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Blackwater in Nisour Square: The Incident that brought Private Security Companies into the Global Spotlight

After a shooting incident in Nisour Square left 17 Iraqi citizens dead, allegedly at the hands of four Blackwater guards, intensive government investigations, private security reform, and criminal charges ensued. In 2014, an American jury found the Blackwater guards guilty of various criminal charges, from murder to weapons offences. In response to widespread public backlash resulting from the incident, Blackwater changed its name twice, changed management, and changed ownership hands.

Keywords: armed conflict, weapons, poor training


In 2002, U.S. president George W. Bush argued that the vulnerability of the United States following the September 11 attacks, in addition to Iraq’s alleged possession of weapons of mass destruction and support for terrorist groups, made disarming Iraq a national priority. Believing that Iraq continued to hinder UN inspections, President Bush issued an ultimatum to Saddam Hussein, giving Hussein 48 hours to leave Iraq.

When Hussein refused to leave Iraq, the United States launched an attack in March 2003, starting their military operation in Iraq. By May 2003, the Iraqi Army and intelligence services were disbanded.

During the Iraq War, tens of thousands of private security personnel carried out military functions on the ground. These services include protection of key facilities, protection for key leaders and individuals, and convoy escort, a particularly dangerous task given the prevalence of insurgents using roadside ambushes to attack.

Generally, contractors had a poor reputation in Iraq, with locals viewing them as aggressive, disrespectful, and unjustifiably violent. Contractors have used practices like driving convoys on the wrong side of the road, ramming civilian vehicles, and firing weapons as warnings.

Around 1,000 Blackwater contractors were used to guard diplomats in Iraq, amongst other tasks. A 2007 congressional report alleged that Blackwater was

involved in at least 195 shooting incidents in Iraq since 2003. Another report by the staff of committee chair, Representative Henry Waxman, alleged that in most instances, Blackwater fired first. Further, in 80% of the escalation of force incidents, Blackwater’s own reports document either casualties or property damage.

Four Blackwater security guards were killed in an ambush in Fallujah in 2004. In a civil wrongful death lawsuit filed by a relative of one of four men killed, it was alleged that the employees were sent on the mission without the proper equipment, training, or preparation. The day before the four contractors were killed, a Blackwater employee sent an email to supervisors, alerting them about the lack of general and safety equipment. The contract called for at least six men in armoured vehicles and time for a route risk assessment and planning, however, Blackwater rushed together the team of men who had never trained together. Blackwater and the family members settled the lawsuit in 2012.

The incident

On September 16, 2007, armed American trucks entered Nisour Square in Baghdad, Iraq. The Blackwater security guards, known as team Raven 23, were escorting a U.S. State Department convoy through Nisour Square. According to the Blackwater contractors, insurgents then ambushed the security guards, and the security guards believed that had come under fire by insurgents. Blackwater security personnel shot and killed 17 Iraqi citizens and wounded many others.  During the 20-minute gunfight, Iraqi police and army forces stationed in watchtowers also began firing.

Legal Aspects

Court cases

The United States, through the Coalition Provisional Authority, had granted immunity from the Iraqi legal system to its military personnel and government contractors in Iraq, therefore the Blackwater contractors could not be prosecuted in Iraq.

In 2009, a judge threw out all of the charges related to the incident, citing “reckless” government behaviour. The indictment was dismissed because the prosecutors improperly relied on defendants´ compelled statements, which would have violated their constitutional rights, according to District Court Judge Ricardo M. Urbina.

In 2011, the District of Columbia Circuit Court of Appeals revived the litigation, holding that Judge Urbina misinterpreted the law.

Blackwater was legally and contractually bound to only engage in defensive uses of force to prevent “imminent and grave danger” to themselves or others.”

Ultimately, the case hinged on whether or not the defendants’ belief that they were under attack could be justified by limited evidence apparent to them at the time. Legally, their belief needed to be “reasonable” based on the circumstances. The jurors considered large amounts of evidence, including the act that other Blackwater employees had been hit by a roadside bomb elsewhere in the city the same day, and the fact that the vehicle occupants, a medical student and his mother, were shot and killed, so the car rolled forward automatically with no foot on the brake.  Other relevant evidence included the fact that the Blackwater armoured vehicles appeared to have been damaged, but the victims appeared to be shot in the back while trying to flee the scene.

In 2014, four former Blackwater guards were convicted of different charges, including murder, manslaughter, and various weapons charges in relation to the Nisour Square incident. The guards were then immediately jailed.

The International Code of Conduct

The International Code of Conduct Preamble recognises that Private Security Companies and other” play “an important role in protecting state and non-state clients engaged in relief, recovery, and reconstruction efforts, commercial business operations, diplomacy and military activity. In providing these services, the activities of PSCs can have potentially positive and negative consequences for their clients, the local population in the area of operation, the general security environment, the enjoyment of human rights and the rule of law.”

In situations of armed conflicts, Member and Affiliate Companies must comply with International Humanitarian Law (paragraph 21).

The Code requires that Personnel of Member and Affiliate companies take all reasonable steps to avoid the use of force, and if force is used, it should be proportionate to the threat and appropriate to the situation. (Rules on the Use of Force : paragraph 29, Use of Force : paragraph 30-32).

Resources on Use of Force

Further, the International Code of Conduct requires stringent selection and vetting of personnel, assessment of performance and duties, and training of personnel of the Code and relevant international law, including human rights and international criminal law.

Meeting the requirements of the Code of Conduct, can help private security companies and their clients ensure that private security personnel are qualified, trained, supported, informed, and responsible.

See also: The Montreux Document On pertinent international legal obligations and good practices for States related to operations of private military and security companies during armed conflict


Public Relations

After the public outcry, lawsuits, and investigations over the Nisour Square incident, Blackwater Worldwide rebranded by changing its name to “Xe” in 2009. Additionally, Blackwater Lodge and Training Center, the subsidiary that conducts much of the company’s domestic training, changed its name to U.S. Training Center Inc.

In 2009, it came to light that top Blackwater executives allegedly authorised about $1 million in payments to Iraqi officials to buy support and silence criticism of the firm.

In 2010, Eric Prince, the founder of Blackwater, reached a deal to sell the company to USTC Holdings. Under the agreement, Prince sold his state in the company, and Prince would no longer be involved in the management or operation of the company.

In 2011, Blackwater changed its name again, from Xe to Academi. The company’s president, Ted Wright, stated that the rebranding reflected the changes made in the company, including a “refocused strategy on training and security services.”


Immediately after the Nisour Square incident, United States Secretary of Defense Robert Gates pressed all commanders to investigate and pursue any potential wrongdoing from the incident.

The State Department initiated oversight measures, including requiring cameras in PSC vehicles, recording transmission, and embedding State Department personnel with personal security details.

In 2009, Iraqi government leaders did not renew Blackwater’s licence to operate in Iraq, and the State Department also did not renew their contract with Blackwater to protect diplomats.

Settlements and Fines

Blackwater reached a settlement with the State Department in August 2010, agreeing to pay $42 million in fines over hundreds of violations of U.S. export control regulations.

The alleged violations included providing sniper training for Taiwanese police officers and illegal weapons exports to Afghanistan.


What were the immediate and long term impacts of the Nissour Square massacre?

How can training and vetting of security personnel prevent situations where use of force was unnecessary?

Related incidents




Case prepared by Madison Zeeman


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