By the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists

Selling soldiers of fortune

The skies around Executive Outcomes had been darkening for some time. Though buoyant with its military and financial success, the company had engendered growing hostility from South Africa’s new government of national unity and in the OAU. Facing international pressure, President Nelson Mandela ordered the enterprise shut down. Anti-mercenary laws were passed in South Africa in 1998.

Until 1995, there was no public awareness in Britain of the range of Buckingham’s business activities and methods, or that he had arranged and helped finance Executive Outcomes in Angola. Then a report in Britain’s Observer newspaper in September 1995 highlighted the links between EO and Buckingham and pointed out that British liberal politician David Steel was a non-executive director of Buckingham’s oil company. The event was the start of trouble and publicity for the Heritage principals, Simon Mann and Tony Buckingham. Buckingham’s deal with EO began to emerge, eventually prompting Steel to resign from Heritage. Mann phoned Spicer, and asked him to come to a meeting with him and Buckingham.

In October 1996, the three men met for lunch in an Italian restaurant just off King’s Road in Chelsea. According to Spicer, Buckingham and Mann told him that they “felt it would be better to make a fresh start” in the military business. “It was becoming clear that EO … carried a lot of political baggage,” Spicer observed. According to his autobiography, Spicer was asked to consider taking on the project. “Tony asked me if I would be interested in setting up the sort of organization that has now become known as a private military company.”

Buckingham and Mann’s plan, as portrayed by Spicer in his autobiography, was for Executive Outcomes was to be rebranded, restyled, sanitized and relaunched. He does not say explicitly that the Chelsea meeting planned to manipulate public and political opinion by launching the PMC concept. However, an exhaustive search of English language publications shows that the phrase was never used in the context of mercenary operations (and hardly used at all) until three weeks after the King’s Road lunch. Then, after four EO soldiers were captured in Northern Angola by UNITA forces in November 1995, an Agence France Press report described them as working for the “private military company Executive Outcomes.”

As its activities became increasingly controversial in the mid 1990s, EO blended into Sandline International. The companies operated from the same glitzy, glass-fronted offices Buckingham maintained in King’s Road, Chelsea. The military companies operated interchangeably, within the premises operated by Heritage Oil and Gas, and Branch Energy, the oil and mineral companies run by Buckingham.

The words “private military company” did not appear in English language publications again until 1997, after Spicer and Buckingham had begun a new contract to support the Papua New Guinea government to fight dissidents on the island of Bougainville and to re-open a lucrative copper mine. The operation was not an auspicious start for the re-branding operation.

Facing popular and local military hostility to the operation, Spicer and his South African mercenary force were arrested and jailed soon after they arrived. The Royal Australian Air Force intercepted and grounded an Antonov freighter intended by Sandline to ship helicopters and weapons to the Sandline troops. Spicer was initially arrested for illegally importing arms, and was detained on charges of possessing an unlicensed pistol and 40 rounds of ammunition. The charges were set aside after he agreed to face questioning by a government commission of enquiry. He was freed on March 27, 1997, to return to the United Kingdom.

Turning to PR professionals

Faced with another imminent downturn in their image in the wake of the debacle in Papua New Guinea, Buckingham and his partners turned to a leading London public relations consultant, Sara Pearson. Pearson, 49, runs Spa Way, a public relations agency for upmarket British retail and food stores. Her other clients include dental clinics, fresh breath companies and hair stylists. She claims that Spa Way is the only public relations consultancy in Britain to “guarantee [the] pre-determined media coverage” it will deliver, including “key messages” and angles that journalists will take. If the tally of favorable items does not reach the guaranteed level, the customer gets a refund, Pearson says, noting by contrast that, “PR has, in the past, been very wishy-washy and girly.”

Pearson said that she was called in at the last moment to assist Sandline International in “crisis management.” Spicer was already airborne, on a plane back home to London. “I was approached by Michael Grunberg and asked if I would manage the homecoming of Spicer,” she says. Her advice was to limit Spicer’s comments and exposure to the press as much as possible. Asked where the term PMC had come from, Pearson replied, “I am not entirely sure. It started to creep into the vocabulary…. At the very beginning, in the Papua New Guinea incident it was still ‘dogs of war.’ Then it became ‘mercenaries’ and then subsequent to the Sierra Leone business the words ‘private military company’ crept into the vernacular.” She had not invented it herself.

Peace and conflict researcher Owen Greene of Bradford University in the United Kingdom recalls the phrase gradually entering the nongovernmental organization (NGO) vocabulary around 1997, although he had no idea where it had first been used. “People came up with this as a brand new idea,” he said. “It was trying to find a word that gave them some respectability – a cleaner term.” It was a convenient term, Pearson agreed. “It certainly took a lot of emotion out of the situation.” “I like it,” Grunberg told ICIJ. “It sums it up quite neatly.” When asked by ICIJ, both Spicer and Grunberg at first disavowed inventing the term. Spicer then said, “To be honest I don’t really care who coined it. It either came from somebody or it came from us. It’s a good term. I’m happy to take the credit if you want to say I invented it. I’m not saying ‘not invented here.’” Grunberg also said the PMC term “didn’t come from within our organization [Sandline],” but then added, “You can put it down to me if you like…I’d like to stand up and take credit for it.”

By 1997, the PMC term was being used in discussions within the African NGO and aid community, but had not achieved wide currency. It appeared again in press reports of hearings before the South African Parliamentary Defense Committee, in which Executive Outcomes’ chief executive Nick van den Bergh argued against Mandela’s plan to criminalize their activities. Despite these initiatives, when the London International Institute of Strategic Studies held a conference on “private armies and military intervention” on March 28, 1998, most speakers – except Spicer – mainly used the language of “mercenary companies,” “private armies,” “military companies” or “foreign soldiers.”

Spicer and Executive Outcomes do not admit that they hoped to change the English language at their Chelsea meeting and the IISS conference, the trail is nevertheless clear from then on. To the surprise of many attendees, Spicer turned up and spoke at the conference. The same day, Sandline International published a four-page “white paper” titled “Private Military Companies – Independent or Regulated.” In May 1998, Spicer used the term extensively in an opinion column that was published in Britain’s Daily Telegraph under the headline, “Why we can help where governments fear to tread.” He told readers that Sandline and its like were “part of a wholly new military phenomenon,” modern professionals who might even hand out “promotional literature.”

If nothing else, Spicer possessed abundant chutzpah. He was attempting to polish the image of mercenaries while at the very nadir of his reputation. Five days after his IISS speech, his Chelsea home and King’s Road offices were raided by British Customs agents, looking for evidence of his prohibited arms shipments to Sierra Leone. Six days later, a documentary aired by the British network Channel 4 launched a devastating attack on Spicer and Buckingham’s operations, providing a different take on the “wholly new military phenomenon” of Sandline. The documentary described the “new kind of mercenary” as “an advanced army for commercial interests wanting to exploit the world's mineral resources.” The program reported that “several of their engagements have been notable for the indiscriminate nature of their attacks, in which many civilians have been wounded and killed,” concluding that after the mercenaries went home, the countries they had helped remained unstable and often bitterly divided – and “an awful lot poorer.”

Three days after the documentary aired, Sandline launched its Internet site. The site included a corporate profile and the “white paper” on PMCs. Four months later, a second Sandline “white paper” was published, entitled “Should the Activities of Private Military Companies be Transparent?” The image-changing campaign continued. The “white papers” were mainly drafted by Grunberg, Sandline’s financial controller.

With Grunberg and Sandline still footing the bill, Pearson and Spa Way hired a ghost writer and published a Spicer book to help remake his image for the new millennium. The 1999 book, An Unorthodox Soldier, presented Spicer as the “modern, legitimate version of the new mercenaries.” The objective of the campaign of which it was part was to obliterate the unsavory history of Executive Outcomes and Sandline International, and to help fight off the multiple British government and parliamentary inquiries that were then underway, investigating whether he had been given government approval to break the law and breach the U.N. embargo on arms shipments to Sierra Leone. “It was an opportunity to marshal the facts,” according to Pearson, “and to put his [Spicer’s] side of the story.” The book sets out a now familiar line – that PMCs were “corporate bodies specialising in the provision of military skills to legitimate governments.”

In May 1997, Kabbah, the democratically elected president of Sierra Leone, and his government were overthrown in a violent coup. Sandline International shipped 35 tons of Bulgarian-made AK47 rifles, a helicopter and provided logistical advice to help restore Kabbah’s government. The scandal erupted in the spring of 1998, when British newspapers published photographs showing engineers from a Royal Navy frigate docked in the capital Freetown, helping to service Sandline’s Russian-made helicopter.

Spicer claimed that Foreign Office officials and defense intelligence staff were aware of his dealings, and that he was given a go-ahead by the British government for the arms shipment. Cook, the foreign secretary, denied that he or his colleagues gave official approval. In 1998, the House of Commons foreign affairs select committee launched an investigation, as did the British Customs and Excise service. Eventually, the parliamentary inquiry concluded that Peter Penfold, Britain’s High Commissioner to Sierra Leone, had given the illegal arms shipment “a degree of approval.” The affair ultimately cost Penfold his job, and he was shifted sideways to the Department of International Development. For his part, Penfold acknowledged that he was aware of the shipment but did not know it was banned under the U.N. sanctions.

During the controversy, Spicer circulated an open letter to newspapers and members of Parliament, offering to open a dialogue between Sandline and governments and NGOs. The open letter presented Spicer’s latest and most facile semantic contrast – between old-style “mercenary bands” and modern PMCs. “Just as with ape and man, both species now co-habit the [international military] environment,” he wrote in February 1999. Two years later and after a string of sympathetic articles in the U.K. press, the PMC concept was so well established that it did not occur to the British Foreign Office to use any other term in proposing to regulate such companies.

The phrase took longer to take root in the United States. Although Spicer had visited Virginia as early as June 1997 for a private symposium organized by the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency on the “Privatization of National Security Functions in Sub Saharan Africa,” in conjunction with Military Professional Resources Inc., an American PMC, and other U.S. corporations, the term was only to be adopted in the United States nearly a year after it had achieved general currency in Britain. When the U.S. Army War College published a thoughtful study of “The New Mercenaries and the Privatization of Conflict” in summer 1999, the author, former U.S. Lt. Col. Thomas K. Adams, paid no attention to Spicer’s version of political correctness. Mercenaries, he wrote, should be called by their name – “individuals or organizations that sell their military skills outside their country of origin and as an entrepreneur rather than as a member of a recognized military force.”

The inquiries provoked by the Papua New Guinea and Sierra Leone episodes – and the documents they uncovered – showed decisively that Spicer’s “wholly new military phenomenon” had the resolutely traditional purpose of securing access to Third World resources for first world principals. What was new was the spin and the self-confidence with which it was presented. Internal Sandline documents that were made public were inconsistent with statements Spicer made to judges, journalists, the public and the British Parliament about Sandline International, Executive Outcomes and their operations. For example, although he claimed otherwise during his public relations campaign to burnish his industry’s image, private correspondence to and from Spicer showed that he was personally active in trying to secure mining concessions for his principals as the price of providing military support. As he put it in a May 1996 letter enticing Papua-New Guinea Defense Minister Mathias Ijape with an offer to raise private finance for the mission to put down local opposition in Bougainville, “funds could come from private sources and it may be possible to raise them against oil and mineral concessions and production rights. “Why not,” he asked in the letter, “pay [for mercenaries] by assigning [a] mine and making a top-up cash payment?” Spicer refused to discuss individual letters he had written but said, “I don’t think there is anything wrong in [governments] coming to a deal with someone who is interested in minerals and that money being used for [PMC] services.”

Wherever Sandline troops headed, it was the natural resources of the third world – whether diamonds, gold, oil or copper – on which they set their sights. Spicer’s intervention in Sierra Leone was preceded by a March 1997 offer to Canadian diamond businessman Rakesh Saxena to plan a “mission” into Sierra Leone to secure Saxena’s diamond mines from local disruption “in an effective timely manner with minimum collateral damage.” Saxena is currently detained in Canada, contesting extradition proceedings to face trial for unrelated fraud charges in Thailand.

Repackaging Spicer

After the 1997 Papua-New Guinea scandal and the 1998 Sierra Leone debacle, the reputation of Sandline went into a nosedive. Spicer’s response was to seek to re-brand himself and his profession once again.

Spicer resigned from Sandline International at the end of 1999, but was back in the business within six months. A week before the British-based Executive Outcomes dissolved on May 16, 2000, Spicer created Crisis and Risk Management Ltd. In April 2001, he changed its name to Strategic Consulting International (SCI) Ltd. He also launched a Sandline follow-on company, Sandline Consultancy Ltd, believing that Sandline was a “good name” with “brand recognition.” But the company never did business. The same year, he launched a third new venture, Trident Maritime. Trident describes itself as “an international maritime safety and security company,” and as a subsidiary of SCI.

Announcing the launch of Trident to Britain’s Financial Times in March 2001, Spicer claimed that Crisis and Risk Management Ltd. had already advised the government of a developing country battling against a rebel movement. Press reports later suggested that Spicer’s new job was in Nepal, training government troops engaged against Maoist guerrillas operating in the Himalayas. If true, it would be highly ironic since the British army has employed Nepalese Ghurkhas – renowned for the high quality of their combat skills – as part of its formal military structure for 50 years. However, the military attaché at the Nepalese embassy in London, whom the embassy identified only as Col. Rana, said, “We do not know anything about that.”

Strategic Consulting International is registered in Britain at the suburban offices of the financial advisers for Pearson’s public relations agency, Spa Way. According to the records, Spicer was not even a director of SCI; instead, the company’s only director was Pearson; its secretary was David Hawkins, one of her financial advisers. Soon after SCI was set up (under its original name) on June 15, 2000, the new Sandline – Sandline Consultancy Ltd. – was formed with the same directors at the same address. Spicer and Pearson each owned shares in SCI. The company’s personnel and operations, however, are as obscure as Sandline’s. Spicer’s other new company, Trident, is less obscure, listing him as a director and its operating address next door to his home in Cheval Place, Kensington and Chelsea. Spicer is listed as a director of Trident, together with Gilmer Blankenship, a University of Maryland electrical engineering professor. None of the three new companies have as yet filed legally due accounts with Britain’s Companies House, a violation for which directors could face criminal charges. The new Sandline Consultancy Ltd has already been dissolved because of the violation.

Pearson told ICIJ that she agreed that the failure to file company records in time had breached British law. She also said that the shareholdings and directorships in SCI were incorrectly registered. “It was a shock to discover we hadn’t properly organized [our company records],” she said. Asked if papers would be filed, she said that accounts for the two remaining companies are “very imminent.” But she refused to say what financial revenue figures would be released. Shortly after ICIJ interviewed Pearson, Spicer’s PMC group underwent significant changes. Pearson resigned as a director of both companies and transferred her shareholdings to Spicer, leaving him as the sole director.

Spicer claimed in an Oct. 8, 2002, interview that his annual accounts for SCI, which had been due in February 2002, were filed. “If they are due, they’ve been filed,” he said. He claimed that SCI had 12 full-time employees engaged in government or defense work around the world, and had reported revenues of “one to two million [pounds; about U.S. $1.6 million to $3.3 million].” In fact, no accounts have been filed since the company started up two and half years ago. Contacted by ICIJ, Hawkins, the secretary for SCI, said he was unable to explain why the filings were late. “I am in no way involved in the day-to-day running of the company’s affairs,” he wrote. “I am not responsible for the filing of the company accounts which is the responsibility of the directors, and [I] have not received any communications regarding the outstanding accounts.” Ivan Sopher, the company’s accountant, did not respond to a request for comment.

The business school PMC

Trident Maritime, which specialized in maritime risk assessment, claimed on its Web site to have offices and a “command center” in Washington, with plans for a “global operational presence” through command centers in London and Singapore. The company specializes in maritime risk assessment. Trident’s Web site offers an impressive range of sophisticated and customized maritime safety and security packages labeled Nautilus, Poseidon, Juno, and Neptune, all designed to curb and counter piracy. Each combines risk assessment and insurance policies with electronic tracking and security systems provided by another Maryland-based corporation, Techno-Sciences Inc., run by Blankenship.

Scratch the surface of Trident’s publicity, however, and a less convincing picture emerges. Spicer, its managing director and chief executive officer, has no naval or maritime experience or qualifications. Trident’s vice president of marketing – according to a personnel list published by Trident – is Pearson, Spicer’s public relations adviser.

Pearson also has not served in the Royal Navy or any other maritime organization. Trident’s vice president of business development, Jared Feit, graduated from the University of Maryland with a business undergraduate degree in 2001. Feit and the Trident team, including Spicer, competed in the university’s March 2002 “Best Business Plan” award. Spicer “came to the meeting and stood on the stage, but he didn’t do anything,” according to Blankenship. “We lost – that was really depressing.”

To judge from the University of Maryland presentation of its business, Trident might appear to be little more than an academic exercise devised by Blankenship and his students. Asked if the Maryland plan was the actual business plan for Trident, Pearson said, “No, no. We never saw it. It was something that [Blankenship] was doing with some students.” Blankenship confirmed the comment about the business plan. “I didn’t pay attention to it,” he explained. The names of the Trident “vice presidents” presented with Spicer and Pearson were “all [students] that Jared put on the form.”

But beneath the graduate students and the public relations professional, Trident has yet another, very different cast of characters – the traditional personnel and patterns of the underworld of British intelligence, special forces, and covert operations, linked by an umbilical cord to the clubby, wealthy world of the entrepreneurs, bankers and brokers of the City of London, the traditional milieu of mercenary and mercantile comrades in arms.

In 2001, after the Tamil Tiger terrorist attacks nearly destroyed the Bandaranaike International Airport in Colombo, underwriters for Lloyd’s of London recommended that Sri Lankan government hire Trident to conduct a full security review of its airport and seaports, and implement its recommendations. It was one of only two contracts that Trident won, according to Blankenship. Spicer’s proposal for the security survey, submitted to Colombo in August 2001, showed what his end of Trident consisted of.

Excluding Spicer and a professional photographer, the majority of the 15 names on his personnel list were retired British Special Forces and intelligence officers. The most prominent among them was Harry Ditmus, described as the British government’s “former co-ordinator of transport security.” A fuller profile would have identified “Hal” Doyne-Ditmus, CB (Commander of the Bath) as a senior career intelligence officer with Britain’s ultra-secretive internal Security Service, conventionally known as MI5. After serving as assistant director of MI5, Doyne-Ditmus was posted to Belfast, Northern Ireland in the mid 1980s to serve as the U.K. government’s director and coordinator of intelligence at the height of its 20-year battle with the Irish Republican Army.

Two were specifically identified as covert intelligence operators: John Wilson, QGM (Queen’s Gallantry Medal), as a “methods of entry expert” and Tom Lockhart, QGM, QCVS (Queens Commendation for Valuable Service) as a “U.K. Special Forces surveillance and technical surveillance expert.” Four of the team were described as having had more than 30 years service with Special Forces. Also on Spicer’s list was Mike Coldrick, a highly decorated army and police bomb disposal expert, and a one-time official of the Special Forces Club, the exclusive private club for British and Allied intelligence and special forces operatives and veterans. The names, said Spicer, were drawn from his database run by SCI. They were “a network of …. people who are recommended by word of mouth.” “You tend to know who’s who,” he said, “there is an informal network of people who know each other and have worked with you [or] have served together in the armed forces.” The Trident list did not include students or staff from the University of Maryland.

After an initial survey of Sri Lankan ports in 2001, Spicer and members of his Trident team returned to Colombo on Jan. 21, 2002, to check on security enhancements – part of a long-term program aimed at “gradually phasing out the war risk premium.” Although the Sri Lankan government seemed unaware of his checkered past, British diplomats had not forgotten that his Sierra Leone sanctions-busting episode had cost Penfold, the British representative to Sierra Leone, his career. Coincidentally, as Spicer arrived that January Monday morning, a British diplomatic party was also present at the airport to meet a visiting official. Spicer appeared embarrassed. According to one of the British officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, Spicer “hid behind a pillar” in the forlorn hope of not being seen.

Six weeks later, Spicer seemed less reticent when he spoke to reporters for Lloyd’s List, the daily newspaper of the insurance industry. The paper was told that the London War Risks Committee were “set to lift a war-risk surcharge on vessels trading to Sri Lanka, following a security audit of the country’s ports by a leading British private military company … the new measures to ensure port and airport safety have been drawn up by security firm Trident, led by Lt. Col. Tim Spicer, the man at the center of the so-called ‘arms to Africa’ affair. … “Lt. Col. Spicer said the review, which involved the efforts of about 20 people, took several months to complete and act upon, although the work was delayed by a general election and subsequent change of government,” the paper reported. “I would say (Sri Lanka) is now as safe as anywhere in the region, and safer than some,” Spicer boasted to the paper.

The Spicer-inspired report neglected to mention that in late in February 2002, a Norwegian-led peace initiative had resulted in the first ceasefire in eight years between the Tamil Tigers and the Colombo government. On March 1, 2002, Sri Lanka’s prime minister told a press conference that the ceasefire had led Lloyd’s to agree to drop the surcharges.

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