Some may remember a 1970s action movie called The Wild Geese in
which a rag-tag assortment of ex-soldiers, led by Roger Moore, formed a
mercenary group to fight on the African continent.
The film summed up the popular image of mercenaries at the time;
dangerous characters who were taking advantage of the crisis that
followed the end of colonial rule in Africa. However, since the end of
the Cold War it seems the mercenary has been undergoing an image
The slickly-handled press conference for the return of former British
Colonel Tim Spicer, Falklands veteran and director of British-based
’military consultancy’ Sandline International, after being arrested in
Papua New Guinea, is just the latest sign that mercenaries are coming
out of the shadows.
Sandline confirms it used a professional PR agency to organise it - Sara
Pearson Associates - but claims that this is the first time it has done
so. ’We don’t have a proactive PR strategy,’ says a spokesman. ’In our
business, governments and buyers of our services know who the providers
Yet the evidence of the past six months suggests that mercenaries are
becoming as adept at using PR as they are guns.
Articles in several newspapers have reported the increasing influence of
slickly-run private armies on conflicts in the developing world. The
Guardian and the Independent recently profiled Executive Outcomes. Made
up largely of South African ex-soldiers, EO is what might be called the
market leader. Its corporate brochure claims to provide ’a highly
professional and confidential military advisory service to legitimate
governments’ and ’the most professional training packages available to
Although both papers questioned the wider connections of such groups,
there are those who are becoming increasingly worried about the high
profile they are achieving.
’What we’re seeing is some positive press coverage and we’re concerned,’
says Will McMahon co-ordinator at Campaign Against the Arms Trade, which
is pushing for tighter legal restrictions on the actions of mercenary
’These groups are aware that they need PR to achieve their activities
and are positioning themselves as soldiers of fortune looking after the
unfortunates,’ he says.
McMahon believes that the reality of their work is far less noble.
He points to Sandline International’s work in Papua New Guinea, where it
provided training and military assistance to the government, as a
’classic case’. The government was fighting to retain control of a
closed copper mine against rebel forces who claimed their natural
resources were being exploited, and their land polluted, by a
multinational mining company in collusion with the government.
After an internal military revolt, Spicer was arrested and the whole
affair sparked a public inquiry in PNG into the alleged government
corruption that surrounded hiring the mercenary force. The firearms
charges against Spicer were later dropped.
EO has so far been more fortunate in avoiding such controversy. It was
successful in helping the Angolan government defeat UNITA rebels in 1994
and more recently in restoring order in Sierra Leone. Because of its
work providing military services to diamond-rich African nations
embroiled in civil war - in some cases for an indirect stake in mining
concerns - its members have earned the nickname ’the diamond dogs of
Whatever their motivation, there is evidence that EO has won support on
the ground in the countries in which they operate. As one Sierra Leonean
ex-patriate believes, at least EO achieved something - which is more
than can be said for the international community.
The Guardian’s investigation in March by journalist Jeremy Harding
showed positive pictures of child combatants rounded up and delivered
into the care of charity workers by EO.
Harding says EO was helpful when approached and gave him access to its
operation in Sierra Leone. He rejects the suggestion that the pictures
were part of a carefully arranged PR stunt, although he acknowledges
Barlow’s media skills describing him as ’a smooth presenter of the
company’s case and a good journalist handler.’
A member of the South African army’s notorious 32nd Battalion in the
1980s, Barlow moved on to military intelligence with another
organisation called the Civil Co-operation Bureau, for which he operated
in southern Africa and Western Europe.
Barlow helped form EO in 1989 and since then it has gained growing
credibility, not only through its association with democratic outcomes
in Angola and Sierra Leone but through its corporate connections.
So how far has EO’s bid for respectability been driven by professional
PR advice? CAAT’s McMahon says: ’I would be amazed if Executive Outcomes
isn’t using a PR agency.
EO staff services manager Chris Riba confirms it does use a PR
consultant to ’test’ its PR strategy. He named him aas Brian Streak, a
’PR boffin’ in Johannesburg. However, Barlow is EO chief spokesman.
He confirmed that EO was increasingly concerned with its public image
and is shortly to set up its own Internet site.
Sandline’s use of SPA for the London press conference shows, they too
are not averse to taking PR advice when they feel they need it.
Asked whether she had any qualms about working for a mercenary
organisation, agency managing director Sara Pearson said: ’It depends on
how you define mercenary. The press perception is not necessarily an
accurate interpretation.’ She added that Spicer’s need for outside PR
help following his return was a ’one-off case’, not an on-going
Only time will tell if she is right.