Afghan soldiers, with Soviet-era AK-47s supplied by NATO. Operation Saray, 2006.

The United States has a long history of supplying weapons to armed proxies by way of deniable third parties. Some of these efforts were deemed successful at the time, such as the arming of the Afghan mujahedeen in the 1980s or Air America supply runs to anti-communist militias in Indochina.

Similar efforts with even grander goals have become bywords for hubristic skullduggery, such as the Iran-Contra Affair or the Bay of Pigs. Yet other efforts, like the “Free Albania” movement, or the CIA’s Tibetan guerilla army, are safely buried in obscurity.

Unfortunately for the US government, and the desperate Syrians who have accepted its aid, the effort to “train and equip” anti-ISIS (and, with far less enthusiasm, anti-Assad) rebels is very much in the limelight now. And it is proving to be a costly embarrassment with little to show but lethal consequences for those involved.

BuzzFeed’s Aram Roston has uncovered how a small US military contractor, Purple Shovel LLC, was given an outsized role in the Syrian “train and equip” program despite its initial failure to procure sufficient weapons. Along the way, personnel died handling unsafe weapons, the Bulgarian government was deeply embarrassed, Syrian fighters were left in the lurch, and a Belarusian arms exporter netted a tidy sum in spite of Western sanctions against the country.

The episode recalls the Croatia-Jordan links in 2013 that enabled small arms transfers to the Syrian rebels. By sending the weapons to Jordan, Croatia did not technically violate any EU arms embargos – a legal end run like the one that Belarus provided the US and Bulgaria with in 2015.

The episode also recalls a 2008 scandal involving an even more inexperienced US contractor, AEY Inc., which was charged with arming Afghanistan’s post-Taliban security forces. Like Purple Shovel, AEY provided aging Eastern Bloc weapons to US trained-forces by way of Bulgaria; weapons that often proved unusable and were procured from suppliers in contravention of international sanctions.

According to Harper’s Scott Horton, this kind of transaction “reveals patterns of management by the US intel community which are extremely familiar to me from a study of covert operations relating to Afghanistan logistics.” As he puts it, one must “[s]tart with self-dealing,” where “contracts are awarded to never before heard from companies with no performance record controlled by persons with a background deep in the intel community”.

Operation Zema Parma Sar Tera. Afghanistan, 2012.

Operation Zema Parma Sar Tera. Afghanistan, 2012.

With Purple Shovel billing itself as a logistics company, it is indeed hard to see just why it was chosen for the sensitive work deals like these involve. The CEO, Benjamin “BJ” Worrell, is at least a former Army counterintelligence officer. And according to LinkedIn, past and present employees have included civilian logistics managers, PMCs, and ex-special forces trainers.

Purple Shovel is, as The New York Times said of AEY Inc., “one of the many previously unknown defense companies to have thrived since 2003, when the Pentagon began dispensing billions of dollars to train and equip indigenous forces in Afghanistan and Iraq.”

These qualifications still don’t quite explain why, of all possible contractors, SOCOM chose Purple Shovel, but as Roston has reported before, “the U.S. relies on small but important defense-contracting bottom fish to arm some of the world’s most violent and unstable military forces.”

It is not always worth the risk of bringing a known quantity like Academi or DynCorp. Even during the Cold War, clandestine entities like Air America were sometimes “too big” to bring in, leading to the use of smaller entities like Intermountain Aviation, which drew less attention.

For PMCs like Purple Shovel, a shopping trip to former Warsaw Pact member nations usually follows the landing of a big contract. Governments in places such as Bulgaria, Armenia, the Czech Republic, Belarus, Ukraine, and even Russia are happy to offload their outdated armories onto Western buyers over the table, or to look the other way when politically well-connected companies are conducting business under the table.

This is why Pentagon has put out tenders to procure vintage Warsaw Pact and NATO hardware from Europe. The goal is to build up pre-existing stockpiles that can supply “train and equip” programs with vintage Cold War small arms.

Look Ma, no Kalashnikovs. Kabul, 2010.

Look Ma, no Kalashnikovs. Kabul, 2010.

Purple Shovel initially went to the Bulgarian defense contractor Algans (Алгънс) to procure weapons for SOCOM. Like several other European firms that have lately been doing a brisk business thanks to the Iraqi and Syrian civil wars, Algans offered cut-rate prices and a measure of legal remove for its customers.

European PMCs and defense ministries with access to surplus Cold War stocks have been selling directly to Iraq’s embattled government (and the Kurdistan Regional Government) – like the Czech PMC Excalibur has – or transferring weapons to the Syrian rebels under US auspices. The latter arrangement was the case in 2013 when weapons from Croatia, paid for with Saudi Arabian money, began arriving in Jordan.

Deniability is always a virtue in such operations – especially since weapons tend to turn up in hands they weren’t meant to end up in. The first batches of small arms sent to the mujahedeen, for example, were Soviet surplus provided by Egypt or taken from the stockpiles the IDF had captured in the Arab-Israeli Wars – nothing yet so clearly NATO-standard as Oerlikon cannons or Stinger missiles. US efforts on behalf of the anti-ISIS “train and equip” program has been similarly limited.

According to BuzzFeed’s investigation and local press accounts, the munitions that Algans presented to Purple Shovel were dated to 1984. Algans bought them off the state military enterprise VMZ Sopot in 2010-11 and then tried to offload them onto the Americans in 2015. But the American contractors present – sub-contracted through another US firm, SkyBridge Tactical – wanted to test the weapons. One such test, on the grounds of VMZ Soport’s main factory in June, ended in an explosion that killed one man and badly injured four others who were present.

Algans, in fact, has a poor safety record for handling old munitions, and some rather unsavory connections that Bulgarian officials now say raise questions about their overall procurement plan. In the wake of accidents and bad press, such complaints increasingly dog companies involved in the legal refurbishment and resale of Soviet surplus.

AEY’s case, for example, was not helped when allegations surfaced that an Albanian contractor who was being held responsible for a major munitions disposal accident in 2008 had elsewhere helped AEY falsify data about its purchases. Even the well-established “Excalibur” PMC has had to answer for its stories of its wares reportedly blowing up in customers’ faces.

The Bulgarian authorities have called for an inquiry in the wake of the accident to “investigate” whether the weapons were Syria bound (it really goes without saying that they were, though). Similar inquiries are already being held in the Czech Republic over how PMCs have been able to so easily obtain and resell surplus Eastern Bloc gear.

But the Bulgarian authorities have also deflected questioning as to how much they knew about the Syrian “train and equip” effort from the start. This is not surprising in the least, though, since Sofia’s official policy is not to enable arms transfers to Syria, yet the accident took place on Bulgarian government property and the U.S. embassy openly admitted the maimed men were there on behalf of the Combined Joint Interagency Task Force-Syria.

Bulgaria, having already been drawn into the U.S. undertaking by the presence of the contractors (and its own official sales of war materiel to Iraq), has since apparent decided to go full-in with the American effort, despite the bad feelings and optics the June explosion has caused.

Unwilling to continue working with the old Bulgarian-made equipment – more dangerous to the user than the enemy – or able to procure the “Konkurs” in Bulgaria, Purple Shovel and its associates turned elsewhere to obtain more modern equipment, to Belarus.

Belarus has long sold arms to Syria, but the deal that Roston has documented shows that it also sold weapons to the U.S. to give to other Syrians to use against Syrians whom Belarus had previously sold to directly.

Were Belarus not trying to straddle both EU and Russian demands on its foreign policy, might more of its nationals and weapons might have been in Syria alongside the Russian armed forces’ air and sea lifts or Iran’s clandestine resupply operations? The former Soviet republic has enough leftover Soviet military equipment to still rank it among the top arms-exporting nations of the world.

Before the civil war began, Belarus was a major supplier to the Syrian Arab Air Force, and after Russia and Iran was the country’s third-largest source of military hardware. Although Belarus denies it maintains this commerce with Syria post-2011, it is probable that some sales and, especially, maintenance on existing equipment, have gone through despite the ongoing civil war.

Though it is not clear which Belarusian exporter passed the weapons onto a Bulgarian entity acting as a broker for Purple Shovel, it would be embarrassing for the US if it turned out to be, for example, Belvneshpromservice: an export company that has been repeatedly sanctioned by the US for its sales to Iran and Syria, among other sanctioned entities.

It is possible that BuzzFeed’s revelations may prove to be an even bigger embarrassment for Minsk than Sofia, because Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko is seen to be warming to the Western powers as a result of Russian demands that he more firmly commit himself to Moscow to the exclusion of all others.

Belarus has been balancing Russian and European demands since its independence, so such demands are rather unwelcome even if Belarus has materially benefitted from Russia’s growing international isolation.

Could the “one-time” exemption by the US for Belarusian arms exports be part of a still very tentative detente with Belarus – despite being caught out time and time again in black market arms dealing? If Lukashenko, consummate political survivor that he is, thinks he can play both sides here, it could just work.

Even as Belarus continues to engage with Syria on investment projects with the potential for dual-use military purposes, the EU is preparing to lift some sanctions against Minsk. This is a fairly good deal for Lukashenko when all that was publicly required of him was the release of some prisoners of conscience ahead of elections.

Belarusian arms dealers are under constant – if not always consistent – scrutiny for evidence of sales to human rights violators, so there will surely be a further, EU investigation into the matter that BuzzFeed has raised. Purple Shovel operates in a global grey area where a contractor can be legally engaged in both humanitarian activities on behalf of the UN and the arming of Third World proxies for intelligence services.

This grey area exists so that these objectives might be accomplished discreetly, quickly, and cheaply. But there will always be a cost for letting this space exist. In order to maintain a conflict logistics system that can deliver soft or hard power goods and services on short notice, room is made for questionable, if not outright illegal, deals.

Ones that don’t so much slip through the cracks as they are actively encouraged to fill them in the name of “plausible deniability.”

Photographs courtesy of U.S. Army, U.S. Marine Corps, and ResoluteSupportMedia. Published under a Creative Commons license.