Recoil - - Contents - Robert Young Pelton

There’s no sim­ple way to por­tray Robert Young Pelton’s ca­reer and his con­tri­bu­tions to the world. He’s most fa­mous for his book and tele­vi­sion se­ries, The World’s Most

Dan­ger­ous Places. But be­fore, dur­ing, and since its dis­tri­bu­tion, the guy’s been, done, and seen more than any fic­tional char­ac­ter we can think of.

Born to a bro­ken home in the slums of Ed­mon­ton, On­tario, Canada, he used to play in traf­fic and taunt ruf­fian gang­sters by the wa­ter­front while frus­trat­ing the nuns at his el­e­men­tary school, ul­ti­mately get­ting kicked out of school in the se­cond grade.

He ended up at St. Johns boy school in On­tario, an in­sti­tu­tion that would later be­come in­fa­mous for its meth­ods of shap­ing hard-case boys when a dozen stu­dents died on a wilder­ness ca­noe­ing trip.

Con­trast this to the man be­fore you — world trav­eller, au­thor, pho­tog­ra­pher, artist, knife de­signer, busi­ness­man, oil­field worker, mar­ket­ing con­sul­tant, pub­lisher, and cre­ator of re­gional in­tel­li­gence net­works. One of his early en­ter­prises, Pelton & As­so­ciates, was 145th on the 1992 Inc. 500 list.

De­pend­ing on how, and if, you were in­tro­duced to Pelton and his work, you’ll be sur­prised to find out all the other lives he’s lived. If you read one of his sto­ries in RE­COIL or watched his Dis­cov­ery or Na­tional Ge­o­graphic shows, or saw his re­port­ing for VICE, you’ll be sur­prised to learn he was hired by Steve Jobs to help with the launch of the LISA and Mac com­put­ers. Maybe you have one of his DPx Gear knives and didn’t re­al­ize he was one of the guys be­hind the suc­cess of both Up­per Deck and TOPS trad­ing card com­pa­nies. Or, that he worked with Mi­crosoft on early ver­sions of what would be­come Ex­pe­dia’s travel ser­vices.

Pelton’s friends are as in­ter­est­ing as his en­e­mies. He’s met and lived with war­lords, and he some­what fa­mously crossed paths with Erik Prince, the for­mer owner of PMC com­pany Black­wa­ter. The two con­tinue to spar in court over in­ter­ests that range from Pelton’s for­eign news ser­vice and in­tel­li­gence ven­ture in So­ma­lia to the au­thor­ship of Prince’s bi­og­ra­phy.

But, it’s his cease­less wan­der­lust and will­ing­ness to share the trap­pings of his ex­ten­sive trav­els in some of the world’s most frac­tious lo­cales that reg­u­larly at­tract our at­ten­tion.

His re­cent work saw him set­ting up news re­port­ing agen­cies in in­tel­li­gence- starved lo­ca­tions. These ser­vices ended up help­ing re­searchers and think tanks hun­gry for news and in­for­ma­tion that might help them un­der­stand the plight of peo­ple trapped in vi­o­lence and tur­moil, but also helped

fill in­tel­li­gence gaps for na­tion state ac­tors in these ar­eas.

In 2010, Pelton set up a news­gath­er­ing net­work in So­ma­lia, So­ma­lia Re­port, that be­came a source of news for any­one in­ter­ested in the piracy plagu­ing the seas around the Horn of Africa. His open-source ap­proach in­oc­u­lated the re­ports against mis­in­for­ma­tion and pro­pa­ganda. He syn­di­cated the for­mat and de­ployed ser­vices to pro­vide raw ma­te­rial for in­tel­li­gence re­ports to U. S. forces in Afghanistan through a ven­ture called AfPax.

RE­COIL: How many times have you been to Afghanistan?

Robert Young Pelton: Dozens? My pass­ports are all full. I go there a lot. I used to work there with the four stars.

What did you do for the four stars? RYP: Orig­i­nally we pitched them on the idea of set­ting up a very in-depth, very high-ve­loc­ity sort of ground truth net­work.

That means we would have re­port­ing from 1,200 peo­ple in the tribal ar­eas all over Afghanistan. And, this mas­sive flow of sit­u­a­tion aware­ness would be read by ev­ery­body. It would be like USA To­day or New York Times op­er­at­ing in Afghanistan. It would cover every­thing from the price of rice to some­body get­ting robbed. It was like hav­ing a home­town news­pa­per in ev­ery town.

So you used your me­dia and news­gath­er­ing chops to set up what amounts to an open-source, sub­scrip­tion-based net­work that re­ported on things that hap­pened to ap­peal to the mil­i­tary and in­tel­li­gence com­mu­ni­ties? RYP: Yeah. The way it works, you have a spoke and hub setup. We have peo­ple in these vil­lages, the po­lice chief, kid who makes red, a plum­ber, what­ever. We’d say, ‘Hey, what’s up. What hap­pened last night?’ They’d re­port back, We’d have an ed­i­tor fact-check it, call the other guy, see if the ex­plo­sion hap­pened in this house or that house ... We worked with some of the NGOs, and we pub­lished on the in­ter­net.

Sounds com­plex. Was it fun? What did you learn?

RYP: I learned not to ever work with the U.S. gov­ern­ment or even ap­pear to work for the U.S. gov­ern­ment. It’ll burn your ass.

No, it was re­ally messy be­cause The Agency didn’t like us and the ground com­man­ders, like in RC East, saw us as s--t stir­rers. When Bowe Bergdahl went miss­ing, I was able to find out where he was within 30 or 40 min­utes, and they put as­sets right above [him]. They’re able to record con­ver­sa­tions from cell phones or what­ever, and that’s the only time we worked with Task Force. But we had ex­tra­or­di­nary ground ca­pa­bil­ity.

So you found Bowe Bergdahl?

RYP: He went miss­ing at night. The next morn­ing we get a call, ‘Can you come down and. ..?’ ‘OK, but you’re the guys we’re not sup­posed to work with.’ And they said, ‘Well, we’ve got kind of an un­usual prob­lem. We have this knuck­le­head who dis­ap­peared off base and we don’t know where he is.’ I said, ‘OK, tell me what you know.’

They told us where he last was, kind of what he looked like — he’s an Amer­i­can. I then called my friends who knew that area, and I asked when the last time some­body was kid­napped there, and who did it?

They said it was the f--khead tribe, or what­ever they’re called. So, I asked about the last guy who was kid­napped. How did they take him to Pak­istan? They said ‘they used this route, and they wait at the bor­der for the Haqqa­nis to come out, be­cause you can’t drive Afghan cars in Pak­istan and vice versa. So they wait at the bor­der, and it usu­ally takes a while. I said, ‘OK, great.’ So, I fig­ured he left at this time ... So, this route here. They start fly­ing [elec­tronic sur­veil­lance] here, they picked up a phone call say­ing, ‘we need a trans­la­tor, and a cam­era­man.’ The whole thing is in Wik­ileaks ac­tu­ally — read it — and we did that for about three or four days, and then we were told to wave off. I’m like, ‘That’s weird. You want us to wave off? Be­cause we know ex­actly where he is.’ ‘Well, RC East says they own him, so they got to go find him.’ But, RC East doesn’t op­er­ate Pak­istan. He was in Mi­ran Shah ... ex­actly the same build­ing that they held David Ro­hde in. It was the same f*ck­ing peo­ple.

What ri­fles did you see in Afghanistan? RYP: Ev­ery war in Afghanistan is like, what­ever war they lost, they dump all their sh*t there. So in the Pan­shir Val­ley, you see guys bird hunt­ing with Flint­locks. They’d say Birm­ing­ham or BSA on them. Then, there were ware­houses of old World War II Soviet stuff — you know, the ma­chine guns with the round tops, like old, old sh*t.

The AK was a fairly new in­tro­duc­tion, be­cause the CIA in the ’80s re­ally didn’t want them to have good weaponry, but I go out bird hunt­ing with Afghans who’re us­ing AK-47s. They won’t shoot a 74 be­cause the ammo’s too ex­pen­sive. So the AK-47 has been com­modi­tized in Afghanistan, but the 74 hasn’t made any in­roads.

Busi­ness­man will have guards. They have an AK-47 if they don’t have a lot of money … they’ll get a Pak­istani made one, which would blow up in your face.

Cer­tain ones are bet­ter, you know, like the Bul­gar­ian ones are the most fa­vorite, the Chi­nese ones are the least fa­vorite, etc. So when I was in the tribal ar­eas, I’d go to peo­ple’s homes, which are built like forts, and I would say, ‘Hey, got any guns?’ And they would drag them all out. No two guns were the same. They had Stinger mis­siles. They had old English guns. They had old Ger­man guns still with the wrap­ping pa­per on them. And they had old World War I, you know, the Ital­ian ones … just an amaz­ing col­lec­tion of guns that have been shipped in for the Mu­jahideen dur­ing the ’80s, right?

The PKM means the agency was there. It’s very pop­u­lar with cer­tain mili­tias, typ­i­cally agency-re­lated, be­cause the PKM is a hard gun to handle.

Why is Afghan marks­man­ship so bad? RYP: Be­cause in Afghanistan, you’re am­bush­ing peo­ple. They used to sit on hill­tops and fire rock­ets and ar­tillery. So when I was first there, they would lit­er­ally take Katyusha rock­ets, knock the end off them, lay a fuse to it, put two rocks around it [and light it]. It was like the Road­run­ner, right? And where it landed who the f--k knew? What’s your view on firearms?

RYP: The Se­cond Amend­ment is part of the Con­sti­tu­tion, be­cause the way the English treated the Amer­i­cans meant gov­ern­ments couldn’t be trusted. The gov­ern­ment should be equal­ized by the peo­ple’s abil­ity to stand up to it. I like that idea. When you’re op­pressed by gov­ern­ment, you should be able to de­fend your­self.

Now the is­sue of the Black Gun I think is hu­mor­ous, be­cause I could do more dam­age with a propane tank and a 5-gal­lon gas con­tainer than you can do with a black gun any day.

When did you start learn­ing about weapons?

RYP: I’ve never been in the mil­i­tary, and when I started get­ting into this I thought I need to know about guns, be­cause noth­ing’s worse than be­ing around guns all the time and not know­ing about them. So I would ac­tu­ally bring guys with me, like Sol­dier of For­tune writ­ers, and they would ac­tu­ally ex­plain how the weapons work, and they do these weird lit­tle videos.

One time, we were on the front lines with the Tal­iban, and this guy Rob Krott lit­er­ally dis­as­sem­bles the guy’s ri­fle on the front line. I’m like, ‘Ooo, not a good idea.’ The Talib guy was like, ‘What the f*ck. You just took my ri­fle and turn it into parts.’ Right? And he did this thing [ges­tures with hands] ‘This is the RPK, the first da, da, da, da ...’ He was a weapons guy.

I re­mem­ber I was in Turkey with a war­lord, and we de­cided to have a shoot­ing con­test; he had a Glock. So his body­guard throws a Pepsi can up in the air, and the war­lord would aim and miss, and his body­guard goes over and ex­e­cutes the Pepsi can.

Trav­el­ing in dan­ger­ous places, what prac­ti­cal things do you need to know about weapons?

RYP: So what you need to know is ba­si­cally the range of weapons, the type of fire you’re re­ceiv­ing, and the gen­eral mag­a­zine ca­pac­ity. You need to know the difference be­tween [the guns on your side] and the en­emy sounds blast­ing the other way, right?

When you’re un­der an AC-130 Gun­ship you need to know how they func­tion, be­cause you’re just a lit­tle blob and if you get taken out it’s be­cause you were in the wrong zone. I was right next to Kali­ganj at night when they used to run the AC-130s. I don’t know how — they’re in the air — but you could ac­tu­ally hear the [air­crew] yell, ‘Clear!’ when fir­ing the main gun. They had 40mm [can­nons] with high ex­plo­sives, so it’s good to know the range and the blast ra­dius of the 40s and 105s.

Have you seen the dol­lar as an ef­fec­tive weapon?

RYP: You need both car­rot and stick, right? Car­rot has al­ways been dump­ing money into a sh*thole and think­ing that it was go­ing to stay in the sh*thole, and that ob­vi­ously doesn’t work. It just goes to Dubai.

So, money is an in­ef­fi­cient way of try­ing to win fa­vor. Weaponry works when used sur­gi­cally against the right peo­ple with the lo­cals help­ing you. Money cre­ates cor­rup­tion, stand­off cre­ates civil­ian ca­su­al­ties, but it’s still bet­ter than a whole bunch of guys from Ohio go­ing down street get­ting shot by the Tal­iban and per­haps shoot­ing at each other.

When Afghanistan needs to be paci­fied, it’s bet­ter to do ex­actly what we did, which was pro­vide over­whelm­ing air sup­port, stand-up ex­per­tise, use con­sul­tants, just like they fought wars in In­dia in 1800, right? And then when we’re done. We’re done and we move out, and we ac­cept the fact that it’s a con­tentious vi­o­lent poor coun­try.

Do you carry a firearm when work­ing? RYP: The only time I was asked to carry a gun I was with a cer­tain group that was hav­ing a lot of green-on­greens, and you know you’re not sup­posed to do that, but, f*ck it, there’s rules and there are rules, right? So if some­body starts go­ing crazy, take them out, you know? That was a sad state of af­fairs. .. When the peo­ple you’re help­ing were try­ing to kill you.

On the Black­wa­ter thing they wanted me to have a weapon. Be­cause if you get at­tacked in Iraq, they’re gonna f*ck­ing kill you, and they don’t care if you’re a jour­nal­ist, a Black­wa­ter guy, what­ever. I said, look, ‘I’ll carry the ammo. I’ll be the bul­let bitch ... and yes, put a weapon in the ve­hi­cle. But I got to work.’

What were you do­ing with Black­wa­ter? RYP: I wrote a book called Li­cense to Kill. A lot of my friends in Spe­cial Forces had gone to work as con­trac-

tors for Dyn­corp, Black­wa­ter, what­ever. When I was out look­ing for bin Laden I ran into all these OGA guys who were con­trac­tors on the Bor­der. I thought that’s f*ck­ing weird, and I didn’t know any­thing about it. I’d al­ready been with mer­ce­nary groups in Sierra Leone and other places, so I thought, I’m gonna write a book about the fu­ture of war­fare called Li­cense to Kill. Li­cense to kill means that you are lit­er­ally al­lowed to kill peo­ple in cer­tain ar­eas, even though you’re not the mil­i­tary. I chose three com­pa­nies and one of them was Black­wa­ter. I called up Erik Prince, and I met him at the Ritz-Carl­ton. He’s never done an in­ter- view, and I asked him why he’s talk­ing to me. He says, ‘Be­cause you’re you,’ mean­ing that he read my book.

So he’s a fan?

RYP: Yeah. Well, not any­more. So, um, I’ve ac­tu­ally been in com­bat [ laughs]. Any­way. So the point is, he told me his dream of this pri­vate army. And

I’m like, ‘That’s a stupid idea,’ and for a lot of rea­sons. If I was a vil­lager guy, and I was be­ing op­pressed, the last thing I want to see is a f*ck­ing gun­ship come out of the sky ran­domly shoot­ing at peo­ple, you know? But what­ever. So, I said, ‘What’s the most dan­ger­ous job you have?’

He said it’s this run up Route Ir­ish [be­tween Bagh­dad In­ter­na­tional Air­port and the green Zone] be­cause we get these slow-mov­ing Mam­bas and they take pot­shots at us all the time, and there’s VBIEDs [ve­hi­cle-borne im­pro­vised ex­plo­sive de­vices]. I said I want to hang out there.

So I spent a month there, and I flew with the lit­tle bird guys, and I went to Grey­stone, the se­cret squir­rel guys ... Then I said, ‘Hey, I want to come to the ranch.’ [Prince] said, ‘Sure,’ well,

‘why don’t you teach a class?’ So I taught a class on how to be ter­ror­ists, and it’s still talked about to this day. There was a cam­era guy there, and I gave him a gun to shoot the am­bas­sador be­fore we drove a truck bomb in ... It was like, ‘uh f*ck, you’re break­ing the rules, Robert.’ I’m like, ‘There you go. You’re get­ting it now.’ They still teach it, I think. It’s called Mir­ror Im­age. I was just a lit­tle too rowdy for them, but that’s cool.

Ed­ward Snow­den, Pa­triot, traitor, or … ? RYP: Over­paid con­trac­tor who warned us we don’t have pri­vacy.

Is there any place you’re scared of go­ing? RYP: The only prob­lem I have is ir­rel­e­vancy. How many young men and women went to a war and got killed and no­body knows why? No­body cares. Whether they’re jour­nal­ists or sol­diers, and they had zero im­pact. Look­ing back now, I think of ev­ery­body I know who got killed fight­ing in the mil­i­tary or what­ever ... I want to think that some­how they died for a rea­son. If a guy took a risk to show you some­thing or teach you some­thing that we just don’t for­get that and do it again and again.

Should the west be scared of Is­lam?

RYP: Nope — be afraid of ex­plo­sives and bal­lis­tics.

What are you work­ing on now?

RYP: I’m start­ing up a me­dia plat­form, de­sign­ing DPx Gear knives, rais­ing pup­pies, fin­ish­ing my Find­ing Kony book and do­ing a book on Spe­cial Forces that I started in 2001. I’ll head out to Afghanistan in a bit as well. Also still try­ing the change the world with my in­cred­i­bly naive belief that peo­ple are in­her­ently good. But only if you lock up or shoot all the bad ones first.

Above right: Age 13 with his brother Mark. The pair were dragged to count­less air shows with their fa­ther, who was an aer­o­batic pi­lot.

Right: 2001 with the first Army Spe­cial Forces team on the ground (ODA 595). Pelton went to get into the war be­fore 9/11 and knew that Dos­tum was fight­ing in the moun­tains from horse­back.

Above left: In­stead of col­lege, Pelton spent time liv­ing in a car and work­ing in the nor th. Here, he’s work­ing as faller in the Yukon in the mid ’70s. Good money if you like mos­qui­toes and the sun never go­ing down.

Pelton with Ah­mad Shah Mas­soud‘s Pan­jshiri fight­ers in Talo­qan in 1999.

In 2003 with Gen­eral Dos­tum. Pelton says Dos­tum was vil­i­fied by the U.S. State Depart­ment to keep Karzai in power, but ul­ti­mately he has al­ways been the per­son who de­cides who runs Afghanistan.

2000. Pelton tried to take a va­ca­tion and hike the Dar­ién Gap in Panama and was kid­napped by an AUC death squad and marched at gun­point to Colom­bia.

Dis­cov­er­ing the hard way that the Land Rover park­ing brake locks up the cen­tral diff not the rear brakes. Pelton later com­peted for Team USA in the 1991 Camel Tro­phy rally race.

In East Turkey with the fam­ily of war­lord Se­dat Bu­cak, a dis­graced Turk­ish politi­cian with links to a 1981 plot to as­sas­si­nate the Pope. They had a shoot­ing con­test with a Pepsi can. Bu­cak missed and his body­guard walked over and ex­e­cuted the can.

1999 with Ah­mad Shah Mas­soud. Pelton spent three years try­ing to meet up with Mas­soud. He was de­ported, ar­rested, and frus­trated. This was part of his fas­ci­na­tion for in­sur­gen­cies, where groups are usu­ally out­gunned and of­ten sur­rounded.

In Sierra Leone with the tribal hun­ters/mili­tia called the Ka­ma­jor, who were hired by the mer­ce­nar y com­pany San­d­line.

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