The Rise of the World's Most Powerful Mercenary Army


By Jeremy Scahill

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The groundbreaking bestselling expose of the shadowy mercenary army that perpetrated horrific war crimes in America’s name. On September 16, 2007, machine gun fire erupted in Baghdad’s Nisour Square, leaving seventeen Iraqi civilians dead, among them women and children. The shooting spree, labeled “Baghdad’s Bloody Sunday,” was neither the work of Iraqi insurgents nor U.S. soldiers. The shooters were private forces, subcontractors working for the secretive mercenary company, Blackwater Worldwide, led by Erik Prince

Award-winning journalist Jeremy Scahill takes us from the bloodied streets of Iraq to hurricane-ravaged New Orleans to the chambers of power in Washington, to reveal the frightening new face of the U.S. military machine, and what happens when you outsource war.“A crackling expose” — New York Times Book Review“[Scahill] is a one-man truth squad” — Bill Moyers“[An] utterly gripping and explosive story” — Naomi Klein, The Guardian


Praise for Blackwater
Winner of the George Polk Book Award
Winner of the James Aronson Award for Social Justice Journalism
"A crackling exposé of the secretive military contractor Blackwater."
New York Times Book Review
"The biggest book of the year is Jeremy Scahill's Blackwater: The Rise of the World's Most Powerful Mercenary Army. Long before the mainstream media and Congress were paying attention, Scahill exposed the workings of this lawless private army. It's an amazingly researched and well-told story of the nexus between far-right fundamentalists, the Bush-Cheney war machine, privatization, and profiteering."—Matthew Rothschild for The Progressive
"Scahill provided me information . . . which I have not been able to get from the U.S. military. . . . I have read more from Mr. Scahill, than I've got from our own government."
—Representative Marcy Kaptur, Defense Appropriations Committee
"[T]his is no uninformed partisan screed . . . Meticulously documented and encyclopedic in scope . . . it's a comprehensive and authoritative guide . . . this book serves as a provocative primer for advancing the debate."
—Bill Sizemore, Pulitzer-prize nominated journalist, Virginian-Pilot
"The utterly gripping and explosive story of how the Bush administration has spent tens of millions of dollars building a parallel corporate army that functions in Iraq outside the law . . . When Blackwater first came out, it was barely reviewed and TV news was so afraid of lawsuits that the book was nearly shut out. Fast-forward to this autumn, when the Iraqi government accused Blackwater of massacring civilians in downtown Baghdad. Suddenly the book looked prescient and we learned that the same press corps that had cheered on the war had also missed the biggest story in the war zone: that Iraq is more than a failed occupation; it's a radical experiment in corporate rule."—Naomi Klein, The Guardian (London)
"Andy McNab couldn't have invented this prescient tale of the private army of mercenaries run by a Christian conservative millionaire who, in turn, bankrolls the president. A chilling expose of the ultimate military outsource."
—Christopher Fowler, The New Review's "Best Books of 2007"
"Fascinating and magnificently documented . . . Jeremy Scahill's new book is a brilliant exposé and belongs on the reading list of any conscientious citizen."
—Scott Horton, International and Military Law Expert, Columbia University Law School
"Scahill is rightfully concerned about the moral and policy ramifications of such a powerful and unaccountable surrogate military, let alone the effect that its forces—who are paid six-figure salaries—have on the morale of normal soldiers. But the sternest message of this book has to do with the dangers a mercenary army poses, and always has: that it can always be turned on its host." —Star-Ledger
"[Scahill's] book is so scary and so illuminating."
—Bill Maher, host of HBO's Real Time
"Jeremy Scahill's account of the increasing governmental dependence on private contractors who make massive profit via death and destruction reads like a futuristic page-turner. Only he is not writing about the future; he is writing about the present, and his research is encyclopedically documented."—Courier-Journal
"At Blackwater USA, Jeremy Scahill's is the face they love to hate . . . [He is] perhaps the private military company's most dogged critic."
"Jeremy Scahill's exhaustive Blackwater appears with perfect timing . . . Dwight Eisenhower warned decades ago against the emergence of a military-industrial complex. Scahill sees in the rise of Blackwater the fulfillment of that dark prophecy."—Weekend Australian
"Blackwater being rarely out of the news lately, this is a very useful survey of modern mercenaries—or, as they prefer to be called, 'private security contractors' in the 'peace and stability industry' . . . Scahill is a sharp investigative writer."—The Guardian (London)
"It should be mandatory reading. It's very interesting—and scary."
—Scarlett Johansson, actor
"Jeremy Scahill actually doesn't know anything about Blackwater."
—Martin Strong, vice president, Blackwater Worldwide

For unembedded journalists, particularly Arab media workers, who risk and
often lose their lives to be the eyes and ears of the world. Without their courage
and sacrifice, history would indeed be written by self-declared victors, the rich,
and the powerful.

THIS BOOK would not have been possible without the tireless efforts of my colleague Garrett Ordower. Garrett is a remarkable investigative journalist who spent countless hours filing Freedom of Information Act requests, researching complicated people and events, digging up facts and figures, and interviewing sources. He also wrote solid first drafts of some chapters for this book. I am forever grateful to Garrett for his diligent and careful work on this project and his unflinching dedication to old-fashioned muckraking. This book is as much his as it is mine. I look forward to Garrett's future endeavors in law and journalism and would be honored to work with him again.
Additionally, I would like to thank Eric Stoner who provided research assistance in the paperback updates of this book. I also wish to alert the reader to the fact that Blackwater refused to grant me interviews with company executives. A spokesperson did write to "thank" me for my "interest in Blackwater" but said that the company was "unable to accommodate" my request for interviews with the men who run Blackwater. I am indebted to the solid reporting of Jay Price and Joseph Neff of the Raleigh News & Observer and Bill Sizemore and Joanne Kimberlin of the Virginian-Pilot newspapers. These reporters and their groundbreaking work have done the public a great service in chronicling the Blackwater story and the explosive growth of the private military industry. Special thanks also to T. Christian Miller of the Los Angeles Times and Anthony Shadid and Rajiv Chandrasekaran of the Washington Post, as well as authors P. W. Singer and Robert Young Pelton. I would encourage readers to read the acknowledgments at the end of this book for a more comprehensive understanding of the number of people who contributed to this process.

October 2, 2007
Washington D.C.
ERIK PRINCE, the boy-faced thirty-eight-year-old owner of Blackwater, marched confidently into the regally decorated chamber of the Congressional hearing room and was immediately swarmed by a mob of paparazzi. Cameras flashed and heads turned inside the packed room. The man at the helm of a small army of mercenaries was escorted not by his elite squad of ex-Navy SEALs and Special Forces operators but by an army of lawyers and advisers. Within minutes, his image would be beamed across the globe, including onto television screens throughout Iraq, where rage against his men was building by the moment. His company was now infamous, and for the first time since the occupation began, it had a face.
It was a moment Prince had long resisted. Before that warm October day in Washington in 2007, he had shunned the spotlight, and his people were known to stifle journalists' attempts at taking his picture. When Prince did appear in public, it was almost exclusively at military conferences, where his role was to extol the virtues of his company and its work for the U.S. government, which consisted, in part, of keeping alive the most hated officials in Iraq. Since September 11, Blackwater had risen to a position of extraordinary prominence in the "war on terror" apparatus, and its contracts with the federal government had grown to more than $1 billion. On this day, the man in control of a force at the vanguard of the Bush administration's offensive war in Iraq would be on the defensive.
Shortly after 10 a.m. on October 2, Prince was sworn in as the star witness in a hearing of Representative Henry Waxman's Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. The muscular, clean-shaven ex-Navy SEAL wore a smartly tailored blue suit—more CEO than cowboy contractor. On the desk in front of Prince's chair was a simple paper sign that read, "Mr. Prince." The Republicans attempted to adjourn the meeting in protest before it started, but the measure was defeated. In classic Waxman fashion, the advertised title of the event was generic and understated: "Hearing on Private Security Contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan." But the reason for Prince's appearance on Capitol Hill that day was very specific and politically charged. Two weeks earlier, his Blackwater forces had been at the center of the deadliest mercenary action in Iraq since the start of the occupation, an incident one senior U.S. military official said could have an impact "worse than Abu Ghraib." It was a massacre some had dubbed "Baghdad's Bloody Sunday."

SEPTEMBER 16, 2007, approximately 12:08 p.m., Nisour Square, Baghdad, Iraq: It was a steamy hot day, with temperatures reaching 100 degrees. The heavily armed Blackwater convoy entered the congested intersection in the Mansour district of the Iraqi capital. The once upscale section of Baghdad was still lined with boutiques, cafes, and art galleries dating back to better days. The ominous caravan consisted of four large South African-made "Mamba" armored vehicles with 7.62-millimeter machine guns mounted on top.1 For Iraqi police, it had become a standard part of their workday in occupied Iraq to stop traffic to make room for U.S. VIPs, protected by heavily armed private soldiers, to blaze through. Ask U.S. officials and they'll say the reason was to prevent an insurgent attack on U.S. convoys. More often, though, the Iraqi police did this for the safety of Iraqi civilians who risked being gunned down merely for getting too close to the most highly valued lives in their country—those of foreign occupation officials.
As the Blackwater convoy was entering the square that day, a young Iraqi medical student named Ahmed Hathem al-Rubaie was driving his mother, Mahasin, in the family's white Opal sedan. They had just dropped off Ahmed's father, Jawad, a successful pathologist, near the hospital where he worked. They then had gone on their way to run errands, including picking up college applications for Ahmed's sister. The plan was to finish up and return later to pick up Jawad. As fate would have it, they found themselves stuck near Nisour Square. The Rubaies were devout Muslims and were fasting in observance of the holy month of Ramadan. Ahmed was multilingual, a soccer fan, and was in his third year of medical school, where he was training to become a surgeon. Medicine was in his DNA. Like his father, Ahmed's passenger that day, his mother, was also a doctor—an allergist. Jawad says the family could have left Iraq, but they believed they were needed in the country. "I feel pain when I see doctors leaving Iraq," he said.2
Ali Khalaf Salman, an Iraqi traffic cop on duty in Nisour Square that day, remembers vividly the moment when the Blackwater convoy entered the intersection, spurring him and his colleagues to scramble to stop traffic. But as the Mambas entered the square, the convoy suddenly made a surprise U-turn and proceeded to drive the wrong way on a one-way street.3 As Khalaf watched, the convoy came to an abrupt halt. He says a large white man with a mustache, positioned atop the third vehicle in the Blackwater convoy, began to fire his weapon "randomly."4
Khalaf looked in the direction of the shots, on Yarmouk Road, and heard a woman screaming, "My son! My son!"5 The police officer sprinted toward the voice and found a middle-aged woman inside a vehicle holding a twenty-year-old man who had been shot in the forehead and was covered in blood. "I tried to help the young man, but his mother was holding him so tight," Khalaf recalled.6 Another Iraqi policeman, Sarhan Thiab, also ran to the car. "We tried to help him," Thiab said. "I saw the left side of his head was destroyed and his mother was crying out, 'My son, my son! Help me, help me!'"7
Officer Khalaf recalled looking toward the Blackwater shooters: "I raised my left arm high in the air to try to signal to the convoy to stop the shooting."8 He says he thought the men would cease fire, given that he was a clearly identified police officer.9 The young man's body was still in the driver's seat of the automatic vehicle and, as Khalaf and Thiab stood there, it began to roll forward, perhaps because the dead man's foot remained on the accelerator.10 Blackwater guards later said they initially opened fire on the vehicle because it was speeding and would not stop, a claim disputed by scores of witnesses.11 Aerial photos of the scene later showed that the car had not even entered the traffic circle when it was fired upon by Blackwater, 12 while the New York Times reported, "The car in which the first people were killed did not begin to closely approach the Blackwater convoy until the Iraqi driver had been shot in the head and lost control of his vehicle."13 Thiab explained, "I tried to use hand signals to make the Blackwater people understand that the car was moving on its own and we were trying to stop it. We were trying to get the woman out but had to run for cover."14
"Don't shoot, please!" Khalaf recalled yelling.15 But as he stood with his hand raised, Khalaf says, a gunman from the fourth Blackwater vehicle opened fire on the mother gripping her son and shot her dead before Khalaf's and Thiab's eyes.16 "I saw parts of the woman's head flying in front of me, blow up," Thiab said. "They immediately opened heavy fire at us."17 Within moments, Khalaf says, so many shots had been fired at the car from "big machine guns" that it exploded, engulfing the bodies inside in flames, melting their flesh into one.18 "Each of their four vehicles opened heavy fire in all directions, they shot and killed everyone in cars facing them and people standing on the street," Thiab recalled. "When it was over we were looking around and about fifteen cars had been destroyed, the bodies of the killed were strewn on the pavements and road."19 When later asked by U.S. investigators why he never fired at the Blackwater men, Khalaf told them, "I am not authorized to shoot, and my job is to look after the traffic."20
The victims were later identified as Ahmed Hathem al-Rubaie and his mother, Mahasin. Ahmed's father, Jawad, has a brother, Raad, who worked in a nearby hospital where victims of the shooting were being taken. "He heard the shots," Jawad recalls. "It was a battle, a fight, a war. And, of course, it didn't occur to him that my wife and my son were the victims—among the victims of the incident."21 Raad "went to the morgue, and the person who was responsible for the morgue told him that they received sixteen bodies as casualties from the incident that day. They were all identified, identifiable, except for two. Two bodies completely burnt. . . . They were put in black plastic bags."22 Raad suspected that it could be Ahmed and Mahasin but, he said, "my heart didn't want to believe it."23 He and his wife drove to Nisour Square and found a badly burnt white sedan. The license plate was not on the vehicle, but Raad's wife found an imprint of the numbers in the sand. Raad called Jawad and began reading the numbers on the vehicle and confirmed his worst fears.24
Jawad raced to the morgue, where he viewed the charred bodies. He identified his wife through her dental bridge and his son by the remains of one of his shoes.25 In all, Jawad says, there were some forty bullet holes in their vehicle.26 He said he never returned to claim the vehicle because he wanted "it to be a memorial to the painful event caused by people who, supposedly, came to protect us."27
That attack on Ahmed and Mahasin's vehicle spiraled into a shooting spree that would leave seventeen Iraqis dead and more than twenty wounded.
After Ahmed and Mahasin's vehicle exploded, sustained gunfire rang out in Nisour Square as people fled for their lives. In addition to the Blackwater shooters in the four Mambas, witnesses say gunfire came from Blackwater's Little Bird helicopters. "The helicopters began shooting on the cars," Khalaf said. "The helicopters shot and killed the driver of a Volkswagen and wounded a passenger" who escaped by "rolling out of the car into the street," he said.28 Witnesses described a terrifying scene of indiscriminate shooting by the Blackwater guards. "It was a horror movie," said Khalaf.29 "It was catastrophic," said Zina Fadhil, a twenty-one-year-old pharmacist who survived the attack. "So many innocent people were killed."30
Another Iraqi officer on the scene, Hussam Abdul Rahman, said that people who attempted to flee their vehicles were targeted. "Whoever stepped out of his car was shot at immediately," he said.31
"I saw women and children jump out of their cars and start to crawl on the road to escape being shot," said Iraqi lawyer Hassan Jabar Salman, who was shot four times in the back during the incident. "But still the firing kept coming and many of them were killed. I saw a boy of about ten leaping in fear from a minibus—he was shot in the head. His mother was crying out for him. She jumped out after him, and she was killed."32
Salman says as he entered the square that day he was driving behind the Blackwater convoy when it stopped. Witnesses said some sort of explosion had gone off in the distance, too far away to have been perceived as a threat. He said Blackwater guards ordered him to turn his vehicle around and leave the scene. Shortly after, the shooting began. "Why had they opened fire?" he asked. "I do not know. No one—I repeat, no one—had fired at them. The foreigners had asked us to go back, and I was going back in my car, so there was no reason for them to shoot."33 In all, he says, his car was hit twelve times, including the four bullets that pierced his back.
Mohammed Abdul Razzaq and his nine-year-old son, Ali, were in a vehicle immediately behind Ahmed and Mahasin, the first victims that day. "We were six persons in the car—me, my son, my sister, and her three sons. The four children were in the back seat," Razzaq said.34 He recalled that the Blackwater forces had "gestured stop, so we all stopped. . . . It's a secure area, so we thought it will be the usual: we would stop for a bit as convoys pass. Shortly after that they opened heavy fire randomly at the cars with no exception."35 He said his vehicle "was hit by about thirty bullets. Everything was damaged: the engine, the windshield, the back windshield, and the tires.36
"When the shooting started, I told everybody to get their heads down. I could hear the children screaming in fear. When the shooting stopped, I raised my head and heard my nephew shouting at me, 'Ali is dead, Ali is dead!'"37
"My son was sitting behind me," he said. "He was shot in the head and his brains were all over the back of the car."38 Razzaq remembered, "When I held him, his head was badly wounded, but his heart was still beating. I thought there was a chance and I rushed him to the hospital. The doctor told me that he was clinically dead and the chance of his survival was very slim. One hour later, Ali died."39 Razzaq, who survived the shooting, later returned to the scene and gathered the pieces of his son's skull and brain with his hands, wrapped them in cloth, and took them to be buried in the Shiite holy city of Najaf. "I can still smell the blood, my son's blood, on my fingers," Razzaq said two weeks after his son died.40
In all, the melee reportedly lasted about fifteen minutes.41 In an indication of how out of control the situation quickly became, U.S. officials report that "one or more" Blackwater guards called on their colleagues to stop shooting.42 The word "cease-fire" "was supposedly called out several times," a senior official told the New York Times. "They had an on-site difference of opinion."43 At one point a Blackwater guard allegedly drew his gun on another. "It was a Mexican standoff," said one contractor.44 According to Salman, the Iraqi lawyer who was in the square that day, the Blackwater guard screamed at his colleague, "No! No! No!" The lawyer was shot in the back as he tried to flee.45
As the heavy gunfire died down, witnesses say, some sort of smoke bomb was set off in the square, perhaps to give cover for the Blackwater Mambas to leave, a common practice of security convoys.46 Iraqis also said the Blackwater forces fired shots as they withdrew from the square. "Even as they were withdrawing, they were shooting randomly to clear the traffic," said an Iraqi officer who witnessed the shootings.47
Within hours, Blackwater would become a household name the world over, as news of the massacre spread. Blackwater claimed its forces had been "violently attacked"48 and "acted lawfully and appropriately"49 and "heroically defended American lives in a war zone."50 "The 'civilians' reportedly fired upon by Blackwater professionals were in fact armed enemies."51 In less than twenty-four hours, the killings at Nisour Square would cause the worst diplomatic crisis to date between Washington and the regime it had installed in Baghdad. Though Blackwater's forces had been at the center of some of the bloodiest moments of the war, they had largely operated in the shadows. Four years after Blackwater's first boots hit the ground in Iraq, it was yanked out of the darkness. Nisour Square would propel Erik Prince down the path to international infamy.

A Deadly Pattern

Even though tens of thousands of mercenaries have deployed in Iraq, private security forces faced no legal consequences for their deadly actions in the first five years of the Iraq occupation. As of Spring 2008, not a single one had been prosecuted for a crime against an Iraqi. In fact, they seldom faced any public outcry from Iraqi officials. Within the Bush administration they were either praised or unmentioned. In Congress, privatized war was almost a nonissue despite the efforts of a few prescient legislators who realized the threat. The belligerent politicians who did pay attention primarily did so to win even more business for the war contractors. Media coverage of mercenary activities in Iraq was sporadic and incident-oriented. Almost no one was looking at the bigger picture. But following Nisour Square, Blackwater and other mercenary firms suddenly lost their fiercely guarded covert status.
While the shooting in Nisour Square put the issue of private forces in Iraq—and Blackwater's name specifically—on the front pages of newspapers around the world, this was hardly the first deadly incident involving these forces. What was new was that the pro-U.S. Iraqi government responded powerfully. Within twenty-four hours of the shooting, Iraq's Interior Ministry announced that it was expelling Blackwater from the country; Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki called the firm's conduct "criminal." 52 For the Iraqi government it was the final straw.
The Baghdad government's anger would be understandable even if the only incident involving Blackwater were Nisour Square. But this was a four-year pattern, one that had intensified in its lethality the year preceding the killing of the seventeen Iraqis in Baghdad. And, particularly enraging to the Iraqis, there had been no consequences for the company's actions. Contractors in Iraq reportedly had a motto: "What happens here today, stays here today."53 As one armed contractor informed the Washington Post, "We were always told, from the very beginning, if for some reason something happened and the Iraqis were trying to prosecute us, they would put you in the back of a car and sneak you out of the country in the middle of the night."54
That is what apparently happened after another fatal Blackwater incident. On Christmas Eve 2006, inside Baghdad's heavily fortified Green Zone, Andrew Moonen,55 an off-duty Blackwater operative, had just left a holiday party. Witnesses said he was drunk as he walked through the "Little Venice" section of the zone,56 where he encountered Raheem Khalif, an Iraqi bodyguard of Vice President Adil Abdul-Mahdi.57 "Between 10:30 and 11:30 p.m., the Blackwater contractor, carrying a Glock 9 mm pistol, passed through a gate near the Iraqi Prime Minister's compound and was confronted by the Iraqi guard, who was on duty," according to a U.S. Congressional investigation. "The Blackwater contractor fired multiple shots, three of which struck the guard, then fled the scene."58
Blackwater officials confirmed that within days they whisked the contractor safely out of Iraq, which they say Washington ordered them to do.59 Iraqi officials labeled the killing a "murder."60 Blackwater said it fired the contractor, but as of early 2008, he had yet to be charged with any crime. A year after the incident, Erik Prince would say that Blackwater had gotten Moonen's security clearance revoked, which Prince said meant Moonen would "never work in a clearance capacity for the U.S. government again," or that it would be "very, very unlikely."61 But weeks after the fatal shooting, Moonen was rehired by a Defense Department contractor and was back working on a U.S. government contract in the Middle East.62
Representative Dennis Kucinich, a member of the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, suggested that by facilitating Moonen's secret departure from Iraq, "There's a question that could actually make [Blackwater's] corporate officers accessories . . . in helping to create a flight from justice for someone who's committed a murder."63


On Sale
May 27, 2008
Page Count
560 pages
Bold Type Books

Jeremy Scahill

About the Author

Jeremy Scahill is one of the three founding editors of The Intercept. He is an investigative reporter, war correspondent, and author of the international bestselling books Dirty Wars: The World Is a Battlefield and Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army. He has reported from Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, Yemen, Nigeria, the former Yugoslavia, and elsewhere across the globe. Scahill has served as the national security correspondent for The Nation and Democracy Now!.

Scahill’s work has sparked several congressional investigations and won some of journalism’s highest honors. He was twice awarded the prestigious George Polk Award, in 1998 for foreign reporting and in 2008 for Blackwater. Scahill is a producer and writer of the award-winning film Dirty Wars, which premiered at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival and was nominated for an Academy Award.

Learn more about this author