While the world remains fixated on the “ISIS crisis” in the Middle East, a small group of South African soldiers-for-hire are once again proving what it takes to fight, and win, against terrorists and insurgents. Teamed up with Nigerian military forces, a private military company named Pilgrims Africa Ltd. is employing South African Special Forces veterans to do what they do best: fight the dirty little bush wars that the United Nations can’t or won’t fight themselves.
Boko Haram is the Islamic terrorist organization in Nigeria responsible for somewhere in the neighborhood of 5,000 civilian deaths over the last five years. Operational in northeast Nigeria, as well as parts of Chad and Cameroon, Boko Haram is also infamous for kidnapping hundreds of school girls intended to be sold into sexual slavery or to be married off the Boko Haram terrorists. First Lady Michelle Obama spearheaded a completely useless social media activism campaign in response with the hashtag #bringbackourgirls. The girls are still missing.
Attempting to spread sharia law throughout Nigeria, the leader of Boko Haram, Abubakar Shekau, recently pledged allegiance to that other group of cuddly teddy bears: ISIS. However, this may be interpreted as a sign of weakness, as Boko Haram has been steadily beaten back by government forces and appears less relevant than ever before. Former Special Forces Sergeant Derek Gannon writes:
No one much cared…thus pulling Boko Haram once again out of the spotlight. They began to “borrow” tactics of terror from ISIL by incorporating children into their suicide bombing attacks, began releasing beheading videos, threatened to target journalists and to massacre whole swaths of populations. Even with Boko Haram’s deplorable acts of barbarism, the world simply yawned at that as well.
Gannon’s analysis is that Boko Haram’s attempt to marry up with ISIS is purely an act of desperation, and that the Nigerian terrorist group’s “Alamo moment” is now on the horizon. While Nigerian government forces deserve credit for their work and determination, it is only in recent days that the hidden influence of South African paramilitary contractors has come to light.
Interestingly, America’s Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) first offered their services in order to defeat Boko Haram, only to be turned away by the Nigerian president. Instead, Nigeria brought onboard seasoned South African veterans who know a thing or two about bush fighting.
According to the South African press, Pilgrims Africa Ltd. is run by Cobus Claassens, who previously served with Executive Outcomes in Sierra Leone. Claassens ran Executive Outcome’s 30-man rapid deployment force (RDF), a light infantry unit deployed by helicopter to help isolate objectives by cutting off enemy escape routes and conducting recon and follow-up operations. Claassens also led combat operations in Sierra Leone, where he deployed the Kamajors—the indigenous people of Sierra Leone.
While driving towards Mekina, a convoy that Claassens was leading was caught in an ambush. “All hell broke loose as accurate RUF (Revolutionary United Front) fire was brought to bear on the vehicles from the cutting above them,” Roelf Van Heerden writes in “Four Ball One Tracer.” Out of options, “Cobus and his men fought back furiously and drove the RUF rebels off, killing seven and wounding many others.” The former soldiers working for Executive Outcomes earned a reputation as men who were not to be trifled with.
Claassens and his teammates in Executive Outcomes brought the RUF to its knees, but many government officials are still uncomfortable with a group of former soldiers turned private military contractors who are more effective than international peacekeeping missions. Sierra Leone caved to political pressure and cancelled the Executive Outcomes contract. Meanwhile, the South African government passed an anti-mercenary law that forbade South African citizens from fighting abroad.
Pilgrims Africa Ltd. skirts through a loophole in that law quite well. According to an article in Bloomberg business, “Pilgrims Africa Limited provides security services in Nigeria. It provides armed escort teams to protect people from militant and criminal action. The company was founded in 2008 and is headquartered in Lagos, Nigeria.” But what other activities are folded under “security services?” In the end, it is not as if this contract was not blessed by the South African government. That last thing they want is an Islamic insurgency in Nigeria spreading into their country.
Leon Lotz was killed in a suspected friendly-fire incident with the Nigerian military. Lotz was a a former member of Koevoet, a police para-military unit that saw extensive deployment in South Africa’s border war. Specializing in tactical tracking operations that hunted down and killed communist insurgents during the war, Lotz would have been an ideal member for a team charged with tracking and killing Boko Haram terrorists.
The former CEO of Executive Outcomes, Eeben Barlow, has often pointed out that African problems require African solutions. Today, one of his former employees is proving how right that adage actually is.