Australian Army veterans advising foreign army accused of war crimes
Former Australian defence force Major General Mike Hindmarsh is now a general in the UAE. (UAE National Defense College)
Australian defence force veterans are earning tens of thousands of US dollars a month in the United Arab Emirates advising troops fighting in a bloody Middle East conflict dogged by allegations of war crimes and indiscriminate civilian casualties, an ABC investigation can reveal.
- The ABC has found almost 100 former Australian soldiers and federal police who say on LinkedIn they have been advising troops in the UAE
- The UAE is in a coalition fighting in Yemen against Houthi rebels
- All sides in the conflict stand accused of war crimes including torture and indiscriminate killing of civilians
Since the alleged murder by the Saudi Government of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in October, there has been growing international concern about the Yemen war, which involves a Saudi-led coalition, including the UAE, fighting Houthi rebels.
Questions are also being asked about what one of Australia’s most respected former special forces commanders knew about a squad of US mercenaries killing the UAE’s enemies in Yemen.
Despite this, Australian military veterans and former federal police officers have flocked to the country, seeking good pay and comfortable conditions in return for training some of the UAE’s most elite troops.
The ABC searched LinkedIn and found almost 100 former soldiers and federal police whose profiles indicated they are or were training Emirati soldiers.
Military veteran Peter Butson worked for the UAE Armed Forces as a firing range inspector from 2012 to 2017.
He believes there are more Australian military contractors in the UAE than any other nationality.
“It’s probably about 50 per cent Australian, probably about 30 per cent American and probably about 10 per cent Brits,” Mr Butson told the ABC.
The Australian Defence Department said there was nothing inappropriate about the number of Australians working with the UAE military.
“The employment of personnel with previous service in other foreign militaries is common practice globally,” a Defence spokesperson said.
Mr Butson spoke to the ABC because he had previously been named in an article as a “mercenary” and wanted to clear his name.
“Not what we were doing: Ultimately a mercenary is uniformed, carries weapons, engaged in conflict or provides deterrence to keep conflict away,” Mr Butson said.
“I don’t carry a gun, don’t work in a uniform, don’t go to conflict zones.
“I would describe myself as a specialist consultant who deals in military training facilities — the best in the world.
“[The Emiratis] are the ones with the bankroll to pay for it.”
Mr Butson said the same held true for the dozens of other Western military veterans who were there.
“They’re not gun-toting mercenaries,” Mr Butson said.
“They don’t have guns, they don’t wear UAE uniforms, not committed to hostilities there; they’re specialist trainers helping the UAE to gain capability.”
He also said he was not concerned when, halfway through his time with the Presidential Guard, the Emirati troops went to Yemen to fight.
“It was very much a point of pride that they were doing things for themselves. And I was thinking, ‘that’s a good thing’,” Mr Butson said.
‘Best of the best’
Two facts stood out when the ABC examined the LinkedIn list: many of the men are veterans of Australia’s two frontline special forces units, the commandos and the SAS; and many are training the UAE’s most elite military command, the Presidential Guard.
That may be because the Presidential Guard is commanded by a retired Australian major general with a decades-long background in our special forces, Mike Hindmarsh.
He moved to Abu Dhabi a decade ago to create the Guard as the centrepiece of the UAE military.
Retired Australian Major General Mike Hindmarsh is now the commander of the United Arab Emirates’ Presidential Guard. (Supplied)
According to a Defence briefing document obtained under FOI by the ABC, in June 2009, while still employed by the Australian Army, General Hindmarsh asked then-chief of army Ken Gillespie if he could go to the UAE to “explore employment opportunities”.
The document records that Lieutenant General Gillespie “supported” the request.
Four months later General Hindmarsh announced his retirement and was soon serving as a national security advisor to the Emirates’ de-facto ruler, heir to the throne and architect of their role in Yemen, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan.
Mr Butson said General Hindmarsh was known in the UAE military as “General Mike”, because most military officers in the Middle East use their first name, not surname, after their rank.
“[He’s] the best of the best and that’s why he is where he is now,” he said.
General Hindmarsh gives a lecture at the UAE National Defense College on November 11, 2014. (UAE National Defense College)
Questions over hit squad
Last month Buzzfeed America published explosive allegations about a mercenary hit squad targeting figures in the conflict in Yemen in late 2015 to early 2016.
Among the evidence the mercenaries provided to prove their story was a so-called “target card” with details of one of the people they were to kill.
Plainly visible at the card’s top right was the Presidential Guard insignia, leading to questions about what General Hindmarsh knew about the operation.
The ABC has independently confirmed the existence of the target card with one of the hit squad’s members.
Since being created, the Guard has earned plaudits from Western militaries, with Special Operational Command (SOC) soldiers fighting beside US, British and Australian special operations forces in Afghanistan.
It is also deeply involved in the Yemen war and the SOC have been seen using high-tech Western-made weapons and technology there.
Five Yemen researchers and analysts told the ABC they were of the view that General Hindmarsh was directly or indirectly commanding UAE combat troops in Yemen.
All spoke anonymously because of the sensitivity of discussing a senior UAE general in the wake of the detention of British PhD student Matthew Hedges on spying charges.