Qaddafi's mercenaries: How much does it cost to hire a thug?

Answers to your questions about the news.
Feb. 23 2011 6:34 PM

How Much Does It Cost To Hire an African Mercenary?

Maybe a thousand bucks, but don't forget the king's shilling.

Read more of Slate's coverage of the Libya conflict.

Libyan residents protest in Rome. Click image to expand.
Libyan protesters

Vowing to "fight on to the last drop of my blood," Libyan dictator Col. Muammar Qaddafi has hired foreign mercenaries to quell his country's civilian uprising. Seemingly overnight, French-speaking killers in yellow hats were roving Tripoli's streets, firing from the backs of pickup trucks on unarmed locals. How much does it cost to hire a decent mercenary these days?

Nobody's sure. Some mercenaries have reportedly claimed to be making between $1,000 and $20,000 per day. * Although it's difficult to confirm an exact figure—these guys don't carry union cards—security expert John Pike speculates that Qaddafi promised at least $1,000 to each mercenary for the operation, with an enlistment bonus paid up front. U.S. companies like Blackwater Worldwide—now called Xe—often hire former Navy Seals or Army Rangers for private military work. During the Iraq War, top-level Blackwater operatives could expect salaries upward of $200,000 per year. Soldiers with fewer skills—former grunts from El Salvador, for example—might make one-tenth as much money or less.

The mercenaries in Libya are likely former rebels from regions like Darfur, Chad, and Niger, places where Qaddafi has helped support uprisings over the years. Due to the orderly nature of their arrival, Libyan intelligence probably oversaw the hiring and transport. A typical mercenary would be in his 20s, have no high-school education, and little to no formal military training. He might carry an easy-to-maintain assault rifle like the AK-47. If Qaddafi is toppled, whichever mercenaries haven't been killed will likely truck back to their home countries, where few job prospects are waiting for them.

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Qaddafi's emergency influx of international mercenaries underscores the colonel's alienation from his own population. Unlike members of the Libyan army—many of whom are now siding with the protesters—foreign mercenaries presumably won't hesitate to kill citizens. Mercenaries from as far away as Asia and Eastern Europe have even been rumored to be in the country, putting Soviet-era skills to use for a quick buck. While farfetched, there is some precedence: Given what we know about Qaddafi's blond and voluptuous Ukrainian nurse, the dictator's little black book is known to extend far beyond Africa.

Got a question about today's news? Ask the Explainer.

Explainer thanks Fred Abrahams of Human Rights Watch and John Pike of GlobalSecurity.org.

Update, Feb. 23, 2011: The original version did not include a new report that some mercenaries claimed to be making up to $20,000 per day. (Return to the updated paragraph.)

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