The Nisour Square Massacre occurred on September 16, 2007, when employees of Blackwater Security Consulting (now Academi), a private military company contracted by the US government to provide security services in Iraq, shot at Iraqi civilians, killing 17 and injuring 20 in Nisour Square, Baghdad, while escorting a U.S. embassy convoy. The killings outraged Iraqis and strained relations between Iraq and the United States. In 2014, four Blackwater employees were tried and convicted in U.S. federal court; one of murder, and the other three of manslaughter and firearms charges.
Blackwater guards claimed that the convoy was ambushed and that they fired at the attackers in defense of the convoy. The Iraqi government and Iraqi police investigator Faris Saadi Abdul stated that the killings were unprovoked. The next day, Blackwater Worldwide's license to operate in Iraq was temporarily revoked. The U.S. State Department has said that "innocent life was lost", and according to The Washington Post, a military report appeared to corroborate "the Iraqi government's contention that Blackwater was at fault". The Iraqi government vowed to punish Blackwater. The incident sparked at least five investigations, including one from the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The FBI investigation found that, of the 17 Iraqis killed by the guards, at least 14 were shot without cause.
In December 2008, the U.S. charged five Blackwater guards with 14 counts of manslaughter, 20 counts of attempted manslaughter and a weapons violation but on December 31, 2009, a U.S. district judge dismissed all charges on the grounds that the case against the Blackwater guards had been improperly built on testimony given in exchange for immunity. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki harshly criticized the dismissal. In April 2011, a U.S. federal appeals court reinstated the manslaughter charges against Paul A. Slough, Evan S. Liberty, Dustin L. Heard and Donald W. Ball after closed-door testimony. The court said "We find that the district court's findings depend on an erroneous view of the law," A fifth guard had his charges dismissed, and a sixth guard (Jeremy Ridgeway) pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter and attempted manslaughter. On January 6, 2012, Blackwater settled a lawsuit filed on behalf of six of the victims for an undisclosed sum. On October 22, 2014, a Federal District Court jury convicted Nick Slatten of first-degree murder, and three other guards (Slough, Liberty and Heard) guilty of all three counts of voluntary manslaughter and using a machine gun to commit a violent crime. On April 13, 2015, Slatten was sentenced to life in prison, while the other three guards were sentenced to 30 years in prison.
On August 4, 2017, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit overturned Slatten's murder conviction and ordered the other defendants to be re-sentenced. A new trial was also recommended for Slatten, on the grounds that it was unjustifiable to try him with his co-defendants, and that he should have been tried separately. In December 2018, Slatten was once again convicted by a jury of murder. On August 14, 2019, Slatten was once again sentenced to life in prison.
The Blackwater guards' account of the incident differed from that set forth in an Iraqi government account. The latter claimed that as the convoy drew close to Nisour Square, a Kia sedan with a woman and her grown son in it was approaching the square from a distance, driving slowly on the wrong side of the road, and that the driver ignored a police officer's whistle to clear a path for the convoy. According to this account, the security team fired warning shots and then lethal fire at the Kia. They then set off stun grenades to clear the scene. Iraqi police and Iraqi Army soldiers, mistaking the stun grenades for fragmentation grenades, opened fire at the Blackwater men, to which they responded.
The account by the Blackwater firm stated that the driver of the Kia sedan had kept driving toward the convoy, ignoring verbal orders, hand signals, and water bottles which were thrown at the car, and continued to approach even when fired upon. An Iraqi policeman went over to the car possibly to help the passenger, but the vehicle kept moving and it looked to the guards as if the policeman was pushing it. In their view, this confirmed that they were under attack by a vehicle bomb, whereupon they fired at the car, killing both people in it as well as the Iraqi policeman. In response to the guards' killing of the Iraqi policemen, other Iraqi police officers began to fire at the Blackwater men. They communicated to the State Department operations center that they were under attack. A State Department employee who was walking into the department's Baghdad operations center on the day of the incident heard a radio call from the convoy: "Contact, contact, contact! We are taking fire from insurgents and Iraqi police." According to Blackwater vice-president Marty Strong, the convoy was hit with "a large explosive device" and "repeated small arms fire" which disabled a vehicle. Several sources have stated that the explosion was caused by a mortar round, though this is not reflected in the Department of State incident report. Blackwater has denied Iraqi allegations that one of their helicopters fired from the air during the incident.
A State Department report stated that eight to ten attackers opened fire "from multiple nearby locations, with some aggressors dressed in civilian apparel and others in Iraqi police uniforms". The report said that as the convoy tried to leave, its route was blocked by insurgents armed with machine guns at 12:08 pm. According to another U.S. government report, "The team returned fire to several identified targets" before leaving the area and a second convoy en route to help was "blocked/surrounded by several Iraqi police and Iraqi national guard vehicles and armed personnel". A U.S. Army convoy, possibly the same one delayed by Iraqi forces, arrived approximately a half-hour later, backed by air cover, to escort the convoy back to the Green Zone.
On September 27, 2007, The New York Times reported that during the chaotic incident at Nisour Square, one member of the Blackwater security team continued to fire on civilians, despite urgent cease-fire calls from colleagues. It is unclear whether the team-member mistook the civilians for insurgents. The incident was allegedly resolved only after another Blackwater contractor pointed his weapon at the man still firing and ordered him to stop.
Three Blackwater guards who witnessed the incident said that they believed the shootings were unjustified.
In the immediate aftermath of the attacks, Blackwater's rights to conduct work in Iraq were temporarily suspended. Several Iraqi and American investigations have been or are being conducted into the incident. The incident has caused Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki to call on the U.S. government to end its contract with Blackwater USA, and for the Iraqi government to push for an apology, compensation for victims or their families and for the guards involved in the shooting to be held "accountable". The US House passed a bill that would make all private contractors working in Iraq and other combat zones subject to prosecution by U.S. courts.
On September 18, 2007, an Iraqi Interior Ministry spokesman said Blackwater is "not allowed to operate anywhere in the Republic of Iraq". However, the company was allowed to continue to operate in Iraq until January 2009 when the U.S.–Iraq Status of Forces Agreement took effect. A spokesman stated that the ban would last for the duration of the investigation, and that it would not be permanent. The banning was described by P. W. Singer, an expert on the private military industry, as "inevitable", given the US government's reliance on and lack of oversight of the private military industry in Iraq.
The Private Security Company Association of Iraq, in a document last updated on July 3, 2007, listed Blackwater as not having a license to operate in Iraq despite their attempts to apply for one. Blackwater's operations on behalf of the U.S. Department of State and the CIA may be unaffected by license revocation. Also, it is not clear whether the license revocation is permanent.
On September 19, as a result of the incident, the United States temporarily suspended all land travel by U.S. diplomats and other civilian officials in Iraq outside Baghdad's heavily fortified Green Zone. The order confines most Americans to a 3.5 square miles (9.1 km2) area in the center of the city so that they are unable to visit other areas without traveling in a helicopter. The order did not say when the suspension would expire. On September 21, CNN reported that Blackwater would resume normal operations the following day.
Blackwater, which had been operating in Iraq without an Iraqi government license, applied for one after the incident, but the application was rejected by Iraqi officials in January 2009. The Iraqi government ordered Blackwater to leave Iraq as soon as a joint Iraqi-U.S. committee finished drafting new guidelines on private contractors under the Iraqi-U.S. security agreement. On January 31, 2009, the U.S. State Department notified Blackwater that it would not be renewing its security contract with the company.
The U.S. State Department said it planned to investigate what it called a "terrible incident". According to Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice promised a "fair and transparent" investigation into the incident. The State Department announced an American-Iraqi joint commission to investigate both the shooting and the broader issue of employing private security contractors. The committee was co-chaired by Abd al Qadir, the Iraqi Minister of Defense and Patricia A. Butenis, the Chargé d'affaires of the U.S. Embassy in Iraq.
Henry Waxman, the chair of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, which held hearings on the use of Private Security Contractors in February 2007, said his committee would hold hearings "to understand what has happened and the extent of the damage to U.S. security interests". Waxman stated that "the controversy over Blackwater is an unfortunate demonstration of the perils of excessive reliance on private security contractors."
An Interior Ministry spokesman said Iraqi authorities had completed their investigation into the shooting and concluded that Blackwater guards were responsible for the deaths. U.S. military reports appear to corroborate the Iraqi government's contention that Blackwater was at fault in the incident.
On October 2, 2007, the Democratic staff of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee released a report stating that Blackwater USA guards had used deadly force weekly in Iraq and had inflicted "significant casualties and property damage". The report found that the guards fired their weapons 195 times from the beginning of 2005 through the second week of September 2005. The report further said that Blackwater had reported that its forces fired first in over 80 percent of the cases.
On October 4, 2007, U.S. military reports indicated Blackwater's guards had opened fire without provocation and used excessive force. "It was obviously excessive", a U.S. military official speaking on condition of anonymity told the Washington Post. "The civilians that were fired upon, they didn't have any weapons to fire back at them. And none of the I.P. (Iraqi police) or any of the local security forces fired back at them", the official continued. The Blackwater guards appeared to have fired grenade launchers in addition to machine guns, according to the report.
On October 13, 2007, the FBI reported that it had concluded that at least 14 of the 17 Iraqis who died in the square had been killed without cause. The three justifiable killings were those of the two passengers in the white Kia sedan and an unidentified Iraqi nearby. A Blackwater spokeswoman responded to the findings by saying Blackwater "supports the stringent accountability of the industry. If it is determined that one person was complicit in the wrongdoing, we would support accountability in that. The key people in this have not spoken with investigators."
On January 19, 2008, The New York Times reported that the contractor responsible for many of the deaths in the engagement, previously known only as "turret gunner no. 3", is named Paul Slough. He enlisted in 1999, and served in Bosnia with the 3rd Infantry Division. He received an honorable discharge in 2002 and then enlisted in the Texas National Guard. He served one tour in Iraq before being hired as a Personal Security Specialist in Iraq. Nothing in the New York Times report suggested a history of irresponsible or "cowboy-like" behavior.
Radio logs released in December 2008 seemed to affirm that the guards had been responding to an attack on September 16. The logs depicted "a hectic eight minutes in which the guards repeatedly reported incoming gunfire from insurgents and Iraqi police".
On April 1, 2009, the Associated Press reported that forensic tests on bullets were inconclusive. None of the bullets the lab had available could be matched to the rifles used by the guards.
On April 1, 2011, the Associated Press reported on Erik Prince's seven-hour testimony about what allegedly transpired. Prince strongly criticized the way in which federal authorities had handled the investigation and disputed the claims that U.S. or Blackwater personnel were to blame for the shootings. In his testimony, Prince noted that, "It seems the ballistics analysis was done to prove the guilt of the Americans, not to just try to identify what happened there." Erik Prince said that he didn't believe the FBI had fully investigated the sources of all the used bullets in Nisour Square, arguing that it would have been helpful if the defense had been in possession of a complete ballistics report. FBI scientists couldn't match bullets from the square to guns carried by the Blackwater guards and FBI investigators found foreign cartridge cases of a kind not used by U.S. or Blackwater personnel. As shootings in the square were not uncommon, it is unclear whether the shells were from the shooting in question or from other incidents.
In October 2007, the United Nations released a two-year study that stated that private contractors, although hired as "security guards", were performing military duties. The report found that the use of contractors such as Blackwater was a "new form of mercenary activity" and illegal under international law; however, the United States is not a signatory of the 1989 UN Mercenary Convention banning the use of mercenaries. Nor is the US a signatory of the 1977 additional protocol to the 1949 Geneva Conventions in which Article 47 specifies that mercenaries are civilians who "take a direct part in the hostilities" and are "motivated to take part in the hostilities essentially by the desire for private gain". (The Protocol makes no distinction between defensive and offensive actions, but the U.S. does make such a distinction, in that it does not regard defensive actions by security guards to be combat)
Baghdad resident Halim Mashkoor told AP Television News, "We see the security firms ... doing whatever they want in the streets. They beat citizens and scorn them. ... [I]f such a thing happened in America or Britain, would the American president or American citizens accept it?" Hasan Jaber Salman, a lawyer who was one of the wounded, said that "no one did anything to provoke Blackwater" and that "as we turned back they opened fire at all cars from behind" An Iraqi police officer who was directing traffic at the scene said Blackwater guards "became the terrorists" when they opened fire on civilians unprovoked, while a businessman said he wasn't seeking compensation but only "the truth" from the guards. After a group of Iraqi ministers backed the Iraqi Interior Ministry's decision to shut down Blackwater USA's operations in Iraq, Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki called on the U.S. government to end its contract with Blackwater and called on Blackwater to pay the families $8 million in compensation.
A U.S. judge's decision to dismiss all charges against Blackwater on January 1, 2010, sparked outrage in the Arab world.
On September 24, 2007, the Iraqi Ministry of the Interior announced it would file criminal charges against the Blackwater staff involved in the shooting, although it is unclear how some of them will be brought to trial. A senior aide to al-Maliki said that three of the Blackwater guards were Iraqis and could be subject to prosecution. The aide also said that the Iraqi government was pushing for an apology, compensation for victims or their families and for the guards involved in the shooting to be held "accountable".
US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates testified before Congress that the Pentagon has sufficient legal authority to control its contractors, but that commanders lack sufficient "means and resources" to exercise adequate oversight.
On October 4, 2007, the U.S. House passed a bill that would make all private contractors working in Iraq and other combat zones subject to the Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act and thus prosecution by U.S. courts. Senate Democratic leaders have said they plan to pass similar legislation as soon as possible.
On December 31, 2009, a U.S. district judge dismissed all the manslaughter charges because the case against the Blackwater guards had been improperly built on testimony given in exchange for immunity.
On October 11, 2007, the Center for Constitutional Rights filed suit against Blackwater USA under the Alien Tort Claims Act on behalf of an injured Iraqi and the families of three of the seventeen Iraqis who were killed by Blackwater employees during the September 16, 2007, shooting incident.
Richard J. Griffin, the Assistant Secretary of State for Diplomatic Security, who made key decisions regarding the department's oversight of private security contractor Blackwater USA, resigned in November 2007, after a critical review by the House Oversight Committee found that his office had failed to adequately supervise private contractors during the Blackwater Baghdad shootings. Howard Krongard, who was appointed Inspector General of the U.S. State Department in 2005, resigned in December 2007 after he was accused by the House Oversight Committee of improperly interfering with investigations into the Blackwater Baghdad shootings.
In December 2008, the United States Department of Justice announced it was filing complaints against five of the Blackwater employees, and ordered them to surrender to the FBI. Charged with manslaughter were Donald Ball, a former Marine from West Valley City, Utah; Dustin Heard, a former Marine from Knoxville, Tennessee; Evan Liberty, a former Marine from Rochester, New Hampshire; Nick Slatten, a former army sergeant from Sparta, Tennessee, and Paul Slough, an army veteran from Keller, Texas. A sixth Blackwater guard, Jeremy Ridgeway of California, struck a deal with prosecutors and pleaded guilty to one count each of manslaughter, attempted manslaughter, and aiding and abetting.
The trial was set for early 2010, but the charges were dismissed by District Judge Ricardo Urbina, who ruled that the Justice Department had mishandled evidence and violated the guards' constitutional rights. The disputed evidence included statements the guards were compelled to give to State Department investigators. As these statements would have been self-incriminating, they could not be used as evidence under the Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution. "Prosecutors should therefore have built their case against the men without them", a BBC report explained. The district court found the government had mishandled the case by using tainted statements the guards provided in the initial investigation. The official court document explained, "the government failed to establish that the Iraqi witnesses it presented to the second grand jury were not in any way influenced by their previous exposure to the defendants' compelled statements. This evidentiary use of tainted information constitutes yet another Kastigar violation."
On April 22, 2011, a federal appeals-court panel revived the Justice Department's prosecution of the former Blackwater Worldwide guards accused. A three-judge panel of the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit found "systemic" errors in the district court's 2009 decision to dismiss charges against the five former Blackwater guards. On June 5, 2012, the US Supreme Court declined to review the Appeal Court ruling, allowing the trial to proceed.
In 2013, the charges against Ball were dropped. The other four went to trial in 2014. The jury found Slatten guilty of first-degree murder, and the other three guards (Slough, Liberty and Heard) guilty of at least three counts of voluntary manslaughter and using a machine gun to commit a violent crime. Jurors sided with prosecutors' contention that the shooting was a criminal act, not a battlefield encounter gone wrong. Slatten faced a potential sentence of life in prison. The other three guards faced decades in prison; the weapons charges carried a minimum 30-year sentence under a law enacted during the 1990s cocaine epidemic. The weapons charges were a bone of contention in the Justice Department, which initially opposed including them in the indictment. When it was ultimately added, defense attorneys contended a 30-year sentence would be too severe, since the law was intended to deter gang members from carrying automatic weapons.
On April 13, 2015, federal district judge Royce C. Lamberth sentenced Slatten to life in prison and the other three guards to 30 years each. On August 4, 2017, the sentences for Heard, Liberty, and Slough were overturned and they were re-sentenced to time already served. Slatten was also ordered to at best undergo a re-trial on grounds that he should have had a separate trial. The United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit's fractured per curiam decision first found that Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act authorized the prosecutions, over the partial dissent of Judge Janice Rogers Brown. However, the court then found that the mandatory minimum sentences as applied to the defendants were unconstitutional cruel and unusual punishments, over the partial dissent of Judge Judith W. Rogers.