By Jacqueline Charles
He really doesn’t know what he was doing in Haiti. He was told it was to evacuate rich Haitians amid a popular revolt, but it could have also been to provide personal protection to a Haitian businessman who claimed to be doing business with the country’s Central Bank.
But one thing Christopher Osman, an ex-Navy SEAL arrested in Haiti along with four other Americans, two Serbians and their Haitian driver, says he knows: It was not to assassinate the country’s recently ousted prime minister.
“We’re not mercenaries. We’re not murderers. We’re just doing security work,” Osman, 44, told the Miami Herald.
In the ever-evolving mystery of what a disparate group of ex-soldiers and security contractors were doing in Haiti last month as the country disintegrated into violence amid paralyzing protests, Osman is breaking his silence. He says he wants to set the record straight about the distorted narrative that is emerging.
“I don’t do work that is being described in these articles,” Osman said. “All of these stories that we were there to rob the bank is 100 percent lies.
“From the time we landed, to today…we were always told that we were there working on behalf of the Haitian government and people that were close to the president,” he said.
The group’s arrest — and subsequent release and return to the U.S. — in mid February continues to roil Haiti, where opposition senators this week accused colleagues in the Lower Chamber of Deputies of firing the prime minister, Jean Henry Céant, in order to prevent them from finding out the truth about why the seven foreigners were driving around Port-au-Prince in two unmarked vehicles with a cache of semi-automatic weapons, knives, drones and satellite phones.
Senators had invited Céant and Justice Minister Jean Roody Aly to attend a Monday hearing to answer questions about why the men were in the country, who hired them and who authorized Aly to have them transferred to U.S. custody, where they were then flown out of Haiti like visiting tourists. But before Céant could tell his side of the events, he was fired.
On Thursday, after protesting the decision and calling it illegal, Céant gave his resignation to President Jovenel Moïse, who earlier had named communications minister Jean Michel Lapin as acting prime minister until a new one is chosen. But the night before, Osman decided to break his silence. He was upset by reports that painted him and the others as potential bank robbers.
Upon the group’s return to Miami International Airport, Osman said, they were briefed by both the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI. They weren’t charged, he said, because “we did nothing wrong and there was nothing to charge us for.”
Osman says he had been recruited by a Dallas security contractor, Hawkstorm Global, to evacuate wealthy Haitians in the midst of the chaos in the capital. But after arriving in Port-au-Prince, he said, he was told the job was to provide personal protection to a Haitian businessman who was signing a multi-million dollar bank contract. Hawkstorm Global did not respond to the Herald’s request for comment.
“We literally were there on a legal contract with… the Haitian government to provide security. When we got detained without charges, the U.S. Embassy stepped in and got us out of there thankfully and we got back and we were interviewed by special investigators,” he added. “They were like, ‘Hey man, sounds like you guys really got screwed, and from what we understand, you guys got caught in a political mess.’ They handed us back our passports and we literally walked out onto the street from the Miami airport and jumped on a bus to our hotel.”
Called “mercenaries” and “terrorists,” by Céant and Haitian opposition lawmakers, the men have been accused of a political assassination plot and trying to pull off an $80 million electronic bank heist on behalf of the president, Moïse.
That theory was most recently floated in a story by The Intercept, an online news site. But it’s nonsense, Osman said. He accuses a never before mentioned member of the team — a sixth American, Mike Phillips — of being the source of the story.A former Navy SEAL, Phillips abandoned the men and fled to the U.S. via the Dominican Republic, Osman said, after they were stopped by Haiti National Police at 2 p.m. on Feb. 17, a Sunday, about a block from the Central Bank.
“He was our team leader,” Osman said of Phillips, whom he described as a retired Virginia police officer and former Navy SEAL lieutenant commander who also was the person who recruited the two Serbians for the Haiti mission.
Phillips did not return phone calls from the Herald.
The first of the men to give an on-the-record interview, Osman first went public about the clandestine mission in a now-deleted post on his Instagram page shortly after the U.S. State Department secured the group’s release.
In the post, which only added to the murky mystery, Osman wrote that he was working for “people who are directly connected to the current [Haitian] President” and that he and his teammates had not been released but in fact “rescued.”
“We are being used as pawns in a public fight between him and the current Prime Minister of Haiti,” Osman said, referring to Céant.
In the interview with the Herald, Osman said there was talk about the group’s meeting with President Moïse but it never materialized. He confirmed reports that individuals close to the president, including an adviser and the justice minister, did attempt to secure their release from Haitian police custody.
At the center of the intrigue is the Central Bank, the equivalent to the U.S. federal reserve. Osman said he was told after landing in Haiti that they would be escorting a Haitian businessman, Josue “Josh” Leconte, to the bank that Monday to sign a multimillion dollar deal.
Leconte, a U.S. citizen, heads a civil engineering firm in Haiti, Preble-Rish Haiti, which soondeleted its “About Us” page after the men’s arrest. Leconte’s partner in the alleged bank contract, Osman said, was another team member, Dustin Porte of Patriot Group Services, a Louisiana-based contractor.
“They needed security to go to the bank because of all of the riots,” Osman said, noting that their role was to stand in a conference room and protect Leconte while he signed “a contract for funds for infrastructure.
“This is a bank they had been going to for six-and-a-half years. Patriot Group Services had had contracts with that bank for over six years. Dustin and Josh had been in and out of Haiti for over six years.”
Osman claims that Porte is the one who actually had the physical contract, “a signed agreement with the people of Haiti, the Haitian government. And when we were locked up in the jail, the gentleman from the State Department was talking to us and said, ‘Hey man, we’re trying to sort this out.’ I even said, ‘Dustin why don’t you give them a copy of the contract?’ “
“He gave the State Department his business partner’s number back in the United States to email the State Department a copy of the security contract, which is between Patriot Group Services and the Haitian government,” Osman said. But exactly who in the Haitian government, which is run by the prime minister, signed the contract? Osman said only Leconte and Porte would know.
Neither man could be reached for comment. The U.S. State Department declined to comment.