British mercenary’s £4m fortune revealed

A former SAS commander whose mercenary business in Sri Lanka is under investigation for war crimes has left millions of pounds in his will.

14 March 2023

Colonel Johnson leading an SAS parade in 1960. (Image: Imperial War Museum)

One of Britain’s most rapacious mercenaries amassed a fortune worth £4m before his death in 2008, an investigation by Declassified UK has found. 

The soldier of fortune, Colonel Henry ‘Jim’ Johnson, was once described by a senior British diplomat as having “political ideas [that] are probably to the right of Genghis Khan” – a reference to the infamously brutal Mongol emperor.

Johnson commanded an SAS regiment in the 1960s before running a mercenary operation in the North Yemen civil war with the blessing of MI6. He then served as aide-de-camp to Queen Elizabeth until the 1970s when he formed two private military companies, Keenie Meenie Services (KMS) and Saladin Security.

Keenie Meenie is thought to be Arabic or Swahili slang for covert operations. The firm propped up repressive Gulf monarchies, commanding the Sultan of Oman’s special forces and supplying bodyguards to Saudi Arabia’s oil minister Sheikh Yamani.

Throughout the 1980s, KMS set up and trained a paramilitary police unit in Sri Lanka, that was accused of torturing hundreds of Tamils in the island’s civil war. The company also provided helicopter gunship pilots who flew on missions in which Tamil civilians were killed, sparking criticism from a United Nations watchdog.

The Metropolitan Police is currently investigating whether the firm committed war crimes in Sri Lanka, where authorities have never said how much they paid KMS for its services. Sri Lanka’s economy is bankrupt after decades of conflict and corruption.

Britain’s high commissioner to Sri Lanka in 1986 estimated KMS was receiving two or three million pounds a year from the island’s government. The envoy described Johnson as a “glib, plausible and dishonest salesman”. KMS used bank accounts in Jersey and the Cayman Islands, putting its financial records beyond the reach of investigators.

Gajendrakumar Ponnambalam, a member of Sri Lanka’s parliament, told Declassified: “It’s shocking to learn this British mercenary made such a phenomenal amount of money, given how heavily embroiled his company was in harrowing war crimes against Tamil civilians.” 

Ponnambalam, who leads the Tamil National People’s Front, added: “The Sri Lankan state needs to come clean and tell parliament how much they paid Keenie Meenie Services to help repress Tamils in the 1980s. 

“It’s especially important now during this economic crisis to have transparency over how much money was squandered on foreign mercenaries during the war against the Tamils.”


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Profitable career

The discovery of Johnson’s will sheds new light on how profitable his career was. Although the document does not provide a breakdown of where he made his money, it shows the total amount acquired by the end of his life.

Johnson’s estate had a gross value of £4,719,115 and a net value of £3,979,444. The latter sum would be equivalent to £6m (or 2.3bn Rupees) today, when adjusted for inflation. 

He bequeathed £2,000 to a cancer charity and £10,000 to the Special Air Services Regimental Association. 

The will further reveals he lived on Radley Mews in Kensington, one of London’s most exclusive districts. He purchased a house there for £1m in 2004. It would now be worth an estimated £3.2m and still appears owned by his family, according to the UK Land Registry.

KMS closed down in the late 1980s, as the US congress probed its support for Contra rebels in Nicaragua, where it was accused of blowing up a hospital. The other company Johnson co-founded, Saladin Security, is still trading.

The UK Foreign Office continues to censor files on KMS at the National Archives, claiming full transparency could harm national security and jeopardise international relations. Declassified has appealed to the Information Tribunal to grant full access. A judge is expected to hear the case later this year. 

Whitehall censors initially withheld papers on Colonel Johnson to protect his privacy, until Declassified pointed out he was deceased.