UAE Contracted An American Hit Squad to Kill Political Figures And More in Yemen

The revelations expose a worrying new dimension to the conflict in Yemen and could have consequences outside that country.

DOD

The founder of a U.S.-based private military company, as well as a former employee of the firm, say the United Arab Emirates hired the group to supply what amounted to a death squad to assassinate members of a Yemeni Islamist political party. The details point to a worrisome gray area in an already convoluted conflict in Yemen, which calls into question whether all the members of the Saudi Arabia-led coalition in the country are working toward the same goals. It also highlights the steady privatization of military and para-military activities that could have far-reaching ramification beyond this particular theater of operations.

BuzzFeed News revealed the existence of Delaware-based Spear Operations Group, LLC’s operations in Yemen in an exposé it published on Oct. 16, 2018. Between at least 2015 and 2016, the small company, which employed former U.S. special operators and ex-members of foreign militaries, killed multiple members of the political party Al Islah in Yemen under the direction of Emirati authorities.

A mercenary-run assassination program

“There was a targeted assassination program in Yemen,” Abraham Golan, the head of Spear Operations Group, told BuzzFeed on the record. “I was running it. We did it. It was sanctioned by the UAE within the coalition.”

Golan, a Hungarian-Israeli who now lives outside Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, is an enigmatic figure who appears well known in military and intelligence circles, but whose actual credentials are unclear. He did take part in the operations in Yemen himself and clearly has some level of military training, according to BuzzFeed’s sources.

“[He’s] prone to exaggeration,” an unnamed former Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) officer, told BuzzFeed. “[But] for crazy shit he’s the kind of guy you hire.”

It’s equally unclear how he came to be at a lunch meeting at a military base in the UAE’s second most populous city, Abu Dhabi, in 2015. It was there that he, along with former U.S. Navy SEAL Isaac Gilmore, laid out terms to meet the Emirati requirement for a highly-skilled team of operatives to hunt down and kill a number of then unspecified individuals in Yemen.

DoD

The two parties agreed that Spear Operations Group’s team as a whole would receive $1.5 million per month in salary and monetary bonuses for successfully “neutralizing” their targets. More importantly, the individuals would get ranks within the UAE military, appropriate uniforms, and even dog tags, to officially mark “the difference between a mercenary and a military man,” according to Golan.

Back in the United States, the private military company worked to recruit former special operations, including U.S. Army Green Berets and SEALs. Some of Special Operations Group’s employees were reportedly former members of the top tier Naval Special Warfare Development Group, better known as SEAL Team Six, and the Central Intelligence Agency’s Special Activities Division.

“It was very specific that we were targeting [people],” Gilmore explained to BuzzFeed. “It was still gray enough that a lot of guys were like, ‘Ah, I’m good.’”

US Army

US Army Special Forces soldiers prepare to clear a room during a training exercise.

Into Yemen

Facing difficulties in finding individuals willing to join his mission, Golan initially hired a number of former French Foreign Legionnaires. Before the end of 2015, the assembled team finally flew on a chartered jet to the UAE, after which an Emirati military aircraft took them to the country’s secretive military base in Assab, Eritrea. That site acts as a staging area for UAE forces operating in Yemen on the other side of the Red Sea.

On their way to Eritrea, a uniformed Eritrean officer reportedly handed them their hit list, consisting of 23 index cards with the names, photographs, and very basic details about the individuals in question. It remains unclear who all of these individuals were, though they appeared to be a mix of members of Al Islah, terrorists linked to groups such as Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), and others with no obvious reason for receiving a death warrant.

Boeing

A UAE C-17 Globemaster III transport aircraft. One of these is seen in the background in a picture of Golan and his team in Yemen that BuzzFeed obtained.

Saudi Arabia and the UAE both describe Al Islah as a terrorist group because of its connection to the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist political movement with affiliates in certain countries that do have ties to militant organizations. The Yemeni group operates a legitimate member of Yemen’s political system, though, and one of its members, Tawakel Karman, won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011.

Spear Operations Group’s first strike came on Dec. 29, 2015, when they attempted and failed to kill Anssaf Ali Mayo, Al Islah’s top official in the port city of Aden. Golan still considers that operation a success since it drove Mayo underground for months afterward.

After that, there were a string of between 25 and 30 more assassinations of Al Islah’s members, but it is unclear how many Spear Operations Group were responsible for. Though Golan and Gilmore never reference any other groups, whether the UAE might have been employing other teams to perform similar operations never comes up in their published interviews.

via BuzzFeed

This capture from a video that BuzzFeed obtained shows smoke rising from Anssaf Ali Mayo's office in Aden after a bomb that U.S. mercenaries placed there to try and kill him exploded on Dec. 29, 2015. A UAE drone apparently monitored the entire operation.

A legal gray area

The most immediate issues here, of course, are accountability and legality. Golan and Gilmore both said they believed that the individuals they hunted down were legitimate targets, but admitted they had no way of knowing whether they actually were or if they were just people who had done something to upset authorities in the Emirates. Spear Operations Group also turned down some marks that it felt were not legitimate.

“There were guys that were basically doing what you said,” another former CIA official told BuzzFeed after initially treating the information the outlet had obtained with skepticism and going to confirm it with their own sources. “What vetting procedures are there to make sure the guy you just smoked is really a bad guy?”

The possibility that Spear Operations Group was simply assassinating the UAE’s political opponents in Yemen is reinforced by the fact that Saudi Arabia had itself reconciled with Al Islah as of February 2016. Riyadh saw them as a useful ally in fighting their primary opponents, the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels.

Hani Al-Ansi/Picture-Alliance/DPA/AP Images

Houthi militiamen in Yemen in 2017.

But even if it was ostensibly murder-for-hire, it’s not clear whether or not Spear Operations Group would necessarily be in violation of any U.S. laws. The U.S. State Department told BuzzFeed News that it had not approved the group to send personnel overseas to conduct armed operations of any kind, but if Golan and his team were acting as representatives of the UAE military, this might not have been necessary. The United States has relatively loose restrictions on citizens and permanent residents serving in foreign militaries, as well.

The UAE, which has just around a million actual citizens itself, relies heavily on foreign personnel to fill the ranks of its military in both leadership and rank-and-file positions. The man who met with Golan and Gilmore in 2015, Mohammed Dahlan, is actually a Palestinian who now serves as a top adviser to Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan.

This is hardly the first time the Emiratis have stood accused of leveraging that system to deploy what are by any layman’s definition mercenaries to fight on its behalf, or that of its proxies, elsewhere in the world, either. In 2017, there were reports that U.S. nationals linked to infamous American businessman Erik Prince were flying UAE-supplied armed crop duster aircraft in Libya in support of strongman Khalifa Haftar and his forces.

Unclear objectives

Spear Operations Group’s activities also call into question whether the Saudis and the Emiratis are even on the same page about how to prosecute the conflict in Yemen. The UAE has worked hard to conduct to, ostensibly separate campaigns in the country, one against the Houthis as part of the Saudi-led coalition and another, against AQAP, in cooperation with the United States. Targeting a group that had allied itself with the coalition would appear to reflect a third line of effort focused entirely on the UAE’s own interests.

In December 2017, two senior Al Islah officials traveled to Riyadh to meet with Saudi Arabia’s ascendent Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman, largely seen as the man actually running the country, and Mohammed bin Zayed. This may have been part of an effort on the part of the Saudis to end the UAE’s campaign against the Yemeni political group.

Saudi Press Agency

Abu Dhabi's Crown Prince Sheik Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, second from the left, and Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman, to his right, meet with members of Yemen's Al Islah in December 2017. 

The Saudi Arabian-led fight against the Houthis has already been a controversial debacle that has caused an unprecedented humanitarian disaster to emerge in Yemen. That the two principal actors in the coalition might not even agree on the overall objectives of the operation, which has led to thousands of civilian deaths, forced even more to flee their homes, and has the small nation struggling with famine and disease, is, to put it mildly, a troubling possibility.

The potential ramifications of Spear Operations Group’s activities extend well beyond Yemen, too. If the UAE has employed such groups in Yemen, what’s to say they haven’t done so elsewhere? The use of nebulous private military and other pseudo-para-military organizations is already expanding around the world, giving less-than-democratic governments a novel means to carve out proxy wars within proxy wars and better avoid being drawn into an open conflict with their opponents.

It also seems difficult to imagine that the U.S. Intelligence Community was completely unaware of what Spear Operations Group was doing in Yemen, given the responses from BuzzFeed’s sources and how deeply and controversially the United States is involved in Yemen itself. This gives the assassinations at least a hint of tacit U.S. government approval.

USAF

A US Air Force KC-135 tanker refuels a UAE F-16E Desert Falcon multi-role combat jet during operations against ISIS in Iraq in 2016. The United States also provides aerial refueling, as well as other support, to the Saudi-led coalition operating in Yemen.

“If I could do it over again we would have been less risk-averse,” Gilmore told BuzzFeed News. “We could have done some amazing things – although we also could have done some amazing things and all ended up in jail.”

It’s unclear whether these revelations will lead to new regulations in the United States or internationally over what private military companies can and cannot do. At the moment, though, the U.S. government denying any responsibility for Spear Operations Group’s actions and official silence from the UAE on the matter, suggest that the mechanism might be working as intended and providing sufficient cover for everyone involved, even tangentially.

This would only seem to incentivize future groups to take more risks and take on missions of debatable legality, which might point to a significant change in how nation-states, and maybe even non-state actors, conduct armed conflicts, or other campaigns of violence, in the immediate future.

Contact the author: jtrevithickpr@gmail.com