This article, written by our Zack Kopplin and Irvin McCullough, was originally published here.
Lieutenant General Frank Helmick was a decorated U.S. Army officer. In 2004, he led the raid that killed the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s murderous sons, Uday and Qusay. Later, Helmick commanded NATO’s training mission in Iraq, then spent a year as Deputy Commanding Officer of all American forces in the country.
But in December 2011, the U.S. military withdrew from Iraq. A few months later, after 36 years in the Army, Helmick retired, too. At the ceremony, then-CIA Director David Petraeus called him an “exceptional officer.”
Since then, Helmick’s actions have won him fewer accolades. By the end of 2012, he was back in Iraq. The war had privatized and Helmick privatized with it.
After the American withdrawal, Iraq had a gold rush. Billions of dollars of leftover U.S. military equipment was free for the taking and huge contracts were available as the country struggled to rebuild. Helmick used his contacts to take advantage of this. He joined a military contractor that struck deals with Iraqi oligarchs who are steeped in corruption and have at least superficial ties to some notorious Iranian operatives.
Some might say that’s just the price of doing business in Iraq over the last few years, but that doesn’t make the business any less ugly.
In late 2012, Helmick became Vice President of SOS International LLC (SOSi). At that time, SOSi was a small family-owned company focused on translation and training, and Helmick, as the saying goes, was a rainmaker.
A retired general joining a military contracting company isn’t unusual. But many former high-ranking officials cash out simply by joining the board of a large company, earning tens of thousands to attend meetings and lobby old friends. Helmick, for his part, took a more hands-on role than his retired peers, overseeing SOSi’s “Mission Solutions Group” and managing the company’s Iraq work.
His qualifications were obvious. As one former SOSi employee told us, “Helmick was hired specifically for his contacts in Iraq.”
Before Helmick joined SOSi, the company had never received a large government security or logistics contract, according to government contract databases.
Since Helmick signed on, SOSi has won nearly $2 billion in base protection contracts in Iraq and expanded into commercial work. But the deals Helmick helped to make have the potential to land SOSi in legal trouble.
A Government Accountability Project investigation for The Daily Beast uncovered substantive ties between SOSi, an Iraqi oligarch who has been linked to Iranian terrorist networks, and a criminal group backed by Iraq’s former prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki. All these connections were developed after Helmick joined the company.
The FBI is conducting interviews relevant to at least one of the resulting deals, according to sources who were questioned by federal agents about SOSi activities.
The FBI declined to comment and Helmick did not respond to our inquiries.
Although we submitted detailed questions to SOSi regarding every aspect of this story and allowed weeks to respond, the company declined to address most of the specific issues raised:
“The business of SOSi is to support critical activities of the United States government—often in hostile and dangerous environments,” SOSi said in a statement. “The company has been a federal contractor for more than 30 years and has effectively served the U.S. military in Iraq since 2003. In performing this work, SOSi consistently complies with all U.S. and applicable foreign laws. The company likewise carries out extensive programs to ensure that its employees do the same, while also observing the highest professional and ethical standards. … SOSi has no knowledge and is aware of no credible evidence to suggest the existence of any investigation of the company by any federal law enforcement agency.”
Helmick joined SOSi with an important relationship: he knew Iraq’s then-Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki personally.
In December 2012, Helmick met with al-Maliki on SOSi’s behalf, according to an interview he gave to the conservative website Human Events. “When I was [in Iraq], I had the opportunity to speak to Prime Minister Maliki, who I have a great relationship with,” said Helmick. “It was Julian Setian, the [SOSi] CEO and myself, and we sat down for 45 minutes.”
Helmick also met with other high level Iraqi officials. “I went to see all these guys because I do have pretty good relationships with many of the senior Iraqis,” Helmick said. “I went to see my old buddies.”
Helmick said in the Human Events interview that al-Maliki told him Iraq was open for business.
At that time, doing business in Iraq meant working with al-Maliki’s people.
A key figure in al-Maliki’s orbit is an oligarch named Essam al-Asadi. Several diplomatic and intelligence officials spoke on background about al-Asadi’s connections to al-Maliki, summed up by one source as “extensive and deep.” And by late 2012, al-Asadi and SOSi were working together, thanks to Helmick.
Al-Asadi also has at least a passing acquaintance with some of the shadier characters in al-Maliki’s orbit, including Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, who was sanctioned as a terrorist by the U.S. Treasury Department. The Daily Beast obtained photos of a 2015 meeting among al-Asadi, al-Maliki, and al-Muhandis.
Al-Muhandis is an advisor to Qassem Soleimani, the infamous commander of Iran’s Quds Force who was blamed for many deadly attacks on Americans and is now preparing for a proxy war against the United States. In 1983, as part of the Iranian backed campaign against Saddam Hussein and his allies during the Iran-Iraq war, al-Muhandis allegedly helped bomb the American and French embassies in Kuwait and in 1985 tried to assassinate the emir of that country.
Today, al-Muhandis is the operational commander of Iraq’s Hashd al-Shaabi, also known as the Popular Mobilization Forces, a predominantly Shia, quasi-governmental paramilitary network that formed to fight the so-called Islamic State after the virtual collapse of much of the American-trained Iraqi Army in the summer of 2014.
Al-Muhandis also commands Kata’ib Hizbollah, a Shia militia in Iraq accused of war crimes by Amnesty International, including torturing and murdering Iraqi Sunnis. The group also has killed American and coalition forces in Iraq. In 2015, Kata’ib Hizbollah kidnapped and ransomed 26 members of the Qatari royal family.
Al-Asadi and al-Muhandis may have no financial ties or working relationship, but as the photograph suggests, they travel in the same al-Maliki circles.
Essam al-Asadi’s ties to another terror-linked figure are clearer. Al-Asadi has a business relationship with a banker facing Treasury Department sanctions, Aras Karim Habib, who allegedly helped finance the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps and Lebanon’s Hezbollah. In 2004 the CIA reportedly believed Habib was a paid agent of Iran, working closely with the late financier and politician Ahmed Chalabi to draw the U.S. into Iraq. Habib has denied the charges.
Habib now runs Al-Bilad Islamic Bank, which was sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury in 2018 because of very specific allegations stating “Aras Habib, the Chairman and Chief Executive of Al-Bilad Islamic Bank” had been “assisting, sponsoring, or providing financial, material, or technological support for, or financial or other services to or in support of [Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Quds Force].”
The Treasury Department went on to say that Habib “enabled” the Quds Force’s “exploitation of Iraq’s banking sector to move funds from Tehran to Hizballah, jeopardizing the integrity of the Iraqi financial system. Habib, who has a history of serving as a conduit for financial disbursements from the IRGC-QF to Iranian-backed Iraqi groups, has also helped provide IRGC-QF financial support to Lebanese Hizballah. Al-Bilad Islamic Bank is being designated for being owned or controlled by Aras Habib.”
Put more simply, as one source told us, “His bank served as a big vehicle for facilitating the movement of money to Iran, Lebanon and Syria.”
Previously, Al-Bilad Islamic Bank held shares of Baghdad Soft Drinks Co., Pepsi’s Iraqi affiliate, which is controlled by none other than Essam al-Asadi. Aras Habib served on Baghdad Soft Drinks Co’s board. Al-Asadi’s relationship with Habib was also confirmed by four sources.
Neither Nouri al-Maliki’s office, which was sent questions via the Iraqi Embassy in Washington D.C., or al-Asadi responded to requests for comment about their relationship, business deals or connections to Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis.
SOSi did not respond to questions about its relationship with al-Asadi and al-Maliki.
But despite al-Asadi’s unsavory associations, for SOSi, partnering with him was worth the risk.
In April 2013, al-Asadi’s network hooked SOSi up.
The Iraqi prime minister’s office awarded SOSi an exclusive land use agreement for four Iraqi military bases: Camp Taji, north of Baghdad, Forward Operating Base Hammer in Besmaya, the Umm Qasr Naval Port, and Balad Air Base. This agreement meant only SOSi, and no other contractors, could freely do business on those bases.
The land use agreement was signed by an Iraqi government official who worked closely with a corruption network built up around a business originally known as Afaq Umm Qasr Marine Services Company, but eventually referred to simply as Afaq. The broader network’s leadership includes Essam al-Asadi and al-Maliki, according to four sources.
Afaq developed into a system of shell companies, businessmen and current and former Iraqi government officials associated with al-Maliki and used by his cronies for organized corruption. Afaq companies partner with foreign companies doing business in Iraq and take a share of the profits, allegedly in return for paying off Iraqi politicians. They also obtain exclusive subcontracts to deliver supplies, like fuel and water, from the companies they’re partnering with for extra profit.
During “the Maliki administration [Afaq] was the corporate arm” of the prime minister’s operations center, said a former U.S. government official. Working in Iraq required “some sort of agreement with Afaq,” they said.
SOSi is listed as a partner on the website of Afaq Umm Qasr Marine Services, which also goes by AUMS.
Afaq’s existence and its connections to another military contractor, Sallyport Global Services, were exposed in a Government Accountability Project investigation for The Daily Beast earlier this year. After The Daily Beast published that article, which revealed Sallyport was under federal investigation for alleged payments to Iraqi government officials via a partnership with Afaq, the contractor’s parent company, Caliburn International, canceled a $100 million IPO. Caliburn attributed the cancelled IPO to “variability in equity markets.”
But even before that, Caliburn International’s S-1 filing to the Securities and Exchange Commission in the United States devoted several pages to its problematic relationship with Afaq, noting: “We have voluntarily disclosed to the [Department of Justice] a potential violation of the [Foreign Corrupt Practices Act] and other U.S. laws by Afaq, our former subcontractor, relating to alleged promises made by Afaq to pay Iraqi government officials in exchange for those officials naming Sallyport as a provider of services at the Balad Air Base.”
According to our sources, SOSi’s arrangement with Afaq is similar to that of Sallyport. The network considered itself entitled to a portion of SOSi’s net profits and subcontracts at Iraqi military bases. A detailed investigation of the LinkedIn pages of SOSi and Afaq employees revealed Afaq was working with SOSi at Camp Taji through another Afaq controlled company, Shahed al Sharq. Confidential sources confirmed this is the main business name Afaq is using at Taji.
The Daily Beast obtained Iraqi corporate records which showed Shahed al Sharq is owned by a figure in the Afaq network, who is also a board member of an Afaq bank, the World Islamic Bank, owned by Sami Shannan Zuwaid al-Asadi, an Afaq leader whose history The Daily Beast documented in our Sallyport exposé.
Shahed al Sharq is also registered to the same address as another Afaq company, an entity called Peace Wings for Security Protection and Demining. Peace Wings shares a phone number with Afaq Umm Qasr Marine Services.
A former SOSi employee, speaking of Afaq’s deal with SOSi, notes that, “You don’t get an exclusive contract from the Iraqi government having never done that type of work before because you’re good guys.”
Today, SOSi’s relationship with Afaq at Taji is the subject of FBI inquiries, according to sources who were interviewed about the ties.
Certainly the deal has been lucrative for the company.
In May 2013, SOSi received a contract for security and logistics at Balad Air base from the U.S. Army. SOSi lost that contract after generating $79 million in revenue.
Despite losing Balad, at Taji SOSi was still making money. The company received sole-source contracts for operations that have collectively paid out over $500 million so far. In December 2018, SOSi won a five-year contract renewal valued at over $1.1 billion at the base. Because al-Maliki and Afaq granted SOSi the exclusive land use agreement, no other companies were allowed to compete with SOSi for this massive contract.
Meanwhile, because of the nature of the agreement, SOSi’s profits at Taji aren’t limited to its military contract. Unlike contractors working on Iraqi bases without an agreement with the Iraqi government, SOSi is allowed to restrict other businesses’ access to Taji and charge them rent.
SOSi didn’t respond to any questions about its land use agreement or any contracts or subcontracts with Afaq and its allied operations at Camp Taji or other Iraqi bases.
The Department of Defense is upset with SOSi’s exclusive control at Taji, according to a 2019 letter written by the State Department and obtained by The Daily Beast through an information request.
The letter explains the Department of Defense tried to convince the Iraqi government to allow competition for contracts at Camp Taji. “Embassy Baghdad has continuously and on all occasions declared its support of the Department of Defense request that the exclusive license agreement currently held by SOSi at Camp Taji be rescinded,” said the letter. “All such efforts have been met with resistance from senior [Government of Iraq] leaders.”
Afaq wouldn’t allow the U.S. government to take the contract away from SOSi.
The deal at Taji was just one of several. SOSi’s relationship with Afaq and Essam al-Asadi appears to have started with a deal to distribute fuel to the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad negotiated by Helmick and Setian a month before Helmick officially joined the company.
“Iraq Oil Technology: A new SOSi venture, new partners,” said a December 2012 SOSi tweet.
Iraqi Oil Technology is a subsidiary of a company called Al-Essam United Group, according to an archived copy of Al Essam’s website from 2011. Essam al-Asadi owns Al-Essam United Group.
“Iraq Oil Technology existed long before SOSi decided to do commercial work,” said a former SOSi employee, who confirmed Iraq Oil Technology had been an Al-Essam subsidiary. “Somewhere down the line it became a joint venture,” they said.
Using a pre-existing subsidiary was the “easiest path,” the former employee said, because the company already “had a commercial business license in Iraq.” Al-Essam provided the political connections SOSi needed to move oil within Iraq, said another former SOSi official.
It appears Helmick officially joined the Al-Essam subsidiary. At the time of publication, Helmick’s Twitter biography still listed him as Director of International Operations for Iraq Oil Technology.
“Iraq Oil Technology was dissolved shortly after it was formed and was never active,” said a SOSi spokesperson in part of the company’s statement. “Any published reports to the contrary would be plainly false.”
It’s true Iraq Oil Technology appears to have been short lived. “We didn’t manage to get anything started with them,” said one source involved with the project. “But we understood [SOSi] had strong ties to Iraq.” Sources said the partnership had been created to compete for contracts, including a major contract to supply the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad in 2013, which SOSi failed to win.
In 2013, SOSi was also doing business with the Babylon Hotel, a Baghdad hotel where Essam al-Asadi is chairman, three former SOSi employees said. “Babylon Hotel will be the perfect option for contractor lodging,” Helmick wrote on Twitter in 2013. “Will be available through SOSi.”
In response to questions about the Babylon Hotel, a SOSi spokesperson said the company had never held any direct or indirect “ownership interest” in the hotel. They didn’t address whether the company had a business relationship with the Babylon Hotel.
No specific accusations of corruption were made regarding SOSi’s Babylon Hotel and Iraq Oil Technology deals, but given the situation at Taji and Essam al-Asadi’s connections, these deals raised eyebrows among former SOSi employees. While some of the ties are worse than others, none of them are a good look for a retired American general and an American military contractor.