Getting Away with War Crimes

For decades, former British soldiers with friends in high places ran a mercenary enterprise from Sri Lanka to Nicaragua – leaving a trail of death and destruction in their wake.

On 10 February 1976, Britain came as close as it has ever come to banning mercenaries. When Prime Minister Harold Wilson addressed parliament that day, many of his colleagues in the Labour Party expected him to outlaw private armies.

The mood was febrile. Days earlier, fourteen British mercenaries had been massacred in Angola by their own commander, a former paratrooper and convicted thief with the nom de guerre ‘Colonel Callan’. Many of his men had travelled to Angola in full sight of detectives at London airports, who appeared unwilling or unable to stop them joining anti-Marxist forces in southern Africa.

Wilson said he was ‘disturbed’ at what he called a ‘bloody business’ and lambasted the only law on the statute book that dealt with mercenaries, the Foreign Enlistment Act, as inadequate. Since the Act had been passed a century earlier in 1870, no one had been convicted under it. ‘One has only to read what it says about principalities, powers, peshwas and all the rest of it,’ Wilson scorned, as he announced Whitehall would ‘prepare the ground for any necessary changes in the law.’

However, he ran into obstacles almost immediately. First from the Conservative opposition led by Margaret Thatcher, then from radical elements in his own party, and finally from reactionary officials deep within Whitehall. Thatcher spoke up on behalf of her Jewish constituents in Finchley, some of whom had served with the Israeli military in the Yom Kippur War. A ban on British citizens going to fight for foreign armies could criminalise them. ‘That, I am sure, is understood by everyone’, Wilson reassured her.

Further concerns came from Julian Amery, a hawkish former Tory minister and Monday Club member whose brother had been hanged for disseminating Nazi propaganda. Amery spoke up in defence of mercenaries, telling parliament: ‘Many of us feel that the Western powers collectively should be organising help to the pro-Western and anti-communist forces in Angola and that, in the absence of such help, to interfere with the flow of genuine volunteers to the pro-Western forces in Angola would be tantamount to becoming accomplices of Cuban and Soviet aggressors.’

His view received unlikely support from the other end of the political spectrum. Labour figures reminded parliament of ‘the courageous contribution made to the Spanish Republican cause by some of our own colleagues,’ referring to the British socialists who fought against Franco’s fascist dictatorship in the 1930s. It appeared that foreign fighters could find favour on both the right and left flanks of British politics, depending on the cause in question.

Wilson’s response to this dilemma was a classic British fudge. He set up a commission of inquiry to consider a possible law against mercenaries, and asked a member of the establishment, Lord Diplock, to chair it.

Who is a Mercenary?

Diplock embarked on this task by canvassing Whitehall departments, where staff vigorously debated the definition of a ‘mercenary’. One official warned Diplock that Nepalese Gurkhas, who were routinely employed by the British army, could be considered as mercenaries. Another advised that British soldiers on loan to Gulf regimes (so-called Loan Service Personnel or LSPs) may fall foul of a ban on mercenaries. The Ministry of Defence also vetted applications for British veterans who wanted to serve in the army of apartheid South Africa.

And there was another factor to consider. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) employed a British private security firm, KMS Ltd, to guard its diplomats in Beirut and Buenos Aires. A Whitehall official gushed: ‘I value the FCO contract with them which provides high grade professional armed protection at short notice for ambassadors under threat’.

KMS was run by ex-Special Air Service (SAS) commanders such as Colonel Jim Johnson, a former aide-de-camp to the Queen and one of Britain’s most experienced mercenaries. After leaving the SAS, Johnson used the basement of his Chelsea town house to command a covert war in Yemen in the 1960s, fighting local Republican forces who were backed by Egypt’s President Nasser. Johnson’s deadly business in Yemen was supported by MI6, but it was haphazard and lacked a formal company name. His men referred to this loose enterprise as Beni Johnson, Arabic for Johnson’s children — it had the feel of a family business, like Johnson and Sons.

In 1975, Johnson rebranded his organisation as KMS Ltd, or Keenie Meenie Services, with offices in South Kensington for recruitment and accounts registered offshore in tax havens such as Jersey and the Cayman Islands. The company’s name, Keenie Meenie, was based on Arabic slang for undercover or deniable operations, which seemed to encapsulate its murky relationship with the British state.

There was certainly a revolving door of personnel between the Ministry of Defence and KMS. For many years, one of the company’s founding directors, Major David Walker, was simultaneously a reserve officer in the British army.

There were also direct financial links between Keenie Meenie and the Foreign Office, which hampered Diplock’s lacklustre attempt to neatly define and outlaw mercenaries. One official warned: ‘If KMS Ltd were legislated away en passant no comparable substitute protection would be available to the Diplomatic Service.’ Another obligingly described KMS as ‘a reputable firm in their line of business, employed for example by Sheikh Yamani (Saudi Arabia’s oil minister) as probably the best and certainly most reliable contract bodyguards in the world.’

The FCO’s Middle East Department put it the most bluntly when asked whether it would support a ban on mercenaries. ‘Our firm preference is for no legislation at all,’ an official explained. ‘We should present to them [ministers] the benefits of doing nothing at all.’

A Law unto Themselves

These concerns permeated throughout the Whitehall machine, paralysing the Labour government’s tentative steps towards banning mercenaries. This inaction would see KMS win more contracts at British embassies: in the Netherlands, after the IRA assassinated the UK ambassador there, and in El Salvador and Uganda amidst civil strife.

The relationship between Keenie Meenie and Whitehall was so cosy that when Margaret Thatcher became prime minister, she expressed some surprise that diplomatic protection was outsourced to a private firm. Contrary to her wider privatisation programme, Thatcher actually asked cabinet colleagues to explore if the Royal Military Police could guard diplomats instead of KMS.

However it would take some time before her proposal began to be implemented, and in 1982 KMS received a Foreign Office contract in Uruguay during the Falklands War with neighbouring Argentina. Thereafter, the company’s relationship with Her Majesty’s government became more subtle, as KMS carefully diversified its portfolio.

The Ugandan contract was replaced with a deal to protect European Commission staff in Kampala. Meanwhile one of the company’s directors, Major Walker, resigned from the British army reserves and was elected as a Conservative councillor in the sleepy Surrey town of Esher, where he rallied against aircraft noise.

Behind this respectable facade, the company took on much riskier contracts, that would see it exert power and accumulate wealth on a far greater scale. Walker went to Washington, and Colonel Johnson forged ties with Sri Lanka’s right-wing president, Junius Richard Jayewardene.

Sri Lanka, a former British colony, was engulfed by a conflict between its ruling Sinhala Buddhist majority and the beleaguered Tamil minority, who demanded a separate state in the island’s north. In response, President Jayewardene hired KMS to set up a new police commando unit, the Special Task Force (STF).

The unit’s first chief instructor was an SAS veteran known as Ginger Rees, who quit the British army just days before arriving in Sri Lanka. Within months, this elite unit had gone on the rampage at Point Pedro, Sri Lanka’s northern-most tip, killing between six to eighteen civilians, and took part in the arson of Hartley College library, which housed thousands of precious manuscripts, in September 1984.

This outrage did not alarm British diplomats, and Sri Lanka’s defence secretary was able to visit London the following month to meet KMS. He was also treated to a Sunday lunch with the chief constable of the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) in Belfast, to pick up tips from their handling of the Troubles.

The war in Sri Lanka continued to escalate, with the Tamil rebels gaining the upper hand militarily and forcing a ceasefire by mid-1985. As fragile peace talks began, KMS secretly provided pilots to fly Sri Lanka’s fleet of helicopter gunships, a move that would tip the balance of power against the Tamil rebels — who had no air power of their own.

In one bizarre and gruesome tactic, grenades were armed, placed inside wine glasses and then dropped from the helicopters onto the Tamils below. When the glass smashed, the grenade detonated. Scores of Tamil civilians were killed from helicopters flown by KMS pilots over the next three years.

The company also embarked on a more extensive military training scheme, that saw its staff instruct Sri Lankan army commandos, army officers, naval guards, and snipers. They also installed senior KMS staff in the military’s operations room, and provided intelligence advisers, raising the prospect of command-level responsibility for war crimes perpetrated by Sri Lankan units.

When Thatcher’s ministers occasionally voiced disquiet at the extent of KMS involvement in Sri Lanka’s war, particularly the pilots, the old-boy network swung into action. The best man at Colonel Johnson’s wedding had been Sir Anthony Royle, who was vice-chairman of the Conservative Party until 1983 and a close confidant of Thatcher.

Royle’s subtle private interventions smoothed the waters between Whitehall and KMS, allowing the company to continue its work in Sri Lanka with a few token adjustments to assuage jumpy diplomats. He was not the only one.

When the KMS-trained Special Task Force killed eighty-five Tamil civilians at the Kokkadicholai prawn farm in January 1987, Tory Immigration Minister David Waddington flew to Sri Lanka on a fact-finding mission. He reached the perverse conclusion that further assistance from KMS to Sri Lanka’s forces ‘would be welcome’, despite the fact that units trained by the company were becoming increasingly murderous.

Back in London, a British army veteran who claimed to represent the company approached the US Embassy asking for help to train the Afghan Mujahideen in sabotage operations against the Soviets. Clearly the company had grand ambitions, but pervasive censorship in the UK and US prevents the public knowing how far this liaison went.

Bombing a Hospital

Meanwhile over in Washington, Walker had befriended Colonel Oliver North. This maverick US marine was running a clandestine Contra army in Nicaragua, in a bid to overthrow the country’s democratically elected left-wing Sandinista government.

Walker was paid thousands of dollars to provide KMS pilots for Contra resupply missions, and helped bomb a hospital in Managua, Nicaragua’s capital. Although nobody was killed, Walker’s cover was blown when investigators subsequently raided North’s office and found a handwritten reference to KMS on a document in his safe.

The US Congress then forced North to testify about his unauthorised war in Nicaragua. Details about Keenie Meenie were drip-fed onto the public record, triggering awkward questions in the UK parliament from MPs who demanded to know what British mercenaries were doing in Nicaragua.

As Thatcher dodged the hostile questions in London, Walker quickly restructured the company and made its sister firm Saladin Security more prominent, scaling down Keenie Meenie’s work in Sri Lanka. However, the firm’s most lucrative contract continued unabated. This was in Oman, where it had set up the Sultan’s Special Forces, an elite counter-insurgency unit, run by KMS commanders.

Despite denials from defence ministers in parliament about any formal contracts with KMS, the Sultan’s Special Forces were allowed to train at the SAS base in Hereford, as well as with British colonial policemen in Hong Kong.

In a sign that Walker still had powerful friends, Archibald Hamilton, a former Tory defence minister, joined the board of Saladin as a director in 1993. The revolving door was spinning again — Hamilton now sits in the House of Lords.

Although KMS has long since faded from the private security scene, Saladin survives. At the time of writing in December 2019, Walker remained listed on Companies House as a director of Saladin Security, using the same South Kensington address from where Keenie Meenie recruited mercenaries to fight in Sri Lanka in the 1980s.

Three decades after the company left Sri Lanka, no member of Keenie Meenie has ever been held to account for the atrocities they perpetrated against Tamil civilians. The lawless void left by parliament and Diplock in 1976 had far-reaching consequences.

This is an extract from Phil Miller’s ‘Keenie Meenie: British Mercenaries who Got Away with War Crimes’, which is now available from Pluto Books.

About the Author

Phil Miller is a staff reporter for Declassified UK, an investigative journalism organisation focusing on British foreign, military and intelligence policies.