U.S. Paid $1B to Contractor Accused of Bigotry at Iraq Air Base
Sallyport Global was contracted to help keep Balad Air Base orderly, safe, and secure. But past and present employees say it was anything but.
The U.S. government has paid Sallyport Global, a military contracting company, over $1 billion since January 2014 to provide security, life support, training and other basic operations at Balad Air Base in Iraq. But the results, according to 17 current and former Sallyport employees, have been chaotic, bizarre, in many cases sinister, and posed major risks to the personnel on the base at a time when the so-called Islamic State controlled swathes of territory nearby.
Sallyport employs roughly 1,850 people at Balad. Its company headquarters is in Virginia, but it also has a corporate presence in Bermuda.
What Sallyport runs in Iraq is basically a small army of private military contractors, known in the trade as PMCs, recruited from around the world. Employees are paid handsomely to survive insurgent attacks, blistering heat and crushing boredom for a few years while supporting American international military and policy objectives.
But unlike most armies, at Balad there was a distinct lack of discipline.
Poor leadership empowered different factions operating at the base, including white South African guards, a Bosnian “mafia,” and an Iranian-backed militia, who vied with other Sallyport employees and with the Iraqi Air Force for control over the sprawling facility north of Baghdad.
According to present and past employees, some security officials traded safety for corruption and a racial system influenced by Apartheid. Some of Sallyport’s employees even abused the local dogs.
This summer, the independent Government Accountability Project began an investigation of operations at Balad for The Daily Beast, contacting hundreds of current and former Sallyport employees. Days after that began, Sallyport sent an email to employees warning them against speaking to us, something several Sallyport employees cited as a reason they couldn’t talk. Others requested anonymity, even though there are enough whistleblowers to fill a choir loft.
The company declined to comment on any allegations regarding its finances and corporate structure, leadership on base, animal abuse, racism, pro-Apartheid social media posts, theft, misuse of money, security failures, rigged security inspections, the Iranian militia, procurement issues, generator explosions, confiscated passports, and HR complaints. It is also suing for defamation two former employees, who alleged Sallyport tolerated smuggling, theft, and a prostitution ring.
Many of the complaints centered around a particular clique of a couple hundred guards and supervisors at Balad—white South Africans whose careers began in Apartheid-era military and police forces.
Thousands of ex-Apartheid soldiers are working in conflicts across North Africa and the Middle East. Many of them are angry and feel like they have no place in South Africa after Apartheid-era job reservations for whites were ended. For military contracting companies like Sallyport, who hire gun-toting mercenaries, they were available.
Many were also “very racist,” said one former Sallyport employee.
“They would walk into a room and acknowledge me and my colleague but would ignore my Iraqi interpreters,” another former Sallyport employee said.
They felt “because their skin was white, they were better," added a third employee. They were “disrespectful to [the Iraqis] about their culture and their language.”
One South African refused to eat in the dining facility with Iraqis, said a former Sallyport employee. They said they “did not feel safe,” the former Sallyport employee said. “This the Iraqis found so disrespectful.”
By the end of 2014, white South Africans had almost total authority over security operations: the Base Defense Operations Center (BDOC) and armory. They “controlled the weapons” said a former Sallyport employee. Their attitudes translated into action, current and former employees say. Sallyport employees said the South Africans ordered Iraqi translators to perform menial tasks like serving lunches.
Four other former employees said Central and South Americans on base weren’t treated as equals. South Africans allegedly used their influence with the base’s security director to have Central and South Americans moved to undesirable shifts. “They would take them off day-shift and put them on night and forget about them,” said a former Sallyport employee who saw HR complaints against the South Africans.
“Peruvians were on all night and white boys were on all day,” said another former employee. “It was segregated.”
To be clear, Sallyport employees said some American contractors also mistreated Iraqis and other minorities. But abuse by white South Africans appears to have been more organized.
Former Sallyport employees said some of the South Africans openly endorsed “Apartheid.”
"They didn’t care for my opinion on Apartheid,” one employee said. "I just said why do you think it's OK for the minority to rule the majority and they would just be furious."
But the South Africans at Balad weren’t just acting this way in real life. The Government Accountability Project identified Sallyport employees sharing racist and anti-Semitic Facebook videos made by American KKK Grand Wizard David Duke.
“White South Africans have nothing to be ashamed about,” said Duke, in one video shared by Sallyport employees, “The Boers created a great nation, one so good for blacks that millions came for the jobs, education, and medical care that the whites had created.” Other posts called Nelson Mandela a terrorist, justified Apartheid, celebrated white pride and even included actual Nazi propaganda purporting to tell the “untold truth about Hitler.”
One frequent share was a photo of South Africa’s Apartheid-era flag, a bloody handprint and a noose, with the caption in Afrikaans, “I’m sick of farm murders,” a reference to a debunked conspiracy, promoted by South Africa’s extreme right—and, recently, by President Donald Trump—that white farmers are facing “genocide,” as some of the propaganda puts it.
To be fair, racist contractors aren’t limited to Sallyport.
The Government Accountability Project identified pro-Apartheid social media posts from contractors who work, or worked, for other companies including DynCorp, GardaWorld, Constellis, including a photo of a South African contractor wearing an Apartheid flag on a base, but didn’t hear specific stories about abuse.
When asked about racism and endorsement of Apartheid on base, one white South African former employee of Sallyport acknowledged “things were not always kosher,” but refused to explain, citing “band of brothers” loyalty. The Government Accountability Project located a blog post from this South African employee, where, a few years before, he had advocated for “the replacement of the democratic system” with something more favorable to white South Africans.
Former Sallyport employees blamed the base’s American security director, Steve Asher, for many of the problems at the base. “There was an acceptance of mediocrity,” a former employee said.
Asher previously faced questions about security at an Air Force nuclear facility in Montana he managed. Five months after he left his position as group commander and chief of police for the 341st Space Wing at Malmstrom Air Force Base, in 2008, the base failed a Nuclear Surety Inspection. The Project on Government Oversight said this was “indicative of how Asher managed the security forces” at Malmstrom, because “proper security readiness would not have deteriorated that quickly.”
At Balad, Sallyport employees said guard forces at the base frequently responded late to security breaches, or went to the wrong place. One former employee described an incident when an Iraqi Air Force general called in a perimeter breach as a test. “It took security 45 minutes to get a quick response team to that location,” they said. Another former employee described being called to respond to a security breach kilometers away from his area of responsibility.
“No one knew what was going on,” said a former Sallyport employee.
This issue was amplified because, at times, the outer perimeter of the base had holes. “The fence-line was nonexistent in some areas,” said a former Sallyport employee.
Security assessments were rigged, three former employees said. One former employee said Asher was angry when he wasn’t given times and locations of security inspections beforehand. “Security had to be notified of everything and when they were not, they failed,” said another.
Most of the time, security did get a heads-up. “We almost always knew when [inspectors] were coming,” because they controlled the airport, said a different former employee. “We prepped ahead of time, paperwork was tidied up.” Sallyport employees described moving around guard forces in order to create an “A-team” for inspections, including adding more experienced supervisors. They also inflated the number of guards. Sallyport “pulled us to 12-hour shifts to beef up the numbers,” said the former employee. When inspectors left, “we went back to normal procedures.”
Multiple former Sallyport employees said they feared for their safety while working at Balad because of security failures.
Former Sallyport employees also said Asher was the person who created the cabal of white South Africans.
In July 2014, a little over six months after Sallyport took over, the Islamic State attacked Balad, nearly overrunning the base. During the attack, Sallyport evacuated Americans, but left other employees behind. Because the South Africans stayed Asher felt they had shown him loyalty, former Sallyport employees said. He returned the favor, systematically replacing Americans with South Africans. Sallyport employees said South Africans worked in restricted areas, like the airfield, where they weren’t allowed, because there weren’t enough Americans.
“If there was a security breach, then they’d switch to Afrikaans,” said another former Sallyport employee. “So the clients don’t hear what’s going on.” By clients, they didn’t mean their actual clients, the Iraqi and American governments, they meant Lockheed Martin, who provided F-16s for the base, and whose employees had influence at Balad.
Lockheed referred all questions about security failures on base to the Air Force Office of Special Investigations.
Asher did not respond to a request for comment.
The Iraqi military was the ultimate authority at Balad. While Sallyport provided security for the entire base, within the base they only directly controlled two compounds and the airfield; the rest was Iraqi or abandoned.
Sallyport employees worked with, and trained, Iraqi Air Force personnel. But Sallyport employees said they had their own security problems.
One former Sallyport employee who dealt with Iraqi Air Force guards said they regularly slept on the job, made phone calls on duty, and failed to respond properly when approached.
Iraqi military intelligence units were worse, said several former employees. They used their unquestioned authority to search people on base in order to steal property, like cell phones, to resell, employees said.
Intelligence personnel “would come into the restricted areas without clearance,” said a former employee. “They would threaten to murder people and their families if you tried to stop them.” The Iraqi military “made it clear they owned their people,” meaning Iraqis in general, said another employee.
One former employee described an incident where an Iraqi guard stopped intelligence personnel at a checkpoint and tried prevent them from entering a restricted area, near the F-16s. In retaliation, the guard was kidnapped and beaten, said the former employee.
“Asher refused to go to the [Iraqi] general” to control intelligence personnel, they said.
The Iraqi embassy in Washington, D.C., passed questions to the authorities at Balad, who did not respond to them.
Other problems came from outside. The Kataib al-Imam Ali, an Iranian-backed Shia militia, fought off the Islamic State during the 2014 attack. After that, Sallyport employees said the militia did whatever they wanted and moved into a building in the Iraqi section of the base.
Militia members refused to be searched and brought unregistered weapons onto base. When Sallyport guards tried to stop them, they frequently broke through walls of the base, using cranes to smash them to pieces.
“We had to bring more T-Walls in,” said one former employee. “They just got bigger cranes.”
“They could have brought a nitrogen bomb and no one would know or stop them,” said another former Sallyport employee. In one instance militia members allegedly shot at a bomb-sniffing dog after it flagged their vehicle, according to a former Sallyport security employee.
Disagreements between Sallyport employees and militia members nearly came to violence. Former Sallyport employees described three separate incidents during which the militia threatened contractors.
One Sallyport employee got in a fight with a militia member over what former Sallyport employees said was a cultural misunderstanding, and had a gun pulled on him. “Ninety-five percent chance he dies,” said a former Sallyport employee, but “somehow they made an agreement” with a militia leader, and no shots were fired.
A different contractor had an AK-47 waved in his face. A third said a militia leader threatened to cut his head off—and the Sallyport security leadership had told him to keep the incident quiet.
“Never say you are American” around the militia, a former Sallyport employee said.
The militia may have saved the base from the Islamic State, but the the constant threat of violence didn’t endear them to Americans. “The enemy was living on our base,” one former employee said.
Asher convinced the militia to leave the base in late 2016 by building them a base outside with electricity and water. Sallyport employees said it took three tries to build a base the militia accepted. They rejected earlier attempts by breaking down walls and moving back into Balad.
A former Sallyport employee said it was wise to build a base for the militia: “In the scheme of things, it was a better idea because they were crazy.”
A base for Iranian-backed militia wasn’t the only questionable use of American money.
Militia members stole or were given military hardware, including armored cars, originally paid for by the U.S. government. Even if stolen equipment was recovered, “parts were missing,” said another Sallyport employee who recalled tracking down a stolen Mitsubishi.
One blatant theft was exposed by the Associated Press in March 2017. The militia drove onto the base with a flatbed truck and a 60-foot crane, held the guards at gunpoint, and according to Sallyport, picked up three of the base’s generators and drove off. Sallyport employees made it clear they would have liked to prevent the theft of the generators, but said they were stolen from a part of the base under Iraqi military control and Sallyport had no authority. All they could do is make sure the theft happened without violence or accidents.
Rampant theft and fraud were variously blamed on the Iraqi military, the Shiite militia, South Africans, and what several former Sallyport employees called “the Bosnian Mafia.”
Former Sallyport employees explained that Bosnians, and employees from other Eastern European countries, ran the IT department, the motor pool and the television warehouse. “The Bosnians control things like TV, internet and even who gets a certain room or furniture,” said one Sallyport employee. Other Sallyport employees described spare rooms filled with withheld televisions and furniture. “They had it set up to get whatever they want first.”
“You couldnʼt get anything you didnʼt get off the black market or find in the trash,” said another employee.
Procurement problems weren’t limited to the Bosnian-controlled TVs, but also safety equipment. Sallyport security employees said they weren’t issued proper protective gear like personal first aid kits, helmets and boots. “The gear was stuck in Dubai. We didn’t even have anything to hold our ammunition,” said one former employee. “We were putting mags in our pockets.”
There were also corrupt vendors, separate from the Bosnian mafia. At one point, a vendor tried to rip off Sallyport by providing an order of televisions without wiring. After his order was rejected, one Sallyport employee said the vendor was caught selling junk TVs on base.
And if you were lucky enough to have anything valuable, someone might steal it, said Sallyport employees. After the 2014 evacuation, the rooms of American employees who were evacuated were raided. “Everything that wasn’t bolted to the floor was gone,” said a former employee.
Things that weren’t stolen were broken instead.
In one case Sallyport was warned generators were overdue for refurbishing, risking explosions and hundreds of thousands of dollars of damage, according to a former Sallyport employee. They said Sallyport didn’t act and a generator exploded.
“Builders aren’t good at paperwork,” said one former Sallyport employee, justifying why things were “screwed up from the get go.” He said they were repairing a deserted desert base and they had to make do jerry-rigging scraps of stuff they already had.
There was a lot missing when Sallyport took over Balad. When the U.S. Army occupied the base there were hundreds of generators, but afterward many were stolen. “You could see them in people’s backyards if you left base and went into Baghdad,” said another Sallyport employee.
In another example of the amount of American money floating around Iraq, a former Sallyport employee tried to convince one author of this piece to go into business with them, because they needed an American to get government contracts. There’s “too much money in American contracts,” they said. “I can make you rich.”
It wasn’t just the humans who had problems on base. Animals were also abused by Sallyport employees.
Hundreds of stray dogs and cats lived around Balad, a health and safety issue. According to six current and former Sallyport employees, their coworkers allegedly captured, and starved, several animals. “I remember hearing the dogs crying,” said another Sallyport employee. “All the time.”
Sallyport allegedly fired Aaron Sosa, the company’s former “Entomology and Vector Control Superintendent” for the abuse. Sosa denied torturing animals, saying they were starving when his team found them. Captive animals “were provided food once a day,” he said. “It was not enough for some in their dire condition.”
But former Sallyport employees emphasized that animals weren’t fed while Sosa was on leave in February 2016. Sosa denied this too, saying auditors used his absence to “make it look like our section was purposefully starving animals.” But he acknowledged in an email to the Government Accountability Project his team had “a difficult time obtaining food to simply place the traps” and stole food from dining facilities.
“Animals definitely starved,” said a former Sallyport employee, but “Aaron was the fall guy.”
Sallyport employees said Skip Burton, the base’s Corporate Safety Manager, was also fired over animal abuse. Burton denied responsibility for starving animals and told the Government Accountability Project Sallyport fired him as retaliation for exposing safety violations when entering confined space manholes.
Burton blamed Sosa for the animal abuse. “He captured, caged, and rather than feed, destroyed,” said Burton. “Policy on the base was to capture stray dogs and release outside.”
But that policy had changed by October 2015. The Iraqi Air Force prohibited Sallyport from releasing animals, according to emails Sosa provided. Sosa suggested four possible responses, including euthanasia, which Sallyport’s management preferred. “Hopefully [the Iraqi general] will support us in the euthanizing of them,” responded Kim Poole, Balad’s then Project Manager. But Sallyport never paid for euthanasia drugs, Sosa said.
“I used to take a second hotplate back… and feed the dogs,” said one former Sallyport employee who thought Sallyport’s policy was to starve them.
Worst of all at Balad, if employees wanted to leave, sometimes they couldn’t. Several former employees reported Sallyport took their passports when they landed in Iraq. One former employee said when he tried to leave, Sallyport wouldn’t let him. They refused to return his passport or tell him where in Baghdad he could find it. After attempting to get his passport from Sallyport for a month, he contacted the American consulate in Baghdad. A few days later, he was allowed to leave.
And even if you were at Balad voluntarily, it was “basically jail,” said another former Sallyport employee. Still, “we did our fucking best,” they said, a sentiment echoed by several former Sallyport employees. “You have no idea what it’s like to live two years surrounded by South African guards.”
Despite all the problems, Sallyport might be able to make them disappear with some corporate jujitsu. The company’s ultimate owner is the private equity firm D.C. Capital Partners which owns other contracting companies, including recently purchased Janus Global Operations.
Employees believe Sallyport’s contract will be passed to Janus when it ends in January 2019.
“It’s a shell game,” to get rid of bad PR and whistleblower complaints, said a former Sallyport employee. “One day employees will be wearing Sallyport shirts and the next day theyʼll put on Janus shirts and it will all be the same,” they said.
The names change, but the leadership will remain.