British SAS and the Privatization of Covert Action

[Excerpt taken from, Cozy, Clubby and Covert, Center for Public Integrity, 30 October 2002.]


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.  (read HERE)