As a waiter leads me to the table where Alastair Morrison is sitting, I brace myself for a bone-crushing military hand grip and a sergeant-major greeting.
I needn’t have worried. For a former SAS hardman - famous for storming a Lufthansa airliner in 1970s Mogadishu and liquidating the hijackers onboard - he has a pleasant, soft-spoken way about him. Immaculately dressed in a dark blazer and tie, he sits in a neat, self-contained manner, his back against the wall. I find myself leaning nearly halfway across the table to hear what he is saying.
Nearly a quarter of a century ago, Morrison pioneered the modern-day private military industry (a term he dislikes), which has since burgeoned into a multi-billion pound global business. “I never envisaged the market growing to this size,” he says, shaking his head.
A former second-in-command at Britain’s elite Special Air Services regiment and counterterrorism expert, Morrison set up a ground-breaking company called Defence Systems Limited in 1981. DSL was a commercial success and became the template for dozens of companies set up since to provide security in the world’s hairiest areas.
Morrison may have managed to remain largely out of the public eye - unlike his friend Tim Spicer, the retired British colonel who was embroiled in mercenary scandals in the 1990s - but he has been a continuous presence in the industry and a force behind many of the companies now operating in Iraq: Erinys, Hart Group, ArmorGroup and Kroll.
In an age when the SAS seems to be populated by media-savvy self-promoters, the 62-year-old Morrison harks back to a different age. He is clearly wary of my presence; he stops talking when I jot something down, waiting for me to finish. He is polite, but circumspect. The only sign that a question has annoyed him is a twitching of his thick eyebrows.
It is not easy to draw him on his exploits in the SAS, even though there clearly were some during his 12 years in the regiment. He insists he’s not about to join the ranks of former SAS soldiers such as Andy McNab, who have made a living writing books about their (mis)adventures. The eight-year-old inside me cannot conceal his disappointment.
”I feel very strongly that the regiment has been let down by people writing books. You won’t find a book written by old Morrison, at least not on that.” Perhaps on history, he says, or French food and wine.
We’re at the Brasserie Roux on Pall Mall, a high-ceilinged restaurant run by the famous French brothers. Morrison has a weekend home in the southwest of France and loves French cooking. He orders the house terrine, which he eats slowly and precisely, as if dividing up the territory of his plate among warring tribesmen. For the second course, he orders the Toulouse sausage - “makes me feel at home”, he says. I haven’t looked at the menu, and end up perversely ordering a dish of penne pasta covered in cream.
Morrison is Scottish - “fiercely Scottish”, he says - though I can’t detect anything other than a well-spoken English accent. After Sandhurst, he joined the Scots Guards in 1963 and was posted to Kenya, as it embarked upon independence. On returning to London, he “went into public duties”, he says. I wonder if that means he was a spy, but realise there’s little point in asking. Morrison was selected for the SAS in 1968, at a time when almost no one had heard of the regiment. “When I first joined I didn’t even know what the SAS was.”
He fought in the Dhofar war to defeat communist rebels in Oman, then served in Northern Ireland. He turned his hand to counterterrorism in the mid-1970s, when airline hijackings were almost as prevalent as beige and bell-bottoms.
In 1977, in Majorca, four Palestinian gunmen seized a Lufthansa airliner with 86 passengers on board. After hop-scotching around the Middle East they ended up in Mogadishu, Somalia. Morrison and the SAS had a good relationship with West Germany’s new GSG9 special forces team, so they were asked to help plan an operation to free the hostages.
When the pilot was killed, Morrison and the German commandos stormed the aircraft, killing three hijackers and bringing out all the passengers alive.
”The thing I remember is the very thin line between absolute success and absolute failure,” he says, after some considerable prodding. “I remember coming in behind the aircraft and we suddenly realised the lights from the control tower were projecting our shadows for a very long distance,” he says. “Anyone looking out of the aircraft could have seen us. And we thought we were coming in very discreetly. I remember thinking that if the thing was rigged with explosives I hoped I wouldn’t live to tell the tale because I’d be so embarrassed. As it happened, it wasn’t, and the thing was successful.”
He even confesses to a feeling of euphoria afterwards, before turning back to his Toulouse sausage and surgically slicing off another ring.
The raid had a dramatic effect on global terrorism in the 1970s - the spate of airline hijackings largely ground to a halt. Morrison was awarded the Military Cross for his actions and helped to set up specialist counterterrorist organisations in 32 countries, including Delta Force in the US.
Despite its success, Morrison thinks such operations should only ever be employed when all other options have been exhausted. “You do require an element of luck, and you’re also taking a huge risk, particularly because the terrorists are probably far more sophisticated than they were in my day.”
The intense media scrutiny of such events has also made it more difficult.
”The problem is, after you’ve had a successful operation the thing is analysed in the press. And obviously the terrorists study these things as well. It’s a shame [the SAS] has got such a high profile now, because it makes it much more difficult to operate. We would go away on operations and even our wives didn’t know where we’d gone for six months.”
Morrison left the SAS in 1980 and set up DSL the following year. The company defended gold and diamond mines in Africa from thieves, and oil pipelines in Latin America from guerrillas. It guarded US and British embassies in the Middle East and elsewhere. Often, DSL would use former British special forces troops to train foreign forces in counterterrorist tactics. But Morrison has always rejected any suggestion that DSL was a mercenary outfit, stressing that the company never got involved in offensive operations.
”I was always clear what space we occupied,” he says. “During the 1970s and 1980s we didn’t employ any armed guards at all. We were involved in training counterterrorist forces and so on. But we weren’t ourselves involved in any [fighting]. We would liaise with local police and armed forces who would provide the response.”
But in 1997, a contract to protect BP’s Colombian pipelines from attacks by Marxist rebels caused a flurry of critical news reports in Britain. Former SAS personnel working for DSL were alleged to have trained a Colombian military unit linked to past atrocities and to have provided them with names of local citizens opposed to BP’s project.
But in general, Morrison has managed to steer clear of controversy in his 25 years in the industry. He has also earned a good amount of money for his troubles. After building DSL into a profitable company, he sold it to Armor Holdings in 1997 for $26m. The attacks of September 11 2001 boosted the field and Morrison has been involved in many of the companies that have sprung up since to fill the demand for security services. Hart Group and Erinys, companies he helped to establish, are working in Iraq. Kroll’s international security division, which he joined last March, provides “close protection” teams for US officials visiting reconstruction projects around the country.
Despite the deteriorating security situation in Iraq, Morrison is surprisingly upbeat about the country’s prospects.
”The impression I have is that there is an amazing potential in that country,” he says. “It’s not just the oil; there is a tremendous human resource. Just look at the Iraqis that have made good outside Iraq. It’s rather like the Scots,” he jokes.
But, I ask, isn’t Iraq hopelessly divided along sectarian lines? “They have never been a nation, but there has been increasingly nationalist feeling [in Iraq]. It’s only, to my mind, in the past 20 years that one has seen this focus on Shia and Sunni [communities]. During the war with Iran, Shias fought just as vigorously as Sunnis.”
Since the US invasion, Iraq has become something of a laboratory for the privatisation of security services. The head of Blackwater USA recently suggested raising a “contractor brigade” to aid the overstretched US military.
Morrison disagrees. “It’s a one-off,” he says. “I don’t think you’ll see it replicated anywhere else.” In any case, Morrison thinks the future of Kroll’s security business lies in providing advice - not armed men - to businesses operating in risky parts of the world.
”Our business is identifying what keeps the chief executive awake at night and coming up with a solution,” he says. Wherever possible, Morrison eschews military terminology in favour of business-speak. It is not difficult to see how business executives must feel comfortable with him.
As if to drive home the point, Morrison orders a hot chocolate to end the meal, dealing a final blow to my image of the SAS warrior. We wander out into Pall Mall, shake hands, and he vanishes discreetly into the passing crowd.
Brasserie Roux, London
1 x house terrine
1 x smoked salmon
1 x Toulouse sausage
1 x penne pasta
2 x water
1 x hot chocolate
1 x cappuccino
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