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Interview: former SAS soldier Sam Stevenson

As the SAS withdraws its troops from Afghanistan, the former officer lifts the lid on his own extraordinary career.

Many people can ­remember exactly where they were when they first heard about the September 11 terrorist attacks in the United States. But not many Kiwis can say it truly changed their lives. For Sam Stevenson, however, turning on his TV in his Auckland home that morning and watching New York’s Twin Towers crumple to the ground was a seminal moment.

“I knew within minutes – within seconds – that this was going to change my life,” he recalls. Stevenson had been a member of the Special Air Service (SAS) since 1996 and served on UN peacekeeping missions in the Sinai Desert and Sierra Leone. By Christmas 2001, he and his colleagues were in Afghanistan alongside US-led coalition forces. They were no longer in a peacekeeping role.

He is not allowed to talk about the details of the SAS’s actual operations: the tight-knit unit he worked so hard to become a part of frowns on too much chatting to journalists. And I later learn from a mutual friend that Stevenson joked about my interrogation techniques. (“He was trying the pregnant pause! He’d have to do better than that,” he apparently said). The SAS are trained to resist much more professional attempts at getting them to talk, including enduring hours of stress positions. “It really buggers your knees.”

We meet at his new home, a villa in a surprisingly leafy suburb in Dubai. These days, he is chief executive of a private security company that helps commercial ships fend off Somali pirates. So how did he end up with such an unusual, and dangerous, job? It has to be said it wasn’t obvious back when he and I were at school together in the late 1980s that he was potential officer material. “I think I was lashed 73 times in my first year,” he says, grinning.

At school, he didn’t stand out as a student or a sportsman, but he did spread himself around – rugby, tennis, skiing, hockey, and drama. By his final year, he was a school prefect, more by dint of being a good bloke than anything else: “I’ve always been able to get on with people, and in the nicest possible way been able to get them to do things – to believe in the cause.”

After leaving school he spent a year in the freezing works, before starting a law degree. He enjoyed some aspects of student life, but the study wasn’t going so well. “Towards the end of my second year I was trudging up to varsity thinking that it wasn’t working and I wanted to do something else; something with a bit of mana. I walked past an army recruitment office, and I stopped and started talking to them.” Shortly afterwards he announced he was going to join the army, become an officer, and join the SAS.

“Three years later I was lying in the snow for hours watching lights go up and down the Desert Rd, thinking truck-driving wouldn’t be so bad … But I had got through the selection course at Burnham, then had 12 months at officer-cadet school in Waiouru, and all the time I was maturing, getting mentally and physically tougher, realising that the decisions I made now had ramifications for the rest of my life. And I was enjoying it.”

He was posted as a platoon commander in Ranger Company, then as reconnaissance platoon commander with 2/1 RNZIR, building on his infantry training and accumulating experience in parachuting, rock-climbing and amphibious operations. The SAS was always at the back of his mind. “I had set my stall out, told everyone what I wanted to do, so now I was obliged to do it.”

The selection process for the SAS is famously demanding. Seventy-odd candidates are whittled down over 10 days (plus an additional week for officers) to no more than a handful, who then qualify for a year of intense training – during which they can be dropped if they don’t progress quickly enough. Stevenson spent six months preparing for the 10-day test. “Getting yourself fit is easy enough – after work I would go for a 15km pack walk, or a long run, and got to the point where my recovery time after effort was virtually zero. The trick was to get mentally right. I was lucky to have a good commanding officer who told me what he wanted but left me the scope to adapt, to solve problems following a track of possibilities to find the best available option.”

The hopefuls started in alphabetical order, but were handicapped each day after that to avoid the strongest candidates showing the way to the others. By day three, he was the last to start and by day 10, just three officers and five enlisted soldiers had made it through. The officers were given the weekend off before starting the second phase.

At 25, Stevenson was still relatively inexperienced. “The exercises are about seeing how you work; how you cope when the goalposts are shifted. You might start with an order to secure Landing Zones to infiltrate an enemy camp, then satellite images show that there are heavy anti-aircraft guns near the LZ. So do you move from a covert operation to search and destroy, or look for another way? Can you get in by sea? What are conditions like? Temperatures are low, you might get fog – so you adapt, change your strategy, find a solution. Still, you always walk out thinking that you’ve cocked it up.”

At the end of that week, the officers met individually with the commanding officer. He was last in the queue, and after the first two came out smiling, he feared the worst. But he passed. “I just felt this massive sense of elation. Suddenly, everything was easy. I went out to a cafe that had a pinball machine – I’ve never really played pinball – but all I had to do was hit this little ball with a flipper. It was ridiculously simple. “I scored 468 million – kids were crowding round to watch me play.”

After another year of training, he was “badged” with the sky-blue belt and the sandy beret featuring the winged dagger of the SAS. “It was tough, but it was fantastic, working with motivated, capable people – it’s a great environment.”

There are obvious similarities between the SAS and another unashamedly elitist New Zealand institution: Andy Martin, a former commanding officer of the SAS, went on to become manager of the All Blacks. But the SAS don’t play rugby, and all the training is only preparation for their real job. Peacekeeping under the UN umbrella on the border between Egypt and Israel wasn’t too complicated, says Stevenson, but the stint in Sierra Leone was more of a challenge. “You don’t go into the army to kill people; you go in to save lives. In Sierra Leone the RUF [Revolutionary United Front] were coming into villages, holding them ransom, picking kids up and bashing their heads against walls. That’s when you need someone who will put their life in danger to protect others. When you see people carrying on like that, it puts things in perspective.”

In the past two years, four New Zealand soldiers have died in Afghanistan: Lieutenant Timothy O’Donnell, Private Kirifi Mila; Corporal Doug Grant and Lance Corporal Leon Smith. Two were serving in the SAS. [Update: A fifth soldier, Corporal Douglas Hughes, died this month.]

In 2004, Stevenson was in New Zealand working as an SAS operations officer when a request came in for someone who could scuba dive and ski and had other skills. He volunteered, and for two weeks he became equerry to Prince William as he followed the Lions Tour. The pair became close enough that Stevenson and his wife were invited to the royal wedding last year, and often catch up.

The assignment led to a turning point in his career: Prince William’s private secretary, Jamie Lowther-Pinkerton – a former British SAS officer – worked part-time for a risk-management company, and asked Stevenson whether he had considered a career in the private sector. He offered a position as chief operating officer of the company’s Saudi Arabian operations.

“When you start thinking about family, those deployments can look quite long. I had been in the army for nearly 15 years … It was a good opportunity, more business-related than actual security. I had plenty of transferable skills, though generating revenue when that hasn’t been part of your day-to-day work was a challenge.”

After two years in Riyadh, he moved into investment banking, all the while living in an expatriate compound cordoned off with barbed wire, tanks and soldiers, after the 2003 terrorist bombing and a string of assassinations of foreigners. He then moved to Dubai where he worked for a private security group. The new role took him to Iraq, Afghanistan, Djibouti, Yemen and other hotspots; the company’s main client was an oil distributor whose convoys needed protecting as they moved from Karachi to Afghanistan.

Although the withdrawal of US and coalition forces in Afghanistan looks likely to curtail private security operations there, piracy off the Somali coast means there is still plenty of demand for such services. In January 2011, 33 vessels were being held hostage in Somalia, although that figure has dropped over the past few months. Last year was a record for ransoms – according to UK Foreign Affairs Committee figures, US$135 million was paid out. At the time of writing, no ship with an armed team on board has yet been seized.

Late last year, after linking up with former military colleagues, Stevenson became chief executive of a new maritime security group, Envoy360, joining dozens of small companies in an unregulated market where an SAS pedigree sets them apart. The company has a strong New Zealand connection. Its chairman is Kiwi businessman Tenby Powell, who at one stage considered running for the Auckland mayoralty.

Although the Somalis have taken a few hits, piracy isn’t going to go away, says Stevenson. Asian pirates are also becoming more common. “With the best will in the world, navies can’t cover the whole area – we’re talking about a huge chunk of the Indian Ocean. The pirates have these big mother ships that give them a longer range which they use to dispatch smaller boats, often using hostages from previous raids as human shields – and now others are getting in on the act off the Nigerian coast.”

The largest oil tankers use about US$10,000 of fuel an hour when cruising at 15 knots. To get up to 25 knots, a safer speed if you’re in pirate waters, costs more like US$50,000 an hour. The ships can take a roundabout route, but it’s cheaper to go in a straight line and have a security team onboard, he says. “Some crews are even refusing to go without an armed guard.”

Ex-military personnel provide a pool of contractors for the group. “We tend to use Kiwis – we know them, they get on well with most nationalities, work well as a team and are prepared to adapt.” Before a job, the team will meet the skipper to ensure the ship is prepared, which might mean adding razor wire, modifying access areas or taking other countermeasures. The team then flies to meet the ship. Muscat in Oman and Galle in Sri Lanka are the main embarkation points, as ships aren’t allowed weapons in the Gulf.

Stevenson says his firm works hard to abide by the rules. “The industry has attracted a few cowboy outfits who just biff their guns overboard if they look like getting caught, but the liability issues are huge and the shipowners are the ones who suffer if it turns to custard. Regulation is coming, and we welcome that.”

Which brings us to a delicate point: to the layman, “private security” sounds a lot like “mercenary”. Stevenson insists there is a big difference. Private security is a defensive role, whereas mercenaries can be much more active, he says. “On the ground, the lines can get blurred because there are so many potential threats around. The good thing about being at sea is that you can identify anyone looking to approach you from a distance and work out their intentions. Pirates tend to look for soft targets, so once they know a vessel is defended they look elsewhere. The one area where things can get hairy is delivering ransoms, so you need to be very careful about how you undertake those operations.”

According to the UN’s counter-piracy unit, the Somalian affiliate of al Qaeda receives funding from the pirates, so thwarting piracy also helps prevent terrorism. In one sense, the new role in maritime security is a privately funded extension of what used to be called the war on terror. And that, after all, is what ­Stevenson’s career has largely been all about.

Shroud of secrecy

Special forces are averse to publicity, even when it's positive.

In recent years, the New Zealand SAS has undertaken most – if not all – the country's combat operations. It does this with the utmost secrecy. However, the clandestine nature of SAS deployments and the Government's reluctance to give details about the grey area in which they sometimes operate is nothing new.

NZSAS Association president David Moloney served in Borneo in the 60s and recalls that even then, the location of the troops was highly sensitive. Because it was common for patrols to undertake covert cross-border raids into Indonesia, the UK decided that all such information should be classified.

The original commander of the first NZSAS detachment was returned home for giving a general interview in Singapore to the Weekly News. Another trooper was sent home for describing operations in a letter to his wife. How much the public is told about SAS operations is up to the Government at the time. However, Moloney believes it is important that current members of the SAS have their identities protected, to ensure the safety of any future operations in which they might be involved.

Hence the controversy two years ago when the NZ Herald published photographs of NZSAS soldiers in Kabul. Shortly afterwards, Prime Minister John Key announced a more open policy about SAS operations. "We felt for some time that we couldn't actually adequately answer the question why we weren't prepared to give you more information when it is quite clear that other international forces do give their media more information," he told media at the time.

It's easy to see how the lines can become blurred between the best interests of the soldiers and those of the governments that deploy them. In Borneo, Commonwealth troops were operating without permission inside a country that wasn't technically an enemy. In Afghanistan, the "mentoring role" with Afghan forces undertaken by the SAS from 2009 clearly involved combat operations and all the associated ramifications – but that wasn't how the deployment was initially presented to the public.

The British SAS has also tended to be averse to publicity, partly because personal memoirs haven't always cast the regiment in a positive light. A series of books about the disastrous Bravo Two Zero mission during the first Gulf War – including Soldier 5 by Kiwi Mike Coburn (a pseudonym), published only after a long legal battle that went all the way from the High Court in Auckland to the Privy Council – outlined a series of missteps. The UK regiment even blacklisted former commanding officer General Sir Peter de la Billiere because he published two books that were less revelatory, but still deemed as poor form.

The policy of zero tolerance for unauthorised communication appears to apply even when it casts the SAS in a positive light: US General Stanley McChrystal was criticised by the director of Special Forces for revealing details of British SAS and SBS operations in Iraq and Afghanistan when he singled them out for praise in a newspaper interview.

The irony is that, at a time when public interest in Anzac Day has never been higher and the record of our soldiers is a source of great national pride, we know very little about what the people fighting – and dying – for our country are doing.