Cash for combat

Tim Spicer, the mercenary chief caught up in the Sierra Leone affair, says ethics and warfare can mix. Jason Nisse reports
Tim Spicer is unhappy. Or, to be more exact, Lieutenant-Colonel Tim Spicer OBE, a former British army officer who served in the Falklands, Ulster and Bosnia and is now the head of the modern day mercenaries Sandline International, is "pissed off".

Sandline hit the headlines last year when it was investigated by Customs & Excise for allegedly breaking a UN embargo on arms to Sierra Leone, the war-torn African nation. However, the company then revealed that it had been working for the deposed president, Ahmad Tejan Kabbah, with the full knowledge and support of the British High Commissioner in Sierra Leone, Peter Penfold, and the implicit support of the Foreign Office.

Both an official investigation, chaired by Sir Thomas Legg, and a House of Commons Select Committee inquiry cleared Sandline of wrongdoing. But the publicity surrounding the incident projected the often shadowy world of private military companies on to the front pages. And now Spicer is trying to tell his own side of the story in a book about the affair and his controversial career, called An Unorthodox Soldier.

Spicer, a tall, handsome man of 47, who looks more like a merchant banker than a "dog of war", says: "I'm pissed off about the way it [Sierra Leone] went. It was unnecessary for the British Government to put us through the hoops, especially as we were working for the good guys."

Not only did Sandline, which Spicer formed four years ago with the backing of controversial oil and diamonds tycoon, Tony Buckingham, find itself under investigation, it actually lost money on its involvement in Sierra Leone. Spicer signed a $10m contract to help return President Kabbah to power. However, Kabbah's government was not paying. Instead the money was due to come from Rakesh Saxena, a businessman based in Vancouver who had a deal with Kabbah over mineral rights. Unfortunately Saxena was wanted for fraud by the Thai government and was arrested - curiously, while in possession of a fake Serbian passport - in the midst of the affair. Saxena had only handed over $1.5m when he was arrested, and has not paid a penny more since.

Spicer says Sandline spent all the $1.5m on the campaign to support Kabbah. "We did not make a profit, and once we had gone through the saga with Customs it cost us quite a lot of money." Spicer wrote to the UK Government, asking for pounds 100,000 to cover Sandline's costs. Not surprisingly, the request was declined.

Spicer freely admits Sandline made mistakes in its operations in Sierra Leone. It took Saxena on trust and did not check out his credentials before entering into the deal. It did not insist on payment upfront, or on a month by month basis, a lesson Sandline should have learned from another high-profile contract it took on - to help the Papua New Guinea (PNG) government deal with a civil war in its mineral rich province of Bougainville.

The PNG situation was complex - to cut a long story short, the government of the country changed after Sandline had finished its contract but before it had been paid all of its $36m fee. Spicer had to sue the PNG government and threaten to seize assets before reaching a settlement for nearly all the money.

In Spicer's book he sets out five principles for running a private military company. These are: "We will only work for legitimate governments; we will do nothing illegal ...; we will do nothing against key Western nations' foreign policies; we apply First World standards to all our military work ...; and we ensure client confidentiality." But these principles are often difficult to apply. For example, defining a legitimate government is often a daunting task; it usually comes down to whether the country is recognised by the West and is not on a pariah list. "If you tried to apply UK standards around the world you would find it difficult working for anybody," Spicer says.

Spicer admits Sandline refused to work for President Mobuto in Zaire - now the Democratic Republic of Congo - but he was not so certain about his successor, Laurent Kabila, who is being opposed by forces backed by Uganda and, many say, the United States. "The situation is not clear cut," says Spicer.

In other cases he admits Sandline would be willing to work for the Iraqi resistance, even though this opposes a so-called legitimate government. He says he is not quite sure whether Sandline would have worked for either the current military regime in Pakistan or the civilian government it deposed. "Both have ticks and both have crosses," he argues.

Spicer says Sandline always behaves within acceptable Western standards of warfare and within international law. But these standards are not always adhered to by its clients. Spicer says that Sandline tries to stop any atrocities - "or if we cannot physically stop them, report them to the chain of command or walk out". However, he admits Sandline has yet to walk away from a job.

Doing nothing illegal and applying First World standards comes down to Sandline's recruitment policies and discipline. Spicer tends to hire people through referral, mostly from the contacts he built up during more than 20 years in the British Army. Most have served in the army or police for a Western European country, the US or South Africa. Sandline also has a website and receives thousands of emails, faxes and letters from people wanting jobs. But these people are rarely suitable.

Spicer says there are two tests of suitability for Sandline: one is technical - whether the people have the skills in weapons, equipment and transport that Sandline needs; the other is behavioural. "Does the person have the psychological make-up to carry out this sort of work in someone else's country? Is he stable, does he have psychotic tendencies? Obviously if he had, we will not take him on." Spicer points out that most of the people who work for Sandline are in their 30s or 40s and are unlike the popular idea of what mercenaries might be. "The guys are not things with a headband, armed to the teeth," he says.

Keeping these people under control is extremely important. "We do not have a discipline problem," Spicer says. However, if any Sandline operatives did transgress it could fine them or dismiss them. The peer group pressure within the mercenary world would mean a transgressor would be "shunned by legitimate private military companies".

However, Spicer argues that as Sandline would usually be working with the army of the client government, any of his employees would be subject to the laws and discipline of the host country. In a last resort this could mean that a Sandline employee, if he was considered to have committed a capital offence, could end up being executed by his ultimate employer.

To say running a company like Sandline is like running no other business is rather stating the obvious. But it is foolish to pretend that Sandline is not a commercial operation. In Spicer's book he points out that the business of private soldiering has a long, and sometimes honourable, tradition. What has emerged from the Sierra Leone affair is that the British Government, and many others in the West, are willing either to sanction the action of private military companies or at least to turn a blind eye to their activities.

A stock market flotation might not be on the cards. But it is clear that the future for Sandline, and companies like it, looks rather rosy.

n `An Unorthodox Soldier', pounds 15.99, Mainstream Publishing.