Lawsuits open window on shadowy network SOCom uses to arm Syrian rebels

A U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces fighter seeks cover in 2017 during street fighting in Raqqa city, Syria. U.S. Special Operations Command, based at MacDill Air Force Base, has spent nearly $700 million arming Syrians in the fight against the so-called Islamic State. [AP Photo/Hussein Malla (2017)]
A U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces fighter seeks cover in 2017 during street fighting in Raqqa city, Syria. U.S. Special Operations Command, based at MacDill Air Force Base, has spent nearly $700 million arming Syrians in the fight against the so-called Islamic State. [AP Photo/Hussein Malla (2017)]
Published July 29, 2018

Three years ago, Navy veteran Francis Norwillo was handling a rocket-propelled grenade when it suddenly went off.

The blast at an overseas weapons range killed him and injured four others — a driver, an interpreter and two other Americans who, like Norwillo, were working as contractors in a program to train Syrian rebels.

The program was an Obama-era effort to turn the tide against the so-called Islamic State, the Sunni jihadi group that gained control of wide swaths of Syria and Iraq — territory that was home to some 10 million people — before it was driven from the land over four years of battle.

The June 2015 blast is now the subject of legal battles wending their way through courts in Tampa and Virginia. A review of the court records opens a small window on the shadowy network used by the United States to send hundreds of millions of dollars in weapons and ammunition to Syrian rebels.

The network starts in Tampa, at MacDill Air Force Base.

• • •

U.S. Special Operations Command serves as a weapons purchasing agent for fellow MacDill tenant, U.S. Central Command. SOCom guides the work of the military's commandos; CentCom oversees American military efforts in the Middle East — including support for the Syrian rebels.

At the center of the legal fallout over the RPG blast is Purple Shovel, a SOCom contractor based in Tampa that started in humanitarian aid transport and grew into a major military contractor.

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Purple Shovel was the prime contractor on more than $50 million worth of orders for weapons and ammunition — one of several companies hired by SOCom to acquire nearly $700 million in arms for Syrian rebels since 2015.

Now, Purple Shovel is embroiled in a least three court actions — a wrongful death suit filed by victim Norwillo's widow and by one of the men wounded in the blast, an attempt by a lender to recover $4 million owed by the company, and a request to reorganize through a Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing.

The fatal blast occurred at a weapons range near the village of Anevo in the Balkan nation of Bulgaria. The plaintiffs in the wrongful death suit say Purple Shovel "knew that the Bulgarian grenades presented a clear and present danger." In its responses, Purple Shovel blames the blast on mishandling of the grenade and says the company knew nothing about the device or where it came from.

Federal agencies in Bulgaria and the United States have investigated the blast, according to records filed in the court cases.

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Stephen Rumbley, owner of the Purple Shovel subcontractor Skybridge Tactical and a defendant in the wrongful death suit, testified that he participated in a congressional inquiry led by the Government Accountability Office. In his testimony, Purple Shovel owner Benjamin Worrell also said he has cooperated with GAO investigators.

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In addition, the Department of Defense Inspector General's Office is investigating how and why SOCom gave a contract to Purple Shovel and whether laws were obeyed in purchasing the weapons, according to Buzzfeed, which first reported on the Norwillo death in 2015.

The federal agencies, as well as SOCom and CentCom, had no comment on any investigations into the matter.

But weapons from the Bulgarian range have been found in the war-torn Syrian city of Aleppo, in the possession of Al Nusra — a jihadi force also known as al-Qaida in Syria, according to reports from Al Jazeera and other news organizations.

CentCom had no comment on this, but with shifting alliances in the region, weapons meant for U.S. allies have wound up where they shouldn't, said Army Major Josh T. Jacques, a command spokesman. CentCom tries to recover these weapons when possible and cut ties with groups that lost control of them, Jacques said.

• • •

Through its agreement with SOCom, Purple Shovel was providing Soviet-bloc style weapons and ammunition for use by Syrian rebels fighting against Islamic State. The rebels prefer these weapons, the AK-47 rifle among them, because they are familiar, rugged and easy to use.

Subcontractor Skybridge Tactical employed blast victims Norwillo, 41, who left behind wife Ziecha and two young children, and Army veteran Michael Dougherty.

Dougherty testified that the contractors were in Bulgaria to develop an instruction program for two anti-tank weapons systems, but the systems were not available the day they showed up at the weapons range.

Instead, they shot off rounds from shoulder-fired RPGs — not included in work orders for the Syrian training program, according to court records. The grenade that exploded was not among the weapons purchased by SOCom for the mission, said command spokesman Ken McGraw.

Shortly after 11 a.m., Dougherty testified, he was standing next to Norwillo, recording video on a phone, when the grenade Norwillo was handling exploded. Norwillo was killed and Dougherty was seriously injured. The plaintiffs in the wrongful death suit say the device was 30 years and defective.

Skybridge Tactical's Rumbley, a retired Army major who worked for SOCom in weapons procurement, said in court records that Ziecha Norwillo and Dougherty aren't due any additional compensation from the wrongful death suit. They already received the maximum benefits, Rumbley said, under the Defense Base Act, covering worker compensation for civilians under military contract.


Creditors want Purple Shovel to reveal more about its SOCom contracts so they can assess the company's financial status. Based on contract value, Purple Shovel rose from No. 1,251 to No. 12 in just two years on the list of SOCom vendors, according to the 2015 Bloomberg Government report.

But owner Worrell said in court documents he can't say more without permission from SOCom. He and the plaintiffs in the wrongful death suit said they would seek the okay from the command.

Meantime, the bankruptcy case is set for trial Tuesday in Tampa.

Contact Howard Altman at or (813) 225-3112. Follow @haltman