Monday, April 07, 2008
When Lt-Colonel Tim Spicer returned from Papua New Guinea the links between resource companies and mercenaries had been firmly established. While corporate identities remained visibly separate, the optics did not disguise the reality: the companies were woven together, both in operations and personnel. Executive Outcomes, Heritage Oil, Branch Energy, Sandline and DiamondWorks were not just linked, but sharing the same personnel and being operated by the same people, often working towards the same end - resource concessions.
It's worth taking a step back in the timeline for a moment to look at a small coincidence. Take a look at this archived Executive Outcomes website. Note the company logo: a chesspiece known as a "knight". Now take a look at this YouTube video of a 1957 television series. Notice anything?
Have gun - Will travel.
Regardless of the intention, the message is there. It was that kind of message that modern mercenaries were trying to camouflage. They were looking for some degree of legitimacy (and work) without diluting their brand. If they went too far down the "consultancy" road they would be viewed as little more than security guards relying on outside political support from western governments to prop up their activities. That would shrink their client base. If they went the other way, down the blatant "army for hire" path, they would be characterized with the likes of Bob Denard and Mad Mike Hoare who had ravaged Africa in the four decades following the 2nd World War.
Although Spicer denies it was ever discussed between himself, Buckingham and Mann, the emergence of Sandline also saw the injection of new language describing mercenary groups - Private Military Companies (PMCs).
When Spicer was released after the Papua New Guinea fiasco Buckingham and Mann went into a mode not before seen in the mercenary world - they engaged a PR firm started to spin the whole story. It was damage control which would have been unnecessary in the world of Denard and Hoare. The older mercenaries didn't worry about how the world viewed them beyond the ability to acquire clients. The newer breed was worried about their public image.
The latter reflects two things:
The new mercenaries were actually the owners of "legitimate" resource companies. They were a part of a diverse corporate enterprise. Secondly, they had become sophisticated with a clear knowledge of the necessity to keep their brand clean without scaring away their customer-base. They were utilizing 5th Avenue marketing in the same manner as a major consumer brand and for exactly the same reasons - spin the "bad" part of the brand until it disappears; pump the "good" part of the brand into public view. Thus, Sandline, with Spicer, Buckingham, Mann, Barlow and others appeared at several conferences and meetings as representatives of a PMC which declared that they possessed a strong corporate sense of morality. They actually helped countries.
What they were looking for was solid international approval of their activities. The PNG fiasco had taught them that without a greater level of international support they could not operate out in the open. Australia played a major role in bringing the PNG/Bougainville mission to a failed end. Britain, although it remained silent, provided no support, moral or otherwise. And without a more legitimized private army the resource companies would be unable to lock down the concessions their private armies won for them.
On the 25th of May, 1997, Sierra Leone Major General Paul Koroma overthrew the democratically elected government of Sierra Leone, led by Ahmed Tejan Kabbah, and established a military government from the so-called Armed Forces Revolutionary Council. The Kabbah government had been in power for a little more than a year after the previous military junta had restored the country's constitution and re-established democratic government. The military junta which had restored Sierra Leone's democracy had themselves ousted Valentine Strasser who had himself come to power through a coup in 1992.
It was Strasser with whom Tony Buckingham's Executive Outcomes and Branch Energy had, in 1995, worked a lucrative deal for diamond concessions in exchange for ridding the country of the rebel Revolutionary United Front (RUF).
Koroma established a brutal rule and invited the RUF to join his government. The UN, backed solidly by the British government of Tony Blair, called for the immediate restoration of Kabbah. In the offices of Plaza 107, Tony Buckingham must have blanched. His diamond concessions would surely be in jeopardy with the RUF, which he had pushed to the country's borders only two years before, in the halls of Sierra Leone power.
The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) maintained in Sierra Leone, through their military arm the Economic Community of West Africa Monitoring Group (ECOMOG), a force made up of primarily Nigerian army troops. While many were taken prisoner during the coup, the Nigerians managed to maintain control of their barracks and the Freetown airport, just outside the city.
The staff at Plaza 107 had been hard at work. In the small world of diamond mining they had secured possible financing for a venture to oust Koroma and restore Kabbah's presidency. A meeting was organized in Guinea, just east of Sierra Leone, between Kabbah (now in exile), Nigerian army officials and Sandline. Looking on was the British High Commissioner, Peter Penfold.
Spicer's Sandline offered, in breach of a British-procured UN arms embargo, to enter Sierra Leone as an active participant. They would provide in-country airlift in the form of helicopters to ECOMOG and, in complete breach of the UN embargo, 36 tons of Bulgarian-made assault rifles, mortars and ammunition to the Kabbah loyal Kamajor tribesmen, a virulently anti-RUF group.
The mission was self-financing. Sandline had secured the financing of Vancouver Canada based Rakesh Saxena who, in return for lucrative mineral concessions in Sierra Leone would provide $10 million in support of the mission.
Saxena was anything but a legitimate businessman. The government of Thailand accused him, along with two accomplices, (the bank's then-president and chairman Krirk-kiat Jalichandra and the world's most notorious arms dealer, Adnan Khashoggi), of embezzling $2.2 billion from the Bangkok Bank of Thailand, an event which led to the collapse of the bank. He was finally arrested in Whistler, British Columbia in July 1997, just after the deal with Sandline had been established.
But Saxena wasn't even legal in Canada. In November 2003 he had been ordered deported and had been fighting that order ever since. His arrest in 1997 led to house-arrest which was converted to jail after he is alleged to have threatened a witness and to obtain a false passport.
[There is a side twist to Saxena's involvement with Sandline. In 2001 Global Securities, a Vancouver-based brokerage firm, launched a lawsuit against West Vancouver-Sunshine Coast member of parliament John Reynolds, then number two man in the Alliance Party of Canada. The claim was that he had left a $484,000 debit with the brokerage after becoming a director in Saxena's WaveTech Networks Inc. By the time the Reynolds had become involved with Saxena's business activities, Saxena had been the subject of the longest extradition hearing in Canadian history and had been publicly involved in an attempt to employ mercenaries to violate a United Nations arms embargo. Reynolds is not connected in any way with Sandline's activities but the relationship, business or otherwise, with Saxena should serve to raise a question of judgment.]
With the backing of Saxena, Spicer went into action. The payoff would be further diamond mining concessions. At the time there did not seem to be anything in the way of British government involvement. What transpired, however, would change that view.
The British High Commissioner, Peter Penfold, was certainly aware of Sandline's intentions. While there is some dispute as to whether aiding ECOMOG was in violation of the UN embargo against weapons shipments and brokerage, there is no question that the arming of irregular forces, the Kamajor, was a flagrant violation. There was also a reluctance deep inside Whitehall to allow Kabbah to be returned solely through the actions of the Nigerians. By injecting another armed element Kabbah would not become beholden to Nigeria for the restoration of the democracy. Another level of awareness started to dawn on the British: If Sandline and the Kamajor retook Freetown successfully defeating Koroma and the RUF the after-effects would likely be a crackdown on Koroma's supporters ending in a bloodbath. The UN weapons embargo had been generated for the very purpose of keeping the Kamajor unarmed in the first place.
In an event which can only be described as odd, without orders from ECOMOG or the UN, the Nigerians left their barracks and, after a week's fighting, retook Freetown in February 1998. They had pre-empted the arrival of the Bulgarian arms by a few days. When the shipment arrived, they impounded it.
Saxena, true to form, had failed to provide the $10 million. His total contribution was $1.2 million. The whole affair might have stayed off the front pages of the world's major newspapers if a photographer, on March 1st, 1998, hadn't captured something significant.
On 10 May 1998 the world woke up to a Sunday Times front page which put question to British government involvement in Sandline's operation. They were treated to a picture of Sandline's Russian-built MI-17 military helicopter being serviced by Royal Navy aviation technicians from HMS Cornwall - alongside in Freetown, Sierra Leone.
While Cornwall's mission was probably exactly what the Blair government said it was, (humanitarian assistance post-action), the photograph set off a public firestorm. There is the further question of Cornwall's ability to be so close to Freetown as the Nigerians were securing the city. It just happened to be there. Why? The British government must have been aware of events to have positioned a frigate off the west coast of Africa, close enough to Freetown to arrive within a day of the Nigerian retaking of the city.
In the end, Spicer argued that he was acting with both UK and US government approval. The US denied knowledge and the British government pointed fingers at senior civil servants who had failed to inform the minister. Peter Penfold, the British High Commissioner who clearly did know what Sandline was up to, and approved, was held responsible. He was laterally transfered out of his post. A slap on the wrist for being party to a flagrant violation of international convention.
Inquiries were held. The Blair government was in crisis over the whole affair. Papua New Guinea was moved back into the spotlight. And at at the end of it all, Sandline was declared to have operated on their own recognizance neither with nor without British government approval. The British government took a small amount of responsibility for not having explicitly warning Spicer away from Sierra Leone.
Sierra Leone, despite the inquiries and studies and finger pointing, was a shambles. Kabbah had sworn that he was going to do something about the mineral leases to foreign owners and either buy them back or outright nullify them if he was returned to power. However, his promise never came to pass. What did happen is that the Kamajor tribesmen, whose Sandline-supplied weapons had been intercepted by the Nigerian army, eventually ended up assisting the Nigerians and were given the weapons originally intended for them. Kabbah's promise to clean up the operation of the diamond concessions would have prompted an even more violent situation - and Sandline had an interest which needed to be protected.
Something happened behind the close doors of Plaza 107. After the "Arms to Africa" affair, the reputation of Sandline, despite a concerted PR effort, simply tanked. Spicer, who despises being called a mercenary, found himself outside the boundaries of respectable Private Military Company. Buckingham, Mann and Barlow had also been dragged into the whole thing. So, in 1999, Spicer, in an attempt to re-establish a public image as something other than a country-killing mercenary, left Sandline.
With Spicer gone the Sandline operation spent a lot of time trying to rebuild a reputation. Spicer himself was determined to take the modern mercenary to a respectable level and gain government and international approval for private armies. He set out as a military and security consultant, establishing two companies which quickly ran into trouble with the British government. Not for his activities, but for failing to meet corporate administrative requirements. He had some successes in the security survey field and took some credit, (although it was overblown), for increasing Sri Lanka port security. Just as often however, he was criticized for providing information that was substantively incorrect. In the case of Sri Lanka, he took credit for stabilizing the security situation enough to have Lloyd's announce the lifting of the "War Risk Surcharge" on vessels trading in Sri Lanka. What Spicer never mentioned in his final report was that a ceasefire between the Tamil Tigers and the Colombo, Sri Lanka government had been achieved by a Norwegian effort which had brought the eight-year conflict to a halt.
Spicer was firm in his statements that "PMCs" only worked for legitimate governments. A sort of force multiplier and consultant to under-staffed and poorly trained national armed forces. He even went so far as to state that such companies, at least the transparent ones, would refuse to work for an insurgent rebel cause no matter how right they may be.
That position apparently changed. In 2001 he said that his company "would look carefully on a case-by-case basis at working for liberation movements in overseas countries."
He tried to relate his apparent conflict with previous statements by suggesting that the international community would have no trouble with a mercenary force assisting a resistance movement attempting to overthrow Saddam Hussein in Iraq or the Taliban in Afghanistan.
Spicer was reading the wind. He had declared himself to exist at the "respectable end of the spectrum". Despite all of that, Spicer's companies failed in quick succession, either because they were afoul of Britain's corporate regulations or because they simply could not acquire enough business.
As his other companies nose-dived into the dirt, Spicer set up Aegis Defence Services. It was around the time George Bush and Tony Blair decided to invade Iraq.
After Bush had declared the end of major combat operations in Iraq, Tony Blair is said to have complained that British companies were not getting their share of contracts awarded for Iraqi reconstruction. It was shortly after that that Spicer's Aegis Defence Services won a $293 million, three year prime contract to provide security support to the US Department of Defense Project and Contracting Office in Iraq.
Spicer had achieved the legitimacy he was looking for. His mercenary company was working for a western government albeit in an area and a war which has turned the world against the very government which employs him. Far from being the solution to any problem, his company has become a problem. When trophy videos appeared showing his personnel shooting vehicles as they traveled Route Irish in Baghdad serious questions were raised about the conduct of all mercenary companies performing in Iraq.
What became very clear however, is that the mercenaries, despite their claim to legitimacy and moral foundation had not changed. They still had few, if any, rules of engagement and they still worked for foreign governments. Spicer's Aegis is a British group working for an American government in a place where the Iraqi government has little authority over them.
While we have skipped ahead to illustrate the culmination of Spicer's attempts to spin a new definition around mercenaries, he remains a mercenary. While he was being granted his lucrative US government contract Buckingham, Mann and Barlow were still busy. Sandline eventually closed up shop, their reputation destroyed and governments, particularly the British government, unwilling to engage them.
Mann, sometimes described as a romantic adventurer, had been operating behind the scenes. While many thought he had given up the life of a mercenary, that wasn't quite the case. He left the UK in 1999 and moved to South Africa. Having acquired a fortune from his holdings in DiamondWorks and Branch energy, he is reported to have earned $10 million when those companies were floated on the Toronto Stock Exchange.
Mann purchased Villa Musica in the exclusive Cape Town suburb of Constantia. After moving in he set up a new company - Logo Logistics - a mercenary support operation specializing in air movement.
In 1999 Simon Mann met the former prime minister of the United Kingdom, Margaret Thatcher, by the pool of her son's house. It was early and Mann was dressed rather grubbily. Thatcher, who did not approve of Mann's slovenly appearance, softened to Mann when he gave his personal military history to her. She liked the SAS, particularly 22 SAS. She was pleased that her son Mark had such a friend.
Mann would meet Margaret Thatcher again, around Christmas of 2003, next to the same pool. Except that, instead of a small gathering there would be, at that evening party, a group of people who had already started planning on overthrowing the government of oil-rich Equatorial Guinea. Mark Thatcher, who would declare, "Simon is my best friend," was in on the conspiracy.
Any legitimacy which mercenary companies had been trying to gain through marketing and PR would be unraveled by the events which would soon unfold. This was a classic Buckingham operation being run by Mann. It would involve Mark Thatcher and the author of The Dogs of War, Fredrick Forsythe.
Continued in Part Four.
Credit: Cheryl contributed hugely to the research in this series. The web of companies and personalities involved have required a great deal of sorting and following trails. There have been, in fact, so many sidetracks associated with mercenary companies and their resource subsidiaries that she is planning on doing a separate series of posts on Canadian resource companies overseas.