The rise in grey warfare through the utilisation of Non-state Actors and Private Military Contractors (PMC) has both lowered the barriers of entry for waging war, to wealthy non-state actors and militarily or economically weaker nations so by providing a sense of impunity through deniable action to larger nations seeking to indirectly strengthen their position in a globally connected world. It is important to note that the vast majority of contractors in conflict zones are what Sean McFate terms, “Combat Service/Security Support Companies:” non-combatants fulfilling roles that the client does not wish to fulfill on their own, such as cooks, air-conditioning techs and cleaning staff. These roles are not whom this report references. Instead, it is what McFate terms Combat Arms/PMC’s that is the subject of this article.
With regards to Libya, it is unlikely that the Turkish government is hiring AL-Qaeda linked cooks to fly into Libya or that Russian backed refrigeration engineers launched attacks on American troops back in February 2018. Instead, deniable and cheaper kinetic action has been carried out by trained and experienced entrepreneurial combat soldiers operating not under conscription or enlistment in their own nation’s military, but through the paycheck of a private entity or corporation. These units differ from the free companies of mercenaries that roamed the European countryside from the 11th-15th centuries, as these units were mostly split into ethnic and cultural units training their troops and acting as bandits and antagonists in times of peace. The modern PMC is almost singly trained by a single military or “Non-state Actor” before joining as a PMC after their term of service has expired, thus having no traditional loyalty to a flag or nation, they are loyal only to the employer who pays them for as long as they are paid.
These combat PMC’s have encountered a significant rise in the post 911 era, but the layout for the modern PMC dates from post WWII with the pioneering work of DynCorp International, and its contemporaries, in providing security for other PMC’s, embassy or military bases as well as the recruiting, training, equipping and deploying PMC’s alongside local combatants. While employees of DynCorp, and now the infamous “Blackwater/Academi Units,” carry out actions that fit under the label of Military Enterpriser PMC’s, they do not fit under the auspices of a Mercenary PMC because as McFate argues, that while their jobs will entail combat roles where they may be required to kill, it is not their primary role.
Therefore these groups are fundamentally different from the modern-day mercenaries that were pioneered by the founder of the SAS, David Sterling’s founding of Sterling Corporate Services. These groups specialised in “Kinetic Action Deploying Military Units” to defeat the enemy and achieve wartime objectives including military campaigning, force projection, offensive/defensive operations, reconnaissance, and special operations. As such they hold a much lower bar for entry into their corporations and attract many individuals who would fail to match the requirements set by Military Enterprisers – particularly since this definition includes all groups who hire their guns out to the highest bidder. This has more recently seen the inclusion of members of ISIS and Al Qaeda join the ranks of PMC’s as they sell their skills gained in the war on terror to Turkey, the National Lybian Army (NLA) and several other non-state actors.
These distinctions have become increasingly important in recent weeks as some 2,000 Syrian fighters have been enlisted by Turkey and flown to Libya to fight on behalf of the internationally recognized government in Tripoli. This would simply symbolise a disturbing continuation of the use of independent armed forces or ‘little green men’ that first came to prominence during the annexation of Crimea. Yet the disturbing links between these Syrian based Military Enterprisers and Islamic radicalism is clear. With a leader of the Turkish backed Military Enterprisers, the SNA stated on Turkish TV station, Akit TV, that these units were fighting “for the sake of the Ottoman Caliphate” and were willing to fight in Libya and China and “wherever there is injustice.” These groups have documented ties to several major Jihadist movements including, but not limited to, ISIS and Al-Qaeda. A majority of these “guns for hire” are low ranking affiliates who, due to geography and costs, have been limited in their actions. Yet this mass movement that the Guardian reports to be over 3000 troops has opened up a new frontier with all too dangerous historical parallels to the chaos of medieval Europe.
This sudden rise of terror groups transitioning to regional PMC’s is deeply concerning given the long history of betrayal and manipulation by their historic counterparts. The Condottieri of Medieval and Renaissance Europe were notorious for changing sides on the eve of battle or simply failing to show up when challenged, like Werner von Urslingen’s infamous Great Company spending years pillaging the Italian countryside and fighting both for and against almost every major power on the peninsular. These units, like their modern-day contemporaries, are beholden to no law but themselves and were only completely suppressed through military defeat returning time and again to cities they had previously held to ransom or attacked. Acts of rampant and unregulated attacks and mass looting are being conducted by the modern terror PMC. This was made violently clear with the murder of Secretary-General of the pro-Kurdish Future Syria Party member – Hevrin Khalaf, by members of Turkey’s Islamist Group as verified by numerous sources including both the Free Syrian Army and CNN. These acts are made worse by the fact that all mercenaries do not have the right to combatant or prisoner-of-war status as outlined in “Additional Protocol I” of ICRC study of international humanitarian law; and as such see little point in applying the protections afforded to others by the agreements given that they will receive no such kindness should the roles be reversed.
The sudden use of ex ISIS and Al-Qaeda affiliated soldiers by Turkey and Libya should be examined through the following lens: just because a NATO member is allowed to pay, arm and equip these men it does not mean they control them. The wider world has no definitive way to prevent the repeating of history as unregulated and loosely commanded units of militia inevitably split from their employer’s hundreds of miles from their original territories. In the case of Libya, it is even more important, as the Guardian has reports, that both sides have become reliant on PMC’s mostly from Sudan and Syria. Given that many of these PMC units have a history of human rights abuses dating back years, what makes either side believe that they can guarantee their loyalty and adherence to international laws they are excluded from? The employers of these units seem less than concerned with the troubling historical parallels. With Turkey seemingly hoping their Islamist PMC’s will stay in Libya, distracted by a new “Jihad,” they have little regard of the impact that war criminals will have on the local and regional people. Particularly with what seems to be a rampant disregard for what history warns us is most likely to occur, they resume unconcerned as the radical extremist nature of PMC’s is employed on both sides of the fighting.
This forces the international community to question how, after the fighting is over, will these troops return home and how will the wider world respond if history repeats itself