This post was originally published on the Center for Public Integrity's website, and is re-posted on 'Mercenary Wars' with the Center for Public Integrity's kind permission.
Cozy, Clubby and Covert
A few steps from the rear door of the world famous Harrods department store in central London is the headquarters of an exclusive and shadowy club. There is no nameplate on the undistinguished Victorian dwelling that is home to the Special Forces Club, whose membership is limited to current and former members of the military and intelligence elite from Britain, the United States, and selected allies. First established by the resistance organizers of the British Special Operations Executive (SOE), whose members were charged with "setting Europe alight" in World War II, the club is a second home for aging secret agents, as well as meeting place for members and ex-members of the elite British Special Air Service (SAS) regiment and other special forces and intelligence services. For 40 years, the club in Herbert Crescent has been an epicenter of Britain's thriving mercenary trade. Its rules specifically warn members that journalists are unwelcome, although a selected and sympathetic few have been admitted. Wealth and class can help gain admission, but is neither sufficient nor essential.
Ex-SAS, British secret service, Central Intelligence Agency or U.S. Special Forces visitors who call can, for a moderate price for the district, check in to the Donovan Room, named for "Wild Bill" Donovan, founder of the CIA's predecessor, the Office of Strategic Services. Other club bedrooms are named for European resistance heroes and the obscurely named FANY (the acronym stands for First Aid Nursing Yeomanry), the female equivalent of the SAS. From gaudy modern plaques, awarded by the CIA's Counter-Terrorist Center, past French resistance memorabilia and a portrait of Ronald Reagan's CIA chief Bill Casey, to fading pictures of the wartime founder of the SAS, Col. Sir David Stirling, the halls and walls of the Special Forces Club are hung from floor to ceiling with the history of spooks, sabotage and subversion.
Half a mile away – by Sloane Square, another top-notch London address – are the official bosses of British secret military operations, the Directorate of Special Forces. The directorate offices, at the Duke of York's Headquarters barracks, have organized SAS operations around the world, also utilizing a specialist marine unit, the Special Boat Services, and a small fleet of special operations aircraft and helicopters.
If the modern style of private armies and military forces began anywhere, it began in this tight nexus of southwest London. An international trade in former and temporarily assigned SAS soldiers and officers has been organized from the "Centre Block" of the Duke of York's since the 1960s. In the same corridor as official military commanders are others on the U.K. defense payroll whose job is to organize the supply of SAS-trained soldiers and services to selected overseas clients, notably in the Persian Gulf states.
The two establishments are located close together in London's prestigious and expensive district of Kensington and Chelsea. Scattered within a radius of a mile or two are the offices of major mercenary suppliers, usually trading as security companies or "risk consultants." But they are far enough apart for the British government to be able to operate or sanction a full spectrum of special military operations, from those that can be admitted after the fact to those which have to appear for all time purely as private enterprises.
The shadowy confluence of government, private and intelligence interests in the Kensington and Chelsea area has been in place in Britain since the 1950s, and its history reveals the long relationship between private mercenaries and public institutions.
Origins of the SAS
For many years, Britain's secret network of private armies was linked to the personality and reputation of Stirling, who founded the SAS regiment to conduct behind-the-lines raids in northern Africa in World War II. After the war, the regiment was disbanded, but then reborn after assiduous lobbying by Stirling. The regiment's founder also gathered around him a network of SAS and ex-SAS military operators who would interchangeably work for the government, the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS), more commonly known as MI6, private enterprise, or any combination at once.
Besides the formal, full-time 22 SAS regiment, Britain has also two part-time reserve "territorial" SAS regiments whose members work most of the year in civilian jobs. The regiments, especially the Chelsea-based 21 SAS, have frequently served as a formal and informal recruiting center for mercenary operations, both officially sanctioned (but deniable) and otherwise. Members of the volunteer SAS units are even permitted to join the so-called "R" (reserve) squadron of 22 SAS, and to take part in active military operations while maintaining their civilian jobs.
The overseas trade in hiring SAS or ex-SAS soldiers for military training overseas is, similarly, handled on multiple levels, from overt deployment within training teams through to full-scale covert operations.
From its founding years until the present, the SAS has been committed when "essential British interests" have been held to be at stake. Sometimes the deployments are made overtly, as in 1958 when a squadron was sent to Oman – a move that began an unbroken supply of British Army and SAS officers to run the Sultan's forces. Sometimes, the missions are covert, as in Yemen in September 1962, when Egyptian troops and resources poured in to support an army coup against the royalist government.
The former colonial powers, Britain and France, began a large, long-term covert mercenary operation in Yemen. Israel provided airdrops. Saudi Arabia's defense minister, Prince Sultan, provided finance. Stirling organized operations from his London office at 22 South Audley Street (whose initials happily abbreviated to "22 SAS"), directly assisted by military and SIS officers. The mercenary organization was led by Col. James "Jim" Johnson, formerly the commander of 21 SAS and a wealthy insurance broker. Stirling's enterprises in Yemen operated on several levels – a security guard company, Watchguard; a mercenary operation, KAS ("Kilo Alpha Services," based on the wartime SAS call sign); and a mainly legitimate television company, Television International Enterprises, which helped provide cover by lending its offices for use in operations.
One of the young British SAS officers who took an assignment in Yemen was Capt. Peter de la Billiere, who was to return to the Arabian peninsula 30 years later as commander of British forces in operation Desert Storm. In between, de la Billiere commanded 22 SAS, moving on to become director of SAS.
In his 1994 autobiography, Looking for Trouble, de la Billiere admitted the "SAS mercenary" involvement in Yemen, and even characterized his activities as illegal. He also claimed that his activities were "not sanctioned" by the British government.
However, De la Billiere's contention that the covert operation was not secretly backed by the government is not supported by other sources, including books written by Johnson, the mercenary commander, and Lt. Col. Mike Cooper, a wartime SAS veteran who was de la Billiere's field commander in Yemen. Even as late as 1994, de la Billiere may have been dissembling to preserve the British government's official position that it had not ordered the operation.
Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, the umbilical cord between the official and private worlds of SAS operations was personified by one of Stirling's wartime comrades, Maj. Dare Newell. Newell worked (and lived) in the SAS Chelsea headquarters, organizing the private placement of SAS soldiers. At the same time, he was the secretary of the Special Forces Club.
Three years after the Yemen operation closed in 1967, SAS troops were back in the Gulf supporting and providing security for Sultan Qaboos of Oman after he mounted a coup to depose his father. The bodyguard of troopers who protected him through the coup soon expanded into a five-year secret SIS/SAS operation.
Gradually, the SAS palace guard around the sultan and its role organizing his defense forces became semi-official. SAS and British Army officers were acknowledged as serving postings in the Sultan's Special Forces (SSF). The Sultan's British troops were mercenaries in the normal sense, but clearly of a different order from the forces then familiar in Africa, which were not recognized as having an official role by national governments. The mercenaries waged a war against rebels in Dhofar, Oman. The Dhofar operation involved a continual stream of British Army officers, especially from the SAS, swapping in and out of their British uniforms to take the Sultan's pay and exercise his command.
Twenty-five years later, Tim Spicer, currently Britain's best-known mercenary and the key salesman making the case for legalizing mercenaries, adopted the quasi-official SAS operations in Dhofar as his paradigm when he set up Sandline International. This, Spicer recounted, was his explicit model for the "legitimate" and respectable private military company, the title that is now applied to modern-day mercenary companies. "What I had in mind," he later claimed, "was a commercial way of deploying military skills to help governments in difficulty."
Sandline and the Dhofar campaign were perhaps comparable, but some of the similarities would not live up to the respectable image Spicer wanted to create. Britain's "essential interest" in Oman and the Persian Gulf was the region's oil resources, not in care for the sultan or his people. The SAS's secret war in Dhofar quickly became corrupt as troopers and officers alike made false claims against the sultan's treasury to pay locally enlisted but partly non-existent squads of fighters supporting the sultan.
Meanwhile, in London, Stirling was organizing a mercenary force to attack and assassinate Libya's recently installed ruler, Col. Moammar Gadhafi. The plot was controversial even within Britain's secret world. Senior SIS officials considered the plan so visible and the involvement of Stirling and some of his colleagues so perilously clear that it would not be deniable in London or by government ministers. SIS reached out its hand, and Stirling was stopped. To make sure that the plan was not then revived elsewhere, SIS leaked the details of Stirling's plan to the press.
Stirling's role as the unofficial executive of unofficial military plans waned. He incurred further distrust when, in 1975, he proposed founding a quasi-military organization of British "patriots," which he called GB75. The group was intended to intervene against labor unions in the event of widespread strikes. Despite his controversial reputation, he was knighted for military services in 1990, less than a year before his death.
Privatization and profit
The profit to be taken from military privatization, as it would be called a decade later, was quickly spotted by a new generation of SAS officers, who streamed from public service to set up companies. One of first to privatize from the SAS was Maj. David Walker, who in 1974 joined a new company called Control Risks with three other SAS officers. Backed by money from London insurance brokers, Control Risks pioneered the sale of new insurance policies called "kidnap and ransom" (K&R). Control Risks' sale of K&R policies provided a new revenue stream for mercenaries. They would provide security consulting as a condition of insurance against terrorist or criminal threats. Walker, who had served official postings as a bodyguard and security officer in British embassies in Chile, Colombia and elsewhere in South America, now capitalized on his experience to sell ex-SAS soldiers back to the government as bodyguards in South America and the Middle East.
Control Risks has since evolved into a large and reputable risk assessment consultancy, with about 400 employees around the world and a £34 million (about $53 million) turnover, according to its Web site. Only one of the original SAS founders, Simon Adams-Dale, remains with the company. Another, Arish Turle, left for the U.S. investigative company, Kroll Associates. Both men had formerly been posted to 21 SAS to take part in the Yemen operation.
The SAS campaign in Dhofar ended in 1976. A total of 35 British soldiers and airmen had died, 23 of them officers. The sultan declared Dhofar province "secured for civilian development" and made arrangements for a smaller but still British-led standing army to provide for his security. Walker was poised for more business.
Some of the civilian development was taken on by two new mercenary enterprises, KMS and Saladin Security, which Walker co-founded in 1977 and 1978, respectively. By then, he had already become well known as a mercenary recruiter among London military circles, and as one of the group of operators around the SAS offices in Chelsea.
KMS was originally registered as "Executives International" in the British offshore tax haven of Jersey, allowing it to conceal the identities of its founders and backers. Along with Walker, among them were Johnson, the former SAS commander in Yemen who went on to become a broker for Lloyds of London, and Brigadier Mike Wingate Gray, former director of Special Forces and commander of 22 SAS. A second insurance broker, John Southern of the insurance firm Blackwall Green Ltd., backed them.
KMS's name stood for "Keeni Meeni" Services. According to competing explanations, this SAS term of art was either Arabic slang for undercover operations, or a Swahili description of a snake slithering in the grass.
For the British government, a key advantage of this public/private nexus that operators like Walker represented was deniability. Unlike recent U.S. equivalents, such as Military Professional Resources Incorporated or AirScan Inc., where links to official Washington are admitted or at least impossible to conceal, the real government sponsors of British private armies could seldom be pinned down unless documents leaked or operators talked.
So far as ministers were concerned, formal decisions to openly deploy SAS troops were matters for which they were accountable. But special operations could be set up on many different levels. One level deeper inside the Special Forces "cell" at the Ministry of Defense is a top-secret operation called the "Increment." The Increment was (and is) a selected unit of SAS soldiers, their naval equivalents and dedicated air force helicopters and transport allocated for use by SIS, the British equivalent of the CIA. MI6 undercover intelligence officers do not and never have had the fabled "license to kill" of James Bond mythology. But when such jobs are required, it is the Increment whose rules of engagement may permit the lethal use of firearms.
When a job is too sensitive even to task the Increment, the private army network can be given the job. Nothing should be written down in government records. If need be, SAS officers can be and have been taken off the government payroll, returning later when their job is done. At the far end of the same spectrum are private jobs done purely for commercial masters. But even then, the nature of the network is that SIS and, if appropriate and necessary the CIA, are kept in the picture, according to former intelligence officers. Forums like the Special Forces Club make it easier to keep these links effective yet informal and opaque to later inquiry.
In a 1978 interview, Walker claimed to have no involvement with KMS and Saladin Security except for selling them insurance policies. But he raised no complaint when newspapers reported otherwise. A decade later, the scale and significance of KMS and Walker's mercenary activities was to emerge in the U.S. Congress as a result of the hearings into the Iran-Contra scandal and the activities of Lt. Col. Oliver North, the National Security Council operative responsible for organizing the transfer of funds from illegal Iranian arms sales to support the Nicaraguan rebel army opposing the leftist Sandinista government. Walker and KMS were repeatedly named, and his company was accused of organizing and carrying out active sabotage operations in Nicaragua, destroying army camps, buildings and pipelines.
Testimony and documents recovered by investigators from North's White House office indicated how North first approached Walker in December 1984, to discuss attacking Sandinista air force units. His plan proved too difficult to execute, but Walker took on new assignments, including providing foreign pilots to carry out drops inside Honduras. The purpose of the operation, for which Walker was paid $110,000 on April 20, 1986, reportedly was to provide the U.S. government with deniability if the pilots were captured or killed. Since Walker's proven conduct clearly breached Britain's longstanding but never used anti-mercenary law, the Foreign Enlistment Act of 1870, several members of Parliament called for his prosecution.
The British government, however, ignored the suggestion. KMS's Iran-Contra sabotage operations were only a small part of its business. In the same years as fighting in Nicaragua, KMS teams were operating side by side with the official SAS in providing bodyguards for British embassies and Saudi princes – and, rather more significantly, being paid by the CIA and SIS to train Afghan mujaheedin and other fundamentalist Islamic guerrillas undergoing training in Saudi Arabia and Oman. Teams from the companies of former SAS men, including Saladin, KMS and Defence Systems Ltd, have been hired to guard British embassies and ambassadors in Ireland, the Middle East and South America and even – according to British press reports – to guard U.S. embassies, including in Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
In 1987, the Sri Lankan government admitted that it had hired a 35-strong KMS team of instructors to train a Sri Lankan "Special Task Force" to combat rebel Tamil Tigers. "Unofficial" SAS troops had to be sent because to provide official British SAS support would offend the Indian government, which was sympathetic to the Tamil cause.
Even with the Iran-Contra controversy, the trend was toward further privatization. New ex-SAS enterprises were launched in the 1980s. Two ex-SAS officers, Alastair Morrison and Richard Bethell, founded DSL in 1981. Now U.S.-owned and a part of ArmorGroup Services, it is believed to the largest and most trusted British private military company, with operations supporting mineral and mining companies in over 30 countries.
It was not until the mid 1990s that Tim Spicer joined this complex, multifaceted world, and began the effort to give a respectable face to the dogs of war.
By Duncan Campbell. 30th Oct 2002.
Reprinted by permission from the Center for Public Integrity.