By Abigail Fielding-Smith, Crofton Black and The Bureau of Investigative Journalism
Man Bahadur Thapa had his doubts about the safety of the travel arrangements. Taliban spies were everywhere in the Afghan capital, and the bus transporting him and the Canadian embassy’s other guards, all Nepalese and Indian, was unarmored. But Thapa was used to pushing worries to the back of his mind. After all, he thought, the British company he worked for was trustworthy. So, as he did nearly every day, the 50-year-old boarded a yellow and white minibus and rode through the Kabul dawn to his shift.
Thapa’s memory of that day—June 20, 2016—stops about two minutes into the journey. He woke up 13 days later in the hospital, his body riven with shrapnel. A bomb had ripped through the bus, killing 13 of his fellow Nepalese and two Indians.
His family had seen the blast on the news, but didn’t find out he was wounded until a doctor treating him thought to pick up his patient’s phone. As Thapa lay in a hospital bed, his son-in-law, who speaks English, emailed the guard’s employers, a well-established company called Sabre International Security, with urgent questions: How would the critical surgery Thapa needed be paid for? What would happen to him afterward, given that he clearly wouldn’t be able to work for a long time? Apart from one brush-off email, no one responded. That might have been the last that anyone in the West heard of the guards’ plight if a Nepali labor-rights expert helping the families hadn’t asked an American lawyer he knew to take a look at the case.
Matthew Handley specializes in getting compensation for vulnerable workers in war zones, and has taken on military-contracting giants like the company formerly known as KBR Halliburton. This case, however, was different: When Handley Googled Sabre, he couldn't even find a company website. There seemed to be no way of getting in touch with anyone.
“It was one of the most extreme examples of a company and all indicators of its presence just really disappearing,” he told The Bureau of Investigative Journalism.
It has been more than a decade since a group of contractors killed more than a dozen people in central Baghdad, drawing attention to the emergence of a global private military industry. The world has since gotten so used to companies assuming traditional state functions that the Donald Trump administration is now considering handing over the Afghan War to them. But as the strange, seemingly overnight disappearance of one of its major players shows, the industry doesn’t yet appear to be significantly constrained by rules and norms. As Handley would discover, Sabre’s corporate history had as many red flags as it did prestigious contracts. And this was not even the first time the company had done a vanishing act.
Hired guns are, as the cliché goes, the world’s second-oldest profession. For much of history, they were how wars were fought. But by the 19th century, nation-states with their own armies had emerged as the dominant model, and mercenaries were squeezed out of the picture. The few companies that remained tended to operate in the shadows.
All this changed after 9/11 and, in particular, with the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq. The Pentagon needed to respond quickly to the chaos engulfing the country. The easiest and least politically costly way of freeing up more troops to fight was to hire contractors to do everything else—namely, protect diplomats, bases, and cargo. From 2003 to 2008, the United States spent a total of $5.3 billion on security firms in Iraq. New companies sprang up to profit from the opportunity, among them Sabre International Security.
These firms were hired to protect assets, not engage in fighting. But as a company called Blackwater demonstrated when its guards shot 14 civilians dead in a Baghdad square in 2007, the lines can easily blur in a war zone. After the Blackwater scandal, the industry and its government clients scrambled to introduce voluntary professional standards. Soon, the U.S. was winding down its presence in Iraq, and public concern about the privatization of war faded.
The private-security industry, however, did not—it evolved. Some firms were consolidated into larger entities through a process of buyouts and mergers. Many changed their focus to more discreet, profitable areas, such as cybersecurity and intelligence. Others carried on fulfilling the market for so-called hard-security services, which got a boost from new government clients such as China, Nigeria, and the United Arab Emirates. The usefulness of contractors as a low-profile way of waging war was meanwhile noticed in other countries like Russia, where new firms started to grow.
The sector still has no binding regulations, though. It doesn’t even have an agreed-upon definition of a private military or security company. Experts struggle to estimate the industry’s annual earnings, so it’s hard to say how much it has expanded. “It has grown more organic and wild, like an untended garden,” Sean McFate, a former private military contractor who has written a book on the sector, told The Bureau. “The industry has grown up, and the U.S. has gone away and stopped paying attention. It’s crazy now—Vegas meets military action.”
In 2004, a veteran of the British Special Air Service (SAS), Thomas McDonald, set up a firm in Iraq called Sabre International Security. McDonald—who is more widely known by his middle name, Frank—has a rather forbidding reputation, reinforced by the fact that he is missing part of a finger on one hand. McDonald had little business experience, one former colleague recalled. Like others The Bureau spoke with who worked for or did business with Sabre, they did not want to be identified, fearing retribution for breaking the code of silence that prevails in the industry. McDonald himself did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
The Briton started a security firm with an Iraqi partner named Namir El Akabi, whom he had met at a Baghdad social event. The Iraqi businessman took a 77.5 percent stake in Sabre’s Iraq operation, according to court documents. The two men were very different: El Akabi was the scion of a well-off Iraqi émigré family who had returned to Iraq after the U.S. invasion and started a string of companies in construction and logistics. A smooth talker with a plump, lightly stubbled face, El Akabi was portrayed in the media as an Iraqi success story.
Sabre picked up a slew of contracts to guard U.S. military bases and, later, several other sites, including the Iraqi Parliament, the airport for the southern holy city of Najaf, and the facilities for Russian energy firms. Many of its guards were brought in from poor countries. Former Gurkhas—mostly Nepalis or Indians who have fought in the British or Indian armies—were in particularly high demand among contractors in Iraq because of their reputation for toughness and bravery. Security companies “were hoovering up anyone who claimed to be a Gurkha,” says James Sinclair, a lawyer who was working in the Middle East at the time for FSI Worldwide, a recruitment firm that promotes ethical hiring practices. “If you could hold a gun and looked vaguely Nepalese, that was good enough, especially given the attrition rates.”
Profits were substantial in the early years of the occupation. “Everyone was filling their boots,” Sinclair told The Bureau. “It was a bonanza.” In an official assessment of U.S.-government spending on security contractors in Iraq from 2003 to 2008, Sabre appears as the sixth biggest beneficiary, netting nearly $300 million.
By 2012, conditions had become more challenging for security contractors, not least because the American military had withdrawn the vast majority of its forces. Sabre in particular found itself on the wrong side of Iraq’s then–prime minister, Nuri al-Maliki. Iraqi employees started to hide the fact that they worked for Sabre, worried about their safety. Then Maliki announced, in 2013, that his own son had been dispatched to arrest El Akabi for running an unauthorized security company and other offenses. In a December 2018 telephone interview with The Bureau from Iraq, El Akabi denied that an arrest warrant had been issued for him, insisting that Maliki’s comments were false. He told The Bureau that he had not been charged or arrested, and provided a document stating that he had not been convicted of any crime or misdemeanor involving moral turpitude, which he said came from the Iraqi interior ministry (the authenticity of this document could not be confirmed). He admitted, however, that 2012-13 was a time of difficulty for Sabre in Iraq.
At around this time, McDonald bought a company, Near East Security Services, and transferred Sabre’s assets to the new firm, according to testimony in a subsequent court case. (El Akabi told The Bureau that this happened without his knowledge). One former Sabre employee told The Bureau that this new company was effectively Sabre under a different name. “They rented a company name, an Iraqi company, and shifted all the contracts to this” one, the former employee explained. “We established the new company. Where [has] Sabre gone? Nobody knows!”
An American firm called Torres Advanced Enterprise Solutions was among those that went looking. Torres had partnered with Sabre on Pentagon contracts, but in 2011 the two firms started fighting over money in the U.S. courts. After four years of litigation, Torres’s chief executive, Jerry Torres, wanted to settle with El Akabi, according to court documents. The two eventually got together in Jordan in June 2015, and according to Torres’s court testimony, El Akabi threw him a curveball. “Good luck collecting,” Torres reported him as saying, “because Sabre does not exist.”
After the El Akabi meeting, Torres sent a trusted employee, Ashur Elisha, to Iraq to investigate. If Sabre had in fact disappeared, as El Akabi claimed, then the expensive lawsuit could be dismissed and the American company might even get a previous goodwill payment reimbursed. What happened next illustrates just how murky the world of private military contracting can be.
Elisha, who spent weeks on the ground, concluded in a court statement that Sabre had been banned from operating in Iraq and that company assets had indeed been transferred to Near East Security Services. But after he returned to Jordan, Elisha received a call from a stranger who wanted to meet. According to Elisha’s statement filed in the court proceedings, when the pair eventually sat down, Elisha was handed a document. It was a statement retracting his findings that Sabre no longer existed in Iraq. Elisha said that the stranger—who was identified in court testimony as Hatem Atrakchi—was “very polite.” He asked whether Elisha would sign the document, for which he would be given an unspecified “service fee.”
“My reaction was, Shit, I’m in big trouble,” Elisha said. He didn’t sign the statement, and decided instead to leave the country for his own safety.
Sabre’s lawyer in the U.S. court where the Torres case was being fought out, Timothy Mills, stated in court documents that he had no involvement in Atrakchi’s approaching Elisha. A declaration filed by one member of Sabre’s management team confirmed that the approach was made without Mills’s knowledge, and also denied that Elisha had been offered a fee. For several months, Sabre’s representatives battled on with the argument that the company did exist. In his interview with The Bureau, El Akabi conceded that Sabre was effectively a “shell company” after 2012, but was adamant that it did still legally exist and that court testimonies on behalf of Torres had misrepresented the situation. In 2016, the court deadlock broke: Mills abruptly withdrew from the case, citing in court documents “an unprecedented breakdown” in communication with his client. It’s not clear what this meant—the explanation made available to the public was redacted because of client confidentiality. New lawyers eventually settled the case out of court, and a blanket of silence descended on Sabre in Iraq.
Sabre won the contract to guard the Canadian embassy in Kabul in 2011, just before the company’s troubles began in Iraq. The contract terms, a 2013 copy of which has been seen by The Bureau, required Sabre to hire guards from Nepal and India, giving the company around $5,000 a month for each one. Because Sabre was paying Thapa, the Nepali guard injured in the blast, less than $1,000 a month (according to a copy of his contract seen by The Bureau), the company appears to have had significant room for profit.
Namir El Akabi and Frank McDonald were listed as vice president and president, respectively, of Sabre when it registered in Afghanistan in 2012, but it’s not clear who was responsible for the company by the time the guards were attacked in 2016. Court records say that McDonald had been removed as Sabre’s chief executive by this point, but one former Sabre employee familiar with the company’s business arrangements said he continued to make management decisions about the Afghan operation. When asked about how Sabre in Afghanistan was run, El Akabi seemed surprised to learn that he had been named in the company’s Afghan articles of incorporation, telling The Bureau that he thought Sabre in Afghanistan was a different company: “I’m not sure about the Kabul operation … I was too busy in Iraq.”
The Canadian government repeatedly renewed its contract with Sabre—in February 2016, just four months before the attack on the guards’ bus, it did so again. It is unclear if Canadian officials were aware of the legal disputes over Sabre’s very existence going on in the U.S. during this time. A spokesperson for the Canadian minister of foreign affairs said that he could not publicly discuss details relating to the Sabre contract “given the nature of security contracts,” and that he was unable to comment on details of operational security. A memorial stone has been laid on the grounds of the Canadian embassy in Kabul, in honor of the murdered guards.
Thapa had no idea about his employer’s corporate structures. He just knew they were offering the best deal when he joined the company in 2011. His parents were subsistence farmers, but he had always been more ambitious. “I had a dream I could do something better than farming,” he told The Bureau, speaking via Skype from Kathmandu. He ended up joining the Indian army, where he came to realize the importance of education—village men like him were left behind in the scramble for promotion. He decided that paying for his son and daughter to get a proper education would become his priority in life.
The kind of wages that would support such aspirations are hard to find in Nepal, so Thapa jumped at the chance to guard the British embassy in Kabul for the global contractor G4S in 2006. Five years later, Sabre was recruiting guards for the Canadian embassy. It was offering not only a better salary, but also a significantly bigger insurance payout in the event of death or total disability—$300,000. For Thapa, knowing his family would be well provided for if the worst happened was what swung it for him.
The specific policy guaranteeing Thapa this amount—a copy of which has been seen by The Bureau—was actually set to expire by the end of 2011, but Thapa insists he received a verbal assurance that the coverage would continue. “We believed them,” he said.
Security in Kabul had deteriorated rapidly by 2016—the Taliban had begun to stage increasingly bold attacks in the capital following the withdrawal of most American troops. According to the former Sabre employee familiar with the company’s business arrangements, concerns about the safety of the guards traveling in the unarmored bus every day had been raised, but nothing changed.
After the attack, the Canadian government offered public condolences, while privately distancing itself from any responsibility—“The government of Canada did not assume any duty of care to the guards during their transportation to and from the Mission,” insisted one memo seen by The Bureau. Former employees of Sabre said that the company’s management was genuinely upset by the attack. But soon after the June 2016 bombing, Sabre suddenly decided to pull out of the embassy contract, according to Canadian-government memos obtained by lawyers representing the Nepali guards. Then, just as it had in Iraq previously, the company went quiet.
Sabre’s medical-insurance policy paid for Thapa to be treated in a hospital in New Delhi for 90 days, but after this time was up, he still needed five more operations. In Nepal, meanwhile, families of the blast victims tracked down Sabre’s Kathmandu representative, Deuman Tamang, and dragged him to the police station, according to Ganesh Gurung, a director of the local labor-rights NGO who first alerted Matthew Handley, the American lawyer, to the case. Afterward, $30,000—plus a contribution toward funeral expenses if someone had been killed—was transferred to the bank accounts of each survivor’s or victim’s family, without any paperwork or explanation.
In many circumstances, that figure would be a lot of money in a country like Nepal, but in fact it was only a little more than the amount Thapa had already lost through being unable to work. After having to pay for three operations and regular physiotherapy himself, he fell into debt, and still needs another two serious operations. He and others questioned why the payment was a tenth of what they insisted had originally been promised.
The answer came in a September 2016 email from Sabre’s management to Tamang. In the message, which was obtained by lawyers working on the Nepalis’ case, Sabre said that the $300,000 figure was based on a mistaken interpretation of an old document, and argued that $30,000 was “more than the majority of policies from Private Security Companies.” To the question of why employees were not informed that their coverage had been drastically cut, the company said: “Personnel are not required to be advised.”
That email was one of the last signs of life offered by Sabre. Frank McDonald has left virtually no digital footprint behind, and did not respond to requests for comment on this article sent via Schillings, a Britain-based law firm and public relations company, which says it represents the former management of Sabre International Security Ltd Afghanistan. Namir El Akabi agreed to be interviewed, but said he was not responsible for the management of Sabre’s Afghan operation.
Canadian lawyers working with Handley eventually filed a lawsuit against both Sabre and the Canadian government on behalf of the Nepalis this past summer, in spite of not being able to find a point of contact at Sabre to notify. The case is ongoing.
One challenge in holding Sabre accountable is that multiple companies bear its name. It is not clear what the relationship is between the Afghan entity and the Iraqi one, and the Canadian embassy’s contract with Sabre listed the company’s address as being in Baghdad. There has also been some dispute in at least one court case about whether various Iraqi companies called Al Saif (Arabic for “Sabre”) and Sabre International Security are the same. El Akabi told The Bureauthat the Arabic name was simply how Sabre was registered in Iraq, but the two names were also registered in the British Virgin Islands as separate entities, according to the Panama Papers (El Akabi is listed as a shareholder in both). A copy of the company’s headed notepaper submitted in the U.S. court case, meanwhile, lists its offices as being in Iraq, Afghanistan, Sudan, Britain, Fiji, Nepal, and Germany.
The judge in yet another court case, this one in Britain, involving Sabre suggested back in 2011 that this kind of ambiguity was a deliberate strategy of the firm. That case was filed by Anthony Harty, an Irish employee who had been injured while working for Sabre in Iraq. Sabre’s defense was to argue that although a company registered in the British Virgin Islands called Sabre had hired Harty, his employer in Iraq was a different entity, also called Sabre, and that company had to be sued in Iraq. The judge ruled in Harty’s favor, questioning whether there could be any reason other than “deceit or obfuscation” to create different companies with identical names.
To some extent, this kind of geographical slipperiness reflects wider trends in the corporate world. It’s never been easier to locate assets offshore or create a shell company. Private-security firms are particularly well suited to slip between jurisdictions, because they don’t typically have a fixed employee base.
“Like any organization, they’re looking for loopholes, tax advantages, opportunities,” Ori Swed, an expert on military contractors at Texas Tech University, explained to The Bureau. He continued, however, that in the case of this industry, “we’re talking about someone that replaced a police, that replaced a military—it’s not just like getting scammed on the price of coffee.” Swed argues that only binding international regulation will lead to the sector’s accountability, though there are few signs of the political will to push for this.
At the sharp end of this elusiveness are people like Man Bahadur Thapa. He had always liked his bosses, and is still struggling to process their response to the attack. “I never thought this would happen,” he said. “I didn’t think they would do this.”