By Terrence McCoy
By Scott Fishman
By Deirdra Funcheon
By Allie Conti
By New Times Staff
By Ryan Pfeffer
By Deirdra Funcheon
By Kyle Swenson
Safenet Security is run by a South African named Mauritz Le Roux. Le Roux made a name for himself as an anti-communist mercenary in Angola's civil war. He then hopped the border into Zaire, where he and a handful of other white South Africans tried to prop up the country's infamous dictator, Mobutu Sese Seko, in exchange for diamonds and cash.
"As Le Roux... saw it, the key to unlocking Zaire's door and accessing its loot was to sell Mobutu on the need for close air support," Al J. Venter writes in War Dog: Fighting Other People's Wars. When the plot failed and Mobutu fled to Togo, Le Roux and crew still pocketed as much as $5 million, according to Venter.
What's more, last November, Walbridge and Le Roux were accused by the Guardian newspaper of using shell companies in the British Virgin Islands to stash millions from mercenary operations. Asked about the sleight of hand, Le Roux said it was simply to foster "local partnerships" in foreign countries. Walbridge says he never invested money on the islands.
Regardless of where he keeps his cash, it's clear Walbridge has made a fortune off freelance soldiering. Miami-Dade property records show he owns five houses worth more than $11 million within walking distance of one another in the exclusive gated Bay Point Estates community (including three homes next to one another on the waterfront).
OSSI's other partner, White Eagle Security Services, meanwhile, was one of eight companies banned from Afghanistan in October 2010. President Hamid Karzai accused the firms of running an "economic mafia" based on "corruption contracts." Florida records list Walbridge's two sons, John and Sean, as managers of White Eagle. Walbridge admits his sons have followed him into the business but says White Eagle was run by Afghans and the Florida records are "bogus."
Sitting in the café near his Bay Point Estates homes, Walbridge says OSSI today is more like a "mom-and-pop shop" than the mega mercenary firm it was five years ago. The war in Iraq is long over, and Afghanistan is too unpredictable even for him.
"I was in Vietnam close to the end in '74, when you just got the feeling that things were decaying," he says. "That's what it's like in Afghanistan now."
So he got out while he could. He doesn't have any regrets. He didn't start the wars; he just made money off them. "Philosophically, I would give it all back to change history," he says. "But if someone had to benefit, I'm glad it was us."
He raises a coffee mug in a mock toast, his Citadel ring clinking against the porcelain, and says, "Here's to George W. Bush!"
As Walbridge picks up his elephant skin briefcase, however, he admits he hasn't completely retired. "I'm in the twilight now," he says with a boyish grin. "But I still dabble."
The beats were thumping. The drinks were top-shelf. And the guests were oblivious.
It was one of last summer's biggest parties. In a lavender jacket and purple tie, DJ Irie flitted around the Star Island mansion while welcoming guests to his foundation's eighth annual fundraiser. Go-go girls wearing nipple pasties danced on stilts as sculpted celebrities such as Reggie Bush and Dennis Rodman tossed back Chambord vodka.
At the center of the maelstrom of models stood a squat, sallow man named Hamed Wardak. The 37-year-old was not one of the beautiful people, but the party was sponsored by Wardak's new sportswear company, "an eco-conscious and philanthropic firm committed to fashion and fun" called Ludus Athletics.
Wardak was desperate for good publicity. The last time his name was in the news, he was being accused of funneling millions to the Taliban. He had traveled to Miami to rebrand himself: "Philanthropist" sounded so much better than "mercenary."
The story of Hamed Wardak shows South Florida has become central to an international web of private security companies. When war profiteering in Afghanistan went awry, Wardak didn't return to D.C. Instead, he opened his company in quiet Cooper City while schmoozing celebrities on South Beach.
Wardak was born in the mid-'70s to a powerful Pashtun family in Afghanistan. But the Soviet invasion in 1979 forced the family to flee, first to Pakistan and later to the United States. Wardak's father, Abdul Rahim Wardak, remained in Afghanistan to fight with the U.S.-backed mujahideen. After the Soviet withdrawal, he became deputy defense minister until the Taliban takeover in 1996.
Hamed Wardak attended Georgetown University, won a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford, and interned at the American Enterprise Institute, where he connected with powerful conservative foreign-policy makers. By the time his father was appointed Hamid Karzai's defense minister in 2004, Wardak was in a position to profit.
Wardak founded NCL Holdings in 2007 near Washington. Two years later, after President Barack Obama announced his Afghanistan surge, the upstart company received an eye-opening $360 million contract from the Department of Defense to truck Army supplies. "NCL, the firm run by the defense minister's well-connected son, had struck pure contracting gold," investigative journalist Aram Roston wrote in the Nation magazine.
Roston then revealed NCL didn't actually own any trucks. Instead, it subcontracted out the service and hired another company, Watan Risk Management, run by Karzai family relatives and former drug dealers, to provide security. Watan then funneled millions in protection money to local warlords including the Taliban — money that could be used to attack Americans, Roston reported. NCL wasn't keeping the peace so much as sowing the seeds of incessant war, he alleged.