Thoughts on Mercenaries and Private Military Contractors

By Christine Duhaime | January 2nd, 2023

They have been called many things – mercenaries, irregular forces, private military contractors (PMC), and private security companies (PSC) – whatever the phrase, PMCs have been around for a very long time. 

The war in Ukraine recently brought the use of private soldiers into focus – Russia has hired at least three such groups, the Wagner Group, Redut, and Patriot Private Military Company, to fight in Ukraine. 

PMCs are a growing international business. 

There are private military contractors from all over the world, including the US, Russia, Iran, Canada, and South African. Many are former elite military combatants, more skilled than local forces. The biggest contractor of PMCs is the US government but that may have changed with the Ukraine war. 

PMCs in history

The most well-known example of PMCs in the world was the military group who worked for a woman pirate named 石陽, Queen Shí Yáng, also known as 鄭嫂. Queen Shí Yáng had 70,000 men who worked for her aboard more than 1,600 vessels. In the early 1880s, they controlled the South China Sea and Pearl River Delta, routinely defeating the Qing Dynasty navy in coastal battles. 

Illustration of Shí Yáng (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Shí Yáng’s group earned revenues in a variety of ways, including as mercenaries for warring Vietnamese rulers, by controlling the importation of salt into China, by collecting navigation taxes, and looting foreign vessels entering China’s waters. Mercenaries were paid 20% of all the loot collected by Shí Yáng. 

The Roman Empire had PMCs called the Praetorian Guard. They were private soldiers who, for over 300 years, protected powerful generals and politicians. Wealthy families often had thousands of praetorians safeguarding their family, land and business affairs. Praetorians became a powerful group in Rome, and the more powerful among them, at one time came to control who would succeed as emperor of Rome. 

YouTube channel of Invicta

Medieval Europe had a booming conflicts market, and PMC were used to engage in wars, steal land or to protect businesses for the wealthy.

Byzantine emperors hired Norse PMCs known as the Varangian Guard. In the 11th Century, nearly half of William the Conqueror’s army was made up of PMCs, and King Henry II hired PMCs to deal with the rebellions of 1171–1174. The Pope’s Swiss guards, now part of the Swiss Army, used to be PMCs. 

An obvious example of the use of PMCs, but the least discussed, was the use of PMCs in the enslavement trade. Henry Bath, in his book series “Travels and Discoveries of North and Central Africa”, which describes his mission to several countries in Central Africa in 1856, details the use of local armed private forces hired by foreigners to capture humans in Central Africa for enslavement. 

Illustration of Enslavement (Source: John William Frost’s book Broken Shackles)

PMCs, in one form or another, have always been part of the culture in manufactured and real conflict zones, hired to protect legal and illegal commerce for private enterprise, organized crime and in some cases, for governments. 

The Wagner Group is owned by Russian oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin. Prigozhin became acquainted with Putin when Putin was a municipal politician in St. Petersburg. Murdered Russian organized crime leader Shabtai Kalmanovich, was part of the same circle in St. Petersburg. Before Kalmanovich was horse-traded back to Russia from an Israeli jail, he used PMCs to engage in diamond and minerals trafficking in Sierra Leone, and to protect Joseph Momoh. 

Defending extraction rights

PMCs continue to be frequently used to protect mineral resources for private enterprise, including in large part, by Canadian owned extraction industries. 

Some PMCs act as intermediaries for black bag deliveries. Black bag deliveries (called black suitcases in Europe and Asia) are corruption / bribery payments made to politically exposed persons (often politicians), a common occurrence in the mining and extraction industries in Africa. 

The Wagner Group is one of the PMCs operating in the Central African Republic on behalf of the government, and to protect private mining companies.

PMCs remain the protectors of mining assets and mining rights in most conflict areas of the world because they are effective at what they do for private commerce. Many public and private enterprises could not operate in conflict zones without PMCs because the risks to assets, investments, manpower, infrastructure and executives are extremely high. PMCs mitigate risks. 

The mining company Freeport-McMoRan hired the PMC company Triple Canopy to protect its mining rights and mining operations in Papua, Indonesia, against local insurgents. In South Sudan, DeWe Security provides PMC services to protect the contractual rights and operations of the China National Petroleum Corporation. 

PMCs also operate in Syria, to protect oil and gas assets, and in Mali, under contract with the government.

YouTube channel of VOA Africa

PMCs can be effective

PMCs can be effective. 

PMCs from South Africa and Eastern Europe were hired by Nigeria for a search and destroy mission to eliminate the terrorist group Boko Harem from Nigeria. They drove out Boko Haram in weeks – something the Nigerian military had not been able to do in six years. 

Another PMC group, Executive Outcomes, was paid US$1.2 million a month to successfully contain and quell a rebellion in Sierra Leone. In comparison, the United Nations went through US$47 million for one month in Sierra Leone with zero impact. 

In Somalia, PMCs hired by the UAE and the Somalian government effectively eliminated the piracy problem in the waters off the coast of Somalia. According to Lloyd’s of London, there have been no attacks on merchant vessels off Somalia for the last four years, saving US$6 billion in costs. 

In the 2011 clip below, PMCs from the Trident Group, open fire on Somali pirates and prevent a pirate attack. 

YouTube channel of Inbound Logistics

PMCs used to obstruct justice

PMCs also provide intelligence and pre-litigation services. 

In Canada, the Israeli groups Tamara Global and Black Cube, run by former Mossad agents, were used in a litigation connected to Ontario lawyers, to come to Canada to obstruct justice and defeat the rule of law in a civil proceeding. 

The mission? 

To locate an Ontario Supreme Court judge named Frank Newbould, who presided over a key litigation, and once located, to lie to Newbould so that he agreed to a meeting. And at the meeting to engage him in a conversation under false pretenses, to egg him on to make anti-semitic statements, which would then be used as grounds for appealing a court decision. 

The mission was successful except for the last part because Newbould did not make anti-semitic statements at the meeting. 

The use of foreign PMCs in the obstruction of justice in Canada is probably less shocking than the fact that nothing happened to the lawyers involved in the plot. 

Dangers of PMCs

The use of PMCs is growing throughout the world and there are dangers associated with their growth, beyond manipulating courts and interfering with the administration of justice. 

The attractiveness of PMCs to those who hire them is that they provide deniability, which means they act in a foreign country in a vacuum outside the rule of law. 

Among the dangers is that the super rich, the fortune 500 executives, will be able to buy power, leading to a situation where, with private armies, they become more powerful than some countries. The super-rich will become superpowers, and above the law. 

Another danger is that while PMCs are stateless (meaning the men and women who sign on to be PMCs can come from any country), locals see them as a representative of a country. Blackwater, for example, was seen by the Iraqis and Iranians are being the US military, as opposed to simply PMCs. The Wagner Group has more than just Russian nationals engaged to perform PMC work, but locals in African countries, and in Syria tend to see them as tantamount to the Russian military.

For example, a PMC group comprised of contractors from France in Serbia will be viewed by Serbians as if they are an arm of the French government, even though they are a private group whose paymaster may be a private sector company. Any unlawful, menacing or inappropriate conduct will be attributed to the French government, which harms its international reputation.

There is also the danger that wars could be started without states. In the CAR, for example, and specifically, it is not beyond the realm of possibilities that another PMC group is hired to battle the Wagner Group and, among other things, to attempt to gain control of the mining infrastructure they protect for their clients, or to destabilize existing mining activities for another actor whom that PMC is fronting for. 

This is a risk for many African countries that, hiring PMCs to support economic growth and protect foreign investment, may cause other non-transparent actors to use PMCs to engage in commerce-related warfare to gain competitive advantages illegally, especially those with viable deposits of rare earth elements and critical minerals. 

Most countries use PMCs, and allow them to operate – tacitly or overtly. With armed non-state private military actors assuming more control in more areas around the world, state power will decline, which has the potential to upend international relations as we know it.

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