Erik Prince is all over the map. Literally.
From DC to the DRC, Erik Prince keeps pitching new ideas — from proposals for privatized wars and spy agencies, to Frontier Services Group’s Belt and Road plans, to a new company that revives the infamous Blackwater brand.
In the Trump-Russia story, a few people in Trump’s orbit have appeared repeatedly, attending ‘secret’ meetings and pursuing self-enriching business deals — Michael Flynn, Steve Bannon, Jared Kushner, Paul Manafort, Michael Cohen, Elliot Broidy, George Nader. Among this group of frenetic deal-makers, Erik Prince may be the most prolific in pitching and launching new business ideas, while striving to spread his influence and operations around the world.
Prince who founded the private security company Blackwater seemed to reach his peak around 2006, became embroiled in highly publicized investigations into civilian deaths in Iraq the next year, and then left his company and country, to rebuild his career overseas. Prince has re-emerged in the past few years, pitching new deals and leveraging strong connections within the Trump administration, to promote his career. Time will tell if Prince will succeed, or if he will follow in the footsteps of Michael Flynn and Paul Manafort and encounter legal ramifications from Mueller’s investigation.
Erik Prince was raised in Michigan with three older sisters, including Betsy — who is now U.S. Secretary of Education and married to Dick DeVos, whose father co-founded Amway. Erik’s father, Edgar, founded Prince Corporation, an auto parts and machinery manufacturer that in 1972 developed a sun visor with an illuminated vanity mirror.
After Erik Prince graduated from Hillsdale College, he briefly attended and then quit the U.S. Naval Academy and did an internship in the early 1990s in the White House under George H.W. Bush. Prince considered himself a libertarian and developed a strong conservative network, including interning with Huntington Beach, California Republican Rep. Dana Rohrabacher. In 1993 Prince joined the Navy SEALs.
Erik’s father passed away in 1995 and his company was sold a year later for $1.35 billion. Erik had returned home and created the private security contractor company Blackwater. Throughout the 2000’s Blackwater grew to become a primary military subcontractor for the CIA and the State Department, earning $2 billion, from work such as secretly arming and maintaining drones in Pakistan and training CIA hit teams.
In 2007 Blackwater employees shot and killed 17 Iraqi civilians and seriously wounded 20 civilians, in what became known as the Nisour Square massacre. A series of investigations and lawsuits followed and Erik Prince resigned as Blackwater CEO in March 2009.
In 2008, then Senator Hillary Clinton signed on as the first co-sponsor of a bill to ban the use of State Department private security contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Stop Outsourcing Security Act, introduced in the Senate at the end of 2007 by Bernie Sanders, took direct aim at Blackwater, as well as DynCorp owned by Stephen Feinberg, and Triple Canopy, a security company later bought by Constellis, which also bought Blackwater (which had been renamed Xe Services, and then Academi). Constellis was purchased in 2016 for $1 billion by Apollo Global Management, however Constellis is now up for sale and took initial bids earlier this year.
The Stop Outsourcing Security Act was not supported by Obama and was never enacted, but Hillary Clinton’s early support of the bill put her directly in the crosshairs of Erik Prince, who had made his fortune from government outsourcing of security services.
After resigning from Blackwater, Prince went to live in the United Arab Emirates and with $529 million in funding from the UAE created an 800-member mercenary army, staffed largely by men from Colombia, to “conduct special operations missions inside and outside the country, defend oil pipelines and skyscrapers from terrorist attacks and put down internal revolts.”
It was not clear if Prince’s new endeavors in the UAE were approved by U.S. officials. And in 2010 Blackwater, renamed Xe Services, had to pay $42 million in fines for hundreds of violations of US export control regulations, including illegal weapons exports to Afghanistan, making unauthorized proposals to train troops in south Sudan and providing sniper training for Taiwanese police officers.
During his years in the UAE Prince also ran an operation for the Emirati government using South African mercenaries to train Somalis to fight pirates. Prince later shifted his focus to developing business opportunities in China with business partner and Hong Kong billionaire, Johnson Chun Shun Ko.
Aside from a few news stories tracking his overseas activities, Prince kept a relatively low profile for years, but as Donald Trump’s campaign built momentum, Prince reappeared on the scene. In mid 2017 Prince started promoting a solution to the war in Afghanistan, writing a piece in USA Today proposing the president “‘restructure’ the war, similar to a bankruptcy reorganization.” In the months leading up to the election, Prince appeared as a frequent guest on Steve Bannon’s Breitbart platform, often discussing anti-Clinton stories.
The business and political ventures Erik Prince has pursued in the last few years highlight his efforts to further his right-wing ideology while attempting to regain the scale, wealth, and influence from his Blackwater days.
Erik Prince and the Trump-Russia Investigation
There has been wide reporting on Erik Prince’s January 2017 meeting in the Seychelles with the United Arab Emirate’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed Al-Nahyan, the CEO of the Russian Direct Investment Fund Kirill Dmitriev, and George Nader, a former consultant for Erik Prince’s company Blackwater. According to George Nader, who is cooperating with the special counsel, Robert Mueller, a main purpose of the meeting was to set up a communication channel between the Russian government and the incoming Trump administration.
Nader’s account of the Seychelles meeting has called into question testimony Erik Prince gave to the House Intelligence Committee, describing his meeting with Dmitriev as a chance encounter at the bar.
This month, The New York Times broke a story about an unreported August 3, 2016 meeting at Trump Tower attended by Erik Prince, George Nader, Donald Trump Jr., Stephen Miller, and Joel Zamel, who had presented a multimillion-dollar proposal for his company Psy-Group to implement a social media manipulation campaign to help elect Trump.
“Prince opened the meeting by telling Donald Trump Jr. that ‘we are working hard for your father,’ in reference to his family and other donors, according to a person familiar with the meeting. He then introduced Mr. Nader as an old friend with deep ties to Arab leaders.”
After Trump was elected, Nader paid Zamel a large sum of money, described by one associate as up to $2 million, although there are conflicting accounts of the reason for the payment. In addition to Psy-Group, Joel Zamel and his business partner Daniel Green, co-founded a consulting firm Wikistrat, founded in Israel in 2010 and now based in Washington, D. C., that has been included in Mueller’s investigation.
After Erik Prince introduced George Nader to the campaign in August 2016, Nader met frequently with Jared Kusher, Michael Flynn, and Steve Bannon. Nader attended the January 2017 Seychelles meeting with Erik Prince. And Nader became an active partner with businessman and RNC fundraiser Elliott Broidy, in advocating for the interests of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates within the Trump administration, while Nader and Broidy simultaneously pursued massive business deals together.
Erik Prince and Elliott Broidy have some notable similarities — both are deeply entangled in the Trump-Russia story, both have run security and intelligence companies and in past years both established contracts worth hundreds of millions of dollars with the UAE. Elliott Broidy pitched a proposal to train mercenaries to help the UAE battle the Taliban and the Islamic State in Afghanistan, and he made a proposal to help Saudi Arabia train Arab troops to fight in the escalating war in Yemen.
It is not surprising that George Nader has been linked to both men, although it appears that he may have transitioned his alliance in 2017, from Prince to Broidy.
Prince, Rohrabacher, and Behrends
Erik Prince has been a long-time supporter of former Reagan speechwriter, and Pro-Russia congressman Dana Rohrabacher, who was mentioned in a private conversation by House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, who said “There’s two people I think Putin pays: Rohrabacher and Trump.”
In the 1990’s Prince interned for Rohrabacher’s aide Paul Behrends, who later became a lobbyist for Prince’s company Blackwater, and then returned to work for Rohrabacher in his role as Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee subcommittee on Europe, Eurasia and Emerging Threats.
Rohrabacher and Behrends visited Russia in 2014 and 2016. Behrends introduced Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya and Russian-born lobbyist Rinat Akhmetshin — who both attended the June 2016 Trump Tower meeting with Don Jr, Manafort, and Kushner — around Washington D.C. during the inauguration. Rohrabacher and Behrends helped spread opposition research on Bill Browder and engaged in efforts to weaken the Magnitsky Act. Behrends’ pro-Russia activities caused so much unease that he was dismissed as staff director on the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee, but continues to work as Rohrabacher’s Deputy Chief of Staff.
Despite intense focus on Rohrabacher’s pro-Russia activity, and the media scrutiny of an August 2017 visit Rohrabacher made with alt-right troll Charles Johnson to see Julian Assange, in March 2018 Erik Prince held a fundraiser for Rohrabacher, that was also attended by Oliver North, a key figure in the Iran-Contra scandal and now the president of the NRA.
Prince has also worked closely with Steve Bannon, especially in the months before the 2016 election, when Prince did several interviews for Breitbart pushing the Clinton uranium Russia story, and describing incriminating information the NYPD had about Clinton on Anthony Weiner’s laptop.
Deals Pitched to the Trump Administration
After the election Prince leveraged his connections to the Trump administration and Buzzfeed reported that in early 2017 Prince presented a proposal to the administration to privatize the Afghan war and to fund the effort by mining Afghanistan’s valuable minerals. Prince’s presentation identified rare-earth minerals, including uranium valued at $1 trillion, as well as magnesite, talc, and other minerals valued at $4.3 billion. The presentation highlights China’s dominance of REEs (Rare Earth Elements) as a threat to the U.S., noting that the U.S. remains subject to market manipulation by China.
The presentation in Prince’s Afghanistan pitch of China as a threat to U.S. interests, is ironic since Prince’s company, Frontier Services Group, is headquartered in Hong Kong and the largest shareholder is CITIC, a Chinese state-owned business, closely tied to the Chinese government.
Around the same time as Prince made his pitch to privatize the war in Afghanistan, Buzzfeed reported that in February 2017, Prince’s company Frontier Services Group planned to set up a private army with “two Blackwater-style training camps in China,” which the company said, “does not involve armed personnel.” A former associate of Prince noted that “He’s hell bent on reclaiming his position as the world’s preeminent private military provider.”
In late 2017, Prince and CIA veteran John Maguire, who worked for the intelligence contractor Amyntor Group along with Oliver North, pitched a set of proposals to the White House to create a global, private spy network to circumvent official U.S. intelligence agencies, a group Trump calls the “Deep State.” Prince and Maguire denied that they had collaborated and Prince denied any involvement in the proposal.
Intelligence Ops, Black Cube, Cambridge Analytica
Prince has been primarily known for his mercenary and privatized military contracting work, but, like many of the key figures in the Trump-Russia story, Prince has associated with firms that merge communications, PR, propaganda, social media manipulation and “weaponizing data” for business and political purposes. At the height of his Blackwater success, Prince hired several senior former CIA officials and launched his own intelligence firm.
Cofer Black, who had served in the Directorate of Operations at the CIA and was Director of the CIA’s Counterterrorist Center, was Vice Chairman of Blackwater from 2005 to 2008. Black was also Chairman of Total Intelligence Solutions, created by The Prince Group in 2007 and later renamed OODA, with chief executive Robert Richer, a former CIA associate deputy director of operations. Rick Prado, who is still listed as an advisor to OODA, was an ex-CIA officer who worked for Blackwater and allegedly was “a hitman for a notorious Miami mobster,” had worked for the mob after joining the CIA, and was the head of the CIA’s secret assassination squad against Al-Qaida.
In addition to the recent story revealing that Prince introduced Joel Zamel to Donald Trump Jr. in August 2016 to pitch the social media work of Psy-Group, Erik Prince has a few tangential connections to Black Cube, an Israeli intelligence company made up of “veterans from the Israeli elite intelligence units” that specializes in “tailored solutions to complex business and litigation challenges.”
In November 2017 Ronan Farrow published a New Yorker story about how Harvey Weinstein had hired Black Cube to collect information on the women and the journalists trying to expose sexual harassment and assault allegations against Weinstein. In May 2018, The Observer reported that the Trump team had hired a spy firm to gather information to discredit several Obama officials involved with negotiating the Iran arms deal. A day later Farrow confirmed that the company allegedly hired by the Trump administration was Black Cube.
The contract for Black Cube’s work for Harvey Weinstein was personally signed by lawyer David Boies. In 2012, David Boies represented the former president of Blackwater, Gary Jackson, on charges related to falsifying ownership papers for Blackwater guns that were presented in 2005 to Jordan’s King Abdullah.
Black Cube was founded in 2011 by Dan Zorella, a former IDF military intelligence officer based in London, Dr. Avi Yanus and the late Meir Dagan was president of the board. Their first known major job was for the Tehran-born, British-Jewish billionaire Vincent Tchenguiz, after he was raided by the UK’s Serious Fraud Office in 2011 for bank fraud. Black Cube helped build the successful challenge to the SFO raids, which were declared unlawful. However in subsequent years, Tchenguiz had a falling out with Black Cube and allegedly spied on his own spies, who were based out of his London office.
During the years Tchenguiz worked with Black Cube, he was also, notably, the largest shareholder, until 2015, in SCL Group, the owner of Cambridge Analytica, which became Donald Trump’s data company during the 2016 presidential election.
An Haaretz article describes Prince’s business connections to Netanyahu’s former Chief of Staff Ari Harow and his past business partner, Isreali financier Dorian Barak. Erik Prince invested in Harow and Barak’s Indigo Strategic Capital fund in the Israeli companies NowForce (security) and Agent Vi (real-time video analytics). Barak also tried to interest Prince in a joint investment with Vincent Tchenguiz, however it is not known if a deal between Tchenguiz and Prince was pursued.
Meanwhile, Cambridge Analytica whistleblower Christopher Wylie told British MPs that “the company utilized the services of an Israeli private intelligence firm, Black Cube” in 2015 to hack the personal data of Nigerian President Buhari prior to his election. Both Cambridge Analytica and Black Cube denied the allegations.
Earlier this year I reported on Emerdata Limited, a company set up by Cambridge Analytica and SCL Group executives, that included board members Rebekah and Jennifer Mercer, and Johnson Chun Shun Ko, who is Executive Director and Deputy Chairman of Erik Prince’s Frontier Services Group.
There is no evidence that Erik Prince had any direct involvement with Emerdata Limited, SCL Group or Cambridge Analytica. Nor is there evidence that Prince has worked with Black Cube.
However, Prince’s close business connection to Johnson Chun Shun Ko the director of Emerdata, his history with Steve Bannon who ran Breitbart and was a shareholder of Cambridge Analytica, and Prince’s involvement in introducing Joel Zemel’s Psy-Group to the Trump campaign to propose a social media manipulation effort, raises questions about Prince’s involvement with the messaging and social media plans during and after the Trump campaign.
And Erik Prince’s link to David Boies, his experience running his own intelligence company, hiring senior CIA intelligence officials, and working closely with business partners with strong connections to the Israeli government, including discussions about a deal with Vincent Tchenguiz, raises the question of whether or not Prince has crossed paths with Black Cube.
Frontier Services Group Future Plans
As Erik Prince has been busy pitching proposals to the White House and attending secret meetings in the Seychelles and Trump Tower, his main business venture, Frontier Services Group has pursued ambitious plans across several continents, despite having operating losses for five years in a row.
At the end of April 2018, Frontier Services Group Limited published its 2017 annual report. The Chairman’s message from Erik Prince about the Bermuda-registered company, headquartered in Hong Kong, includes standard marketing and financial information. However, the FSG annual report also provides insight into the breadth of countries, regions, and services that Prince has been involved with as he has simultaneously appeared behind-the-scenes in various meetings and events related to the Trump-Russia story.
In 2014 Prince partnered with Hong Kong businessman Johnson Chun Shun Ko on DVN Holdings, which was later renamed Frontier Services Group. Erik Prince has additional business ties with Ko through Prince’s associate Dorian Barak who served as a board director of Ko’s Reorient Group from 2014–2016, and Dorian Barak and Ko both serve as directors of the Chinese company KuangChi Science.
According to a March 2018 press release, Frontier Sciences Group is 28% owned by CITIC, a Chinese state-owned company that is closely aligned with the Chinese government.
In 2016 Prince and Frontier Services Group were under investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice and other federal agencies for attempting to broker military services to foreign governments and possible money laundering using a Chinese bank. A story in The Intercept described:
“What began as an investigation into Prince’s attempts to sell defense services in Libya and other countries in Africa has widened to a probe of allegations that Prince received assistance from Chinese intelligence to set up an account for his Libya operations through the Bank of China”
After the story was published several senior executives and directors left Frontier Services Group, however, the company has continued expanding its business ventures.
In May 2018, the Washington Post published a story about how Frontier Services Group has been overseeing private security training at various locations in China. The International Security Defense College in Beijing is a private security training school that has promotional materials boasting that “Frontier has trained more than 5,000 Chinese military personnel, 200 plainclothes police officers, 500 SWAT specialists, 200 railway police officers and 300 overseas military police officers.” The article poses the question of whether or not the work of Prince’s Frontier Services Group is going against U.S. interests.
In addition to China, Frontier Services Group is pursuing business ventures across Africa, Asia, and the Middle East, regions aligned with China’s Belt and Road initiative (BRI), formerly called One Belt One Road (OBOR). Inspired by the Silk Road trading route, the initiative launched by Chinese President Xi Jinping in 2013, aims to invest in infrastructure across 68 countries with a focus on trade in Europe, Asia, Australia, and Africa. A CNN article noted that it is “China’s push to put it in a position of world leadership as the US under President Donald Trump takes a more protectionist approach and gives up the mantle of globalization.”
Erik Prince’s Chairman’s Letter in Frontier Services Group 2017 Annual Report describes how the Group’s business is focused on four strategic Belt & Road regions:
- North West: Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Pakistan with its regional office in Kashgar, China. Currently, the focus of the region is serving the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (“CPEC”) and its related projects.
- South West: Myanmar, Laos, Thailand and Cambodia. In Myanmar, the Group signed a partnership agreement with the country’s leading security firm. In Laos, the Group broke ground on a new security training facility across the border from China in Boten.
- Middle East: U.A.E. and Qatar. The region is home to key logistics routes for the Belt & Road as well as construction and energy projects.
- Africa: Kenya, Democratic Republic of Congo (“DRC”) and South Africa, and the secondary markets of Tanzania, Mozambique and Uganda.
Frontier Services Group also has four aircraft, trucking, and logistic companies: Maleth Aero Limited, a Malta-based air operation company, Transit Freight Forwarding (Pty) Ltd, a logistics company based in South Africa, Phoenix Aviation Limited, a Kenya-based air operations company, and Cheetah Logistics SARL a DRC-based trucking operation.
Frontier Services Group reported an operating loss of HK $221,448,000 (approx. $28 million) for 2017, an 11.5% increase over the prior year, and FSG has reported operating losses every year since 2013.
Despite the consistent losses, Frontier Service Group’s 2017 annual report indicates that Prince is actively pursuing expansion of his business around the globe, although a theme that appears repeatedly in Prince’s overseas initiatives is whether or not his business pursuits present a conflict of interest with U.S. interests.
Erik Prince’s Other Ventures
While Prince has been busy pitching proposals at the White House, attending secret meetings in the Seychelles and Trump Tower, and building the security, logistics, and insurance business of Frontier Services Group throughout Asia, Africa, and the Middle East, he has managed to find time to pursue a few other business ventures.
Last year, Foreign Policy reported that Erik Prince was listed as an investor in Wickr, an American software company best-known for its free secure messaging app. This venture is somewhat unusual since Wickr is known as a secure communications solution for journalists, human rights workers, and even the Democratic Party. The size of Prince’s investment in Wickr is not known.
And it appears that Erik Prince may be working to revive the Blackwater brand. In March 2018, a Maltese company called Blackwater Ammunition, owned and operated by PBM Limited, was officially launched at a firearms and hunting event called IWA 2018 in Nurnberg Germany. While it appears that Prince licensed the Blackwater brand, he is featured prominently on the website with Nicola Bandini, CEO of Maltese company Precision Ballistic Manufacturing Ltd, and Maltese guns and ammunition distributor James Fenech.
Now that Erik Prince has several advocates in the White House, including National Security Advisor John Bolton, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, it appears that he may have an opportunity to make a comeback. Or, like Flynn and Manafort, he could get pulled deeper into the Muller investigation. Regardless of the outcome, Erik Prince is likely to continue pitching new ideas and initiatives in far flung regions around the world.
Note: Image of Erik Prince modified and courtesy of Miller Center on Flickr
Article updated June 3, 2018 to note that Blackwater Ammunition is “owned and operated by PBM Limited.”