“There was a targeted assassination program in Yemen. I was running it. We did it” — confessed Hungarian Israeli security contractor Abraham Golan who heads the Delaware-based military contractor Spear Operations Group to BuzzFeed News as part of a lengthy new tell-all exposing an outrageous story of US covert ops gone wild.
Except the bombshell report is not exactly about covert ops, but about the even less regulated underbelly and shady world of American special forces and intelligence operatives going “free agent” and contracted by uber-wealthy American Gulf allies who are building their own private armies to operate off the books assassination teams.
“The revelations that a Middle East monarchy hired Americans to carry out assassinations comes at a moment when the world is focused on the alleged murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi Arabia.” — BuzzFeed
Now that the world is finally waking up to the truly ruthless and murderous machinations of America’s favorite “oil and gas” Gulf autocratic sheikdoms, especially in light of the newly emerged grisly details of journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s death and dismemberment by a Saudi assassination squad, we must ask: are the new BuzzFeed UAE ‘kill team’ revelations but the tip of the iceberg? Surely there are more such ex-Special Forces groups flush with Gulf cash and patronage out there with a license to kill? The stunning details of the BuzzFeed investigation suggest so — this may not be an uncommon phenomenon.
Green Beret, Navy SEAL, and CIA paramilitary veterans were hired under the aegis of Spear Operations Group to become what BuzzFeed describes as the private “murder squad” for the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and its de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan (MBZ).
Starting in 2015 the UAE sent a group of about a dozen mostly American private contractors to Yemen to conduct targeted killings of prominent clerics and political figures who had run afoul crown prince MBZ in the war-torn country, where the Emirati military has played a lead role in the ongoing Saudi coalition bombing campaign.
Abraham Golan, the leader of the group and founder of the small American private contractor firm Spear Operations Group, first offered his services to key advisers of the crown prince, including former head of security for the Palestinian Authority turned UAE security chief Mohammed Dahlan.
After a deal was successfully struck, the Americans were handed a mission to “disrupt and destruct” Yemen’s al-Islah party, which Golan described as “a political branch of a terrorist organization” – considered an archenemy political movement to the UAE for its outlawed Muslim Brotherhood ties. Crucially, Al-Islah is one of President Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi’s top allies in the south of Yemen, which presents the pressing question BuzzFeed poses: “Who is a terrorist and who is a politician, and who chooses?” And further, “What is a new form of warfare and what is just old-fashioned murder for hire?”
The American “assassination squad” received $1.5 million a month for confirmed kills and undisclosed bonuses at various intervals for successful operations — an initial budge which worked out to $25,000 a month for each man, or about $830 a day – plus bonuses. To give a veneer of legal protections and immunity to the contractors, the UAE actually commissioned the group as officers in the UAE military, with equipment provided via Abu Dhabi sources. Golan had requested official rank, including UAE uniforms and ID for “juridical reasons” according to the BuzzFeed report.
Illustrating that the group of mercenaries were possibly tied to the CIA, whether officially or unofficially, three sources familiar with the operation told BuzzFeed that one of the kill team contractors had been part of the CIA’s “ground branch” – Langley’s own special forces paramilitary team. Sources further said another was actually still active as a SEAL in the Navy Reserve and possessed a top-secret clearance — something apparently US law overlooks so long as the service member has “reserve” status.
The group would receive active “target lists” through the UAE military chain of command while en route to Yemen. Golan detailed this process to BuzzFeed in the following:
During that flight, Gilmore recalled, a uniformed Emirati officer briefed them and handed them a hit list — 23 cards with 23 names and 23 faces. Each card featured rudimentary intelligence: the person’s role in Yemeni politics, for example, or grid coordinates for a residence or two.
Gilmore said some were members of Al-Islah, some were clerics, and some were out-and-out terrorists — but he conceded he couldn’t be sure.
One high profile target which the team went into Yemen on an assassination mission was Anssaf Ali Mayo, the local leader of al-Islah.
The mission went awry when on December 29, 2015 the team was planting an explosive device Mayo’s office and one of the team members began shooting at an unknown threat in the street. With a hiccup in the plans the group wasn’t able to get 100% confirmation that they killed Mayo in the blast, as he was said to have later emerged in public and there were local reports he left the scene ten minutes prior to the bomb going off. The shrapnel-laced bomb was meant to kill everyone in the office.
BuzzFeed actually obtained and published drone footage of the Mayo operation.
Screenshot of drone footage provided to BuzzFeed.
Concerning other Yemeni figures subsequently killed in mysterious assassinations which locals had long suspected the UAE as being part of, Buzzfeed questioned one of the American operatives that had been on the team:
When BuzzFeed News read Gilmore the names of some of the dead, he nodded in recognition at two of them — “I could probably recognize their faces” — and said they were among the team’s targets. But he said he hadn’t been involved in killing them.
Golan said his team killed several of the dead but refused to give an exact number or names. But after their first semi-botched mission, the mercenaries rebooted.
In separate confirmation of the spree of assassinations inside Yemen suggesting just how noticeable and extensive were the possible number of clerics the American contractors may have taken out, The New Arab reports, “In April, Minister of Religious Endowment Ahmed Attiya said the killings were ‘systematic’ and that more than 50 clerics had left Yemen so far, fleeing to countries such as Egypt and Jordan.”
One question that remains is: who knows how many other private assassination squads that are running around the region offing the political enemies of deep-pocketed Gulf monarchs continue to operate?