Cradling an AK-47 and sucking a lollipop, the former American Green Beret bumped along in the back of an armored SUV as it wound through the darkened streets of Aden. Two other commandos on the mission were former Navy SEALs. As elite US special operations fighters, they had years of specialized training by the US military to protect America. But now they were working for a different master: a private US company that had been hired by the United Arab Emirates, a tiny desert monarchy on the Persian Gulf.
On that night, December 29, 2015, their job was to carry out an assassination.
Their armed attack, described to BuzzFeed News by two of its participants and corroborated by drone surveillance footage, was the first operation in a startling for-profit venture. For months in war-torn Yemen, some of America's most highly trained soldiers worked on a mercenary mission of murky legality to kill prominent clerics and Islamist political figures.
Their target that night: Anssaf Ali Mayo, the local leader of the Islamist political party Al-Islah. The UAE considers Al-Islah to be the Yemeni branch of the worldwide Muslim Brotherhood, which the UAE calls a terrorist organization. Many experts insist that Al-Islah, one of whose members won the Nobel Peace Prize, is no terror group. They say it's a legitimate political party that threatens the UAE not through violence but by speaking out against its ambitions in Yemen.
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The mercenaries' plan was to attach a bomb laced with shrapnel to the door of Al-Islah's headquarters, located near a soccer stadium in central Aden, a key Yemeni port city. The explosion, one of the leaders of the expedition explained, was supposed to "kill everybody in that office."
When they arrived at 9:57 at night, all seemed quiet. The men crept out of the SUV, guns at the ready. One carried the explosive charge toward the building. But just as he was about to reach the door, another member of the team opened fire, shooting back along the dimly lit street, and their carefully designed plan went haywire.
The operation against Mayo — which was reported at the time but until now was not known to have been carried out by American mercenaries — marked a pivot point in the war in Yemen, a brutal conflict that has seen children starved, villages bombed, and epidemics of cholera roll through the civilian population. The bombing was the first salvo in a string of unsolved assassinations that killed more than two dozen of the group's leaders.
The company that hired the soldiers and carried out the attack is Spear Operations Group, incorporated in Delaware and founded by Abraham Golan, a charismatic Hungarian Israeli security contractor who lives outside of Pittsburgh. He led the team's strike against Mayo.