AKU – Private armies are big business, and global in scope. The amount of money endowed in this illicit market is unknown; all we know is that business is booming. Recent years have seen mercenary activity in Syria, Libya, Iraq, Yemen, Nigeria, Ukraine, etc. Many of these for-profit soldiers outclass local militaries, with some being able to stand up to the world’s finest. Recognizing the value of mercenaries, from Iran and Russia to Turkey, France, Sudan, and the United States; more and more nations are deploying such private armies to remote and troubled parts of the world. But how did this arrangement come about? How does it work, and what are governments hoping to gain?

The revival of the trade

The collapse of the Soviet Union ushered in an era where state sovereignty began corroding everywhere. Governments lost control of their territories, with some collapsing altogether. Asymmetrical conflicts spiked, while conventional ones dropped. Armed non-state actors started taking over, some disguised as separatists, others as warlords or drug cartels, and some as jihadists. In the 1990s, as state power declined, private forces ascended. The first public mercenary group emerged in South Africa, called Executive Outcomes. They put down rebels across the continent, protected oil facilities and mining sites, and set up training camps for local militaries. However, what truly kickstarted the trade were the American war contracts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Like most things in those wars, it was not planned. It just happened. At the height of the hostilities, private contractors accounted for about 50 per cent of the American presence in Iraq and 70 per cent in Afghanistan.

Admittedly, most contractors performed harmless tasks like cooking food or repairing trucks. But at least 15 per cent were mercenaries that engaged in combat. Most people will think of Blackwater Security Consulting when imagining private military contractors, but the market has moved on. American firms are old-fashioned when compared to current mercenary groups. Either way, outsourcing security has normalized the market for violence, and foreign mercenaries offer three distinct advantages. The first, and perhaps most obvious reason, is manpower. When a state is engaged in multiple hostile engagements simultaneously, military personnel tends to get stretched thinly. Recruiting foreign fighters is a relatively easy way to fill the ranks. The second advantage of private armies is politics. One of the perils to a successful military campaign is the picture of a wounded or deceased soldier. When such images are broadcast into livings rooms, societies tend to get demoralized.

By employing foreign mercenaries, however, the political blowback is reduced. After all, foreign soldiers are distinctly foreign. The third and final reason for using mercenaries is plausible deniability. War is the continuation of political negotiation; and by hiring private security contractors, a state gains informational ammunition. It can deny its involvement with a degree of plausibility, making it harder for the opponents to respond directly. Thanks to these three advantages, mercenary activity has surged. New clients are popping up everywhere, seeking security in an insecure world. Some clients are seeking to defend their drill or mining sites; others are seeking to protect their humanitarian workers in dangerous locations. But most mercenaries are dispatched to proxy conflicts.

Right side front view medium shot at a Russian made Hind Mi-24 helicopter from the Army Test and Evaluation Center, Threat Support Activity, Las Vegas, Nevada, taxis back after providing simulated hostile threats to Search and Rescue operations, during Desert Rescue.  Desert Rescue is a Joint Service Combat Search and Rescue (CSAR), exercise designed to fully integrate planning and execution of both immediate and dedicated missions

Prolific clients and sponsors

Perhaps the most well-established mercenary organization is the French Foreign Legion. Founded in the 1830s, the legion brought together various nationalities with the aim to maintain and expand the French Empire. The Foreign Legion advertised itself as a gateway for those that sought a second chance at life. If one were a social outsider, heavily indebted, a wanted criminal, or wanted to disappear; the legion was the answer. France has completely romanticized its legion. So much so that most people wouldn’t even consider it a band of mercenaries, even though it checks all the qualifications. Today, the Foreign Legion plays an active role in French military engagements abroad. They have fought in the First Gulf War, toppled a few governments in Africa, helped to dislodge the Taliban from power in Afghanistan, and are now partaking in the French military campaign across the Sahel region. The French legion is estimated to comprise of nearly 9,000 soldiers.

However, while France is the best-known example of a state associated with soldiers of fortune, it is neither the first nor the last nation to do so. One area that is awash with such activity is the Middle East. The primary marketplace of mercenary services is found in Iraqi Kurdistan. Here, soldiers of fortune from the West, for personal reasons, can team-up with the Kurdish militia. Most of their tasks entail defending oil fields. However, one of the more prolific users of mercenaries is Iran. Although the Iranian creed differs from the French, it comes down to the same thing: employing foreign soldiers to do the bidding of Iran. Shortly after the Islamic revolution, Iranian officials started experimenting with proxy groups by recruiting foreigners on ideological grounds. The Lebanese Hezbollah was the first of its kind, but since then Iran has expanded its network elsewhere. It currently runs its own legion within the Houthi insurgency in Yemen, it holds sway over the Popular Mobilization Forces in Iraq, and it controls several multinational brigades in Syria. Take the case of the Liwa Fatemiyoun and Liwa Zainebiyoun.

These are two separate militias composed of Shia Afghans and Shia Pakistanis respectively but funded, trained, and equipped by the Iranians. The motivation of each enlisted fighter is different, but they are all paid a monthly salary of about 600 USD, which is far above anything they would find in their own countries. The fighters belonging to the Liwa Fatemiyoun and Liwa Zainebiyoun are often deployed in the toughest battles in Syria, and they have been instrumental in maintaining Iranian interests. The Liwa Fatemiyoun holds between 10,000 and 20,000 fighters, while the Liwa Zainebiyoun numbers as many as 1,000 fighters. When eventually the hostilities in Syria will cease, these guns for hire are likely to be deployed either in Iraq, Yemen, or Afghanistan.

Speaking of Syria, al-Assad has also tried his hand at foreign legions. The Liwa al-Quds, better known as the Jerusalem Brigade, is a pro-Assad militia comprised of Palestinians. It was founded in 2013 by the Syrian intelligence apparatus, and an estimated 1,000 fighters fill its ranks. Still tied to the Syrian battlespace is Turkey, which inherited the CIA-program known as Timber Sycamore, as well as other likeminded operations by Saudi Arabia. The Turks took the Iranian playbook and rebranded the former American-Saudi proxies as the Syrian National Army, which was then further reinforced by additional fighters from Tunisia, Libya, and even from ISIS. The Syrian National Army has served the Turks well in their pursuits in northern Syria, fighting and holding up against the professional armies operating in the proximity. Estimating the total number of mercenaries is difficult, but it sits somewhere between 25,000 and 30,000 troops. Members of the Turkish legion receive a monthly wage of around 2,000 USD with the possibility of attaining Turkish citizenship. Having cut their teeth against Russian, Kurdish, and Syrian forces, at least 3,500 mercenaries on Turkish payroll were redeployed to Libya where they salvaged the Tripoli-based government.

U.S. Soldiers with the 3rd Cavalry Regiment fire artillery alongside Iraqi Security Forces artillery at known ISIS locations near the Iraqi-Syrian border, June 7, 2018. Iraqi Security Forces and Coalition partners provided fire support to assist the Syrian Democratic Forces as they continued Operation Roundup, the military offensive to rid the final pockets of the terrorist organization from the Middle Euphrates River Valley in Syria.  (U.S. Army photo by Spc. Anthony Zendejas IV)

Other non-state actors

Interestingly, in Libya, among those sitting on the opposite-end were Russian mercenaries, namely from a private military company called Wagner. Like most things involving Russia, the political and financial backers of the Wagner group are murky. But, one of its biggest benefactors is a billionaire named Yevgeny Prigozhin, who happens to be closely allied with President Vladimir Putin. Russian private contractors came into life after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Thousands of highly trained soldiers were left unemployed. They could not easily integrate back into civil life, so they banded together and worked for the highest bidder.

Wagner is the bestknown of these Russian private military companies, and it has been active in every conflict that is strategically important to Russian interests, including Ukraine, Syria, Libya, Sudan, and other African states. Recently, Wagner has been trying to recruit Syrians and Libyan to match the capacity of the Turkish and Iranian legions. Members of Wagner are paid a monthly wage between 1,000 and 2,000 USD, depending on the experiences of the individual. Wagner might also offer its foreign fighter the ability to attain Russian citizenship, considering that the Russian government recently passed legislation allowing dual citizenship. Elsewhere in Russia, the Chechen Republic offers the services of its battle-hardened fighters. The Chechen soldiers are renowned for being tough and thorough, and they are some of the most sought-after mercenaries in the region. However, they are only contracted on missions that are within the interests of Russia.

Directly competing with the Russian mercenaries are the Ukrainians. The conflict in Ukraine is awash in Russian, Chechen, Swedish, Serbian, Spanish, and French mercenaries that are fighting on both sides. Private armies can secure or assault facilities that conventional militaries cannot for political reasons. This makes them valuable for non-linear and limited conflicts like in Ukraine. Yet, perhaps the largest pool of mercenaries originates from Sudan. Facing a lack of opportunities at home, the Sudanese youth is left with little choice but to join foreign conflicts to make ends meet. It’s an unfortunate truth that was brought into motion by the government. In 2011, Sudan lost about 75 per cent of its revenues after the secession of its oil-rich south. As the economy plummeted, Sudan exported its soldiers to join the Saudi-led military intervention in Yemen. At the height of the hostilities, between 2015-2017, there were some 40,000 Sudanese troops under Saudi command in Yemen.

The Saudis compensated Sudanese troops with a monthly salary between 5,500 USD and 8,200 USD – a handsome wage when compared to the other nations. However, on the ground, the Saudis treated the Sudanese mainly as cannon fodder, sending them on the most dangerous missions, which resulted in high casualties – and deceased soldiers need not to be paid. After the 2019 coup in Sudan, however, the new government withdrew most of its troops from Yemen. A small token of Sudanese mercenaries stayed behind and was then employed by the United Arab Emirates and sent to Libya. We don’t know the exact numbers, but at least 3,000 Sudanese mercenaries are active in Libya under the command of the Tobruk-based government but financed by Abu Dhabi.

The Emiratis also operate a contingent of Colombian contractors in Yemen. The Colombians are battle-tested in guerrilla warfare, having spent decades battling insurgencies and drug cartels. Their exact mission in Yemen remains unclear, but their size is estimated at 1,800 troops. The employment of Colombians is a sign of things to come. Private armies present a useful option for wealthy Arab nations, like Qatar, the Emirates, and Saudi Arabia, that want to wage war but don’t have the military expertise to do so. The list of clients and sponsors goes on; we haven’t even mentioned Nigeria, South Africa, or Uzbekistan. The point, however, is that the mercenary trade is proliferating because of what clients want. It’s all about supply and demand. Private armies fill out the strategic blanks at a fraction of the cost – for in the midst of chaos, there is also opportunity; and mercenaries help bring those prizes home.

Shirvan Neftchi

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  1. ‘Perevalne military base’ – Anton Holoborodko via Wikimedia Commons
  2. ‘Mi-24 Desert Rescue’ – MSgt Steven Turner via Wikimedia Commons
  3. ‘Blue Blast’ – SPC Anthony Zendejas via Defense.gov

“The appearance of U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) visual information does not imply or constitute DoD endorsement.”


· Warlord, Inc.: Extortion and Corruption Along the U.S. Supply Chain in Afghanistan (Subcommittee on National Security and Foreign Affairs Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, June 2010) http://media.washingtonpost.com/wpsrv/world/documents/warlords.pdf

· Contractor Support of U.S. Operations in the USCENTCOM Area of Responsibility (Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Sustainment, July 2018) https://www.acq.osd.mil/log/PS/.CENTCOM_reports.html/FY18_3Q_5A_Jul2018.pdf

· Involvement of Private Contractors in Armed Conflict: Implications under International Humanitarian Law by Alexandre Faite (International Committee of the Red Cross) https://www.icrc.org/en/doc/assets/files/other/pmc-article-a-faite.pdf

· IRGC trained militias suffer losses in northwest Syria (FDD’s Long War Journal, February 2020) https://www.longwarjournal.org/archives/2020/02/irgc-trained-militias-suffer-losses-innorthwest-syria.php

· Death of Qassem Soleimani: What to Expect in Afghanistan and Pakistan (Rusi, January 2020) https://rusi.org/commentary/death-qassemsoleimani-what-expect-afghanistan-andpakistan

· Understanding the Fatemiyoun Division: Life Through the Eyes of a Militia Member (Middle East Institute, May 2019) https://www.mei.edu/publications/understanding-fatemiyoun-division-life-through-eyesmilitia-member

· Mission Accomplished? What’s Next for Iran’s Afghan Fighters in Syria (War on the Rocks, February 2018) https://warontherocks.com/2018/02/missionaccomplished-whats-next-irans-afghan-fighterssyria/

· The Return of Pro-Iranian Militia Fighters To Afghanistan Fuels Fears In Kabul, Washington (Radio Liberty, February 2020) https://www.rferl.org/a/the-return-of-proiranian-militia-fighters-to-afghanistan-fuelsfears/30422587.html

· Iran rejects peace agreement between US, Taliban (Middle East Online, March 2020) https://middle-east-online.com/en/iran-rejectspeace-agreement-between-us-taliban#offcanvas

· Iranian Links: New Taliban Splinter Group Emerges That Opposes U.S. Peace Deal (Radio Liberty, June 2020) https://www.rferl.org/a/afghanistan-talibansplinter-group-peace-deal-iranianlinks/30661777.html

· Background and Analysis: The Zeynabiyoun Brigade (Foundation for Defense of Democracies) https://www.fdd.org/wpcontent/uploads/2018/11/Zeynabiyoun.pdf

· The Zainabiyoun Brigade: A Pakistani Shiite Militia Amid the Syrian Conflict (The Jamestown Foundation, May 2016) https://jamestown.org/program/thezainabiyoun-brigade-a-pakistani-shiite-militiaamid-the-syrian-conflict/

· Iran recruits Pakistani Shias for combat in Syria (The Express Tribune, December 2015) https://tribune.com.pk/story/1007694/iranrecruits-pakistani-shias-for-combat-in-syria

· Jaysh al-Islam agrees to dissolve itself to form national Syrian rebel army (Al Arabiya, July 2017) https://english.alarabiya.net/en/News/middleeast/2017/07/16/Jaysh-al-Islam-rebel-groupagrees-to-dissolve-itself-to-form-nationalarmy.html

· Pentagon Says Turkey Sent 3,500 Syrian Fighters to Back Libyan Government (Radio Liberty, July 2020) https://www.rferl.org/a/pentagon-turkey-3-500-syrian-fighters-libya-russia/30734486.html

· Report: Haftar owes Russian Wagner Group $150 million as rift grows over rookie fighters (The Libya Observer, May 2020) https://www.libyaobserver.ly/news/reporthaftar-owes-russian-wagner-group-150-millionrift-grows-over-rookie-fighters

· Exclusive: Russian hiring of Syrians to fight in Libya accelerated in May (Reuters, June 2020) https://www.reuters.com/article/us-libyasecurity-syria-russia-exclusivr/exclusive-russianhiring-of-syrians-to-fight-in-libya-accelerated-inmay-idUSKBN23E06H

· Russia Passes Dual Citizenship Law, Hoping to Add 10M Citizens (The Moscow Times, April 2020) https://www.themoscowtimes.com/2020/04/17/russia-passes-dual-citizenship-law-hoping-toadd-10m-citizens-a70036

· Emirates Secretly Sends Colombian Mercenaries to Yemen Fight (The New York Times, November 2015) https://www.nytimes.com/2015/11/26/world/middleeast/emirates-secretly-sends-colombianmercenaries-to-fight-in-yemen.html

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