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Keenie Meenie: British mercenaries’ dirty work abroad

Book review: Phil Miller argues ex-British army soldiers got away with war crimes

Sultan Qaboos of Oman attends the Sovereign’s Parade at the Sandhurst Academy in England, April, 1983. Photograph: Keystone/Getty
Keenie Meenie: The British Mercenaries Who Got Away with War Crimes
Keenie Meenie: The British Mercenaries Who Got Away with War Crimes
Author: Phil Miller
ISBN-13: 978-0745340791
Publisher: Pluto Press
Guideline Price: £12.99

Phil Miller’s opening page reads like a passage from Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. On October 2nd, 1985, the Tamil village of Piramanthanaru in northern Sri Lanka awoke to the arrival of six helicopters disgorging scores of commandos who bludgeoned people and held others at gunpoint before torching their homes. They hung men upside down from trees, and summarily executed others; 16 young men died, including the 21-year-old brother of Thurairasa Saradha Devi. It took her six days to find him in a thicket, hands tied behind his back, his body broken and pocked with stab wounds having been flung from a helicopter. According to Devi’s later testimony, she saw “a tall white man watching everything carefully”. Villagers referred to him as “mossadu”. “Later”, she said, “I learned that mossadu are overseas white men.”

The white airman almost certainly worked for Keenie Meenie Services (KMS), a clandestine and once powerfully connected private company dealing in British mercenaries, mostly ex-SAS, many of whom served in Northern Ireland. It was run from a non-descript London office, while corporately based in Jersey.

Miller's KMS history is fragmented, but he cautiously draws forensic inferences to create leads and story-trails

Even its name is a mystery. The one KMS veteran who spoke to Miller, Robin Horsfall, said it was a Scotticism for “keen and nasty”. A former SAS director once said “Kini Mini [was] in SAS terms, any undercover activity”. An ex-soldier hazarded it was Swahili for “the movement of a snake in the grass”; other explanations include a phrase borrowed by British officers during the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya to describe their counter-insurgency strategy of “pseudo-gangs”, or “white policemen, dressed African-style and in blackface accompanying teams of ‘turned’ ex-terrorists’.

Classified files

Miller, an investigative reporter with DeclassifiedUK, once worked with Corporate Watch monitoring private security firms. He has spent seven years gathering data on KMS and its later rebranding as Saladin Security. He has mined declassified government files at the British National Archives, diplomatic cables, soldiers’ reports on global rebel movements, and the whispers of British officials, often in supercilious, imperious, sometimes racist tones.


Miller has faced a battle with the British Foreign Office (FO) to access files. As special forces or intelligence material is mostly censored – and KMS had close connections to MI6 – Miller was hampered by the FO’s long delays before releasing heavily redacted papers, or reporting hundreds of files as simply destroyed.

Thus, Miller’s KMS history is fragmented, but he cautiously draws forensic inferences to create leads and story-trails. Like journalist historians Anne Cadwallader or Ian Cobain, he traces the roving deployments of British military personnel, often between secret, covert, “dirty wars”; indeed from vicious late-colonial wars like Malaya or Kenya into the early years of the Troubles, and importing counter-insurgency strategies with them.

Miller claims KMS pioneered the outsourcing of Whitehall’s shadow foreign policy into lucrative, officially “deniable” private military operations. KMS chairman Col Jim Johnson, a one-time Lloyds “name” became a SAS reserve officer, and commanded the unit from 1960-2. After he retired in 1963, SAS founder David Stirling and other imperialist types approached him when the royalist regime in Yemen was toppled by Nasser-backed revolutionaries. With the “sporadic blessing” of MI6, Johnson began recruiting mercenaries from his Chelsea home.

Johnson’s KMS business partner was Brig Mike Wingate Gray, a D-Day veteran who, as SAS commander in Yemen, had fought on the same side as Johnson’s mercenaries. Through their networks, they supplied bodyguards for endangered British ambassadors; but their biggest earner came through their “associate” Tim Landon. Landon had roomed at Sandhurst with Qaboos bin Said, the son of the old Sultan of Oman. In 1970, Landon staged a coup in Oman with Whitehall’s blessing; even shooting the old Sultan, and installing Qaboos in his place, where he ruled as a quiet tyrant until his death last month. As Qaboos’ influential aide, Landon became known as the White Sultan.

KMS created a praetorian guard for the oil-rich new Sultan; led combat operations against Marxist rebels in Dhufar, and trained special force units of “turned” rebels they sent back into the hills to fight their former comrades. The Dhufar war was also in line with British interests, as Oman overlooks the Strait of Hormuz.


Miller tracks odd incidents, like in 1981, the mysterious deaths in Dhufar of two other Northern Ireland veterans and KMS stalwarts: Majors Andrew Nightingale and Julian “Tony” Ball, found dead in an upside-down Land Rover near the airport. Nightingale had won an MBE for his service in the North, before he co-founded KMS and went on to work in Rhodesia and then command the Sultan’s special forces, which command he had been handing over to Ball, a controversial figure closely associated with Robert Nairac. Ball himself earned a Military Cross for his undercover operations in Belfast.

In 1984, another KMS founder, Maj David Walker who had distinguished himself with the SAS in Dhufar, was called in by an old friend, Ronald Reagan’s navy secretary John Lehman, to covertly assist the right-wing Contras’ insurgency against Nicaragua’s Sandinista government. Walker went at it bald-headed, culminating in one action which caused explosions in a government arms dump that almost destroyed a hospital. By 1987, he had to listen to his former ally Oliver North and others testifying about him at the Iran-Contra hearings before US Congress. Back home, Walker escaped a UK parliament inquiry, but the sheen had gone off his name and the KMS brand.

But Miller’s core thesis is on KMS’s work in Sri Lanka from 1984 to 1988, supporting the Sinhalese government’s merciless campaign against the Tamil people, as much as their rebel factions.

Sri Lankan police were keen on special forces-style paramilitary training, so KMS wangled a contract for an entire team to train 600 handpicked police for a Special Task Force (STF) commando unit, all from the Sinhalese community, to operate in Tamil flashpoints. As Miller notes, this was a recipe for ethnic warfare, and KMS trainers must bear culpability for their STF wards’ behaviour.

The Point Pedro massacre was the STF’s first war crime: in September 1984, after a LTTE landmine killed four STF men, their enraged unit executed as many as 18 civilians. A month later, Sri Lanka’s defence minister, General Don Attygalle was in London, and popped over for a secret “luncheon” with RUC chief constable John Hermon in Belfast, where Hermon’s own SAS-trained “police commandos” were being investigated for “shoot-to-kill” actions by the Stalker Inquiry.

During KMS’s time in Sri Lanka, atrocities escalated. “Necklacing” (burning someone alive in a rubber tyre) became an STF calling card. In 1987, Sri Lankan planes dropped leaflets advising Tamils in Jaffna to shelter in a Hindu temple, then dropped barrel bombs of napalm on it. Another KMS Northern Ireland veteran, Tim Smith in his memoir describes co-piloting helicopter gunships with an STF man who regularly strafed Tamil civilians; making Smith inevitably complicit.

Miller argues that KMS changed the course of the war, as without them the Tamil movement might have achieved its military objectives by 1986. The war’s conclusion in 2009 was beyond brutal: the Tamils, corralled and relentlessly shelled, even in makeshift hospitals. As many as 146,000 went missing in the final months, an outcome that Horsfall who quit his KMS work in revulsion in 1986 – and an international panel of lawyers – have labelled a genocide.