MANY people reading this will not, I suspect, have heard of Erik Prince. To some he is known as the Merchant of Death or Dark Prince, to others simply as a “military contractor” – or to put it more bluntly, a mercenary.

Above all else, he is the ultimate Mr Fix-It, a man who likes to privatise things, be it war, counterterrorism or securing Africa or Afghanistan’s natural resources. In short, Prince is a multimillionaire advocate of war for profit.

Cast a cursory glance across the headlines of a troubled world and lurking almost invariably somewhere in the wings is Erik Prince.

Just take this last year, for example. First there was his proposal, which had the ear of US President Donald Trump, to replace American soldiers with mercenaries and privatise the war in Afghanistan. Then there is Prince’s role in the creation of a mercenary army for the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

Much more recently, indeed over the past few weeks, Prince, according to the Reuters news agency, has been pushing a plan to deploy a private army to help topple Venezuela’s socialist president, Nicolas Maduro.

Prince insists that what Venezuela needs is a “dynamic event” – one he believes would break the stalemate that has existed since January, when Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido – the head of Venezuela’s National Assembly – declared Maduro’s 2018 re-election illegitimate and invoked the constitution to assume the interim presidency.

Not surprisingly, Prince’s plans both for Afghanistan and Venezuela set alarm bells ringing in many quarters, with fears in the case of the latter that the Latin American country might be plunged into civil war as a result.

For those readers unfamiliar with Prince and his activities it’s worth pointing out that both these schemes are only the latest in a long and very controversial list of private and sometimes shadowy military operations of which this former US Navy SEAL has been the founder or instigator.

So just who is Erik Prince, where did he come from and what has been the impact of his presence on some of the world’s major trouble spots? Who does he count among his allies and friends in high places and what does this tell us about the way geopolitics is played out today?

While Prince, who is 49 years old, might be unfamiliar to some readers, it’s far more likely that they will know something of the US private military company that he founded back in 1997, known as Blackwater.

Back in the days of the Iraq war, Blackwater was never far from controversial headlines. But it was the infamous day of September 16, 2007, that perhaps most tarnished the company’s reputation.

Assigned to protect a US State Department convoy in the Iraqi capital, some Blackwater employees opened fire on civilians in Baghdad’s Nisour Square, leaving 17 Iraqi civilians dead and 20 wounded. For that act, five Blackwater guards, all military veterans, were convicted, including four in a high-profile case in Washington.

Today, Prince has no connection with Blackwater. So toxic had the name become that he was forced to make various “rebranding” changes, calling the company Xe Services or Academi before he was finally forced to sell the group in 2010, reportedly for about $200 million. With the US administration of Barack Obama in office, Blackwater was no longer welcome in the world of government contracting, and so Prince had to find himself a new role. Prince, it’s said, is still not over the loss.

“I’ve stuck it all out there for America. The previous administration was extremely abusive of us, and I don’t forget that,” he is reported to have told journalists during a series of interviews with Forbes business magazine. “That means I’m very cautious about sticking it out there for any government,” Prince insisted.

But sticking it out there for the Trump administration, on the other hand, appears no problem for him. Perhaps this should come as no surprise given that it was the inauguration of Donald Trump as US president that allowed for Prince’s full business resurrection.

Prince is said to have been very close to Trump on the actual night of his election as president.

Prior to that he was variously described as an informal adviser and had spent $250,000 to help get Trump elected. Prince’s sister Betsy DeVos would also, of course, become the administration’s education secretary.

In a recent detailed investigative piece for the online news publication The Intercept, journalist Matthew Cole, an acknowledged expert on security issues, outlined how Prince just a week before the inauguration of Trump attended a private strategy session in the Seychelles.

There he again rubbed shoulders with Mohammed bin Zayed – commonly known as MBZ – Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE’s Armed Forces and the man Prince had long advised as part of the UAE’s active campaign in fighting Islamic militants in the Middle East and Northern and East Africa.

It was there too, according to the Washington Post during its reporting of the Mueller investigation, that Prince is said to have tried to establish a back channel between Trump and Russia, meeting Kirill Dmitriev, CEO of an $8 billion Russian sovereign wealth fund and a close associate of President Vladimir Putin.

“Prince’s role in the Trump-Russia affair perfectly encapsulates his latest effort to refashion himself, this time as a self-appointed warrior diplomat,” wrote Cole in his comprehensive piece for The Intercept.

“What makes Erik Prince so unique is that there are very few Americans who have the wealth and the political power and his experience, so that someone who has never really worked for the government or been part of government, is taken so seriously whenever there is or wherever there is a conflict, a hot spot around the world,” observes Cole.

In other words, home and away Prince is busy again.

ACCORDING to BuzzFeed News, his Frontier Services Group (FSG) is currently operating in Iraq, with the backing of Chinese investors. Meanwhile, at home in the US, Prince has also been associated with the Trump-favoured Project Veritas.

This is the US group affiliated with James O’Keefe, a right-wing provocateur who targeted mainstream news media and left-leaning groups via “undercover stings” that involved using false stories and covert video recordings meant to expose what the group says is media bias.

All of these roles, overt and covert, are something Prince has long carved out for himself, say those who have watched his controversial career in detail. They describe him as someone who has never wanted for anything or had any reason to moderate his ambition.

The son of an incredibly wealthy owner of a car-parts manufacturing business, he was born in 1969 in the town of Holland, Michigan. His family, Christian fundamentalists, had a history of supporting right-wing and conservative causes.

According to Forbes business magazine, they are said to have travelled widely, including behind the Iron Curtain, infusing their son with a fervent belief in the primacy of free-market economies.

As a religious family they sent their son to parochial school and made him a shareholder of the firm at a young age. “I didn’t have to put gas in my car,” Prince is quoted as saying about his privileged upbringing.

Graduating from Hillsdale College in 1992, having majored in economics, Prince interned briefly at the White House under George HW Bush, but his tenure there didn’t last long.

While there, Prince said he “saw a lot of things I didn’t agree with, homosexual groups being invited in, the budget agreement, the Clean Air Act”.

After his father, Edgar Prince, died in 1995, the family quickly sold much of the business, allowing Prince – then only 26 years old – to walk away with at least $50m.

This was also around the same time that he left the US special forces Navy SEALs and with his new fortune established Blackwater, the military “contracting” business that in some shape or form has been his line of work ever since.

It wasn’t until 2014, however, that he started running the Hong Kong-based FSG, which has close ties to the state-owned Chinese investment company CITIC and helps Chinese firms operating in Africa with security, aviation and logistics services.

It was Lital Leshem, the director of investor relations at another wing of Prince’s business empire – the private equity firm,Frontier Resource Group – who recently confirmed his interest in intervening in Venezuela.

“He does have a solution for Venezuela, just as he has a solution for many other places,” Leshem said in an interview with Reuters, while declining to elaborate on Prince’s proposal.

According to the news agency, the two sources with direct knowledge of Prince’s pitch to influential Trump supporters and wealthy Venezuelan exiles said it calls for starting with intelligence operations and later deploying 4000 to 5000 soldiers-for-hire from Colombia and other Latin American nations to conduct combat and stabilisation operations.

Prince envisions a force made up of “Peruvians, Ecuadorians, Colombians, Spanish speakers,” one of the sources said, adding Prince argued that such soldiers would be more politically palatable than American contractors.

Venezuela is far from the only country Prince has had his sights on of late. Last year he stoked considerable controversy by insisting that mercenary forces could bring peace to Afghanistan.

He suggested replacing almost 50,000 Nato troops and private contractors with 2000 US special operators and 6000 contractors, cutting spending on the war by $30bn a year.

For a while it looked as though Trump was sitting up and taking notice of the proposal, but Prince’s initial push to privatise the Afghan war was quashed by the then two most senior members of Trump’s national security team: HR McMaster, the national security adviser at the time, and Jim Mattis, the defence secretary.

They persuaded Trump to increase the number of troops and resources in Afghanistan, but both have since left the administration, leaving speculation open over Prince’s proposal even if others remain sceptical of the plans and the dangers they pose.

“If this idea didn’t promise to be a significant money-maker, then those who stand to profit from it wouldn’t be pushing it so hard,” observes Laurel Miller, a senior foreign policy expert at the RAND think tank and a former top US diplomat on Afghanistan and Pakistan.

“If anything, bringing in foreign mercenaries would be likely to provide terrific recruiting slogans for the Taliban insurgents,” she added.

Miller’s point is well made. Experience has long shown that the private war industry remains a predominantly unaccountable one. Time and again in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere, the world has witnessed the dangers inherent with subcontracting out war. As the Blackwater experience in Iraq frighteningly revealed, the existence of these armed contractors comes at great risk.

In the past a few individuals have been convicted for atrocities they carried out in places like Iraq or Afghanistan, but the big money-men, chief officials and CEOs remain largely unhindered in the pursuit of their vast profits.

“No longer satisfied with contracting out former Special Forces operators to the State Department and Pentagon, Prince is now attempting to offer an entire supply chain of warfare and conflict. He wants to be able to skim a profitable cut from each stage of a hostile operation, whether it be overt or covert, foreign or domestic,” warns Matthew Cole of The Intercept.

Cole highlights how Prince’s offerings now range from the traditional mercenary toolkit, military hardware and manpower, to mobile phone surveillance technology and malware, to psychological operations and social media manipulation in partnership with shadowy operations like James O’Keefe’s Project Veritas.

Today, with its dogs of war, soldier of fortune, guns for hire connotations, the word mercenarism is frowned upon by the likes of men like Prince, who much prefer the less lurid acronym of PMSCs –Private Military and Security Companies – to describe their line of business.

After a few years off the radar, Erik Prince is back again calling the shots in so many trouble spots in which the US is engaged, even though the ghost of Blackwater in Iraq still lurks.

As America’s most infamous mercenary, he can call his business whatever he wants. The inescapable truth, however, is that he remains what he has always been – an advocate of war for profit.