Mercenaries have played a pivotal role in deciding the outcome of battles since the dawn of civilization. From Alexander’s successful Asia campaign to the US invasion of Iraq, wars are more often than not won on the back of fighters with no real loyalty to either side. Despite being some of the most formidable fighting forces of their times, though, they’re almost never mentioned in historical records.
Mercenaries of today are a bit different from those in history. War is a much more privatized and for-profit affair now, which has given way to multinational mercenary corporations that operate more like Fortune 500 companies than groups of fighters looking to make a quick buck.
When it comes to America’s various wars around the world, most of us think that they’re fought by only native soldiers from the national army. The image of a patriotic American marine dropping down into battle to protect what America stands for – or what they’ve been told it stands for in that particular war – is too strong to shake off. A big reason for that is American movies, which almost always portray fighting in a war as the ultimate show of patriotism.
In reality, though, much of the fighting is done by for-profit private contractors, who’ve grown quite rich in the past few decades due to how many conflicts America has been involved in, as you’d expect. Out of a long list of all of them (and the list is quite long), one of the most profitable of them is DynCorp.
Based out of Virginia, DynCorp has served as the backbone for US military operations in various countries through the years, including Iraq, Afghanistan, Bosnia, Sri Lanka, Kuwait, and Bolivia, among others. While its own website claims that it’s an awesome and law-abiding security firm, in reality, it has been accused of various human rights infractions.
One of the most infamous of them was the sex scandal in Bosnia, wherein DynCorp personnel were found to be involved in illegal trafficking of minor girls. That’s only one of them, though, as DynCorp has been allegedly involved in many other unsavory operations in wars across the world.
It’s unfair to say that every private security contractor out there is evil, as many of them are also involved in humanitarian and rehabilitation efforts, with genuinely good guys as their leaders. Unfortunately due to how the world really works, they’re not the successful ones and almost never make the news. The biggest military contractors are almost always mired in controversy, and often justifiably so. We’re guessing it has something to do with unchecked power and a bunch of arms at their disposal, but we’re no experts here, so it could really be anything.
One of the most controversial of them has been GardaWorld, which many playfully refer to as the Blackwater of Canada. It’s one of the largest security firms in the world, and can even be called a mercenary conglomerate. It owns many of the biggest private military contractors in the world, including the previously British-based Aegis, which it acquired in 2015. If you can’t put a finger on how you know that name, Aegis was recently under fire for hiring child soldiers from Sierra Leone and making them fight in Iraq.
GardaWorld was also involved in a controversy in Afghanistan in 2012, when some of its employees were found in possession of illegal AK-47s.
8. Olive Group
In case you weren’t aware, the Middle East is in kind of a mess right now. Even if ISIS isn’t as strong as it used to be, the Syrian civil war is still going on, and it will be a while until it’s all sorted out. Because of that, business for many corporations operating in the region isn’t as good as it used to be. In the most affected areas, the biggest problem is securing the assets of private companies, especially oil firms, and the job is usually given to the best of the best.
Olive Group, one of the firms that specializes in protecting private oil interests from the likes of suicide bombers and rebel attacks, has been in Iraq since 2003. Working in some of the most active conflict zones in the world, an important part of their job is risk assessment, which includes quite a bit of intelligence gathering and knowledge of localities in which they operate.
Unlike most other firms on this list, there aren’t many controversies surrounding them, and by the looks of it, they seem to be good at their job, too.
7. Military Professional Resources Inc
Military Professional Resources Inc, or MPRI, is another one of those huge mercenary firms no one has heard of. While it provides its services to all kinds of clients, including private firms and small governments, its primary source of income is the US government. MPRI has been involved in military operations in many countries, including Iraq and Panama. Their most infamous contribution to war, however, came at the time of the fall of communism in Eastern Europe.
MPRI was indirectly involved in a genocide in Croatia during Operation Storm, when local soldiers trained by them used that training to commit mass rapes and murders against civilians. It massively contributed to a demographic destabilization of the region, as it forced more than 100,000 Serbs to leave the area for good.
Unsurprisingly, no one from the firm has ever been charged with war crimes, and they continue to be one of US military’s biggest private security contractors.
Another one of the Who’s Who of the private military world, Erinys International is a security firm based out of the UK. Britain is fast turning into a hub of multinational private security organizations, which isn’t a surprise considering how good business is right now. Erinys has been continuously employed by the coalition forces since the beginning of the Iraq war, and has been involved in its fair share of controversies.
In one case, Erinys personnel opened fire on unsuspecting civilians while escorting clients of Leigh Day & Co (a law firm operating in the region at the time), though thankfully, no one was killed. It has also been sued for causing the death of an American soldier, as well as mistreating a prisoner in its custody. Its role is largely limited to protecting private interests and oil installations in post-war Iraq.
5. Booz Allen Hamilton
When it comes to gathering intelligence, we assume that the job is solely in the hands of the national security forces. That’s not the case, as some of the most useful and actionable intelligence comes from private players, some of whom are far better at it than any government will ever be. One of the biggest is Booz Allen Hamilton, based out of McLean, Virginia. (You may have heard of one of their former employees: Edward Snowden.)
They run a variety of operations in exchange for good ol’ money from the US government, including training spies, gathering intelligence in conflict zones, and conducting military simulations for NATO. The US Government is only one of its clients, too, as it works with intelligence firms around the world, along with private organizations that need specific information on new markets in conflict areas.
4. Unity Resources Group
Australia doesn’t usually figure into military conversations, despite the fact that they’re an important part of almost all campaigns undertaken by the US military and NATO. Like all the rest of America’s allies, Australia has its own private military industry, and one of the biggest firms there is Unity Resources Group.
With operations ranging from Africa, the Americas, Central Asia, the Middle East, and Europe – almost the entire world, so to speak – it deals in risk management, advising local militaries, training, and aviation. Its most notable job is to protect the Australian embassy in Baghdad, which is a pretty hectic job if you know literally anything about the state of Baghdad right now. They’re regularly involved in minor skirmishes with local militant groups, which means they have to be damn good at their job to still be in business. Most of the personnel working there are Chilean war veterans, who first made news when they killed a 72-year-old Australian professor for simply not stopping his car when they asked him to.
ISIS has hogged the front pages of newspapers for so long now that we forget about another, equally-scary terrorist organization in Africa. Boko Haram has been waging a brutal civil war against the Nigerian government for longer than ISIS, and has been involved in many ethnic cleansing campaigns ever since it was established. Many would claim that it’s a much larger threat to stability in vulnerable regions of the Middle East than ISIS, though as it doesn’t directly threaten the interests of major countries, conversation around it has been minimal, to say the least.
Needless to say, the situation isn’t exactly under the Nigerian government’s control right now, and to combat it, it has sought the help of a mercenary firm called STTEP. Short for Specialized Tasks, Training, Equipment and Protection, STTEP originated in South Africa, and consists of some of the most elite soldiers of the South African army. While they have been involved in many direct fights with Boko Haram, they’re officially there only to train government forces. Because of the shadowy nature of the war in Nigeria, the full extent of STTEP’s role is unclear, though if we know anything about the civil war in Nigeria, we’re sure a few news pieces about their excesses might show up soon enough.
Unlike most other firms on this list, Gazprom didn’t start out as a mercenary firm. It’s actually a fairly huge oil and gas corporation in Russia, and has its roots in the Soviet era. Because of the unique nature of business in Russia, the Russian government owns a majority share, though only in its Russian arm. It’s so huge now that a lot of its subsidiaries around the world are profitable ventures on their own, and operate more like a private army than a corporation.
Gazprom is also heavily involved in Syria, and has seen exponential growth since Russia entered the war. It’s one of the few Russian firms that have private militaries of their own, much like many British and American oil firms with their own forces to deal with local problems. If you know anything about the recent history of South America, you’d know exactly what we’re talking about.
As of now, Gazprom is supported by the Russian government, but still isn’t a part of the official forces of Russia. It has its own troops, and recently added a fleet of military drones to its arsenal.
G4S is the largest company you’ve never heard of. It’s by far the biggest private military contractor in the world, and has seen unprecedented growth since the beginning of the “War on Terror.” It boasts of operations in over 120 countries, and has around 620,000 employees around the world. If that’s not blowing your mind, consider this: it’s three times the size of the entire strength of the British military, with equivalent – and in some cases better – intelligence and wartime technology at its disposal due to its reach.
It’s also the third largest private employer in the world behind Walmart and Foxconn. Like many of the biggest private military contractors, G4S is based out of Britain, and provides a wide range of services to its many, many clients in various situations around the world. Many of its operations don’t include heavy combat, as they also provide night-time guards and patrolling officers. Though that doesn’t mean that they aren’t involved in dangerous conflict areas, since because of their size, they’re involved in pretty much everything.