They wear a mish-mash of civilian and military gear and hail from different parts of the world. They exert formidable authority on the foreign ground their boots trample on.
They have no national or ideological allegiances, only to the company that bankrolls them and the client that this company helps. This makes them a dangerous force to work with.
Mercenaries usually work for private military contractors (PMC). These companies recruit people who have military training or have experience with weapons as "security contractors" to provide armed combat or security services for state or non-state actors that seek it.
Often governments, big companies operating in conflict zones and UN agencies hire PMCs for operational support in military missions or just to ramp up security.
The Bush administration ramped up the use of PMCs during the Iraq invasion of 2003 as well as in Afghanistan. Reports also suggest that mercenary operatives have been involved in conflicts in Syria, Libya, Ukraine and Yemen.
Logistical support also forms a large portion of PMC services.
Here are a few things to know about the modern-day business of mercenaries:
1. Mercenaries have been around for a long time
Mercenaries are the second oldest profession in the world.
Nearly every empire has made use of them, but the first recorded instance in history were mercenaries who served for the army under the command of the Sumerian King Shulgi of Ur (2094-2047 BC), Peter W Singer writes in his book "Corporate Warriors".
Other armies are ones you may have heard of before. The Swiss Guard has a long history dating back to The Renaissance when they fought for the French while the Ten Thousand were a crew of Greek warriors recruited by Cyrus the Younger born (circa 400 BC) to reach the Persian throne.
Guns-for-hire, as they are often referred to, are not controlled by the philosophy of an army or driven by the mores of patriotism but are instead fuelled by greed. This is what makes them feared.
And the numbers of security contractors or mercenaries are rising.
From 2008 to 2010 the number of contractors went up by 67,000 (41 percent), Sean McFate said in his book, The Modern Mercenary. The business experienced a lull in the 17th century, but it has really been after the cold war that conflicts the world over have witnessed the resurgence of shadowy companies that organise, bankroll and train private armies.
The changing nature of warfare and increasing privatisation of the economy helped shuttle this along.
2. In a vicious cycle, profit breeds more war
It’s all about the money when it comes to conflict entrepreneurship — mercenaries and their companies thrive on war to profit.
This can be seen in the amount of money these companies have rolled in post cold-war era. The business of war, has transformed from a multimillion-dollar affair to a multibillion-dollar one, McFate, who is a former mercenary, wrote.
In fact, in the 2017 fiscal year, the Pentagon gave $320 billion to federal contracts, of which 71 percent were for "services" - a head under which the use of PMCs falls. The UK may not be lavishing money on the private security market but nevertheless the foreign office increased spending from £12.6m in 2003 to £48.9m in 2012.
Academi, formerly known as Blackwater, has used war to push for business.
Academi’s founder Erik Prince argued in an op-ed for The New York Times that, “Contractors, not troops, will save the war in Afghanistan.”
“If the president pursues this third path, I, too, would vigorously compete to implement a plan that saves American lives, costs less than 20 percent of current spending and saves American taxpayers more than $40 billion a year,” wrote Prince in 2017.
But despite this claim, industry insiders argue that putting more private boots on the ground is dangerous and will only prolong and breed more conflict.
“When anyone can rent a military, then super-rich and large corporations can become a new kind of superpower,” wrote McFate for Politico.
“Worse, mercenaries can start and elongate conflicts for profit, breeding endless war. A world with more mercenaries means a world with more war, which is why Prince’s proposal is so dangerous.”
3. Private guns have been accused of doing terrible things
A US Congressional memorandum found that Blackwater had been involved in almost 200 “escalation of force incidents” since 2005.
In 2007, a group of Blackwater operatives opened fire on a busy Iraqi city centre, killing 17 civilians. The Nisour Square killings provoked a backlash, stoked a debate over whether contracting wars was successful and whether the mechanisms in place for accountability were enough when such incidents occur.
“PMSC [Private Military and Security Companies], in their search for profit, often neglect security putting their employees in dangerous or vulnerable situations which may have disastrous consequences,” said a report by Jose L Gomez del Prado, who used to chair a UN working group on mercenaries.
“Their very lack of accountability is their main selling point; they offer plausible deniability and brute force to those too weak or squeamish to wage war,” wrote McFate for Politico.
4. The US is a big-ticket client
The Prado report explains how governments and their various arms use contracted security and former military personnel to sidestep political constraints and use force in other countries.
PMCs have become a popular option for the US government, having evolved into a monopsony with America being one of the main buyers.
The loss of lives in conflicts such as the World Wars or the eponymous Vietnam War has pushed nations to minimise the loss of life of their own troops by hiring PMCs to fight their wars for them.
Since the US government does not count contractors as part of their troops, “the government can put more people on the ground than it reports to the American people, encouraging mission creep and rendering contractors virtually invisible,” McFate wrote for The Atlantic. Mission creep means the gradual expansion of a military operation, usually resulting in a long-term project.
“The United States has developed a dependency on the private sector to wage war, a strategic vulnerability. Today, America can no longer go to war without the private sector,” McFate said.
5. Other countries and individuals also use PMCs
PMCs are also a popular option outside the US. Many countries, including individuals, use them to circumnavigate legal limits or scrutiny.
The UAE, which along with Saudi Arabia is backing the Hadi government in Yemen's war to secure regional interests, hired security contractors to fight Al Qaeda and the Iran-backed Houthi rebels. The UAE's participation in the conflict has drawn international outrage over war crimes and devastating impact on civilian lives.
The UN also outsources some of its work to PMCs, including to the multinational security services company G4S. The same group has been hired by Israel to provide security in Palestine.
Not many people have heard about how British aristocrats were implicated in a scandal involving the hiring of Logo Logistics, a British-South African PMC, to overthrow the Equatorial Guinea government - for profit.
Even the actress and activist Mia Farrow contemplated turning to Blackwater for help in intervening in Darfur’s humanitarian crisis.
As WIlliam Langewiesche wrote for Vanity Fair, “These companies provide a service that people of whatever bent can buy.”
PMCs just make it that much easier for a government or individual to hire a specialist group to do the dirty work. Occam’s razor, if you will.
As hiring PMCs can widen the breadth of parties involved, things get more complicated.
“Alternatively, what would happen if Russia, China, or Pakistan offered this private army a better deal? There would be a bidding war for the loyalty of the force, something I saw warlords do in Africa. Unlike soldiers, these fighters would be akin to products on an eBay of war,” wrote McFate in another piece for The Atlantic.
6. The laws are a little murky
While the scope of private military and security contractors expands, regulatory laws lag behind.
“Although private military firms and their employees are now integral parts of many military operations, they tend to fall through the cracks of current legal codes, which sharply distinguish civilians from soldiers,” wrote Singer for Brookings.
He added that this makes its difficult to ascertain “how, when, where, and which authorities are responsible for investigating, prosecuting, and punishing such crimes” unlike the military who are held accountable under their own military legislature.
A UN panel in 2011 noted these glaring gaps. It sought to implement an international monitoring mechanism among other recommendations; a draft convention that never materialised.
“The lack of accountability for human right violations that they have committed has been partly due to the difficulties in the application of domestic laws to PMSC actuating in foreign countries as well as to the difficulties in carrying out investigations in failed states,” said the report by Gomez del Prado.
Under the 1977 protocol and the1989 Geneva Convention, mercenaries do not come under the protectorate of the Geneva convention. But the same articles which define mercenaries do not capture PMCs. And only a handful of countries are signatories, not including the US, UK or even the UAE.
The articles also provide a lot of wiggle room with an exhaustive list of criteria which must be met to be considered a gun-for-hire; “any mercenary who cannot exclude himself from this definition deserves to be shot – and his lawyer with him,” a commentator is quoted in a 2009 review of international conventions on PMCs.
So, accountability occurs on a case by case basis. In the case of the Nisour Square killings by Blackwater operatives, Singer notes that the legal status around the contractors was quite murky and “considered exempt from Iraqi law because of a mandate left over from the Coalition Provisional Authority, the US governing authority in Iraq that was dissolved more than two years prior.”