Life Imitating Art

March 21, 2008 • Commentary
This article appeared on United Press International on March 21, 2008.

Contrary to popular wisdom, “private military contractor” is not a euphemism for mercenary. But the connections between today’s security industry and the infamous freebooters of yesteryear like “Mad” Mike Hoare and Col. Bob Denard — whose antics inspired and were immortalized by the 1978 movie, The Wild Geese — are clear, especially when one considers the recent case of a real mercenary.

Simon Mann, 55, married with four children, is a former British army officer, South African citizen and mercenary.

He was accused of planning to overthrow the government of oil‐​rich Equatorial Guinea by leading a hired military force into the capital Malabo in an effort to kidnap or kill President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, a ruthless and corrupt dictator if ever there was one.

The United States has not had much to say about all this; perhaps because Equatorial Guinea is a major provider of oil to U.S. refineries and because U.S. companies — including Marathon Oil, Hess, and Chevron‐​Texaco — dominate oil exploration there.

Mann’s story began in Zimbabwe on March 7, 2004, when he and 68 South African and Angolan soldiers were arrested as their plane landed for a stop‐​off in Harare. The aircraft was due to be loaded with arms. Although the ex‐​SAS man insisted he was only providing security for the diamond industry in the Democratic Republic of Congo, he was convicted of immigration offenses and sentenced to seven years in jail, later reduced to four.

Just last month he was extradited in the dead of night from his Zimbabwe prison to Equatorial Guinea — the country against which he is accused of leading a failed coup d’etat. Although South African prosecutors dropped charges arising from the coup allegations last year, Guinean courts convicted him for the plot in absentia in November 2004.

He is likely to serve a minimum 30‐​year prison sentence at Black Beach prison. He already served three years of a four‐​year sentence in Zimbabwe for the same crimes.

The details of his coup attempt have already been well chronicled in past years, especially in the excellent 2006 book The Wonga Coup by Adam Roberts. That book, by the way, was a real‐​life version of the 1974 novel The Dogs of War, by Fredrick Forsyth, which chronicled the efforts of a company of European mercenary soldiers hired by a British industrialist to depose the government of a fictional African country.

But it seems that art imitates life as least as much as the other way around, because in recent years, after the release of once‐​secret British government documents, Forsyth was forced to admit his own role in financing a similar, and similarly failed, coup against Equatorial Guinea in 1973.

Mann is a former associate of Lt. Col. Tim Spicer, the chief executive of the British private military contractor Aegis Defense — one of the biggest security firms currently in Iraq — having worked with him in another private security firm, Sandline International.

But Mann also helped establish Executive Outcomes. That firm was the mother of all private military contractors, and the sort of missing link between the “Wild Geese”-style freebooters of old and the new generation of PMCs.

Executive Outcomes was renowned around the world in the 1990s for fighting against rebel leader Jonas Savimbi in Angola and against the murderous Revolutionary United Front rebel group in Sierra Leone.

Spicer, in turn, has an interesting connection with Forsyth, in that the author is reportedly one of a small number of people who own shares in Spicer’s company.

Mann’s coup attempt, lame and ineptly planned as it was, has been making waves, at least overseas, for years. It hasn’t made that much news in the United States. But it has been a subject of fascination in British media, if for no other reason than the people who have been linked to it, such as Mark Thatcher (lamely codenamed by the plotters as “Scratcher”), the son of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

Mark Thatcher pleaded guilty in South Africa in 2005 to helping — purportedly “unwittingly” — charter a helicopter he later suspected “might be used for mercenary activity.” Thatcher was fined 250,000 pounds and received a four‐​year suspended jail term. As a result, he was refused a green card in America.

Most recently Channel 4 News, after winning a legal battle, broadcast an interview with Mann, talking from his prison cell in Equatorial Guinea.

When one looks at the transcript of the interview, broadcast March 11, one is struck by Mann’s incompetence, which, for a former commissioned officer in the Special Air Service, might be startling to outsiders. As Mann himself says at the outset:

“Well, you know, it was a f—-up. And I have to carry the can for that. Really and truly, I blame myself most for simply not saying ‘Cut’ two months before we were arrested. That’s what I should have done and there, you know, I was bloody stupid. (Laughs.) Mea culpa.”

Well, at least he knows Latin. Those English schools are good for something.

When asked about Thatcher’s involvement, Mann said his role went way beyond his admitted role in leasing a helicopter.

“Um, ya,” he said. “He was a part of the team.”

The plot thickens as they say — stay tuned. Meanwhile, Hoare and Denard must be spinning in their graves to see what inept bunglers their modern mercenary descendents have become. Perhaps the competent ones all became private military contractors.

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