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Report: UAE Hired American Mercenaries


Soldiering for profit - is it new? You probably remember Hessian mercenaries from grade school lessons on America's Revolutionary War. But American mercenaries working for foreign powers, that's something that Aram Roston's been looking into. He's an investigative reporter for BuzzFeed News and joins us in our studios. Thanks so much for being with us.

ARAM ROSTON: Thank you.

SIMON: Why are U.S. retired Special Forces, which is what you talk about in your investigation, in such demand?

ROSTON: For the last 17 years, SEALs, Special Forces and other parts of the U.S. government have excelled at this modern style of warfare, at this sort of counterterrorism specialty. They kick in doors. They go in and then they kill or capture. And they've been doing it at a pace that's unprecedented.

SIMON: Yeah. You write in the article that the number of U.S. Special Forces has doubled to nearly 70,000. Now, that reflects a change in the way a lot of war is conducted around the world, doesn't it?

ROSTON: That's right. Military targets used to be thought of as, you know, airfields, bridges, barracks. Those have been replaced by just the targets are people. And we don't often like to use the word assassination, but that is what it is.

SIMON: But your investigation uncovered people we would have to call mercenaries.

ROSTON: I see no other - not many other names for them. The M word definitely works in this case. They were former soldiers hired to do military operations - combat, targeted killings - for the military of a foreign power.

SIMON: You open your story for BuzzFeed by talking about the war in Yemen, the proxy war being fought there. What happened in Aden in 2015?

ROSTON: These Special Forces and SEAL veterans, Navy SEAL veterans - they deployed on a mission to kill the leader of the Aden branch of Al-Islah. And Al-Islah, as I write, is a very important political party in Yemen. It's an Islamist party, but it's not viewed in the wider world as a terrorist group. Nonetheless, the UAE, as we write, hired this company to kill this local political leader, this Islamist leader.

SIMON: The UAE and Saudi Arabia are leading the war in Yemen against rebels in Yemen, and they have U.S. support. Now, you suggest in the story that somebody in this group was a member of the active military, don't you?

ROSTON: A reservist - he was a reservist, and he was a SEAL reservist. He was at that level of command, one of the nation's best, most highly trained. And he was still - you know, technically, he had a top-secret clearance, sources told us, even when he was doing this very strange, unique, unprecedented mission, as far as we know.

SIMON: I guess I'm among those Americans who just assume that that had to be illegal, that U.S. citizens couldn't do that.

ROSTON: There are laws that do govern whether the - whether U.S. individuals can serve as officers, can enlist in foreign militaries, but it's unclear if they're ever enforced and what the penalties really are because of various Supreme Court decisions. You've seen how Americans have served in the French - well, I've mentioned French Foreign Legion in the article, the Israeli Defense Forces. And these are not mercenaries.

SIMON: A lot of Americans enlisted in the British Army during World War II.

ROSTON: Sure, right. And these are not - you wouldn't call them mercenaries. But I don't know that there's a distinction if you then join a foreign military just for the money. Now - and by the way, this doesn't apply to people who join ISIS or the Taliban or somebody who fights against the U.S. or a U.S. ally.

SIMON: That really is against the law.

ROSTON: That is against the law.

SIMON: This is a BuzzFeed story, not an NPR story. It hasn't been reflected in our reporting. We can't vouch for it. Is this an anecdote or a trend?

ROSTON: Right. Is this an anomaly? It's the real key. I believe this is potentially a trend. Are they the only ones who've done this? Are there other countries who try it?

SIMON: Are there other Americans other than the ones that you've believed you've uncovered?

ROSTON: And are there other Americans - right.

SIMON: Is this happening in theaters around the world?

ROSTON: I'm going to keep on looking at it.

SIMON: I've had the honor of interviewing several ex-Special Forces over the years who are working as Secret Service agents or running for office. Why would they want to continue to risk their lives and do this kind of work?

ROSTON: Well, there are several reasons. One is there's a lot of money involved, but they also argue they believe this is part of the war on terror. But their argument is, look; the UAE is close to the United States. The UAE is doing U.S. policy. The U.S. has not spoken out against the war in Yemen. We fuel their planes. We sell them bombs. We sell them guns. We train them. We continue to train them. Their argument is they're doing what the - you know, basically the U.S. foreign policy anyway.

SIMON: So they suggest to you it's patriotism.

ROSTON: Yes, yes.

SIMON: Aram Roston, investigative reporter for BuzzFeed, thanks so much for being with us.

ROSTON: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.