ROBERT YOUNG PELTON’S MADE ADVENTURE HIS LIFE’S WORK
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.