Death and disappearance: Inside the world of privatised war

Man Bahadur Thapa had his doubts about the safety of the travel arrangements. Taliban spies were everywhere in the Afghan capital, and the bus transporting him and the Canadian embassy’s other guards, all Nepalese and Indian, was unarmoured. But Thapa was used to pushing worries to the back of his mind. After all, he thought, the British company he worked for was trustworthy. So, as he did nearly every day, the 50 year-old boarded a yellow and white minibus and rode through the Kabul dawn to his shift.

Thapa’s memory of that day - June 20, 2016 - stops about two minutes into the journey. He woke up 13 days later in hospital, his body riven with shrapnel. A bomb had ripped through the bus, killing 13 of his fellow Nepalese and two Indians.

His family had seen the blast on the news, but didn’t find out he was wounded until a doctor treating him thought to pick up his patient’s phone. As Thapa lay in a hospital bed, his son-in-law, who speaks good English, emailed the guard’s employers, a well-established company called Sabre International Security, with urgent questions: how would the critical surgery Thapa needed be paid for? What would happen to him afterwards, given that he clearly wouldn’t be able to work for a long time? Apart from one brush-off email, no-one responded. That might have been the last anyone in the West heard of the guards’ plight, if a Nepali labour rights expert helping the families hadn’t asked an American lawyer he knew to take a look at the case.

Afghan officials inspect the scene of the bomb attack on the bus carrying Sabre employees Photo by Hedayatullah Amid/EPA/Shutterstock

Matthew Handley specialises in getting compensation for vulnerable workers in war zones, and has taken on military contracting giants like the company formerly known as KBR Halliburton. This case however was different: when Handley googled Sabre, he couldn't even find a company website. There seemed to be no way of getting in touch with anyone.

“It was one of the most extreme examples of a company and all indicators of its presence just really disappearing,” he said.

It has been over a decade since a group of contractors killed more than a dozen people in central Baghdad, drawing attention to the emergence of a global private military industry. The world has since got so used to companies taking over what were long functions of the state that the Trump administration is now considering handing over the Afghan war to them. But as the strange overnight disappearance of one of its major players shows, the industry doesn’t yet appear to be significantly constrained by rules and norms. As Handley would discover, Sabre’s corporate history had as many red flags as it did prestigious contracts. And this was not even the first time the company had done a vanishing act.

Plainclothes contractors working for Blackwater USA in Iraq take part in a firefight on April 4, 2004. Photo by Gervasio Sanchez/AP

"Vegas meets military action"

Hired guns are, as the cliché goes, the world’s second-oldest profession. For much of history they were how wars were fought. But by the 19th century, nation states with their own armies were emerging as the dominant model, and mercenaries were squeezed out of the picture. The companies that did exist were few and tended to operate in the shadows.

All this changed after 9/11, and in particular, with the 2003 US invasion of Iraq. The Pentagon needed to respond quickly to the chaos engulfing the country. The easiest and least politically costly way of freeing up more troops to fight was to hire contractors to do everything else - protect diplomats, bases and cargo. Between 2003 and 2008, the United States spent a total of $5.3 billion on security firms in Iraq. New companies sprang up to profit from the opportunity, among them Sabre International Security.

These firms were hired to protect assets, not to engage in fighting. But as a company called Blackwater demonstrated when its guards shot 14 civilians dead in a Baghdad square in 2007, the lines can easily blur in a war zone. After the Blackwater scandal, the industry and its government clients scrambled to introduce voluntary professional standards. Soon, the US was winding down its presence in Iraq, and public concern about the ‘privatisation of war’ faded.

The private security industry, however, did not go away - it evolved. Some firms were consolidated into larger entities through a process of buyouts and mergers. Many changed their focus to more discreet and profitable areas like cyber security and intelligence. Others carried on servicing the market for so-called hard security services, which got a boost from new government clients like China, Nigeria and the United Arab Emirates. The usefulness of contractors as a low-profile way of waging war was meanwhile noticed in other countries like Russia, where new firms started to grow.

There are still no binding regulations on the sector, though. There is not even an agreed definition of what a private military or security company is. Experts struggle to estimate the industry’s annual earnings, so it’s hard to say how much it has expanded. “It has grown more organic and wild, like an untended garden,” said Sean McFate, a former private military contractor who has written a book on the sector. “The industry has grown up and the US has gone away and stopped paying attention. It’s crazy now - Vegas meets military action.”

An aerial view of the former Zuhur royal palace at Nusur square in what became the fortified 'Green Zone' in Iraq, in June 2009
Aerial view of the Green Zone in Iraq in June, 2009 Photo by Ahmad al-Rubaye/Getty

The Iraq war bonanza

In 2004, a veteran of the British Special Air Service (SAS) called Thomas McDonald set up a firm in Iraq called Sabre International Security. McDonald - who is more widely known by his middle name, Frank - has a rather forbidding reputation, reinforced by the fact that he is missing part of a finger on one hand. McDonald had little business experience, one former colleague recalled. Like others who worked for or did business with Sabre, they did not want to be identified, fearing retribution for breaking the code of silence which prevails in the industry. McDonald himself did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

The Briton went into business with an Iraqi partner called Namir El Akabi, whom he had met at a Baghdad social event. The Iraqi businessman took a 77.5% stake in Sabre’s Iraq operation, according to court documents. The two men were very different: El Akabi was the scion of a well-off Iraqi émigré family who had returned to Iraq after the US invasion and set up a string of companies in construction and logistics. A smooth-talker with a plump, lightly stubbled face, the media portrayed him as an Iraqi success story.

Sabre picked up a slew of contracts to guard US military bases, and later, several other sites, including the Iraqi parliament, the airport for the southern holy city of Najaf, and the facilities of Russian energy firms. Many of its guards were brought in from poor countries. Former Gurkhas - mostly Nepalis or Indians who have fought in the British or Indian armies - were in particularly high demand among contractors in Iraq because of their reputation for toughness and bravery. Security companies “were hoovering up anyone who claimed to be a Gurkha,” said James Sinclair, a lawyer who was working in the Middle East at the time for FSI Worldwide, a recruitment firm that promotes ethical hiring practices. “If you could hold a gun and looked vaguely Nepalese, that was good enough, especially given the attrition rates.”

Profits were substantial in the early years of the occupation. “Everyone was filling their boots,” Sinclair added. “It was a bonanza.” In an official assessment of US government spending on security contractors in Iraq between 2003 and 2008, Sabre appears as the sixth biggest beneficiary, netting nearly $300 million.

By 2012, conditions had become more challenging for security contractors, not least because the American military had withdrawn the vast majority of its forces. Sabre in particular found itself on the wrong side of Iraq’s then-prime minister Nouri al Maliki. Iraqi employees started to hide the fact that they worked for Sabre, worried for their safety. Al Maliki announced in 2013 that his own son had been dispatched to arrest El Akabi for running an unauthorised security company and other offences. In a telephone interview with the Bureau from Iraq in December 2018, El Akabi denied that an arrest warrant was issued for him, insisting that Maliki’s comments were false. He told the Bureau that he had not been charged or arrested, and provided a document stating he had not been convicted of any crime or misdemeanour involving moral turpitude, which he said came from the Iraqi interior ministry. (The authenticity of this document could not be confirmed.) He admitted, however, that this was a time of difficulty for Sabre in Iraq.

At around this time, McDonald bought a company called Near East Security Services and transferred Sabre’s assets to the new company, according to testimony in a subsequent court case. (El Akabi said that this had happened without his knowledge.) One former Sabre employee told the Bureau this new company was effectively Sabre under a different name. “They rented a company name, an Iraqi company, and shifted all the contracts to this,” the former employee explained. “We established the new company. Where is Sabre gone? Nobody knows!”

An American firm called Torres Advanced Enterprise Solutions was among those that went looking. Torres had partnered with Sabre on Pentagon contracts, but in 2011 the two firms started fighting over money in the US courts. After four years of litigation, Torres’s chief executive, Jerry Torres, wanted to settle with El Akabi. The two eventually sat down together in Jordan in June 2015, and according to Torres’s court testimony, El Akabi threw him a curveball. "Good luck collecting,” Torres reported him as saying, “because Sabre does not exist.”

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After the El Akabi meeting, Torres sent a trusted employee, Ashur Elisha, to Iraq to investigate. If Sabre had in fact disappeared, then the expensive lawsuit could be dismissed and the American company might even get a previous goodwill payment reimbursed. What happened next illustrates just how murky the world of private military contracting can be.

Elisha, who spent weeks on the ground, concluded in a court statement that Sabre had been banned from operating in Iraq and that company assets had indeed been transferred to Near East Security Services. But after he returned to Jordan, Elisha received a call from a stranger who wanted to meet. According to Elisha’s statement filed in the court proceedings, when the pair eventually sat down, Elisha was handed a document. It was a statement retracting his findings that Sabre no longer existed in Iraq. Elisha said the stranger - who was identified in court testimony as Hatem Atrakchi - was “very polite”. He asked if Elisha would sign the document, for which he would be given an unspecified “service fee”.

"My reaction was: 'Shit I'm in big trouble',” Elisha said. He didn’t sign the statement, and decided instead to leave the country for his own safety.

Sabre's lawyer in the US court where the Torres case was being fought out, Timothy Mills, stated in court documents that he had no involvement in Atrakchi's approach to Elisha. A declaration filed by one of Sabre's management team confirmed that the approach was made without Mills’s knowledge, and also denied that Elisha had been offered a fee. For several months, Sabre’s representatives battled on with the argument that the company did exist. In his interview with the Bureau, El Akabi conceded that Sabre was effectively a “shell company” after 2012, but was adamant that it did still legally exist and that court testimonies on behalf of Torres had misrepresented the situation. In 2016, the court deadlock broke: Mills abruptly withdrew from the case, citing in court documents “an unprecedented breakdown” in communication with his client. It’s not clear what this meant - the explanation made available to the public was redacted because of client confidentiality. New lawyers eventually settled the case out of court, and a blanket of silence descended on Sabre in Iraq.

Gurkhas patrol in Sangin, Afghanistan in July 2011 Photo by Jane Mingay/EPA/Shutterstock.jpg

Pursuit of a dream

Sabre won the contract to guard the Canadian embassy in Kabul in 2011, just before the company’s troubles began in Iraq. The contract terms, a 2013 copy of which has been seen by the Bureau, required Sabre to hire guards from Nepal and India, giving the company around $5,000 per month for each one. Since Sabre was paying Thapa less than $1,000 per month, according to a copy of his contract seen by the Bureau, the company appears to have had significant room for profit.

Namir El Akabi and Frank McDonald were listed as vice president and president of Sabre when it registered in Afghanistan in 2012, but it’s not clear who was responsible for the company by the time the guards were attacked in 2016. Court records say that McDonald had been removed as Sabre’s chief executive by this point, but one former Sabre employee familiar with the company’s business arrangements said he continued to make management decisions about the Afghan operation. When asked about how Sabre in Afghanistan was run, El Akabi seemed surprised to learn that he had been named in the company’s Afghan articles of incorporation, telling the Bureau that he thought Sabre in Afghanistan was a different company: “I'm not sure about the Kabul operation...I was too busy in Iraq.”

The Canadian government repeatedly renewed its contract with Sabre - in February 2016, just four months before the attack on the guards’ bus, it did so again. It is unclear if Canadian officials were aware of the legal disputes over Sabre’s very existence going on in the US throughout this time. A spokesperson for the Canadian Minister of Foreign Affairs said that he could not publicly discuss details relating to the Sabre contract "given the nature of security contracts,” and that he was unable to comment on details of operational security.

“I had a dream I could do something better than farming," said Man Bahadur Thapa, who joined Sabre in 2011 Photo via CBC

Thapa, the Nepali guard who was injured in the blast, had no idea about his employer’s corporate structures. He just knew they were offering the best deal when he joined them in 2011. His parents had been subsistence farmers, but he always hankered to do something more ambitious. “I had a dream I could do something better than farming,” he says, speaking via Skype from Kathmandu. He ended up joining the Indian army, where he came to realise the importance of education - village men like him were left behind in the scramble for promotion. He decided that paying for his son and daughter to get a proper education would become his priority in life.

The kind of wages that would support such ambitions are hard to find in Nepal, so Thapa jumped at the chance to guard the British embassy in Kabul for the global contractor G4S in 2006. Five years later, Sabre was recruiting guards for the Canadian embassy. It was offering not only a better salary, but also a significantly bigger insurance payout in the event of death or total disability - $300,000. For Thapa, knowing his family would be well provided for if the worst happened was what swung it for him.

The specific policy guaranteeing Thapa this amount - a copy of which has been seen by the Bureau - was actually set to expire by the end of 2011, but Thapa insists he received a verbal assurance the coverage would continue. “We believed them,” he said.

Security in Kabul was deteriorating rapidly by 2016—the Taliban had begun to stage increasingly bold attacks in the capital following the withdrawal of most American troops. According to the former Sabre employee familiar with the company’s business arrangements, concerns about the safety of the guards travelling in the unarmoured bus every day had been raised, but nothing changed.

After the attack, the Canadian government offered public condolences, while privately distancing itself from any responsibility - “The government of Canada did not assume any duty of care to the guards during their transportation to and from the Mission”, insisted one memo seen by the Bureau. Former employees of Sabre said the company’s management were genuinely upset by the attack. But soon after the June 2016 bombing, Sabre suddenly decided to pull out of the embassy contract, according to Canadian government memos obtained by lawyers representing the Nepali guards. Then, just as it had in Iraq previously, the company went very quiet.

Sabre’s medical insurance policy paid for Thapa to be treated in a hospital in New Delhi for 90 days, but after this time was up he still needed five more operations. In Nepal, meanwhile, families of the blast victims tracked down Sabre’s Kathmandu representative, Deuman Tamang, and dragged him to the police station, according to Ganesh Gurung, a director of the local labour rights NGO that first alerted Handley, the American lawyer, to the case. Afterwards, $30,000 - plus a contribution towards funeral expenses if someone had been killed - was transferred into the bank accounts of each survivor or victim’s family, without any paperwork or explanation.

The bodies of the bomb attack arrive in Kathmandu on June 22, 2016 Photo by Narendra Shrestha/EPA/Shutterstock

In many circumstances, that figure would be a lot of money in a country like Nepal, but in fact, it was only a little more than the amount Thapa has already lost through being unable to work. After having to pay for three operations and regular physiotherapy himself, he fell into debt, and still needs another two serious operations. He and others questioned why the payment was a tenth of what they insist had originally been promised.

The answer came in a September 2016 email from Sabre’s management to Tamang. In the message, which was obtained by lawyers working on the Nepalis’ case, Sabre said that the $300,000 figure was based on a mistaken interpretation of an old document, and argued that $30,000 was "more than the majority of policies from private security companies”. To the question of why employees were not informed that their coverage had been drastically cut, the company said: “Personnel are not required to be advised.”

Different iterations of Sabre were registered in lots of different companies. The British Virgin Islands were home to several.

“Deceit and obfuscation”

That email was one of the last signs of life offered by Sabre. Frank McDonald has left virtually no digital footprint behind, and did not respond to requests for comment on this article sent via Schillings, a Britain-based law firm and public relations company, which says it represents the former management of Sabre International Security Ltd Afghanistan. Namir El Akabi agreed to be interviewed, but said he was not responsible for the management of Sabre’s Afghan operation.

Canadian lawyers working with Matthew Handley eventually filed a lawsuit against both Sabre and the Canadian government on behalf of the Nepalis this past summer, in spite of not being able to find a point of contact at Sabre to notify. The case is ongoing.

One challenge in holding Sabre accountable is that there are multiple companies bearing its name. It is not clear what the relationship is between the Afghan entity and the Iraqi one and, in fact, the Canadian embassy’s contract with Sabre listed the company’s address as being in Baghdad. There has also been some dispute in at least one court case about whether various Iraqi companies called ‘Al Saif’ (Arabic for Sabre) and Sabre International Security are the same. El Akabi told the Bureau that the Arabic name was simply how Sabre was registered in Iraq, but the two names were also registered in the British Virgin Islands as separate entities, according to the Panama Papers (El Akabi is listed as a shareholder in both). A copy of the company’s headed notepaper submitted in the US court case meanwhile lists their offices as being in Iraq, Afghanistan, Sudan, Britain, Fiji, Nepal and Germany.

The judge in yet another court case involving Sabre, this one in Britain, suggested back in 2011 that this kind of ambiguity was a deliberate strategy of the firm. That case was filed by Anthony Harty, an Irish employee who had been injured while working for Sabre in Iraq. Sabre’s defence was to argue that although a British Virgin Islands-registered company called Sabre had hired Harty, his employer in Iraq was a different entity, also called Sabre, and that company had to be sued in Iraq. The judge ruled in Harty’s favour, questioning if there could be any reason other than “deceit or obfuscation” to create different companies with identical names.

To some extent, this kind of geographical slipperiness reflects wider trends in the corporate world. It’s never been easier to locate assets offshore or create a shell company. Private security firms are particularly well-suited to slip between jurisdictions, because they don’t typically have a fixed employee base.

“Like any organisation, they’re looking for loopholes, tax advantages, opportunities,” Ori Swed, an expert on military contractors at Texas Tech University, explained. He continued, however, that in the case of this industry, “we’re talking about someone that replaced a police, that replaced a military - it’s not just like getting scammed on the price of coffee.” Swed has argued that only binding international regulation will give the sector accountability, though there are few signs of political will to push for this.

At the sharp end of this elusiveness are people like Man Bahadur Thapa. He had always liked his bosses, and is still struggling to process their response to the attack. “I never thought this would happen,” he said. “I didn’t think they would do this.”

Read more: What one company's vanishing act tells us about the private security industry

Additional reporting by Shilpa Jindia

Main image showing the bodies of the bomb attack arriving in Kathmandu on June 22, 2016, by Narendra Shrestha/EPA/Shutterstock