August 05, 1985 12:00 PM

The four Sikh extremists paid for their commando training with a credit card and then arrived at the Mercenary School in Jefferson County, Ala. last November wearing maroon turbans, gray suits and buttons that read, “Sikhs Seek Justice.” Frank Camper, 38, owner of the combat-training school, helped them purchase fatigues, and soon they were out in the woods, firing automatic weapons, practicing hand-to-hand combat and learning to use explosives.

A few days into the two-week-long, $350-per-person training sessions, Camper recalls, one of the Sikhs, Balraj Singh, registered a complaint: “Balraj comes up to me and says, ‘We don’t have forests like this in our country [India]. We don’t need this type of training. We need to know how to fight armored vehicles in the streets. We need to know how to make time bombs. We need to know assassination techniques.’ I said, ‘Balraj, you’re not going to get that in this course. This is a field combat course. But don’t quit, because you need the discipline of the weapons instruction that you’re going to receive here.’ ”

The Sikhs didn’t quit. They continued their training, learning to handle various types of rifles, machine guns, mines, booby traps and a Soviet rocket launcher. “They got better every day,” says Camper. “They were very good students.” Balraj Singh was wounded in the eye by flying shrapnel, requiring hospitalization and three operations. His colleagues continued the course undeterred, ultimately passing a vigorous final field exam and receiving the school’s official patch and diploma. “They were extremely serious about their training,” says Camper.

Apparently the Sikhs had more than academic interest in Camper’s curriculum. On May 3 a warrant was issued for the arrest of one of them, Lal Singh, for conspiring with two fellow Sikhs to assassinate Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi during the Premier’s trip to the United States last month. The next day four Sikhs, including Mercenary School graduate Sukwinder Singh, were arrested in New Orleans and later indicted for plotting to kill a visiting Indian government official. And now, Lal Singh, who is still at large, is wanted for questioning in connection with the June 23 suspected bombing of Air-India Flight 182, which resulted in 329 deaths, and in connection with an explosion that killed two baggage handlers at a Tokyo airport the same day.

Camper denies that he teaches anything that would aid in the bombing of an airplane, and he expresses no remorse about training the Sikhs. “If they want to go back and fight the Indian government and they feel they have the valor to do it, it’s their skin,” he says. “I train people in combat. People I have trained are fighting in many parts of the world—Lebanon, South Africa, the Philippines and Central America. They pick their own sides. I don’t instruct in politics or doctrine.”

Ironically, he made these statements in the same week that President Reagan criticized nations that harbor terrorist training camps. The irony was not lost on Rajiv Gandhi, the alleged target of the Sikhs. Gandhi recently said that it is “incredible” that the U.S. allows Camper’s school to exist. “Hopefully it will stop,” he said. Camper admits to teaching commando classes but insists, “I don’t like terrorists and I won’t train them. If it weren’t for my camp Gandhi would be dead.” Camper emphasizes that he aided the FBI in uncovering the Sikh plot against the Indian leader. However, freelance soldiers trained by Camper have patrolled with the Nicaraguan contras. James B. Adair, a contributing editor of Eagle, a magazine for mercenaries, confirms that two former Mercenary School instructors and several graduates accompanied him on a guerrilla raid into Nicaragua last February. “They [Camper’s alumni] seemed to know what they were doing,” Adair says. “So I’d say the training was pretty effective.”

Camper’s school is only one of about a half-dozen American camps offering training in survival skills, combat and the use of weapons. The schools are allowed to exist, according to Justice Department spokesman John Russell, because “there are no laws to stop them.” Alabama Senator Jeremiah Denton, chairman of the Senate’s subcommittee on terrorism, wants to investigate the unofficial combat academies: “I believe much more needs to be done to find out what camps exist, what they are teaching and what laws apply and should [apply] to get control over these camps.”

Camper points out that his school, which has been operating and advertising since 1980, is perfectly legal and says he welcomes any investigations. Camper also points out that he cooperated with the FBI in the investigation and arrest of the Sikhs captured in New Orleans. That case fits a familiar pattern: Frank Camper has a history of association with gunrunners and would-be gunmen and a history of informing law enforcement agencies about such men’s activities.

In 1983, for example, Camper informed the Birmingham office of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms that he had been approached by a group of foreigners who wanted his help in smuggling automatic pistols to Nigeria. The group was arrested and—after Camper testified against them—convicted and deported.

Far more bizarre was the case of Robert Lee Lisenby. Vietnam veteran, right-wing extremist and self-described professional hit man, Lisenby taught at the Mercenary School in 1981. In March of that year Lisenby and Camper were arrested for trespassing while leading students on a training mission near a nuclear power plant in Florida. A month later Camper and Lisenby were arrested in Miami in a car containing a bomb, a pistol and a machine gun equipped with a silencer. Lisenby pleaded guilty to various weapons charges and served 18 months in federal prison. Camper—who had informed the FBI about Lisenby’s mission—was released, without charges.

“He called the FBI and had me arrested,” says Lisenby, who was released from prison in 1982 and is now working at a furniture factory in North Carolina. Lisenby claims that he was hired by one drug dealer to kill another and had asked his friend Camper to assist him. “I told him clearly that it involved taking somebody out and he said that was no problem. I paid his way down and I paid him a considerable amount of money and he called the FBI.” Lisenby suspects that Camper similarly encouraged—and informed on—the Sikhs. “Anybody who goes to that school is watched closely,” he says. “It’s just a front. If you go to that school and do something illegal, the FBI will know about it.” Lisenby also suggests that informing on the kind of people who go to mercenary schools is not a practice that will lead to a long life. “If he’s not careful, Mr. Camper will find himself six feet under,” he says.

Just who is Frank Camper? A trainer of terrorists? A federal informer? Or, as some suggest, a posturing adventurer with a craving for publicity? With Camper fact and fiction tend to blur. Some facts are verifiable: Camper is a Vietnam veteran (Spec/4), a licensed gun dealer, the author of two pulp adventure novels and the operator of the school. Beyond that, his background becomes vague. He claims that during the early ’70s he infiltrated leftist groups for the FBI, but the Bureau will neither confirm nor deny that. He also claims that he trained Arab troops in Saudi Arabia in 1979 and 1980 but, according to the records of Saudi Arabian Airlines, he was working for them as a mechanic. He says he has trained Panamanian antiterrorist troops both in Panama and in Alabama. He claims to have carried out cloak-and-dagger missions in Guatemala and El Salvador in recent years, but those tales are impossible to verify.

Frank Camper tells a lot of exciting adventure stories—all of them starring Frank Camper—but not everyone believes them. Tom Posey, head of the Alabama-based Civilian Military Assistance, which sends supplies and American military trainers to the contra guerrillas in Nicaragua, is highly skeptical: “You shouldn’t believe 99 percent of what Camper tells you.”

The controversy over Camper also extends to his school. Bill Guthrie, executive editor of Soldier of Fortune, dismisses the Mercenary School as “a kind of group therapy in the woods, a campfire version of the Bob Newhart show. It serves no purpose except to let people live out fantasy lives about being soldiers.”

But Camper does have his defenders, including Jim Shults, editor-in-chief of Gung-Ho, another mercenary magazine. “He’s been around,” says Shults. “He’s not BS-ing. He’s been in Guatemala. He’s been in Salvador a couple, three times. He’s been back and forth to Panama a few times.”

Camper says that he founded the school because he was dissatisfied with U.S. Army training in commando techniques. “I wanted to train mercenary soldiers in international weapons and combat techniques and do it far better than the U.S. Army Ranger school did,” he says. “We lost the war in Vietnam. Maybe I keep fighting these wars because we lost our war there. Maybe if we had won, I could have stopped.”

The combat-school instructors teach map reading, outdoor survival, weapons, tactics, demolition and the finer points of murder by garroting. At one point in the course students try to carry a “wounded” colleague across a river while Camper blasts at them with a pellet rifle. At another point the students crawl through a creek while he fires around them with an M-16.

Camper steadfastly refuses to accept any responsibility for what his students do after they complete their training. “If you teach people how to drive a car and they drive into a group of people on the street,” he says, “it was a turn of their own mind, not the fact that you taught them how to drive.” It is only when Camper speaks of Lai Singh that he betrays any anger. “I am doing all I can to find Lal Singh now,” he says. “If I were completely convinced that he did it—and I think he did [bomb the plane]—and I found him, I would shoot him.”

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