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Ex-SAS Men Cash in on Iraq Bonanza

by Pratap Chatterjee
June 9th, 2004

Many of the best-paid private security contracts in Iraq are managed by a small group of British ex-soldiers who served in the Special Air Services (SAS), an elite regiment of commandos that is considered one of the best special force units in the world.

Olive Security from Mayfair, London, was one of the first security companies on the ground in Iraq, arriving immediately after the troops in April 2003. Created by Harry Legge-Bourke, the brother of the former nanny to princes William and Harry, Olive draws off a pool of more than 100 SAS soldiers who are used as bodyguards and to prepare logistical reports on the security situation.

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Two days after the invasion was complete in April 2004, the firm deployed 38 former SAS officers to set up operational centers for Bechtel. "This is crisis management in a hostile environment," Legge-Burke told reporters at the time. "You need people who know what they are doing."

But Legge-Bourke is a relative newcomer in the field of private security, following in the footsteps of two SAS veterans: Alistair Morrison and Richard Bethell, and Tim Spicer, who are now deeply involved in Iraq contracts.

Bethell has worked closely with Tim Spicer since the Falklands War in 1982, when the two men were first involved in planning to equip the soldiers that were sailing to Argentinia, and then eventually dodging landmines and fighting together in the battle of Tumbledown. Today Spicer has his own new start-up in Iraq called Aegis Defense Services (see Controversial Commando Wins Iraq Contract) with another ex-SAS man, Jeremy Phipps (see From Embassy Hero to Racing Disgrace).

Defense Systems Limited


For most of the 1990s, Richard Bethell and Alistair Morrison ran the profitable private security company Defense Systems Limited (DSL) in offices next to Buckingham Palace in London. In 1997, Major General Stephen Carr-Smith, a senior staffer, explained that the company's clients included "petrochemical companies, mining or mineral extraction companies and their subsidiaries, multinationals, banks, embassies, non-governmental organizations, national and international organizations--those people who operate in a very dodgy, hostile type of environment."

DSL has provided counter-insurgency training for security forces in Sri Lanka, Papua New Guinea and Mozambique. Bethell, who is nicknamed 'Tarzan' because of his long blond locks, personally organized a training mission of the Colombian police's elite force in 1990. The two men tried to hire Spicer to come work for them in 1995, but he decided to set up his own company (see sidebar on Sandline).

Bethell (now known as Lord Westbury) and Morrison sold their stakes in DSL in 1997 and parted ways, setting up rival companies that eventually cashed in on the Iraqi reconstruction bonanza.

Hart Group

In July of 1999, Bethell established the Hart Group to provide security to media groups and engineering companies before, during, and after the invasion of Iraq. The company briefly gained the limelight last April, when Gray Branfield, a South African working for the company, was killed in Iraq in the town of Kut.

A couple days later, news reports revealed that Branfield was one of South Africa's most secret covert agents during the apartheid era. He was part of a death squad that ambushed and shot African National Congress chief representative Joe Gqabi 19 times as he reversed down the driveway of his Harare home on July 31, 1981. Branfield was also a member of South African Defense Force's secret "Project Barnacle," a precursor to the notorious Civil Co-operation Bureau (CCB) death squad. In 1985 he was involved in planning a raid on Gaborone in which 14 people, including a 5-year-old child, were killed.

Erinys

Morrison, on the other hand, helped Sean Cleary, another senior apartheid-era official from South Africa who was closely linked with Jonas Savimbi, leader of the UNITA rebel movement in Angola. Cleary and Morrison set up a company called Erinys, which was awarded an $80-million contract to provide security for Iraq's oil infrastructure in the summer of 2003. Today, Erinys has more than 15,000 employees and is the biggest employer in the private security business in Iraq.

Soon after this security contract was issued, the company started recruiting many of its guards from the ranks of the Free Iraqi Forces, an Iraqi army group formed by Ahmed Chalabi, an Iraqi political exile, with funding from the Pentagon, to fight against Saddam Hussein. This prompted allegations that Erinys was creating a private army.

Other Erinys employees, charged with training the local Iraqi guards, included two South Africans who served as secret police in the apartheid regime. One of the men, Francois Strydom, was killed earlier this year when a bomb exploded outside Baghdad's Shaheen Hotel. The other, Deon Gouws, was seriously injured in the same explosion.

Strydom was a member of Koevoet, a notoriously brutal counterinsurgency arm of the South African military that operated in Namibia during the neighboring state's fight for independence in the 1980s. Gouws, who was a former officer in South Africa's Vlakplaas, a secret police unit, received amnesty application from the Truth And Reconciliation Commission after admitting to between 40 and 60 bombings of political activists' houses in 1986; a car bombing that claimed the life of KwaNdebele homeland cabinet minister and African National Congress activist Piet Ntuli; and an arson attack on the home of Mamelodi doctor Fabian Ribiero.

Quiet and Very, Very Expensive


While the guards who monitor the Iraqi oil pipelines are mostly Iraqi, trained by South Africans, the high-level corporate executives from Halliburton and Bechtel prefer to use ex-Western commandos as personal guards.

John Davidson, who runs Rubicon International, a British security company that supplies guards to British Petroleum and Motorola executives, told the Scotsman newspaper that they mostly hire ex-SAS personnel to guard their clients. "The SAS are extremely well-trained, low-profile, not waving flags. They go about things in a quiet manner, they are the creme de la creme," he says.

These ex-SAS men don't come cheap. David Claridge, managing director of London-based Janusian Security Risk Management, told the Chicago Tribune that clients can expect to pay up to $10,000 a day for top-of-the-line service that would include four armed guards and two armored vehicles.

These men can earn as much as a $250,000 a year--about three times more than they can earn in Britain. Indeed, the boom in Iraq has even caused a small crisis for the British security forces. The Scotsman estimates that one in six SAS and SBS (Special Boat Service) men have asked for permission to quit their jobs to go to Iraq. The British government is alarmed by the trend because it costs as much as $3 million to train each of these men.

A similar crisis has also engulfed the South African Police Services' elite task force, a division of 100 men who accompany senior politicians like President Thabo Mbeki. As many as half of their employees have asked for early retirement in order to go to Iraq. The $5,000 monthly salary for these men is equivalent to about six months pay at home.

"What is alarming is that members of specialized units are resigning. It will have a negative effect to lose that experience -- it takes at least a year to train them," Henrie Boshoff, an Institute for Security Studies military analyst, told South Africa's Sunday Independent.

Secret Club

How do these men learn about these jobs? Well, the epicenter of Britain's thriving trade in private military service is rumored to be the Special Forces Club, an undistinguished Victorian house located at 8 Herbert Crescent, just behind the world famous Harrods department store in central London, where all of these ex-SAS men often gather for drinks and swap stories.

"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," writes British investigative journalist Duncan Campbell.

According to Campbell, other club bedrooms are named for European resistance heroes and 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, Colonel 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," he adds.