Intelligence and the Arms to Africa Affair

The National Archives move towards a 20-year-rule mean that many records from the early New Labour years are now available. 

That includes episodes like the 1998 Arms to Africa Affair when a British mercenary outfit, Tim Spicer's Sandline International, sent arms to Sierra Leone in defiance of a UN arms embargo.

I've had a quick scan of one such file, which includes the lines to take prepared by the Foreign Office for Alastair Campbell. One key theme was that all's well that ends well, the affair was 'an untidy episode with a happy ending', because Sandline's arms had helped restore a legitimate government.

Another was 'to stress the point about overworked staff'. The Foreign Office man on the spot, High Commissioner Peter Penfold, spent much of the time working from a hotel room in neighbouring Guinea, while the relevant Foreign Office department responsible consisted of a desk officer and an assistant who were responsible for a number of other West African countries.

Ironically, one concern was whether the Legg inquiry would believe the evidence of Spicer or of Foreign Office official Craig Murray, later himself an outspoken critic of the Blair government.

The Foreign Office brief also covered the intelligence angle:

Penfold's Feb 2 minute also reveals that he 'had several meetings with Rupert Bowen', a mercenary associate of Spicer, who was identified by the Sunday Times (5 July) as a former member of MI6. The media will love the spy angle, however piffling Bowen's actual role. Our defence – we can't comment of whether Bowen worked for MI6, of course, but Legg should have made clear that there was no sinister link between Bowen and the intelligence world.

It seems odd on the face of it, that an ex-MI6 officer would not have consulted with his old service. According to the Legg inquiry, one intelligence report did reach the Foreign Office stating that 'President Kabbah had engaged Executive Outcomes/Sandline to prepare and lead a military force from bases in Liberia to oust the junta.' This report was apparently discounted by Craig Murray because 'it referred to arms and Kamajor camps in the unlikely location of Liberia.'

It's possible that MI6 was suffering from it's own staffing issues at the time. Rupert Bowen left government service in 1993, the same year as the so-called 'Christmas massacre', a post-Cold War downsizing which saw MI6 lose 5 per cent of it's intelligence branch, including a high proportion of older and more senior officers.

There was nevertheless some significant intelligence reporting on the relationship between Sandline and Executive Outcomes, the South African mercenary firm which had been operating in Sierra Leone for several years by this time. On this the Legg report stated:

Sandline International is a private military company. We understand that it was created in 1996 and is registered in the Bahamas. It has working and personal links with other companies operating in the fields of military and security services, and mineral extraction. In the former category, these include Executive Outcomes and Lifeguard and in the latter, DiamondWorks and Branch Energy. All these companies have been active or had interests in Sierra Leone for some time. We have found that Sandline is often referred to by outsiders as Executive Outcomes. Strictly this is incorrect, but the confusion is widespread.

This is one issue on which the new files provide a bit more detail, in the form of a summary of intelligence material reviewed by the inquiry at the Foreign Office. This included the following significant extracts.

We have seen five assessments of the position in Sierra Leone issued by the Joint Intelligence Committee between June 1997 and February 1998. One of them, issued on 28 January 1998, referred to diplomatic reports that Sandline had been engaged by President Kabbah to 'help' the Kamajors. It also mentioned that Executive Outcomes, which had close links with Sandline, was reported to be giving logistic support to the Kamajors, and that unconfirmed reports suggested that the company was preparing a force of up to 2,500 in South Africa. The draft of this assessment was circulated as a telegram on 21 January 1998. This draft stated, like the final version, that EO and Sandline also had close links, but also added that they might in practice be indivisible….

…We have also seen a separate JIC assessment of 19 November 1997. This was issued in the wake of Sandline's involvement in Papua New Guinea, and considered the phenomenon of British mercenaries and private military firms. Sandline was described as a UK-based front for Executive Outcomes, and thereafter as 'Sandline/EO'. This assessment is general in character and contained no mention of Sierra Leone…

…We have seen three SIS reports which bear on events in Sierra Leone. The first, made in June 1997, was about the impact of the May 1997 coup on the interests of Executive Outcomes and its associated companies, including Sandline. The second made in July 1997, described EO's operations in Sierra Leone during 1995 and 1996. The last, dated 12 February 1998, passed on a specific report that President Kabbah had engaged EO/Sandline to prepare and lead a military task force to oust the junta. This report indicated that Sandline was heavily involved in the plan, which was said to include the supply of troops, weapons, training, etc. Another British mercenary firm was also said to have been approached, but to be unwilling to take part without at least tacit support from the UK Ministry of Defence. (by the time this report was circulated, the counter-coup had already begun).

The JIC reporting at least seems timely enough to leave some suspicion of collusion about the failure to warn off Sandline, even if events at the Foreign Office provide plenty of scope for the cock-up theory.

Concern about Executive Outcomes overthrowing a Sierra Leonean junta might not have been great, until the press pointed out that a British company was breaking a UN arms embargo in the process.

It is striking, given the later career of its chief executive, that the JIC labelled Sandline a front for Executive Outcomes, a mercenary organisation made up of veterans of Apartheid South Africa's wars in Angola and Mozambique.

In the immediate aftermath of Arms to Africa Affair, Tim Spicer was a discredited figure. By 2002, investigative journalist Duncan Campbell could report that Spicer's companies were moribund and the role of mercenaries in Africa widely denounced.

Yet Spicer, like the concept of the 'Private Military Company' he pioneered, was on the cusp of a new boom. His next firm, Aegis Defence Services, would become one of many PMCs to profit from the occupation of Iraq. The label, and the associated War on Terror rhetoric, would be imitated by the Russians in Syria and Libya. One such PMC, Wagner Group, is now a central player in the invasion of Ukraine.







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