department officials he is convinced worked in league to taint Blackwater as reckless. He sold the company last year, but in April, a federal appeals court reopened the case against four Blackwater guards accused of killing 17 Iraqi civilians in Baghdad in 2007.

To help fulfill his ambitions, Prince's new company, Reflex Responses, obtained another multimillion-dollar contract to protect a string of nuclear plants under construction and provide cybersecurity. He hopes to earn billions more, the New York Times said it was told by former employees, by assembling additional battalions of Latin American troops for the Emiratis, and opening a giant complex where his company can train troops for other governments.

Knowing that his ventures are magnets for controversy, Prince has masked his involvement with the mercenary battalion. His name is not included on contracts and most other corporate documents, and company insiders have at times tried to hide his identity by referring to him by the code name "Kingfish."

Last spring, as waiters in the lobby of the Park Arjaan by Rotana Hotel passed by carrying cups of Turkish coffee, a small team of Blackwater and U.S. military veterans huddled over plans for the foreign battalion.

Prince made the deal with Sheik Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, the crown prince of Abu Dhabi and the de-facto ruler of the United Arab Emirates. The two men had known each other for years, and it was the prince's idea to build a commando force for his country.

Leader of the team

The team in the hotel lobby was led by Ricky Chambers, known as C.T., a former FBI agent who had worked for Prince for years; most recently, he had run a program training Afghan troops for a Blackwater subsidiary called Paravant.

He was among the half-dozen or so Americans who would serve as top managers of the project, receiving nearly $300,000 in annual compensation. Chambers and Prince began luring U.S. contractors from Afghanistan, Iraq and other danger spots with pay packages that topped out at more than $200,000 a year, according to a budget document.

Chambers and Prince also began looking for soldiers. They lined up Thor Global Enterprises, a company on the Caribbean island of Tortola specializing in "placing foreign servicemen in private security positions overseas," according to a contract signed last May. The recruits would be paid about $150 a day.

The New York Times said it was told by the former employees that Thor has struggled to sign up and keep enough men on the ground. By last November, the battalion was officially behind schedule. The original goal was for the 800-man force to be ready by March 31; recently, the battalion's size was lowered to about 580 men.

Emirati military officials had promised that if this first battalion was a success, they would pay for an entire brigade of several thousand men. The new contracts would be worth billions, and would help with Prince's next big project: a desert training complex for foreign troops patterned after Blackwater's compound in Moyock, N.C. But before moving ahead, United Arab Emirates military officials have insisted that the battalion prove itself in a "real world mission."

That has yet to happen.