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Blackwater founder Erik Prince: Combative, secretive and expanding in Africa

Erik Prince, the founder and then-CEO of Blackwater Worldwide, appeared at a House oversight and government reform committee hearing in 2007. (Linda Davidson/ The Washington Post)
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Seven years ago, Blackwater Worldwide founder Erik Prince was on Capitol Hill, defending the company he founded as it faced allegations that his employees had shot up a square in Baghdad a few weeks prior on Sept. 16, 2007, killing 14 civilians and wounding 17 others.

Prince insisted that day that all of his employees had acted appropriately, and that a series of baseless allegations of wrongdoing” had been made against his business, which he’d built from the ground up in the 1990s. He bristled at the notion that his firm was a band of hired mercenaries, saying he and his employees “are Americans, working for Americans, protecting Americans.”

Five Blackwater guards — all military veterans — have been convicted in the September 2007 shooting, including four last week in a high-profile case in Washington. But while Prince continues to question whether politics tainted the case, he says he has never interacted with the former employees who were involved.

“I’ve never met the guys,” he said in an interview with Checkpoint. “I may have met them in a large event, but I don’t specifically remember ever shaking hands with them.”

Prince agreed to do interviews as his bestselling book, “Civilian Warriors: The Inside Story of Blackwater and the Unsung Heroes of the War on Terror,” came out on paperback this week. The release date was planned for some time, but it comes just days after the convictions of the former Blackwater guards put the company back in the headlines.

“Heck of a good timing, huh?” Prince noted wryly.

Nicholas A. Slatten, 30, of Sparta, Tenn., faces a mandatory minimum life sentence for murder. Paul A. Slough, 35, of Keller, Tex., Evan S. Liberty, 32, of Rochester, N.H., and Heard, 33, of Knoxville, Tenn., each face a mandatory minimum sentence for manslaughter and other crimes. A fifth guard, Jeremy Ridgeway, pleaded guilty to manslaughter previously, and testified in the trials that concluded last week.

Prince’s career is still humming, though. A former Navy SEAL and son of a manufacturing tycoon, he sold Blackwater in 2010, reportedly for about $200 million. It had been rebranded by then as Xe Services, and was later renamed Academi. Prince has steered clear since the sale, visiting its Moyock, N.C., compound only once in January 2014 for a visit to a gun range while on a hunting trip on property he had kept, he said.

“I’ve never met the management team there, I don’t talk to anyone there,” he said. “Nada.”

Instead, Prince became the chairman of another security firm, Frontier Services Group. It focuses heavily on providing logistics and aviation support to companies in Africa, he said. The firm was incorporated in Bermuda and is listed on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange, with numerous Chinese investors.

In the last year, Frontier has sunk money into two aviation firms with headquarters in Kenya, Kijipwa Aviation Limited and Phoenix, according to the company’s last earnings report. The deal for Phoenix, announced in July, cost $14 million and puts Frontier in charge of a company that flies regularly out of not only Kenya, but Angola, Ethiopia, Tanzania, Uganda and Puntland, a semi-autonomous region of Somalia.

Why Phoenix? The company has a fleet of Cessna aircraft and “holds important customer approvals from the United Nations, the British government and the U.S. government,” according to Frontier’s earnings statement. Buying the company will allow Frontier to “immediately and substantially expand the size and reach” of Frontier’s operations and compete for the business of construction, mineral and hydrocarbon firms, it said.

Frontier bought a 49 percent stake in Kijipwa. The Kenya Gazette, an official newspaper for the government in Mombasa, reported that its aviation license renewal was rejected this month, raising questions whether Phoenix will face similar problems.

Prince is hesitant to discuss the expansion, although he noted that medical evacuation is one role for Frontier.

“It’s a public company,” he said. “We have plenty of disclosures you can read on our website.”

Prince also deflected questions about his current residences. He spends about one-third of his time in the United States, he said, adding that it’s “not as much as he should be” considering he still has children in school. He owns homes in Virginia and Abu Dhabi, according to his book, but asked about them he dodged the question with sarcasm.

“C’mon now, I’m not going to make it easy for the terrorists to get me,” he said. “I’m still on the al-Qaeda hit list.”

Prince made news in September by criticizing the Obama administration’s strategy to take on the Islamic State militant group in Iraq and Syria in comments published by the Daily Beast. He followed up by penning a blog post along the same lines on Frontier’s website. The remarks picked up by the Daily Beast came at a conservative Maverick Political Action Group dinner in Washington, and were not supposed to be publicized, he said.

“That was the political event I did as a favor to a couple of guys from West Michigan, and it was supposed to be off the record,” he said, alluding to the section of the country in which he grew up. “You know those reporters. They don’t follow the rules so well.”

Prince said he wrote his book to set the record straight on Blackwater’s legacy — “to diffuse the notion that we have horns growing out of our heads.” He also wants it to warn others about the politics of Washington. Blackwater lost 41 men in combat and had three of its 73 aircraft shot down, but is still villified, he said.

“I wrote all these things as a cautionary tale to say that the political winds can shift quickly in Washington, and the hot air in Washington can quickly blow towards your business,” he said.

Prince said he knows a lot of bright people in the private sector who could offer advice to policy makers on how to handle the militants in Iraq, but he doubts he’ll be the one getting involved.

“Look, right now I’m the chairman of a Hong Kong publicly traded company, OK?” he said. “I would think that the U.S. government would not be hiring that to help sort out [the Islamic State] in Iraq.”

This post was updated with additional reporting.