A shocking new investigation has revealed that the United Arab Emirates hired U.S. mercenaries to carry out assassinations of political and clerical leaders in Yemen. The former elite U.S. special operations fighters were paid to take part in missions to kill those deemed to be “terrorists” by the UAE. The UAE worked with the U.S. company Spear Operations Group, founded by an Israeli-American man named Abraham Golan, who told BuzzFeed, “There was a targeted assassination program in Yemen. I was running it.” The group’s first target in Yemen was a local leader of al-Islah, a political party whose members include Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Tawakkul Karman. We speak with journalist Aram Roston of BuzzFeed News, who broke the story. His new piece is titled “A Middle East Monarchy Hired American Ex-Soldiers to Kill Its Political Enemies. This Could Be the Future of War.”
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We end today’s show looking at a shocking new investigation that reveals the United Arab Emirates hired U.S. mercenaries to carry out assassinations of political and clerical leaders in Yemen. The former elite U.S. special operations fighters were paid to take part in missions to kill those deemed to be terrorists by the UAE. The UAE worked with the U.S. company Spear Operations Group, founded by an Israeli-American man named Abraham Golan, who told BuzzFeed, quote, “There was a targeted assassination program in Yemen. I was running it.” The group’s first target in Yemen was a local leader of al-Islah, a political party whose members include Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Tawakkul Karman.
AMY GOODMAN: We go now to Washington, D.C., to speak with journalist Aram Roston of BuzzFeed News, who broke the story. His piece, “American Mercenaries Hired to Assassinate Politicians in the Middle East.”
Welcome to Democracy Now!, Aram. Tell us what you found.
ARAM ROSTON: Well, we found a mercenary operation unlike anything we had ever seen before. U.S. veterans, Special Forces, SEALs, people who had been trained by the U.S. government, were working for the UAE in Yemen to assassinate Yemen politicians that had opposed UAE policies. The politicians that they were working against chiefly were from a group called al-Islah, as you mentioned. Al-Islah is viewed by the UAE as a terrorist group because it’s seen as an arm of the Muslim Brotherhood, which the UAE has declared war on, functionally.
And we were surprised to see that this was a group that really functioned not as security contractors, but as mercenaries. Two of the people who participated, who were there, two of the Americans, were reservists, or one was a national guardsman, and the other was in a Navy SEAL reserve unit.
So, we dug into this. We found a videotape. We obtained a videotape that showed one of the operations they had been involved in, which was an attempt to kill the head of the party in Aden, the head of the al-Islah party in Aden. And you can clearly see the vehicle that the mercenaries use to come up near the building. They try to place a bomb there, and you can see it from the drone. We interviewed two of the participants in this program, including the head of it, who told us that there was indeed a targeted assassination program, and another—and a former Navy SEAL who participated in it, as well.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, what is the Spear Operations Group? And is it conceivable that the American military establishment or the CIA was not aware that this was going on?
ARAM ROSTON: Experts we talked to said it was simply inconceivable that they wouldn’t have known. Remember, the UAE—the military of the UAE was trained by the United States. It’s a close ally of the United States. The United States supports—gives it intelligence. The United States fuels their planes, arms them. And, I mean, they’re viewed, in many ways, as a client state or proxy in many ways. People believe there’s no way that a country like this could have hired an American company, staffed by American former soldiers, incorporated—in a company incorporated in America, without the United States government knowing about it.
AMY GOODMAN: Let me ask you, Aram—you quote a former CIA official in your piece who was initially skeptical of this mercenary assassination program, saying there’s no way Americans would be allowed to participate. But later, you said, he confirmed what you found. So talk about the significance of this. This happened, actually, under President Obama. Is that right?
ARAM ROSTON: Indeed, it did happen under Obama, yes. The period of time was after the war—I mean, an interesting point was, after the war started in March, the U.S. pulled its forces directly out of Yemen, during the chaos of that war, when the war first started. The UAE, of course, still stayed there. They were the ones on the ground. And the Yemen war is a very complex war. People see that the UAE and the Saudis are in the same coalition, but the UAE and the Saudis have kind of different aims there, or traditionally had different aims there. The Saudis were bombing the Houthis, fighting the Houthis, which they believed are proxies for Iran, and the UAE, most experts will confirm, was really trying to consolidate control over the south. They want the south to separate, to secede. They want control of the ports in the south. And they want to control the political space there, because the UAE and Yemen are very close.
AMY GOODMAN: So they were trying to get the head of the al-Islah party. This is the party of Tawakkul Karman, who was sitting here a few years ago, right at the time the Nobel Peace Prize—the Nobel committee announced she was winning the Nobel Peace Prize. UAE can call them terrorists. UAE can hire a mercenary firm, the State Department would approve, to attack anyone they consider unfriendly to them?
ARAM ROSTON: It’s a very complex issue, because I don’t—there’s no evidence the State Department permitted this to happen. We looked at the law. The law about mercenaries is far more complex than most people realize. This isn’t the first time we’ve done a story about sort of mercenaries. I did a story earlier this year about an American colonel, a retired American colonel, who went to the UAE and heads a branch of their military—headed a branch of their military. He was titled commander. He called himself a general. And he simply did this, and there was no repercussions, that we know of, for him.
So, this is different in the sense that these people were what you’d call trigger pullers. They actually had guns in their hands, and they were acting in what they call offensive combat operations, if you want to call assassinations combat. But it’s not as if this hasn’t happened. But it’s not clear that there are actually repercussions against Americans who function as mercenaries, if they become attached to the military of an ally. We’ve seen, you know, Americans frequently will join—will serve in the Israeli Defense Forces. They’ll serve in the French Foreign Legion. And we’ve seen Americans obviously in—
AMY GOODMAN: In companies like Blackwater. Now, Aram Roston, we have to break here, but we’re going to continue with Part 2 of our discussion, post it at web-ex at democracynow.org. Aram Roston, journalist, BuzzFeed News. We’ll link to his piece on American mercenaries hired to assassinate politicians in the Middle East.