Discover more from The Bulwark
Is the Law Coming for Erik Prince at Last?
The MAGA mercenary lord faces a subpoena from federal investigators and an indictment from a small Austrian city—here’s why this matters.
ERIK PRINCE—THE COFOUNDER of the controversial private military contractor Blackwater—is one of several right-wing figures recently subpoenaed by federal prosecutors investigating a scheme to spy on progressive groups in Wyoming before the 2020 election. Meanwhile, in an unrelated development largely unnoted in the American press, Prince was indicted with four other individuals in Austria on April 20 for exporting war materials without a license back in 2014 and 2015.
Let’s turn to the Austrian news first. The indictment accuses Prince of using an aircraft-customizing company in which he then held a controlling interest, the Wiener Neustadt-based Airborne Technologies, to retrofit two American cropdusters that were then to be shipped illegally overseas.
The charges overlap 2021 United Nations allegations that Prince had in 2019 violated the U.N. arms embargo on Libya in an aborted operation called Project Opus, financed by the United Arab Emirates to the tune of $80 million in support of Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, head of one of the two perpetually contesting governments in Libya. Project Opus concerned several modified aircraft—both helicopters and fixed-wing planes—including the two mentioned in the Austrian case, which were extensively militarized:
Project Opus also involved plans for high-value-target killings by Prince’s mercenaries, including Libyans who were EU citizens. Yes, that’s right: an American planning to murder foreigners with whom we were not at war.
The prosecution has a whiff of David and Goliath about it: Prince is a rich man with high political connections around the world, and although he has been accused of wrongdoing for decades, he has never been sanctioned or convicted of anything. Wiener Neustadt, the jurisdiction of his indictment, has just 50,000 or so inhabitants. The city was flattened by Allied bombs in World War II because a local factory made fighter aircraft, so it stands to reason that the people who live there now might have a particular attentiveness to what Prince was doing in their midst.
In fact, prosecutors have tried to bring a case on the export charges since 2018 only to be refused by higher authorities. Perhaps a 2019 effort was stymied by Prince’s closeness to Donald Trump’s White House—Prince represented the incoming president in secret overseas meetings in the weeks before the 2017 inauguration (more on this shortly), and Prince’s sister Betsy DeVos was Trump’s secretary of education. Or perhaps the prosecution was slowed by the Austrian government, since Airborne Technologies, which is partly owned by the Austrian government, does work for some European governments—in which case, the fact that the prosecution is now proceeding suggests that it might now have the tacit approval of the Austrian state.
PRINCE, 54, IS THE BAD-BOY ex-Navy SEAL with chiseled good looks who has played soldier and spy on his inherited wealth, starting Blackwater in 1997 after leaving the Navy. He is most notorious for Blackwater employees’ 2007 Nisour Square massacre of 17 Iraqi civilians, ending in a deferred prosecution agreement and eventually a pardon for the Blackwater mercenaries by Donald Trump.
The Pentagon establishment’s hatred of mercenaries—together with what a friend of mine who knows Prince calls greed and ineptitude—have so far kept him from doing as much harm as he might. A lowlight from the last half-decade: In 2018, Prince offered his services to the U.S. government to privatize the war in Afghanistan. He called himself the Elon Musk of the privatization of war, which would be accurate if Musk employees left a trail of bodies behind them and were financed by China. In August 2021 Prince offered evacuations from Kabul at $6,500 a head. The need for evacuations was mainly from Afghans who had worked for the United States, and American veterans were at the time (and still today) desperately trying to arrange for free; it apparently did not occur to Prince that it would be more seemly for him to do likewise.
Overseas, Prince is one of the prices we pay for letting some spaces remain more or less ungoverned; at home, he’s eager to undermine the res publica by privatizing functions that are usually governmental for good reason, like peacekeeping and warfighting. His former employees include Michael Simmons, aka Michael Greene, an Oath Keeper indicted for his involvement in the January 6th insurrection. Both here and abroad, Prince’s alliances are with crooks like Steve Bannon: He supported Bannon’s fraudulent private funding of a border wall, which led to a federal trial that ended with Trump’s pardon of Bannon, though he faces state charges in 2024. Prince also donated around $150,000 to a pro-Trump PAC that made substantial payments to Bannon’s data-stealing company, Cambridge Analytica.
Journalism like this is supported by our community. Please consider becoming a paying Bulwark member today—or even just sign up for free.
The federal investigation in Wyoming in which Prince was recently subpoenaed arises out of such right-wing connections. Two years ago, the New York Times first exposed a “political infiltration operation” in which Democratic and liberal groups in Wyoming had been duped into hiring conservatives who allegedly spied on them from 2018 to 2020. Prince was reportedly central to the partnership that launched the operation; he had thought of making a primary run for U.S. Senate in 2017 in Wyoming and went to great lengths to establish the appearance of residency. Several other figures involved have also recently received federal subpoenas, including Susan Gore, a wacky heir of the Gore-Tex fortune who allegedly bankrolled the scheme, and former British spy Richard Seddon, who had worked at the right-wing group Project Veritas and had reportedly also arranged to spy on the Trump administration’s supposed internal enemies.
ALTHOUGH PRINCE IS A SELF-PROCLAIMED patriot, he has long suckled at the teat of authoritarian countries like China and the United Arab Emirates whose interests are not those of the United States or the West more generally. Giving him a chunk of governmental work to privatize means getting someone else’s foreign policy along with it—and they might be more canny than he is.
For example, Prince’s Hong Kong-based Frontier Services Group, specializing in aiding the Chinese with security and logistics in African nations, is partly owned by a Chinese state-owned investment fund, CITIC (Prince resigned as CEO in 2021 but retains stock). FSG has operated in South Sudan, including an unsuccessful effort to sell the nascent government the same two planes modified by Airborne in 2014 and later meant for Haftar. (Blackwater was fined by the U.S. State Department for violations in South Sudan.)
In China itself, FSG boasts of having trained five thousand Chinese soldiers, and it set up a training school in Xinjiang, the restive region known for central government repression of the Uyghur minority.
Erik Prince is hardly alone on the MAGA right in preaching ultra-patriotism while practicing something altogether different for profit. He shares this hypocrisy with Donald Trump and Jared Kushner, and many of their associates, like Tom Barrack, Elliott Broidy, and George Nader. Consider the mysterious January 2017 “Seychelles meeting” organized by UAE ruler Mohammed bin Zayed (“MBZ”) with a Russian banker. (I unpacked Prince’s participation in the meeting in this 2018 article.) Was it an effort to establish a back channel for Trump to the Kremlin? Barrack, the chair of Trump’s inaugural committee, and Broidy, a top Republican fundraiser, were both subsequently prosecuted for allegedly being unregistered foreign agents; Barrack was acquitted, Broidy convicted. (Nader, MAGA’s favorite pedophile, was convicted for campaign finance violations.)
Prince’s ties to the UAE have been widely reported. They began in the aftermath of the Nisour Square massacre, with Prince offering his services in 2009 to ruler MBZ to create a palace guard—to protect him from any local Arab Spring—and a force that fought in the horrific civil war in Yemen. He became a trusted MBZ pilot fish.
And in Libya, it was the UAE policy of supporting Field Marshal Haftar that Prince was executing. Prince was working under the indulgent eye of the Trump administration in 2019, so Project Opus was barely concealed. According to a 2021 article when Opus was exposed by the U.N. report, its mercenaries “had offices, bank accounts and shell companies in the Emirates.” The United States could have shut all this down with a phone call; the UAE is a titular ally. Insiders say the CIA in fact made that call, stopping the planes.
Prince faces up to five years in prison if he is extradited and convicted; you cannot be tried in absentia in Austria. So wish those plucky Austrian prosecutors luck.