Assassins for Hire: US Citizens, Israelis, and Palestinians Kill for Money in Yemen

The US-based mercenary company Spear Group, headed by an Israeli and hired by a Palestinian on behalf of the UAE, conducts extra-judicial killings in Yemen. Antony Loewenstein discusses the details

Assassins for Hire: US Citizens, Israelis, and Palestinians Kill for Money in Yemen

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Story Transcript

GREG WILPERT: It’s The Real News Network. I’m Greg Wilpert joining you from Baltimore.

On Tuesday, Aram Roston of BuzzFeed revealed that the United Arab Emirates, UAE, hired an American mercenary company called Spear Operations Group to assassinate individuals in Yemen, and that they also attempted to plant a bomb at the headquarters of the Islamic party in this operation. The UAE is cooperating with Saudi Arabia in its war against the Houthi ethnic group that is governing Yemen. It is very interesting to note that the UAE did not contact this company directly, but it was Mohammed Dahlan, a Palestinian from Gaza who is a former senior member of the Fatah party who reached out to the Spear Operations Group.

And so why was the Spear Operations Group chosen out of dozens of similar mercenary companies? Spear Operations Group was founded by Abraham Golan, a former Israeli military officer and well-known businessman in the private military and security business. Already in February, the Yemeni Transportation Minister Saleh al-Gabwani warned that the U.S. intervenes in Yemen by creating small armies, and fragmenting the territory and its population.

SALEH AL-GABWANI: The situation is very bad in all liberated areas, particularly those in the south, where there are tribal armies established and supported by the United Arab Emirates. There are also provincial armies, and there are gangs. Even Al Qaeda is spreading there in large parts of the governorates. Al Qaeda has never been as present as it is right now.

GREG WILPERT: Joining me now to discuss the role of the U.S. mercenaries in the Yemen war is Antony Loewenstein. He’s an independent journalist and author of Disaster Capitalism: Making a Killing out of Catastrophe. Thanks for joining us again.

ANTONY LOEWENSTEIN: Thanks for having me.

GREG WILPERT: So what is the UAE trying to achieve in Yemen? Why do they need foreign mercenaries to fight for them in Yemen and conduct assassinations?

ANTONY LOEWENSTEIN: The UAE army for many years, in fact, has been made up with a lot of mercenary figures and outsiders. So the UAE’s army itself is often not made up of locals, so to speak. It’s made up of foreigners, and it’s been the case for a long time. And it’s got a lot stronger in the last year since they’ve been fighting in Yemen. I mean, essentially, why did they hire this particular company? I don’t think we know, is the short answer. But I think what we do know is why these kinds of companies are being hired is because they’re seen as being effective; effective meaning that they are able to assassinate or kill or capture so-called enemies of the UAE, or the U.S., for that matter. And certainly the Israeli connection here is key, because Israel has become expert at so-called targeted assassinations long before 9/11. And in fact, many other countries, the U.S., UK and others, get inspiration from Israel and the Israeli experience in killing so-called enemies. And that’s I think partly why this kind of company may well have been hired.

GREG WILPERT: So it seems that Abraham Golan, the founder of Spear Operations Group, had no problem speaking to BuzzFeed and admitting that he orchestrated the assassinations. The one point that he did insist on, however, is that he couldn’t receive his orders from Mohammed Dahlan, and had to receive them from the UAE military, to create some kind of official connection to the UAE military. Explain what is the legal issue here. Why is it so important for Golan to be considered part of the UAE military, and does this protect him from being accused of war crimes?

ANTONY LOEWENSTEIN: Well, the first thing is that his role in talking about these operations is pretty rare. I mean, to be honest, having done a lot of reporting in the last ten years on private military contractors in Afghanistan and elsewhere, most of these kinds of companies and their leaders do not speak openly about their operations, full stop, let alone admit or acknowledge that they did these kind of acts. So this is very unusual.

Why he’s doing this? I guess he feels he has a degree of protection, and that goes to your key question, that essentially the moment the laws of war within the U.S. are incredibly murky, on the one hand, you would think that if an individual is involved in killing people in a war zone then they’re able to be prosecuted inside that country, or the U.S. But the truth is that legally speaking, this is still a very, very murky area. In fact, since 9/11, since the huge explosion in private military contractors, there have been very, very few cases of Western military contractors- many of whom are of course used to be in the U.S. Army, or British army, or Australian army, or armies from South and Latin America actually being prosecuted for crimes, for war crimes. It’s very, very rare. That’s partly because the U.S. has no real interest in doing so; mainly because these individuals have been fighting what the U.S. regards as a legitimate war, whether it’s Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, or elsewhere. So he obviously feels he has protection in speaking openly.

But as I said, it’s very rare that someone is so brazen and speaking so openly about what they did. And we should also note that the individual this organization was trying to murder, assassinate, survived. The person apparently is still alive. He still has a presence in Yemen. And the organization that he belongs to is also very well regarded by some in Yemen and outside. So you could argue, on the one hand, this was a botched operation. But almost history would suggest, and we see this with, for example, the work in the past of Erik Prince, who used to run Blackwater, that failure is really an impediment to more contracts. In other words, the fact that this story is now out in Buzzfeed and the fact that this operation itself was not successful in Yemen does not necessarily mean that this guy won’t get more contracts, which might be counterintuitive, but history would suggest that’s the case.

GREG WILPERT: Sounds like a good advertisement, perhaps, in a way. So explain to us the connection between Mohammed Dahlan, who originally orchestrated the Spear Group’s involvement, and what was his connection to the UAE? He is not from the UAE, after all. How did he become their agent of recruiting mercenaries?

ANTONY LOEWENSTEIN: This is a really interesting case. Dahlan’s role used to be very key in the Palestinian territories. He was born in Gaza. He was very influential with Fatah, which is one of the main political parties here in Palestine. He had a longstanding hatred of Hamas, which is often Fatah’s enemy. And about 10 or so years ago, about 12 years ago now, there was a, I guess you’d say a civil war of sorts, a very short term civil war between Fatah and Hamas. Hamas won. And Dahlan, essentially, was kicked out, and he ended up becoming a very kind of murky, almost kind of go-to hit man for the UAE. He’s been living there for over a decade, and there’s been a range of examples of him reaching out to U.S. corporations and others to try to do the dirty work, so to speak, of where the UAE wants to do.

In some ways his role we see in Palestine itself is not over. Although he hasn’t got a presence here in Palestine, in many ways there are many people within the U.S. and others who see him potentially as coming in to replace Mahmoud Abbas, who is currently very elderly, leader of the Palestinian Authority; coming in and running Gaza again. These debates and conversations are happening all the time within Palestine, whether he is the right person to do that. He’s got a very, very, I would say, ugly past; a very, very brutal, violent past. That, of course, is what the UAE wants.

So this set of examples here in Yemen is a classic thing Dahlan would do. He’s a fixer for the UAE regime, and he gets protection for doing so. But I might also add he’s also very close to elements within the U.S. administration, both Democrat and Republican, and also Israel.

GREG WILPERT: Now, the choice to recruit a company founded by an Israeli with several former Israeli soldiers into its ranks seems to be a surprising choice for Mohammed Dahlan, who is a Palestinian. How do you explain this unusual Palestinian-Israeli cooperation?

ANTONY LOEWENSTEIN: Well, yeah. There’s been a lot of complicity and collusion between elements of the Israeli establishment, security establishment, intelligence establishment, and the Palestinian elite. Let’s not forget, to this day the Palestinian Authority every day, 24/7, works to protect the Israeli occupation. The Palestinian Authority is almost the contractor for Israel within the West Bank. So that relationship is not inherently unusual. Many Palestinians hate that relationship, and hate the fact that Palestinians’ lives are terrible. The occupation in Palestine has been going now for 50 years, while the Palestinian Authority leadership, Mahmoud Abbas, Dahlan, and others, have made a fortune from that kind of collusion with Israel.

So that on the face of it might seem strange, but there’s always going to be individuals in the Palestinian elite who are willing to collude with Israel to protect the Israeli occupation. So his role, Dahlan’s role in the UAE, in Yemen, in that way is not that unusual. And that’s why many Palestinians within Palestine itself and in the diaspora have a real profound hatred of Dahlan, because they see him as being open to the highest bidder. And that could be the UAE, it could be Israel, it could be the U.S. So the idea that he would potentially come back and run Gaza, or run some kind of Palestinian entity, is really a nonstarter for a lot of Palestinians, and rightly so.

GREG WILPERT: Very interesting. But we’re going to have to leave it there. I was speaking to Antony Loewenstein, independent journalist and author of the book Disaster Capitalism. Thanks again, Antony, for having joined us today.

ANTONY LOEWENSTEIN: Thanks for having me, Greg.

GREG WILPERT: And thank you for joining The Real News Network.