Profile: Sam Kiley

Desperate Glory
At War in Helmand with Britain's Air Assault Brigade
By Sam Kiley
September 2009




 Award winning journalist Sam Kiley has been a reporter for 20 years based in London, Los Angeles, Nairobi, Johannesburg, Jerusalem, London and Suffolk


Educated at Oxford University he read politics, philosophy and economics. He was president of the Oxford University Dramatic Society and played cricket for the university second eleven. He studied mime and commedia del arte under Neil Bartlett, director at the National Theatre and the Royal Shakespeare Company.

Commissioned into the Ghurkhas before university he resigned from the army half way through his degree.

He joined The Times in 1987 where he was an education reporter. Three years later he joined The Sunday Times as the West Coast (USA) correspondent. He moved on to Nairobi as The Times Africa Correspondent a year later. His coverage of Somalia, Rwanda and Sierra Leone won widespread acclaim.

In 1996 he won the Granada Foreign Correspondent of the Year award for his coverage of the fall of Mobutu’s Zaire and, promoted to Africa Bureau Chief, moved to Johannesburg.

In 1999 he was dispatched to Jerusalem where he served The Times as Middle East Bureau Chief for two years and then joined the Evening Standard as the chief foreign correspondent based in London - covering mainly the wars in Afghanistan and the continuing intifada in the Palestinian territories.


Breaking into television with Channel Four’s flagship current affairs series Dispatches he made “Truth and Lies in Baghdad” in 2002 and joined the channel full time the following year making programmes all over the world for Dispatches and Unreported World.

In 2005 he was “poached” by Sky One for whom he made two series: “USA Unsolved with Sam Kiley and “Guns for Hire” – an investigation into modern mercenaries in the Congo and Afghanistan.

In November 2006 hE produced a BBC2 observational documentary in Afghanistan, The General's War, where he has had exclusive and unprecedented access to British Nato general David Richards. He then returned to Channel Four; making films in Cape Town, the Congo, the Palestinian Territories, Russia and Kosovo.


In the summer of 2008 he became the only journalist to ever cover a full operational tour in Afghanistan when he joined 16 Air Assault Brigade on its six month deployent to Helman. "Desperate Glory" is the product of those six months. 


A father of two he lives in the countryside of East Anglia. He is a contributor to The Mail on Sunday, The Observer, and The Times, the New Statesman, The Sunday Times, and The Spectator.

He is a qualified paraglider pilot and a keen horse rider. Descended from two generations of conservationists he is an expert on African wildlife and ecology. A keen shot, he feeds his family largely from wild meat; and is very excited in the autumn when mushroom hunting tends to take priority over earning a living.




Why dad Sam is addicted to the frontline

Last updated: 17/09/2009 15:00:00

Sam back at home
Sam back at home
Sam Kiley's been shot, kidnapped and endured his own mock execution, so it must take nerve to keep returning to the world's troublespots - especially when you leave a wife and two children at home. The writer tells Steven Russell why he does it - and about the lucky escapes during six months in Afghanistan with UK troops

MELISSA Kiley's at the gate, ushering along the family dog and preparing to leave for work. Just time to ask her what life's like with a journalist who's covered wars and insurgencies in more than 30 countries, has been away from home for long stretches and still has a bit of shrapnel in his body after a little local difficulty in Lesotho some years back. Well, she considers, he's been reporting on the world's troublespots for a couple of decades - since before they met - and so he's got a lot of experience. “You just have to think they're invincible,” she says, giving the kitchen table a last quick tidy before tracking down her keys and heading off. “Anyway, it's the families of the soldiers I feel sorry for.”

Sam - the husband with a thirst for overseas adventure woven into his DNA thanks to a foreign correspondent father and an African background - confirms Melissa has never put any pressure on him to put the passport away. “She's been brilliant. Because I've had so many close calls since we've been married, she's pretty much convinced herself I'm near enough indestructible. I do know the business pretty well, but, yes, the law of averages indicates . . .” The rest of the sentence goes unspoken.

Sam and wife Melissa
Sam and wife Melissa
The perils of such a career choice have been highlighted this week with the raid to free New York Times reporter Stephen Farrell, kidnapped in Afghanistan. The mission left an Afghan journalist, a British soldier and two civilians dead.

The Kileys' most recent separation was between May and October last year - with only a two-week “holiday” back home during that time - when Sam went to Afghanistan with Colchester-based soldiers and was given unprecedented unrestricted access to the frontline. It's documented in his book Desperate Glory - At War in Helmand with Britain's 16 Air Assault Brigade.

He was able to phone his family most days, but acknowledges the six months were tough on Melissa. She's used to it, though, he smiles.

“She's a classic, indomitable, English rose. In the first four years of our marriage, she moved house seven times and continents twice - all completely unassisted by me, as I was in the field. That was with a dog, then one baby, and then a second baby.”

The couple met at a dinner party in Nairobi in the mid-1990s. He was there as a journalist and Melissa was on holiday. They were soon an item and have been married a dozen years - and both, for the 12th year running, have managed to overlook their anniversary, he admits.

Sam “married into Suffolk” - his good lady is a member of the Tollemache family. “I married into the poor bit,” he quips. “I misread Debrett's (the guide to the British aristocracy). Should have grabbed her cousin . . .”

After Melissa became pregnant with their first child, “I said 'Oh, I'm just going off to Rwanda for a weekend . . .' I came back three months later - and she'd moved house. I'd been living in a shack in someone's garden and Melissa moved us in Nairobi into a proper flat. This was during one of the many Congo crises and I had to nip back and propose, before her mum arrived, and then get myself back to Congo before The Times realised I'd fled the country briefly.”

Then they moved to Johannesburg, where had Ella was born. She's now 12 and brother Fynn is nine.

Neither wife nor children, then, has ever known Sam to be anything other than a hunter of news who was frequently away from home in some of the world's more unpredictable - often downright dangerous - corners.

“It's not like I was an accountant and then changed my life and upset the apple-cart,” he shrugs as he pours the coffee.

Even so, life delivers enough scares.

On three separate occasions in Afghanistan he was in a vehicle that drove over an IED - an improvised explosive device - which blew up once he'd passed. Another time, an explosion cut straight through the seat where he'd been sitting earlier, before switch to another vehicle. “I've always been pretty lucky.”

Desperate Glory tells the story of some of the forces fighting the fiercest battles endured by British troops since the Korean War in the 1950s. Men with loose teeth and bleeding gums - the consequences of malnutrition - risk their skins in a strange medieval landscape, under a blazing sun. Patrols over, they return to their compounds and play like puppies in the sand.

The “cast” includes people like Second Lieutenant Alexander Barclay, fresh from Sandhurst, who won the Military Cross for leading his platoon in the rescue of Corporal Garrie Wallace. Thanks to his calmness and quick-thinking, reservist Wallace had himself saved the lives of two men when his vehicle crashed during an intense Taleban ambush.

Medic Chantelle Taylor, meanwhile, is 32 and has been in the Army for a decade, joining after working at Topshop. We encounter her in a lightly-armoured Land Rover, where she's surprised to find herself under fire from an audacious Taleban fighter standing in a field about 40 metres away. Chantelle swings her SA80 rifle and fires off two rounds, then another five.

The book also tells the story of the Kajaki Dam mission, when nearly 3,000 British troops were involved in a secret and successful - but unbelievably hazardous - Nato operation to transport a huge hydroelectric power turbine more than 100 miles through Taleban territory.

What particularly sticks in Sam's mind from his time in Helmand?

“Well, I think the saddest thing was Gaz O'Donnell, who was this legendary figure I got friendly with - a bomb disposal bloke who reminded me of Asterix.” The Sergeant Major had “the shimmering stage presence of Freddie Mercury”, too.

“His son was about eight weeks old and Gaz was getting rid of this bomb. It had a 'trick' in it he hadn't spotted and it killed him. I didn't see that incident, but I was with his guys when they found out, and that sent them reeling. It was desperately sad.”

Sam, 44, was born in Kenya, his journalist dad a South African exile, and grew up mostly in East Sussex. He went to university at Oxford and joined The Times in 1987.

There had always been a burning desire to go overseas. The chance came in 1990 and for about eight years he was the newspaper's Africa correspondent, covering conflicts in the Congo, Somalia, Rwanda and Sierra Leone, and happenings in other continents.

“Africa, the Middle East, Bosnia, Asia. . . . They're extraordinary places and it's a fantastic buzz being where history's happening. That's the addiction. It's not the adrenaline - you grow out of that, once you've had a few scares and your friends have been killed.”

In 2003 Sam switched to TV, with Channel 4, and has since worked for Sky 1 and the BBC, making more than 20 television films. He's continued to write for newspapers and magazines, too.

Writing a book such as Desperate Glory was an idea he'd had in his head for a while. He says there were initials misgivings within the military “spin machine”, but the brigade welcomed him with open arms.

He's pleased with the reaction to his prose from those in Helmand.

“If you are doing something really pretty bloody awful, you want people to know about it. Being validated is important. Having somebody meet you off the plane with a flag and a pat on the back or a medal can make the difference between a happy and successful career and ending up a raving wino on a street corner. Being validated is important.”

Having worked extensively in the country, and with all those conflicts under his belt, he was confident about his ability not to get in the way or do something stupid like showing a light at night.

“They didn't have to tell me to bring water. I could read a map and understand what they were talking about. It meant that people didn't say 'Oh Christ, here comes Kiley. The great fat lump is going to expire. What are we going to do with him?”

Not that it was a piece of cake. With every step you take, there's a fear you're going to step on a bomb.

He says he's tried to avoid writing a polemic. “Everybody knows you haven't got enough troops and helicopters. Any argument should rise organically through the mind of the reader as they read the book.”

That said, his own views are unequivocal, and highly critical of the Government's “complete lack of tactical and strategic understanding and persistent refusal to inquire and learn”. It was right to go to Afghanistan to combat the Taleban, but “we blundered in with too few troops, not well enough equipped.”

In 2001, there was a case for the West sending in special forces and swiftly toppling the Taleban. “Then we should have left 250,000 troops there to stabilise the country and run it properly; instead of which, on a set of mad ideas, we took troops and threw them into Iraq, further inflaming tensions with the Islamic world, and gave breathing space in Afghanistan for the Taleban to regroup and go back on the offensive. Der!”

Then in 2006, when Nato warned that Helmand province was becoming a hotspot, Tony Blair was eager to help and sent 16 Air Assault Brigade, “with one battalion of men. Not enough. And not enough helicopters. And a headquarters too far away”.

We don't have enough troops or helicopters to hold the ground we've won, he alleges. Out in Helmand, the reality of the fighting is intense. “If you step outside a base you will get shot at - and probably when you're inside the base, too. Let's rotate the infantry through, and give more equipment, even if that means turning over car factories to make more helicopters! Whatever it takes.”

As for arguments about it being a breeding ground for terrorism . . . there are no actual camps in Afghanistan, he points out, though there are over the border in Pakistan.

Sam argues the valid reason for being there and staying there is that the Taleban have come close to toppling the regime in Pakistan. If we pulled out, they would establish a secure base, likely topple the Afghanistan regime, storm into Pakistan, seize its nuclear weapons, “and then we'd all die”.

Labour's mantra that the military campaign in Helmand is making Britain's streets safer is insane, he insists. “People manipulated into joining al-Qaida-type groups tend to be descendants of the Pakistani immigrant groups in Britain whose minds are warped in Britain and then go to Pakistan for training - not Afghanistan, which is a great big windswept desert and any camps there could be blown up.”

What's it like coming back home after months in what appears a surreal world, with death at your elbow? Does he settle back easily into domestic routine?

“My wife would dispute that! You pick up the conversation exactly where you left off, forgetting that other people's lives have moved on, and they've established other routines and rhythms. I'll go 'Who put the salt there?' And they think 'Who are you, you leviathan, stumping around?' One does tend to feel rather big in size and very rough round the edges. I swear inordinately; terrible, terrible language.” And gets ticked off by the kids.

Does he have nightmares after seeing people killed in front of him, and other violent acts, during his various foreign assignments?

“Oh yeah. They come and go. I used to have very bad ones; really horrible: being chased through banana groves by the Interahamwe in Rwanda (a paramilitary organisation) with my children under each arm. I think if you weren't having those sorts of dreams you'd be a freak. It means you're human.”

I can understand reporting from Rwanda, say, when you're a young man with no ties, but it must be hard once there's a family at home. Does parenthood change your thinking?

“Yeah, I think it does. When you're a young man, you're bullet-proof. I wasn't suicidal, by any stretch of the imagination, but if I wanted to go off on a hare-brained scheme to central Congo, where nobody else would dare go, I would do it. Now I would do it still, but I'd think I was a terrific prat. And there are places I really won't go.

“And I don't need to prove myself so much. If someone wanted me to go on assignment to somewhere like Somalia, for example, I would go, but they'd have to pay me a phenomenal amount of money. There is a cost-benefit analysis that should be done about these things; a column inches-to-risk assessment, or hours on the TV. I'm not going on a taxi ride to Kandahar for a 15-minute news report, but if there's a chance of making an award-winning television film and really advancing the debate, then great: I would.”

His children are totally unimpressed by seeing him on the telly, Sam says. “They think the book's kind of cool, but it means they're going to have to read it . . .” They're not so aware of the kidnapping tales, but they do know he once got shot. “It's no longer an abstract notion for them; and as they get older it will put more and more pressure on them and I'll have to step back. I'm also getting old and fat, so there's a physical limit!”

After witnessing so many conflicts, does he get depressed about humans failing to learn lessons about war? “That's an interesting one. Whenever I do, there's always some extraordinary act of selfless heroism that mitigates the lack of faith in humanity. I'm never disappointed by humankind because I never had high expectations. You can't read history and have high expectation of mankind - Man-kind in particular.”

Desperate Glory is published by Bloomsbury at £18.99. ISBN: 9780747599968. The Aldeburgh Bookshop (0 1728 452389) is holding a launch event at 5.30pm on September 19.

SAM Kiley had been in Iraq for a couple of months when he and his team were pulled over by Iraqi bandits “who shoved their AK-47s into our guts, screaming”, head-butted the journalist and stole the team's $20,000.

That was just the beginning. Cameraman Nick Hughes and Sam were forced into one car; their driver and translator into a Jeep. “These men had already robbed us, and now they were taking us out of sight. We knew they were going to kill us.”

The vehicles stopped. “We were pulled out of the car and forced to our knees. At some stage I was head-butted again, but I didn't feel a thing. I was concentrating on saying good-bye to my son, my daughter and my wife.

“I breathed deeply and slowly through my nose. I found a sort of blank space in my head. Not quite peace, but some kind of calm. My head was forced into the dirt at my knees, and I felt the cool barrel of a pistol at the base of my skull. Then I let go of life. In my own mind, I was already dead.

“Nick, who was on his knees in the dirt to my left, told me later that he watched the leader of the gang walk up to me and put his 9mm into the back of my head, almost casually. Nick saw the gunman's trigger finger close and squeeze the lever back. At that moment, Nick ran. He's got enormous feet, which kicked sand up into my eyes as he lolloped by.

“A gunman chased after Nick, firing wildly at about a five-yard range. Bullets seemed to go between Nick's legs; others must have been within microns of his ears. Just as suddenly as he had run, Nick stopped, turned, shrugged and smiled apologetically.

“It must have been the right thing to do. The gang bundled us back into our car and told us to get lost. Perhaps they feared they had given their position away to American patrols. I don't know.”

In this extract from Desperate Glory, Sam Kiley describes how four SAS reservists and Intelligence Corps corporal Sarah Bryant are sent to collect the body of a Taleban fighter in Helmand province.

“The Land Rover bucks into the air and comes down with a crash. The Jocks stare at the smoking mess of metal, which is supposed to protect people from bombs and bullets but really just chews them up. Sarah, Corporal Sean Reeve, Lance Corporal Richard Larkin and trooper Paul Stout are killed instantly. One SAS soldier has survived, trapped behind the steering wheel.

“Sarah Bryant had been working mainly on psychological operations. She is the first female soldier to die in Afghanistan. Pretty, blonde, recently married and with a movie-star smile, she'd been hard to miss in the claustrophobic camp at Lashkar Gah. The thought of her being torn to pieces by a bomb was somehow indecent, dirty. She was no more, or less, loved than the others who died that day - but she was blonde and pretty.

“Her death caused a media sensation in Britain. But given that women are driving convoy trucks, which are attacked and blown up every day; that they are running intelligence and psychological operations, flying aircraft, dismantling bombs and patrolling with infantry every day, most soldiers in Helmand are surprised that more women have not been killed. The sight of a woman on the front line is now routine.”

SAM Kiley says his family moved full-time to the Snape/Aldeburgh area about six years ago, close to his mother-in-law. “And thank god I did. I find the chocolate box style - Wiltshire, Hampshire, Home Counties, even the West Country - incredibly claustrophobic, and ye olde clotted creame teas twee.

“Most of my working life has been in 'big' countries, with spectacular scenery. You get big skies and light in Suffolk. I don't feel crowded. And, also, the social dynamic is unique: you can have very grand people in large big estates, and people from very humble backgrounds, at the same dinner party.

“There's a slightly bohemian whiff to the whole of Suffolk. It's actively unpretentious, and it's just too far away for bankers! I utterly love it here. I wouldn't live anywhere else in Britain.”



Contact Sam Kiley: +44 (0) 7764906518 Email: SamATkileyDOTbiz