The Black Market for Force


Sir David Stirling


Former SAS officer who in the 1960s led a three-year guerrilla campaign against Egyptian forces in Yemen. Johnson in Yemen: having been proposed for the venture by Col David Stirling, he arrived there on a Canadian passport under the name of Cohen and with a pocketful of sovereigns

Worried that Britain was losing its power after the war, Stirling organised deals to provide British weapons and military personnel to other countries, like Saudi Arabia, for various privatised foreign policy operations. Along with several associates, Stirling formed Watchguard International Ltd, formerly with offices in Sloane Street (where the Chelsea Hotel later opened) before moving to South Audley Street in Mayfair.

Business was chiefly with the Gulf States. He was linked, along with Denys Rowley, to a failed attempt to the overthrow Libyan ruler Muammar Gaddafi in 1970 or 1971. Stirling was the founder of private military company KAS International, also known as KAS Enterprises.

Watchguard International Ltd was a private military company, registered in Jersey in 1965 by Stirling and John Woodhouse. Woodhouse’s first assignment was to go to Yemen to report on the state of the royalist forces when a cease-fire was declared. At the same time Stirling was cultivating his contacts in the Iranian government and exploring the chances of obtaining work in Africa. The company operated in Zambia and in Sierra Leone, providing training teams and advising on security matters, but its founders’ maverick ways of doing business caused its eventual downfall. Woodhouse resigned as Director of Operations after a series of disagreements and Stirling ceased to take an active part in 1972.

In the twentieth century, the Westphalian order was at its zenith, and the free market for force was pushed underground. World War I, World War II, and the Cold War were emblematic conflicts of the period, waged between “great power” nations using huge public militaries as gladiators to settle political disputes. The privilege of legitimately waging war was arrogated exclusively to states and their militaries and was the view espoused in international relations theory, which arose during this period.

In fact, so Westphalian were the emergent “laws of war” that they sought only to regulate interstate warfare and largely ignored armed nonstate actors. Early laws of war, such as the Lieber Code (1863), the First Geneva Convention (1864), and the Hague Conventions (1899 and 1907), simply codified nineteenth-century customs of war as fought between national armies. States developed a positive legal regime through multilateral treaties that dictated appropriate behaviors on the battlefield between their armies. In other words, the laws of war codified battlefield custom originating in European religion, chivalry, and culture. Historian and legal scholar Geoffrey Best describes the period from 1856 to 1909 as the “epoch of highest repute” for war etiquette.

By the middle of the twentieth century, Western powers declared that the laws of war applied to all armed actors everywhere. After World War II, the Nuremberg War Trial pronounced that treaties such as the Hague Convention of 1907 “were recognized by all civilised nations” for half a century and were thus customary laws of war and binding on all parties, whether the party was a signatory to the specific treaty or not. This is reaffirmed in the 1998 treaty known as the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, which claims universal jurisdiction. Modern notions regarding the laws of war are what chiefly separate “regular” from “irregular” warfare, the former being “acceptable” killing by “legitimate” Westphalian powers, whereas the latter is typically the purview of nonstate actors and tantamount to dishonorable practices such as murder, torture, deception, and other “war crimes.”

Despite the strong norm against mercenaries, state-sponsored mercenarism continued into the twentieth century. The Flying Tigers—the popular name of the 1st American Volunteer Group of the Chinese Air Force in 1941–1942—consisted of some sixty Curtiss P-40 shark-faced fighter planes based in Burma, which flew missions against Japanese forces occupying China. The unit was staffed by mostly former US military personnel and pilots and its deployment was little more than a way for the United States to combat Japan before war was formally declared. Monthly salaries varied but were all substantially higher than those of the US public military: $250 for a skilled ground crewman, $600 for a pilot officer, and $675 for a flight leader. Squadron commanders received $750 a month, or $11,486.65 in 2010 dollars. In many ways, the Flying Tigers were precursors of modern PMCs.

The first PMC was WatchGuard International, formed in 1965 and registered in island of Jersey by David Stirling and John Woodhouse. Stirling also founded the British Special Air Services (SAS) and staffed WatchGuard International with SAS veterans. The SAS is the United Kingdom’s elite special forces regiment, highly trained in covert operations, guerrilla warfare, and counterinsurgency. The PMC operated mostly in the Gulf States but worked worldwide, and its services included training foreign forces, supporting operations against insurgents, and providing military advisory teams to governments in the Middle East, Africa, Latin America, and East Asia.

WatchGuard International followed the military enterpriser model, ostensibly working with the United Kingdom. It was the first of many British PMCs in an era when such firms were unknown. Following WatchGuard International, other British PMCs emerged to take its place, all led by ex–SAS officers and largely staffed with former SAS soldiers: SAS counter terrorism warfare team leader Ian Crooke ran Kilo Alpha Services (KAS); SAS squadron leader Arish Turtle managed Control Risks; SAS counterespionage specialist H.M.P.D. Harclerode ran J. Donne Holdings; SAS South American specialist David Walker; and SAS group intelligence officer Andrew Nightingale managed both Keenie Meenie Services and also Saladin Security. Like WatchGuard International, they worked in dangerous places with unpalatable regimes and conducted risky security operations that most Western governments would wish to avoid.

However, WatchGuard International and the SAS-PMCs are exceptional. Most mercenaries during this period led illicit lives, operating as private warriors in the shadows rather than as for-profit companies in the open market. Individual soldiers of fortune bounced between geopolitical hot spots in China, Latin America, and especially Africa. Their employers included rebel groups, weak governments, multinational firms operating in precarious regions, and former colonial powers that desired clandestine influence in the affairs of their past colonies. The decolonization that followed World War II offered particularly rich opportunities for these private warriors.

The Congo Crisis of 1960–1968 began with national independence from Belgium and ended with the seizing of power by Joseph Mobutu, causing the deaths of tens of thousands of people. During this maelstrom of conflict, international mining companies such as Union Minière hired hundreds of mercenaries known as Les Affreux (“The Frightfuls”), including Irishman “Mad” Mike Hoare and Frenchman Bob Denard, to support the Katanga secession. Later, Hoare attempted a coup d’état of the Seychelles Islands, and Denard fought in many African countries, including Angola, Zimbabwe, Gabon, and the Comoros Islands, where he participated in four coups, the last in 1995. Their exploits informed movies such as The Wild Geese (1978), for which Hoare was a technical adviser, and The Dogs of War (1980), based on a Frederick Forsyth novel inspired by the life of Denard. These and other treatments still shape mercenary stereotypes in today’s popular” imagination, summed up by a scene in The Dogs of War when one mercenary makes a toast before the ad hoc team embarks on its mission: “Vive la mort! Vive la guerre! Vive le sacré mercenaire!”

It was not until the 1970s that the laws of war noticed mercenaries, and only then as a response to the African wars of decolonization in the 1960s, where a black market for mercenaries thrived. This prompted the society of states to formally proscribe mercenaries in the Third and Fourth Geneva Conventions. The primary objection to mercenaries was that they were warriors without a state, fighting for money rather than national ideology. The most widely accepted definition of a mercenary in the laws of war is in Article 47 of Protocol I Additional to the Geneva Conventions, which states as follows:

1. A mercenary shall not have the right to be a combatant or a prisoner of war.

2. A mercenary is any person who:

a. is especially recruited locally or abroad in order to fight in an armed conflict;

b. does, in fact, take a direct part in the hostilities;

c. is motivated to take part in the hostilities essentially by the desire for private gain and, in fact, is promised, by or on behalf of a Party to the conflict, material compensation substantially in excess of that promised or paid to combatants of similar ranks and functions in the armed forces of that Party;

d. is neither a national of a Party to the conflict nor a resident of territory controlled by a Party to the conflict;

e. is not a member of the armed forces of a Party to the conflict; and

f. has not been sent by a State which is not a Party to the conflict on official duty as a member of its armed forces.

However, this definition is so restrictive yet imprecise that almost no one falls into the category. As Best remarks, “any mercenary who cannot exclude himself from this definition deserves to be shot—and his lawyer with him!”