The Perils of Freelancing


On March 7th, 70 men, and the Boeing 727 they had just flown into Zimbabwe’s Harare airport to refuel, were seized by Zimbabwe police. There were no weapons on the aircraft, but there were sleeping bags and “military equipment.” The men were thought to be mercenary commandos, on their way to do something illegal. Something was up, but no one was talking.

The latest rumor about the 70 alleged mercenaries arrested in Zimbabwe is that they were going to abduct former Liberian president Charles Taylor. Taylor has claimed asylum in Calabar, a port city in southeast Nigeria less than 360 kilometers from the Guinean capital, Malabo. The suspects’ leader Simon Mann had hired two fishing trawlers in Equatorial Guinea and there was a rubber dinghy seized on the Boeing cargo plane the mercenaries were traveling on. The suspects’ families insist that the vessels were to be used in a sea-borne assault on the Nigerian port.

In June 2003, the Sierra Leone war crimes tribunal indicted Taylor on 17 counts of crimes against humanity for his role in arming and training the Revolutionary United Front (RUF). The decade-long rebellion left up to 200,000 dead and the court’s chief investigator said that he would welcome anybody (“even a private company”) who could deliver Taylor to stand trial.

After the US Congress authorized a $2 million bounty for Taylor, the private military company Northbridge Services Group (based in London) placed an advertisement on its website offering to “split the profits on the reward” with any partner interested in helping to fund and execute a snatch operation. Northbridge has been involved in West African conflicts, but what links they have with the arrested men is unknown.

If convicted of violating Zimbabwe’s immigration, firearms and security legislation, they could face life in prison. Their defense lawyer said his clients faced maximum fines of $200,000 each.

The Zimbabwean government has had a difficult time deciding what crimes they wanted to accuse the suspects of committing. While the Zimbabwean Minister of Home Affairs claimed that the men were planning to aid a Congo rebel group and had stopped in Harare to buy arms, Zimbabwe soon backtracked and echoed Equitorial Guinea̢۪s coup claims.

Interesing. Hiring wannabe soldiers via the want ads may not be the most effective way to hire a fighting force. And, while it would be cheap at twice the price to rid ourselves of the Taylor nuisance, I’m not sure offering bounties is a good idea. Amateurs with guns tend not to make the best ambassadors and even if the connection is indirect, the U.S. would be blamed for their actions if they’re on our payroll.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Don’t we have guys whose actual job is to do this sort of thing–and who are actually good at it?

    This scares me.