It would be easy to dismiss the trajectory of Erik Prince, who made a fortune with his security firm Blackwater only to resign and turn to a form of self-exile amid intense public criticism, as a personal drama born from a set of particular historical conditions. Prince revealed this month that he will be the chairman of a Chinese-based company providing security to extractive industries in Africa, suggesting his future will no longer intersect with America’s. But the professional evolution of Prince, Blackwater and its replacements are not simply side effects of American involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan or the global conflict with al-Qaida but are instead emblematic of the ongoing commercialization of security. The world is in the opening act of an historic change: Today’s private security firms are the small tip of what will become a very large iceberg.
When the United States began its global war against al-Qaida after the Sept. 11 attacks, Prince, a former Navy SEAL, was in the right place at the right time. He was running a modest security training business in North Carolina—Blackwater, Inc.—but moved quickly to help the Central Intelligence Agency build links with Afghan warlords. Later Blackwater won contracts to provide security for U.S. officials in Iraq and to provide a number of other security services. Its revenues grew from about $400,000 in 1998 to more than $1 billion by 2006.
Eventually, though, things soured for Blackwater, which later became Xe Services and is now known as Academi. As the conflict in Iraq subsided and the Iraqi security forces became more effective, there was less need for contracted bodyguards. Excesses by Blackwater operatives led U.S. government agencies to sever ties with the company. Following a brief stint in Abu Dhabi, Prince returned to the United States to write his memoirs.