Mister 200 per cent — the story of a killer spy

Posted on October 2, 2010

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In the world of espionage where deceit and deception is a way of life, Nigel Barnett is an acknowledged master among that small band of human flotsam that constitute his peers. Among the tiny group aware of his existence and capabilities, he was known as ‘Mr 200 per cent’, one of that rare group who excel as both agents — spies — and operatives or ‘men of action’. Within Interpol, the international police agency, his names and background are known. The Swedish police certainly keep a file on the person whose last formal identity was Nigel Barnett. They have to, for Nigel Barnett (South African identity number 500630 5202006) remains a suspect in the 1986 murder of Swedish Prime Minister, Olaf Palme.

He may today no longer be using the name Nigel Barnett and may have dyed his dark brown hair, always parted on the left. Even the two identity card photographs that exist of Nigel Barnett and taken only two years apart, in 1990 and 1992, reveal totally different hairstyles and hair lengths and could, at first sight, seem to be different people. In another identity document, issued in 1981 in the name of Henry William Bacon, the photograph of the spy who was named Leon van der Westhuizen when he was born, shows the same man with a heavy, dark beard and moustache. Two years later, in October 1983, and as Nicho Esslin, he was clean shaven and with a rather shorter hairstyle than either of his photographs as Nigel Barnett.

All of the documents are genuine, three of them having been issued in South Africa and one by the South African trade mission in Mozambique. All of them were found in Nigel Barnett’s apartment in Maputo in 1997 by Mozambique police investigating a personal feud between what they thought were two businessmen. After 15 years living undetected as the top South African Military Intelligence agent in Mozambique, Nigel Barnett had become careless or, perhaps, arrogantly self confident. He became embroiled publicly in a personal row. This he decided to settle by paying some street urchins to set fire to his adversary’s yacht. The scheme backfired when the urchins were caught and identified him. When police raided his apartment they discovered enough material to reveal that Nigel Barnett was, at the very least, a spy.

In prison for a short period before being released to await the lengthy legal process for attempted arson, he was interviewed by Mozambican, South African and Swedish authorities. He could hardly deny his spying activities and quite readily confessed, but only to sending routine and mundane information about the port and its traffic to his handlers. He was even less forthcoming about the rest of his life and his background. He sketched a fairly pedestrian existence, at all times giving himself a generally passive, background role. The general outline does appear to have been fairly accurate, the detail not at all so.

For the life of Nigel Barnett/Henry Bacon/Nicho Esslin was anything but mundane. He was also far from being the passive professional voyeur or non-aggressive traffic policeman and navy diver he claimed once to have been. Born in Queenstown in the Eastern Cape province of South Africa on 29 May 1949, he was named Leon van der Westhuizen by his mother who put him up for adoption. A local couple, British-born Jeffrey Harold Walker Bacon and his Swedish missionary wife, Aina Amanda Eriksson, completed all the formalities and adopted the child as a younger brother for their son, Olaf, the survivor of twin boys born to Amanda Eriksson two years earlier. The new addition to the family was then registered as Henry William Bacon and, as such, went into the world.

He was a tall, strong and athletic boy who seems to have protected his older brother from ‘bacon and eggs’ teasing in their youth. School for both boys was at the prestigious Dale College in King Williams Town where Henry Bacon proved himself more on the sports field than in the classroom. When he was a lanky 15-year-old the woman he thought of as his biological mother died. He was very close to her and it was from her that he learned the Swedish which he still speaks. The death was a blow. An even bigger one was the discovery that Amanda Eriksson was not his mother; that he was adopted. When and how he discovered this is not known, but he seems to have broken off almost all contact with his brother and father while he was still in his teens.

Certainly he seems to have moved as far away from home as he could once he completed his schooling in 1967. Like other white youths of his age, he was conscripted into the army and, in June of 1969, joined the navy where he became a diver. A motorcycle accident in suburban Cape Town in 1971 seems to have put paid to this part of his career, but he had developed a taste for the armed services and a liking for danger. Rhodesia promised both with a bush war underway and a demand for trained soldiers. Henry William Bacon headed north and joined the British South African Police, the paramilitary regiment that proudly boasted the British Queen Mother as its colonel-in-chief.

Henry Bacon excelled. He was drafted into the Special Branch, the unit that specialised in information gathering, interrogation and ‘pseudo operations’. As such, he became accustomed to the use of disguise and false identity. Like others of the unit, he also ‘blacked up’ at times to get closer to guerrilla groups or to terrorise villagers in the name of the guerrillas. The BSAP Special Branch pioneered these operations in the Zimbabwe bush before the most brutal of the special forces, the Selous Scouts, made such practices their own. Literate, quick witted and athletic, Henry Bacon received training and practical experience as an agent and an operator. He extracted information by casual means and cruel; he eavesdropped, debriefed sources, wrote reports and killed. It was a time of secret cross-border raids, of sometimes terrible bloodshed, and often wholesale slaughter; a time when the social misfits who hacked off, dried and wore the ears of the killed as necklaces, were regarded merely as ‘hard men’. In this milieu, Henry Bacon thrived, was promoted and decorated. A citation for ‘gallantry’ issued on 5 October 1979 commends him for his conduct ‘whilst engaged in anti-terrorist operations’.

The operations to which this citation refers took place in the Lumgundi district near the northern town of Sinoia in late 1978 and, in particular, on 8 and 9 January 1979. Bacon’s commanding officer, Superintendent Nigel Seaward, recommended Bacon for the award, not just for the ‘specialised operations’ but also for his conspicuous dedication to duty. The 29-year-old Detective Section Officer not only built up a network of informers when he ran the Special Branch office at Sipolilo, he also took part in regular ‘clandestine operations’. Above all, he gained admiration for his dedication when, on two separate occasions, he volunteered to give up long-planned leave during which he hoped to marry and honeymoon in Sweden. After the second postponement, there seems to have been no further mention of marriage.

Also operating in Rhodesia/Zimbabwe at the time as part of a joint BOSS and South African National Intelligence Service unit was At Nel. As a colonel in charge of ‘East Front’ at the Directorate of Covert Collection, Nel was to become Bacon’s ‘operational handler’ for the best part of a decade until 1994. Given the small numbers and the closeness of the co-operation between the South African spy unit in Zimbabwe and the BSAP Special Branch, it is most likely that Nel and Bacon met in Rhodesia/Zimbabwe as minority rule crumbled. Bacon was obviously one of the bitter-enders who saw the last vicious fights to stave off the inevitable transition to democratic elections. Like thousands of others in his position, he also headed south as independence dawned in Zimbabwe. A highly trained spy and killer, he was just what apartheid South Africa wanted at the time. He had also apparently picked up some knowledge of Portuguese, possibly as a result of cross-border operations in Mozambique.

Although Bacon claimed only to have left Zimbabwe in 1981, it seems most probable that he returned to South Africa early in the previous year together with the special forces members who went to make up the apartheid state’s 6-Recce battalion. It is also possible that he was recruited just before Zimbabwe’s independence elections by Major Neil Kriel the Selous Scout who was the founder of what became known as the CCB, the military’s dirty tricks, assassination and mass murder squad. Kriel was sent into newly independent Zimbabwe by Brigadier ‘Tolletjie’ Botha to sign up as many of the ‘hard men’ he could find to serve the cause of the apartheid state. Some were to remain behind in Zimbabwe to provide information and, in some cases, to carry out assigned tasks. Most were to come south, either to be absorbed into the ‘recce’ groups or to serve in the CCB.

However he was recruited, Bacon’s range of special skills ensured that he was attached directly to the Military Intelligence directorate — the Directorate of Covert Collection — as an agent and operative. He reported ultimately to At Nel as the head of the East Front desk that was responsible for actions in and information from Mozambique. But he was also available for service in other areas and did travel, both within Africa and Europe. His very first operation appears to have been within months of returning to South Africa. He was sent into the Mozambique capital, Maputo to pinpoint, probably with the aid of established ‘Rhodesian’ informers in the Frelimo government’s security forces, the houses used by South African ANC personnel. This led to ‘Operation Beanbag’. The attack column drove into the Mozambique capital, Maputo, and attacked and destroyed three houses used by the ANC. The police provided the basic information about the houses to be attacked. SB Colonel Jac Buchner and Major Callie Steijn of Military Intelligence were responsible for overall planning. A former Rhodesian Special Air Services officer, Garth Barrett, was in command of the column. A DCC operative from Maputo, apparently Henry Bacon, drove into South Africa to give the final briefing to Barrett before the column moved into Mozambique and Maputo. There they attacked and destroyed the houses. Sixteen ANC members, a Portuguese electrical company engineer, Jose Ramos who happened to be driving by, and three Recces died in the raid. Two of the Recces, Robert Hutchinson and Ian Suttill, were British, all were SAS members who had fled independent Zimbabwe.

According to Nigel Barnett’s version of his life, he was, at the time, still leading a relatively quiet life in the Wankie district of Zimbabwe. It was only in the middle of 1981, that he left Zimbabwe and reapplied to join the South African Navy in Cape Town. He certainly did spend time in 1981 in the Navy. However, this appears to have been a period of reorientation, both to accustom him again to the workings of a port and to provide additional training. Some of this time was spent in Durban and, while at the Simonstown naval base near Cape Town, he appears to have worked with ‘Com Nav’ the naval communications division and to have been attached to security. His official designation was as an officer in the personnel section. However, he may have been able to travel abroad as part of the carefully arranged ‘deep cover’ prepared for him by Colonel At Nel. As Nigel Barnett, shipping agent, he did require some knowledge of several overseas ports, in particular, Hong Kong.

What he did and where he went is not known. All that is clear is that, in December 1982, he officially changed his surname from Bacon to Esslin having applied through the home affairs department under the Aliens Act. This name change was gazetted on 10 December and Bacon promptly resigned from the Navy. The sequence of name and job changes that began in December seems to have been co-ordinated by Colonel At Nel as part of the creation of a ‘legend’ for the man once known as Henry William Bacon.

So naval personnel officer Bacon who left Cape Town in December 1982, arrived in Durban in January 1983 as Nicho Esslin who had applied to join the Durban-based Polaris Shipping Company. This was one of the many ‘front’ companies set up by the security establishment over the years. They operated as legitimate companies, often made substantial profits, but were, above all else, security operations, providing everything from ‘cover’ for spies and assassins, to channels for smuggling arms, laundering money and financing bribes and destabilisation measures.

But Nicho Esslin was not given a job when he reported for duty to the Polaris office in Durban’s Cowey Road. Instead, under the name of Nigel Barnett, a name and identity selected by At Nel, he became a director of another front company, Lesotho Mountain Carriers (LMS), with offices in Maseru and Maputo. LMS was a subsidiary of Polaris. The shipping company was, in turn, owned by the main DCC front company, Pan African Investment Corporation, and acted as an agent for the Gold Star Shipping Line. Gold Star was a ‘front’ for one of the Israeli security agencies. Bacon/Esslin/Barnett was obviously being prepared for an important posting with the collaboration of Israeli intelligence.

Apart from a name on a single bank account in Durban, into which the DCC paid regular sums, Henry William Bacon had vanished. Anyone checking on him, might discover that he had legally changed his surname to Esslin. A dedicated researcher with contacts inside the home affairs department might also be able to discover that Bacon had become Nicho Esslin, with the same South African identity number 490529 5115 00 6. That Nicho Esslin’s identity book bearing this number had only been issued in October 1983, would indicate that Nicho Esslin still existed then.

Only Nicho Esslin effectively ceased to exist within two months of Bacon’s name change, although a bank safe deposit box was maintained under this name. From February, 1983, there was only Nigel Barnett, supposedly born in the then nominally independent ‘homeland’ of Transkei one day, one month and one year later than Bacon/Esslin and bearing the identity number 500630 5202 00 6. From that moment, all contact with family and former friends ceased. Nigel Barnett, a director of Lesotho Mountain Carriers, with no military history and a career in transport was on his way to becoming the ‘deep cover’ agent in Maputo.

According to Nigel Barnett’s claimed work history, he emigrated from South Africa to Hong Kong in 1982 where he worked for the Gold Star Line and was based in Kobe, Japan, Bangkok and Colombo. His permanent residence was said to be Hong Kong and he was said to have visited Beira and Maputo aboard a Gold Star ship in 1983. Since such history could be checked, it is probable that Barnett did, in fact spend time in the various Gold Star offices and did visit Mozambique. In prison in Mozambique in 1997, he admitted that he had travelled to Hong Kong in ‘early 1984’ to familiarise himself with the harbour and the Gold Star office. He had also spent ten days visiting other ports such as Kobe and Bangkok before being appointed as the agent for Gold Star in Maputo. At no time, he said, did he receive any training as a spy.

This was one of the many lies of a man whose entire life was a lie. Apart from his Rhodesia/Zimbabwe experiences, evidence exists that he attended an eight-week theoretical and practical intelligence course at the DCC headquarters in Pretoria between January and March of 1984, shortly before his long-term posting to Maputo. His brother thought he had been attached to naval security after his return from Zimbabwe and before he lost all contact.

Given only what is known of the man who became Nigel Barnett, it seems obvious that he was a highly trained spy and killer. He certainly also had a fascination with weapons and held at least four licenced firearms at the time of his arrest in 1997. These were a 10mm Glock pistol, a .22 calibre Astra pistol, and .308 Spandau Mauser rifle and his apparently favoured weapon, a .357 magnum revolver. The latter was the calibre and type of weapon which ended the life of Olaf Palme in a Stockholm street shortly before midnight on 30 January 1986. The weapon which killed Palme has never been found.

However, in Maputo, throughout the bloody years of destabilisation, Nigel Barnett appears to have operated mainly collecting, collating and sending information to his masters. Most of this was information about the ANC, on members, houses where they stayed, vehicles they used, who visited them and when. He provided ‘target’ information, including photographs and building plans. Whatever operations he was involved in outside of Mozambique may well have been in another guise so as not to endanger his spying function in Mozambique. He was, however, aware of various activities within the region, including the use of poison supplied by police scientist Lothar Neethling, for use against ANC members in Swaziland.

Barnett also named two spies in the ANC office, Francis Malaya and a man known only as ‘Monde’ who passed on information via a Mozambican citizen, Carlos Pinto, to Antonio Pombo, a former military liaison officer at the South African trade mission in Maputo who was based in the Swazi capital, Mbabane. Envelopes were carried to and from Maputo and Swaziland by Carlos Pinto. This was at the time when South African hit squads were bombing, killing and kidnapping real and imagined anti-apartheid activists in Swaziland. These actions, the TRC ruled, led to gross violations of human rights.

These facts alone — and most of them were made available to the TRC — should have ensured that serious attempts were made to bring Nigel Barnett before the TRC for questioning. Yet no attempt was made to do so. But he was interviewed in prison by a Swedish investigator attached to the TRC. However, there was no attempt made to subpoena Colonel At Nel or any of Barnett’s other named handlers. One of these was Jack Widowson, allegedly a member of Hendrik van den Bergh’s ‘Z’ squad and the police special task team. His name was also linked to the 1977 murders of Robert and Jean-Cora Smit. These the TRC found had been committed by members of the security forces. The deaths constituted a ‘gross violation of human rights’ for which there had been no amnesty applications. There was also no attempt to interview or investigate Widowson whose name appeared in the 1992 Steyn report as having been connected with ‘third force activities’. In the post-apartheid dispensation, Widowson became a member of the ANC government’s National Intelligence Agency.

But it is Nigel Barnett who remains of particular interest to the Swedish authorities. They are aware that elements in the apartheid security services had discussed the possible assassination of Olaf Palme. The Swedish prime minister was seen as a dangerous enemy. He had been instrumental in steering Sweden’s Social Democratic government into solid support for the ANC and, in the week before he died, had granted virtual diplomatic recognition to the liberation movement. There was considerable other circumstantial evidence as well which links South African security forces with at least plotting, and perhaps carrying out, the murder of Palme. South African security, for example, gathered regular reports on Palme’s activities from a Swedish agent. The agent was a medical doctor and academic who was recruited while working in South Africa.

The Swedish police are also aware that Barnett failed a polygraph (lie detector) test. This is no positive proof of any wrongdoing. However, in his various interviews with Mozambican, South African and Swedish authorities, he gave details of his various visits to Sweden. None of these coincided with the death of Olaf Palme. But he did mention that, on one visit, he walked through Stockholm at a time when there was a light dusting of snow on the ground. This casual comment resulted in the Swedish police checking the weather at the times Barnett admitted to having been in Sweden. On none of these occasions was there any snow on the ground. But, on the night that Olaf Palme was shot, the description of the weather and the streets of Stockholm matched.

Once again, this was not proof positive that Bacon/Esslin/Barnett had been in any way connected with the murder of the Swedish prime minister. But he had almost certainly been in Sweden on at least one other occasion which none of his various passports reflected. Interestingly, at the time of the assassination a new man had just taken over the ander lande (other countries) desk at the DCC. This was the unit responsible for clandestine activities across the world and its new commander was a long distance assassin with a reputation for trying to prove himself. However, Craig Michael Williamson, the letter bomb killer and London bomber, denied knowing anything about the killing of Olaf Palme or of the existence of Nigel Barnett.

The only link that emerged came from Eugene de Kock. He recalled being told by former security police ‘analyst’ and gun runner to Inkatha, Philip Powell, that two of Williamson’s close associates, Jonty and Cindy Leontsinis, knew who had carried out the Palme assassination. Jonty Leontsinis, a Johannesburg horticulturist who operated within security police and Military Intelligence fronts, was another friend from Williamson’s school days. Neither Jonty nor Cindy Leontsinis, who, in 2001, were living on their farm in KwaZulu-Natal and running a seed company, were ever investigated or interviewed by the TRC. Powell, although implicated in gun-running left for England to study for an MA degree at Warwick University.

* Originally published 06/2008

Posted in: Archive - 2008