Category Archives: Conflict In Context – Field Notes

Write from experience, and experience only… Try to be one of those on whom nothing is lost – Henry James, American-born writer (1843-1916)

Erik Prince in Fun City, Abu Dhabi

In 2015 Newsweek assigned me to track down billionaire Navy SEAL and founder of Blackwater Security Erik Prince in South Sudan. 

Personnel from his new logistics company Frontier Services Group were rumored to have been arming both sides of the conflict in the nascent war-torn country. 

I didn’t find Prince himself but signs of FSG in Juba, and near the oil fields in the Upper Nile state, were aplenty. 

More on that later. 

In September, I passed through UAE and found Erik Prince’s “Blackwater” (note logo) catamaran docked in front of his two villas in a gated enclave in Abu Dhabi. A local realtor said they were valued at $5 million – and one was for sale. 

A view of Abu Dhabi from one of Prince’s two villas
Ferrari parked in villa garage
Catamaran with Blackwater logo

Fatal Shooting in Nairobi Reveals U.S. Security Detail (WARNING: Graphic Image)

A Kenyan man was shot dead last week outside the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi after he stabbed a GSU police officer guarding the compound.

Police identified the knife-wielder as Abdimahat Ibrahim Hassan, a 22 year-old from Wajir, in northern Kenya. Much of northern Kenya has been inhabited by ethnic Somalis before and since the nation’s independence in 1963. Police and some reporters were quick to conclude the ethnic Somali as belonging to the militant group, Al-Shabaab.

While an officer with the GSU, the paramilitary wing of Kenyan National Police Service, reportedly shot the man, photos from the incident reveal the presence of FBI agents, and armed foreign security detail at the embassy. Diplomatic Security Service (DSS) is the federal law and security arm of the U.S. Department of State and the lead law enforcement organization overseas. Its duties include protecting U.S. diplomatic missions and U.S. diplomats and visiting foreign dignitaries, conducting criminal, counter-terror and counter-intelligence investigations abroad; advising U.S ambassadors on security matters.

The DSS sometimes outsources to private military/security companies. Blackwater is the most controversial of these. In 2015, four former Blackwater security guards received long prison sentences last year for the fatal shooting of 14 civilians in Iraq in 2007.

The State Department currently contracts companies under the  umbrella company, Constellis Group, founded in 2003 by U.S. Army Special Forces veterans. In 2014 Constellis acquired Academi (formerly Blackwater). A source close to Constellis intimated that while the company operates in Kenya, it does not provide security support at the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi.







Africa, the film 

Coffee table books and novels about Africa with ‘Africa’ in their titles seem to stand a better chance of becoming best sellers, or so I hear. “Out of Africa”, “Nowhere in Africa”, “I Dream of Africa” would seem to suggest so. 

By that formula nothing would sell Africa better than a DVD cover featuring Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie swathed in amber light in a film simply titled–“Africa”. 

The couple was slated to make “Africa, a $110 million biopic about white Kenyan paleontologist turned elephant savior, Richard Leakey. 

Brad Pitt was to star as Richard Leakey. Angelina would direct. 

“Africa” was Jolie’s passion project, about “a man drawn into the violent conflict with elephant poachers, who emerged with a deeper understanding of man’s footprint and a profound sense of responsibility for the world around him”, she’d said in a statement. 

Rampant poaching in the 80s left elephant populations at their lowest. Leakey stepped in as director of the newly formed Kenya Wildlife Service. He began numerous campaigns to save the elephant. His most ambitious was induce a worldwide trade on all trade in ivory – legal and illegal. , Leakey set about finding ways to devalue the substance. Leakey borrowed from Brigit Bardot’s anti- fur campaign shaming women for wearing fur coats., and applied it to trophy hunting and women wearing ivory bangles. The mantra became, ‘Only Elephants Wear Ivory’. 

In May 1989 on international television Leakey burned 12 tons of stockpiled ivory at Nairobi National Park. 
Around the same time, Leakey had implemented a controversial shoot-to-kill policy against poachers, most of whom were ethnic Somalis. 

The policy remains in effect today. 

In April 2015, Leakey came back as chair of KWS. A few weeks later he presided over another ivory burn, this time torching 110 tons of ivory estimated to have been worth $105 million. 

Kenya banned hunting in the 70s. Despite successful publicity campaigns, some African countries like Tanzania and South Africa still allow elephant hunting. Leakey was stunned to learn that the producers of “Africa” had decided to shoot the film in South Africa. 

“I received no indication that a movie with a working title of “Africa”, would be shot in South Africa, and not in Kenya,” he told reporters in 2015. 

The 1986 Academy Award-winning film, “Out of Africa”, starring Robert Redford and Meryl Streep, was filmed in Kenya. However, high production costs in Kenya forced filmmakers to make movies in more budget-friendly South Africa. 

Jolie had hoped to follow up a relationship drama she directed last year, which starred Pitt and herself, with “Africa”. 

But was not meant to be; Jolie filed for divorce from Brad in September 2016, citing ‘irreconcilable differences’. 

Che Guevara 

On October 9, 1967, Cuban revolutionary, Che Guevara, was executed by US Special Forces-trained Bolivian Army. A few months previously “El Che” had traveled to Africa to offer his guidance as a guerrilla to the ongoing conflict in the Congo. To get back to his support base in Bolivia, the Marxist diplomat disguised himself as a middle-aged Uruguayan businessman. The man seems to bear a strong resemblance to Walt Whitman Restow, National Security Advisor and chief economist to President JF Kennedy and President LB Johnson. Restow and CIA organized Che’s capture and execution. 

#revolutionary #Cuba #Castro #bolivia #che #cheguevara

Bonfire of the Vanities

More Headline Than Content 

What’s the message ?
Near Ol Molog, Tanzania. Hunting is still legal in the land of “Hakuna Matata”
Near Ol Molog, Tanzania. Hunting is still legal in the land of “Hakuna Matata”

At the ivory burn activists and politicians were loud and clear – we’re burning ivory to protect the elephants. The message is that ivory should not have any intrinsic value other than on the elephant. 
The message itself however remains unclear to Kenyans and foreigners alike. 

Yet Kenyans I spoke with didn’t see the point of burning ivory. To them ivory is a valuable resource, elephants are considered pests to many farmers. For westerners elephant are glorified pets, for Kenyans they can be pests.  Elephant often raid maize fields, lion and hippo can attack people while performing basic chores, like washing laundry.

And wouldn’t destroying 100 tons of ivory serve to increase the value of remaining stockpiles? 

If conservationists and law enforcement continue to target the foot soldiers of the illegal ivory trade – the poachers – and not the kingpins in Hong Kong and mainland China hoarding the contraband, then conservation would seem a farce. 

If nothing else the event was a chance for some to wear their Wellington boots. Eles and Wellies. 

Chinese-built standard guave railway-in come cheap electronics and weapons, out go Africa’s natural resources

Bonus advertising for the French oil and gas company

Kenya’s President Moi lights an ivory tower at the first burn in 1988. In his left hand he holds an ivory rungu, traditional Maasai club.

Giveaways That Al-Shabaab’s Video Of The Battle Of El-Adde Was Staged

On Sunday, April 3rd, Al-Shabaab’s media wing released a recruitment video showing the militant group’s January 15th raid at a Kenya Defense Forces (KDF) camp at el-Adde, Somalia. It was the deadliest attack on an AMISOM mission to date, killing 100-200, 12 were reportedly taken hostage. KDF has yet to release any casualty figures to the public.

After viewing the video I contacted a military source – let’s call him ‘Dave’ – and asked him what he thought. Dave is a former KDF soldier, who has on several occasions engaged in battle with Al-Shabaab in Somalia. He is also a keen observer; his opinion is that much of the footage showing fighters approaching the KDF was staged i.e. filmed almost entirely on Saturday the 16th, the morning after the initial siege.

Here’s why:

  • Early reports indicated that three Vehicle Born Improvised Explosive Devices (VBIED) had exploded inside the camp on Friday morning, January 15th. Dave thinks the explosion shown in the video is only one VBDEID which they detonated the following morning – but captured from different angles – to give the impression of several successive explosions. Use of split screen   would indicate the same.IMG_2382
  • KDF apparently had received photos from Friday morning’s attack  that showed deceased soldiers laying on a road outside the camp. The al-Kataib video shows only soldiers who’d been killed inside the camp, perhaps to underscore the military’s lack of preparedness. The Somali National Army (SNA) camp was co-located with the el-Adde camp 600 meters away. As Dave tells it the SNA had been tipped off of an impending attack. When the fighters arrived they fired several rounds near Somali National Army (SNA) camp as warning shots for occupants to evacuate. The shots also served as a decoy to lure KDF soldiers out of their camp into the “killing area”. Dave concludes that al-Shabaab probably killed a number KDF soldiers outside the camp as they tried to reinforce soldiers en route to the SNA camp. By midday, several hours after the attack, it was clear to al-Shabaab that KDF reinforcement from Nairobi headquarters was not coming, so they “extricated” (military parlance for withdrawing). They may have mingled with locals and the next day returned to the KDF camp –  now itself a kill area – to crush the remaining soldiers. A good portion of soldiers may have been killed inside the camp the next day. This means the camp was overrun on Saturday, not Friday.
  • Dave noted the fighters were not advancing toward the camp in a tactical formation; indeed, they appeared at times to be casually strolling through open grassy fields not expecting engagement. Al-Shabaab are foreign-trained and would never move around a battle field this way. IMG_2431
  • The film doesn’t show any return fire from the KDF camp, which is unlikely and for that reason would have been difficult to edit out. Not a single al-Shabaab militant appears in the video wounded or dead. Clearly al-Shabaab suffered casualties. Presence of bloated corpses indicates some soldiers were killed Friday morning but filmed the next day — corpses usually don’t bloat within the first few hours of death.
  • There were way too many Al-Shabaab fighters with phone cameras filming the attack. Dave notes that al-Shabaab consists of hundreds of professionally foreign-trained fighters who wouldn’t be caught dead in a battle field with cameras in hand.IMG_2410



On a final note Dave said Commander, Major Geoffrey Obwoge, was probably killed the second day. It appeared he was trying to repulse the enemy in an APC, along with the gunner and driver. One of the tires had been shot, caught fire (explaining the billowing black smoke) and the commander was unable to continue. As a commander he’d have been among the last men standing. If he was afraid in his final moments, it didn’t show. He stood his ground. The el-Adde camp was under-manned and under-equipped: the commander did not fail his company. Rather, KDF head quarters in Nairobi failed the company at el-Adde.




War and Peace – a Jungian Thing


Colonel: Marine, what is that button on your body armor?Sergeant Joker: A peace symbol, sir.

Pogue Colonel: Where’d you get it?

Sergeant Joker: I don’t remember, sir.

Pogue Colonel: What is that you’ve got written on your helmet?

Sergeant Joker: “Born to Kill”, sir.

Pogue Colonel: You write “Born to Kill” on your helmet and you wear a peace button. What’s that supposed to be, some kind of sick joke?

Sergeant Joker: No, sir.

Pogue Colonel: What is it supposed to mean?

Sergeant Joker: I don’t know, sir

Pogue Colonel: You don’t know very much, do you?

Sergeant Joker: No, sir

Pogue Colonel: You’d better get your head and your ass wired together, or I will take a giant shit on you.

Sergeant Joker: Yes, sir.

Pogue Colonel: Now answer my question or you’ll be standing tall before the man.

Sergeant Joker: I think I was trying to suggest something about the duality of man, sir.

Pogue Colonel: The what?

Sergeant Joker: The duality of man. The Jungian thing, sir.

Pogue Colonel: Whose side are you on, son?

Sergeant Joker: Our side, sir.

Pogue Colonel: Don’t you love your country?

Sergeant Joker: Yes, sir.

Pogue Colonel: Then how about getting with the program? Why don’t you jump on the team and come on in for the big win?

Sergeant Joker: Yes, sir.

Pogue Colonel: Son, all I’ve ever asked of my marines is that they obey my orders as they would the word of God. We are here to help the Vietnamese, because inside every gook there is an American trying to get out. It’s a hardball world, son. We’ve gotta keep our heads until this peace craze blows over.

Sergeant Joker: Aye-aye, sir.

                          ~  ~  ~ 

How would we replace the words “gook” and “American” to fit today’s “War on Terror”? 

‘Inside every Muslim is a Christian trying to get out’?

‘Inside every humble impoverished Somali is a Republican golfer trying to get out’?