Ex-mercenary & SAS officer: Worst atrocities committed by child soldiers

Soldiers of fortune. Hired guns. Mercenaries. They’ve existed throughout the known history of mankind, always there, where the flames of war are high. Little has changed in our days – private military companies are flourishing, and professional soldiers are welcome guests for governments and groups that want to reshape the conflict zone. But what does it mean to be a mercenary – to risk your life for the sake of earthly money? We spoke to a man, once a British SAS officer, that later fought as a hired soldier in the war in Angola – and once was even ordered to overthrow the government. Simon Mann is on SophieCo today.

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Sophie Shevardnadze:We have Simon Mann in the studio, ex-British military officer, also a former mercenary. Simon, it’s really great to have you with us today. So, you were serving in the elite royal troops, you were taking orders from the Queen. How hard was it afterwards to sell your services to the highest bidder?

Simon Mann: Well, it wasn’t really like that, because first of all, I was never senior enough for the Queen to actually tell me personally what to do. I was a captain in the Scots Guards, and the Scots Guards obviously have the privilege of guarding the Queen…and then, when I became a mercenary, you know, we actually got involved in this, because we were attacked in Angola, and so, we sided with the government and fought back. So, for me, that wasn’t that hard of a transition to make at all, because I found myself actually in Angola’s army, I was signed up in the Angola army, and in fact, I had the rank of brigadier-general in the Angolan army. So, a lot of things were not so different.

SS:But how much of it was about the money, though, because “private military company” does imply selling your skills and services for money, and you weren’t really doing it pro bono.

SM: No, that’s true. But, what I am saying is that at the beginning, when we…you asked me how I started, how I became a mercenary – and that was how. Later, we established Executive Outcomes, and money became much more of an issue, and yes, it was primarily for money that we were operating.

SS:I’m just trying to imagine for myself, I mean, how hard it is to justify things you fight for when the war that you are fighting has nothing to do with your family, your men, your countrymen…

SM: I didn’t find it difficult. Being a professional soldier in the British army for 12 years, we were asked to do things, and expected to do things that were not necessarily how we saw the world, and not necessarily what we wanted to do. So to then find myself protecting my own company in the first instance and then making money in Angola, which was the country I really liked, was fine, and then to find myself in Sierra Leone fighting really ghastly rebels who were committing terrible atrocities was also fine.

SS:But, I just wonder why did you leave the British army in the first place? I mean, you know, you guys are paid to fight for good causes; the British army certainly positions itself to be at the rescue of democracies in crisis.

SM: I actually joined…in fact, I was asked to stay on in the British army at that time and I was asked to do another job with my regiment, which was then a Special Air Service, or would have been the Special Air Service. I was very tempted to do that job, but my friend, who was the owner and chief executive of Heritage Oil & Gas, he said, “Come on Simon, it’s time you made some real money, you’ve got kids, etc, etc, join my oil company!” So, my new career was as an oil man, it was accidental that we then became what we did become, which was the number one private military company in Africa.

SS: So, is the money factor the main difference between your work as a mercenary and between being an officer in the British Special Forces?

SM: I would actually say no, because when you find yourself in wars, purely for money or mainly for money, then there are a lot of things which become extremely difficult – issues, problems which you do not have if you are in a normal, sovereign state military force.

SS:What issues are those?

SM: For example, you might find yourself having to make a decision as to whether we have three helicopters in an operational theater, or two. Now, if it's three, that’s the cost of that helicopter and operating it coming straight out of your pocket, if you’re one of the owners of that company. Now, you know you could probably get away with two, but the lack of that third is very likely to lead to quite probably the death of one of your soldiers. So, what you end up having to do is make financial, business-like decisions on the other end of the scale, instead of a normal sort of business decision. Whether it is a good idea to invest in this money or not, it’s people’s lives – and that is hard and that is not something you have to do in a regular army; those decisions are basically being taken for you in a regular army, and you just have to make the most of it and get on with your orders.

SS:So it’s just easier to obey orders than to make your own decisions?

SM: Well, making your own decisions when you have to make that kind of decision is tough, because, obviously, you’re there, you’re making money, you’re playing a balance. But are we going to be utterly ruthless with the lives of our men and boost the profit, or what?

SS:Did you actually fight with the gun in your hand? Were you in the frontline, or was it just logistical work?

SM: I was shot at on a number of occasions. I was armed, but I never actually got into position when I had to shoot back. I mean, I was a barely-sort of senior officer.

SS:I’m asking because Sierra Leone is known to have children soldiers in the ranks of their rebels. I was wondering if you ever came across kids with guns, what it is like facing your enemy – but they are kids with guns.

SM: Yeah, in Sierra Leone I never got that close to the fighting, when there were child soldiers involved. But these child soldiers were very often on drugs, and the atrocities that were committed by them were dreadful.

SS:Absolutely, I’m just assuming that a European-bred man, when he sees a child soldier, even if that child soldier is on drugs, probably has a moral dilemma whether to shoot at him or not.

SM: I’m glad to say I was never in that position, but I guess some of the guys were. That must have been pretty tough for them.

SS:What happened there? Did you guys ever talk about that? Did any of your colleagues tell you about this?

SM: No, no, because very often, the fighting is not in direct sight of the enemy. It’s a case of incoming fire, and you’re firing back. You can’t even really tell whether they are children or whether they are adults. The bullets are coming towards you either way.

SS:So, for those who were actually fighting on the frontline, they considered these child rebels to be full-fledged soldiers - a full-fledged enemy, right?

SM: Basically, yes.

SS:Do you know how many civilians have suffered during your operations, if any?

SM: Well, there was dreadful suffering going on by a very large number of civilians. No question. Our objective was to end those wars, both of them, as quickly as possible, and to stop that suffering.

SS: But during that operation itself? Do you know how many civilians suffered during that operation?

SM: How many civilians we might have killed accidentally or something like that? Is that what you mean?


SM: No one, and in fact one of the things that Executive Outcomes is very proud of, is that in both of those wars, in Angola and Sierra Leone, there was never one single charge made against us that there had been any kind of atrocity committed by us. Now that’s actually a track record which I think most regular armies would be jealous of.

SS:You were talking to local people outside the operation – did they treat you as liberators or as enemies?

SM: They treated us as liberators, absolutely. Now, in fact, in one occasion, I was actually approached by the mayor of a town in Sierra Leone, place called Koidu, by the mayor and his senior councilors who had a bag of money that they gave me – tried to give me – because they had heard that we were withdrawing from that particular place on the orders of the government, and it amazed me that here, with these extremely tough South African soldiers with a pretty ferocious reputation, here were these local people begging us to stay.

SS:So, Simon, did you ever witness anything you’d like to forget, during your time in Africa?

SM: No. I don’t like seeing the results of fighting, and I don’t think any soldier does. It’s always shocking, and it stays with you, and you wish it wasn’t happening.

SS:But what was it exactly, was it something particular to those operations, or to Africa? Because, I mean, obviously, no one likes to play war, but was it something so dreadful about those operations in Africa that you would like to forget?

SM: Yeah, there was a village in Sierra Leone; we got there after the RUF, the guerrilla force that had pulled out. There were bits of bodies all over the village…it wasn’t a pretty sight.

SS: Was that even worse [than what] you saw or experienced in the African prisons that you were put in for a short period of time?

SM: As you know, I was imprisoned for 5 ½ years in total – 4 years in Zimbabwe and 18 months in Equatorial Guinea.

SS:In a notorious prison in Equatorial Guinea! No one wants to be held in that prison.

SM: That was called Black Beach. I was in solitary confinement in Black Beach all the time, and so I didn’t see a lot of the stuff that was going on outside my cell.

SS:But how did they treat you?

SM: In the end they treated me well, I managed to help them and had a long interrogation and a long trial, and in the course of that, we got along better and better as time went on, but it was tough, because I was in solitary confinement and for the first three months I was in handcuffs and leg irons all the time, and the climate there is pretty vicious; it’s really, really hot and sticky. There were a lot of mosquitoes, and no mosquito net, no ventilation, etc, etc – so, it was quite testing.

SS:What about the Zimbabwe prison?

SM: That was a very different experience, because there I was with general prisoners. It was a very overcrowded prison, and a rough place.

SS: But how was it for a foreigner to be in an African prison with everyone else? Did they treat you better or worse because you were a foreigner?

SM: African culture is extremely friendly, especially to foreigners, and their whole instinct is actually to look after you - and I was looked after.

SS:I guess you got lucky there. You know what I’m thinking: surely you knew that the things you were doing – fighting a mercenary war – was illegal, and you were most likely to end up in jail. Were you prepared for the consequences?

SM: I was. Obviously I had to be, I couldn’t possibly set out to do what we set out to try and do, which was to overthrow the government of Equatorial Guinea, had I not been aware that if things go wrong I would have been thrown into prison. I was very aware. So as far as I was concerned, it was just a part of the equation, it was just the part of the risk that we were running.

SS:So the money was really good enough for that risk to be taken?

SM: Well, I actually lost the whole lot of money, in fact. I mean, in reality, I wasn’t paid anything to do the Equatorial Guinea exercise. Had it all been successful, then I would have been paid a lot of money, but only after a long chain of “ifs” – if we’d been successful, if the person that we’d backed had ultimately been elected, if his cabinet decided to honor the agreements he’d made, etc, etc. So, it was by no means something you’d want to take your bank manager in.

SS:Can I ask you something - when you used to sign up for these kind of things, were your interests somehow insured, protected, or you were just sent up there in an open war field, and whatever happens happens? There is no guarantee?

SM: No, you have to accept, if you do anything like this, even if you know or you suspect that friendly governments are in favor of the operation, you must realize that if it goes wrong, you are going to be on your own. If you’re flying around Africa as a white mercenary, then they’re going to throw away the key if you’re lucky. If you’re not lucky, they’re going to chop you up and eat you.

SS: I know that you expressed remorse on your part about wanting to overthrow the president of Equatorial Guinea. Did you just say that to get you out of jail? I mean, because the man is not theworld’s most benevolent leader, right? He is a dictator who has been there for the last 35 years...

SM: Sure. Like I’ve said before, while I was in prison in Equatorial Guinea, in the course of my interrogation and my trial, we found common ground. Basically his enemies were, in fact, by that stage, mine, because my erstwhile colleagues, the people who set me up in the operation, completely failed to back me up. They did nothing to help the men, my men, or the men’s families who were deserted and without support down in South Africa. And of course they were desperate and I was in really big trouble, because I was in a prison with 70 guys who I’d led in there, and when they discovered that nothing was being done to help their families, that didn’t make my position in that prison any easier.

SS: So was it a genuine regret? A genuine remorse?

SM: It was, and it still is. I mean, we shouldn’t have done it, we were trying to do something that was wrong, and I regretted it.

SS:But what was wrong about it? To meddle in a foreign country’s affairs? Or it was wrong because you realized that the dictator guy was a good guy?

SM: No, it was wrong because we caused so much suffering amongst a lot of people and we were trying to act in a very arbitrary way and we didn’t really know, as it turned out, what the situation in Equatorial Guinea was. We thought we did, but in reality, Equatorial Guinea, although it still has a very bad reputation, in reality, it is now headed in the right direction, they are working very hard to bring their human rights and social system up to a better standard.

SS: Now that you’ve experienced African politics firsthand - how pervasive was the outside influence?

SM: That’s an interesting question. Angola was the worst proxy war of the whole Cold War. There were Russian troops there, Cuban troops there on one side, and there were American and South African troops there on the other. Now, the whole peace plan was all about getting those foreign troops out, and there was the situation that we found ourselves in when we were attacked. The foreign influence was massive, there’s no question. Our guess is...that when UNITA went back to war illegally, they were probably pushed back to war by various interests, notably, the South Africans.


SM: Sierra Leone was a completely, completely different animal. I don’t think anyone even really knew or cared what was happening in Sierra Leone, which in itself is as bad or worse.

SS:But also I know that you were asked to help start the Iraq war. What was that all about – just how close are governments and intelligence services with mercenary soldiers?

SM: Well, I wasn’t paid for that, so I would argue that that wasn’t a mercenary thing. It was a very strange thing. I was involved with a guy who is now, actually, sadly, dead, called David Hart, who was a remarkable character. He was close to Lady Thatcher at one time, and he was writing papers that were going straight to Tony Blair. This was in the run-up to the Iraq invasion, so I guess this was in 2002, before the decisions had really been made. And he needed help to write these papers, because he himself had no military service. So I said to him, “Why do you want me to help you, when there are loads of people who can help you?” He said, “Oh, well, you’re in the SAS,” and I said, “David, you know, there are hundred people within a mile of here who are also in the SAS and they’re better qualified than me,” and he said, “But they haven’t fought in two private wars – Angola and Sierra Leone.” So I did help him, and I helped him by writing papers of my own which he then used in his papers as to the hows and wherefores of the Iraq war.

SS: Can I ask you something – if you were right now offered a contract to topple Bashar Assad, would you go for it?

SM: I would absolutely not go for that. No, I think that situation is so horrific and so complex…No, that would be a no. I must be getting older.

SS:But also, these are your words: “Toppling foreign governments is what democracy is all about.” Do you still think so?

SM: Well, democracy is about changing governments, but it's about changing governments in a legal and, hopefully, non-military, non-violent way.

SS:We don’t see much of that going on lately.

SM: Well, where are you talking about?

SS:Iraq, Libya, once again, what they are trying to do in Syria. We can also talk about all these countries in the Arab Spring, but it’s going to take us to a whole new subject. But, in general, you know, toppling governments for democracy’s sake doesn’t usually bring democracy nowadays, because these countries where the governments were changed aren’t really much better off than they were before.

SM: Yeah, you’re opening a very big subject here. In fact, I’m on Twitter, and I have tweeted about this quite a few times, and I’ve actually said that if you’ll look at the revolutions – the French, the British, the Russian – they were almost invariably followed by periods of great unrest. For a revolution to go straight from being a violent upset of the existing order to being a well-run democracy is impossible, it just won’t happen, because the act of the revolution is so violent that the aftershocks are so great, that there is a period of chaos.

SS:Simon, thank you so much for this interesting insight into your life and mercenary work. We were talking to Simon Mann, ex-British SAS officer and former mercenary, who was talking about his life experience during his operations as a mercenary in Africa. That’s it for this edition of SophieCo and we will see you next time.