The mysterious Mr Larsen: MI5 spy, terrorist or Walter Mitty fantasist?

It was a media storm that rocked Thatcher’s government. Now a new investigation asks: was the man at the centre a fraudster or fall guy? and 15 August 2020 • Daily Telegraph

It was one of the strangest espionage incidents of the late Cold War. In the rainy summer of 1987, London police arrested, charged, then abruptly released four men involved in an alleged plot to kidnap Thabo Mbeki, the future president of South Africa, from the streets of London.

The ‘ANC kidnap plot’ triggered a diplomatic panic at the very top of Margaret Thatcher’s government, sparked a media firestorm and culminated in heated debates in Parliament.

It was one of the strangest espionage incidents of the late Cold War. In the rainy summer of 1987, London police arrested, charged, then abruptly released four men involved in an alleged plot to kidnap Thabo Mbeki, the future president of South Africa, from the streets of London.

The ‘ANC kidnap plot’ triggered a diplomatic panic at the very top of Margaret Thatcher’s government, sparked a media firestorm and culminated in heated debates in Parliament. But it also raised questions about how one man’s gift for deception blurred the boundaries between fantasy and reality in ways that even 30 years later it is almost impossible to unpick.

The bizarre tale began on the afternoon of 9 July 1987, when police arrested a man called Frank Larsen reportedly for suspicious behaviour in the gentlemen’s toilets of the Regent Palace Hotel near Piccadilly Circus. Larsen produced the warrant card of a chief constable in the Ministry of Defence police and ordered officers to release him. Realising it was a forgery, police searched his address – a rented house in Aldershot.

There, according to a Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO) memo written on the 13th of the month, they found ‘an explosive device, a number of passports, invoices for arms purchases/uniforms including British police uniforms and military uniforms with UN badges’. There were also ‘documents which suggest the existence of a plot to abduct members of the ANC office in London’, and mount an armed coup in the Seychelles.

It was an explosive discovery, and one British authorities took seriously. South Africa’s apartheid government was known to target opponents abroad, and had been implicated in a failed coup in the Seychelles in 1981. House raids were mounted and within a week Larsen and three other men were arrested and charged with conspiracy to kidnap.

At first glance, the evidence was damning. Counterterrorism officers assessed elements of the plot to be ‘serious, feasible and well advanced’, and believed that Larsen had been in contact with a suspected South African intelligence officer called Johan Niemoller, who had swiftly left Britain after the arrests.

But as police, spies, and diplomats delved deeper into the case, they realised things were even stranger than they first thought. Many of the documents recovered in Aldershot turned out to be elaborate forgeries. The alleged discovery of an ‘explosive device’ appears to have come to nothing.

Then Larsen was unmasked as Viggo Oerbak, a notorious Norwegian confidence trickster. Oerbak was already something of a legend in Scandinavia. A gifted liar and forger, he had made headlines in the 1960s by impersonating policemen, United Nations officials and army officers. He had spent a brief spell in a Swedish jail for fraud, but had no record of genuine military experience, let alone violence. Oslo police, far from being alarmed, were reported by the Norwegian press to be ‘in stitches’ when they learnt what he had got himself into.

To add to the farce, ‘Larsen’ had claimed that he and his co-accused had in fact been working for MI5, and that senior members of the Conservative party were in on the plot.

Finally, on 22 October, the case at Lambeth Magistrates’ Court was abruptly dropped. Sir Patrick Mayhew, the AttorneyGeneral, said in the House of Commons the following day that there was ‘insufficient evidence to warrant proceeding with the prosecution’ and that the ‘classified papers’ discovered in Aldershot were forgeries.

The FCO papers tell a slightly more complex story. ‘The argument that the ANC related documents concerned a genuine plot, although other documents were forgeries, was not likely to survive the trial,’ an official from the FCO’s East Africa department wrote, following independent legal advice, in a summary of the decision in November. ‘Disentangling their “Walter Mitty” activities would have been a very difficult task for the prosecution.’

On 18 November, during a final debate in Parliament, Immigration Minister Tim Renton reiterated that the government ‘have not been informed that there was any evidence of any involvement of South African government agencies’. Hours later Oerbak was deported to Norway. He changed his name and went into hiding.

But hundreds of never-before-seen Foreign Office documents obtained by the Telegraph through freedom of information requests reveal that this neat resolution of the Larsen case left many questions unanswered. For while the government may not have had definitive proof of a South African plot, it certainly suspected one. At the end of October, Security Service representatives told diplomats that there was ‘circumstantial evidence’ linking Johan Niemoller to the South African Intelligence Services and that an ‘approach was made last week at the highest level to the SA Intelligence Service warning them that the discovery of any connection would be acted upon’.

In 1988, the diplomat Sir Martin Reid, a former head of the Foreign Office’s Central and Southern Africa department, came to a similar conclusion, writing in an internal review of the case that the evidence ‘suggests strongly’ that the Aldershot house was in fact a South African safe house.

He was on the money. Thanks to South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, we now know that Niemoller was indeed head of European operations for the Civil Cooperation Bureau (CCB), a topsecret South African hit squad known to have murdered several apartheid opponents abroad in the 1980s.

But if the plot was genuine, why was the prosecution really dropped? And how on earth did a notorious fantasist, conman and ‘Walter Mitty’ personality like Oerbak become embroiled with such a figure?

Those questions are as opaque today as they were 30 years ago. Requests for further documents that would fill in the gaps were refused. And several witnesses were unable to recall the details. But eventually we succeeded in tracking down one man who was prepared to talk. There was only one problem. He is one of the planet’s most brilliant liars, and not a word he says can be trusted. The man once known as Viggo Oerbak is now in his 70s. He is balding, with a puckish smile and amused but guarded eyes, and although he says his health is failing he does not look unfit. He is a fastidious dresser, clean shaven and well presented. He has also taken extreme measures to protect his privacy.

He has taken a new name – William Green – and for the past three decades has done everything to keep out of the public eye. He has ignored or thwarted all attempts by journalists to find him, and spoke to the Telegraph only on the condition that we would not reveal his whereabouts or use photographs in which he is recognisable.

But the conversation that followed could not be described as free-flowing. He stalls, evades, and flatly refuses to answer direct questions. And as the conversation circles, he every so often throws in warnings against digging further. ‘None of the people that were involved in this will talk,’ he says early in our meeting.

Eventually he admits that yes, in 1987 he had been recruited to participate in a covert operation. But not by the South Africans. ‘It was a home operation that was headed by MI5,’ he said. ‘It went exactly right. Because the government directed this, and they got the effect that they really wanted. And that some people were sacrificed, yeah. But we knew what we were doing. We were willing to be sacrificed.’

According to Green, the entire scandal, all the way to his deportation, was planned all along. There was no genuine kidnap or coup plot – merely an elaborate diversion from some other thing, which he flatly refuses to discuss, that would have been fatally embarrassing to the British government.

Asked why that doesn’t seem to map with the official confusion and panic laid out in the FCO files, he almost laughs. Obviously the documents would be ‘cleaned’ by the security services before being released. It’s called ‘sanitation of the books’, he said.

It is an utterly preposterous story for which he provides absolutely no supporting evidence. But it is delivered with such a straight face, with exactly the guarded reluctance you would expect of a former spy revealing secrets, that I can’t help feeling uneasy. Under questioning, Green only really disputes two factual claims put forward in the FCO files.

Firstly, he strongly denies ever having met Niemoller. He does say he knew the man by reputation from time spent in Rhodesia, however, and considered him a dangerous individual known for behaviour that he ‘would not condone’. But the FCO notes strongly suggest the two were in fact in contact. Secondly, he takes offence at the suggestion that he was arrested for cottaging. The initial arrest, he insists, took place in the Regent Palace Hotel’s dining room, not the men’s toilets. And the plainclothesmen who approached him were from Scotland Yard’s counterterrorism unit, not the vice squad.

The Regent Palace Hotel CREDIT: Clare Kendall

‘It had nothing to do with sex!’ he exclaimed. ‘I had just finished my lunch. And I knew as soon as they walked into the room they were looking for me.’

What the counterterrorism squad did not realise, he claimed, was that he was working undercover for MI5. And when he presented them with a telephone number that his handler had issued him for just such circumstances, they refused to ring it.

‘Instead they went on for a week, because a week was how long they could hold us, and then they handed it over to the DPP [Director of Public Prosecutions],’ he said.

For this blunder he claims the commander of the anti-terrorist squad ‘was sacked, basically’. He also claimed Sir Allan Green, then Director of Public Prosecutions, who resigned after being caught kerb-crawling in King’s Cross in 1991, was the victim of an MI5 set-up as punishment for pursuing the case.

Why, he asks, do we think he has not fallen victim to a traffic accident or a falling flowerpot? The answer, he says, is twofold: he kept quiet, and he also stole a large number of compromising documents from the safe of the director general of MI5 and stored them in a third country as an ‘insurance’ policy.

That, I suggest, is an extraordinary claim. He shrugs. ‘Not really,’ he said. ‘A lot of the work in this area is bluff. And if you haven’t got very, very steel nerves, you can’t really bluff. You can’t really bluff your case.’ And he has me. For bluffing is one thing on which Green speaks with authority.

Viggo Johan Oerbak was born in 1941 in Norway. He entered public consciousness in July 1963, when the newspaper Sunnmørsposten broke a story about a fake policeman who had operated in the coastal village of Geiranger for 16 days before being unmasked. Although he was found guilty of forgery, the general consensus was that he had pulled off a harmless stunt. Norwegian papers rather liked it. ‘He must either have a screw loose, or a sense of humour that exceeds everyone else’s!’ one noted.

There followed a series of audacious frauds that made him a minor celebrity. He assumed command of a unit of marines in the city of Kristiansand, lied to get a job as a Red Cross nurse in Biafra, and was found walking around London dressed up as a UN peacekeeping officer. At one point, he recalls with some pride, he stole a carpet from the office of the Oslo police commissioner by posing as a maintenance man.

There were patterns to his behaviour. He had a compulsive attraction to wearing uniforms, produced elaborately forged documents, and rarely, if ever, appeared to benefit financially. By the end of the ’60s, his audacity crossed the line from humour to plain illegality. In 1970, he was sentenced to one year in prison with five years’ parole for fraud and indecent behaviour. After prison he skipped parole and moved to Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). He was, he explains, looking for a ‘new start’, but his reputation for deception had begun to attract unwelcome attention from people trying to recruit him for criminal or malicious projects.

South African intelligence officer Johan Niemoller
Exactly what he did in Africa is unclear. He claims to have done a non-uniformed security-related job for Prime Minister Ian Smith’s government, which was fighting the last years of a vicious bush war against black liberation movements led by Robert Mugabe and Joshua Nkomo. Several former Rhodesian soldiers and intelligence officers said they’d never heard of anyone of his description.

At some point following Zimbabwean independence in 1980 he moved to Britain, arriving in Harwich on a false passport in the name of Frank Lynge Larsen, according to the FCO files. After the 1987 scandal he vanished until 20 years later, when he was discovered to have infiltrated and climbed to a senior position in the Danish Freemasons.

It was classic Oerbak: he had adopted the identity of a deceased Rhodesian-born Mason called William Green, and charmed the socks off everyone he came into contact with, dazzling them with increasingly tall stories about mixing with royalty and possessing several orders of chivalry.

Once again, there was little evidence of financial motive or theft. And, remarkably, many members of the Three Lions Lodge in Copenhagen told the Telegraph they bore him no ill will, despite the lies. But Peter Tage, the author and Freemason who unmasked him, is less forgiving. ‘There are simply people who are taken in, and those who are not,’ he told the Telegraph. ‘He has a knack for getting people to trust him. He inserts himself in situations of conflict and offers a solution. He will tell you what you want to hear and let your imagination fill in the rest.’

William Green is a charlatan. There is no doubt about it. And yet on one point, he has proven uncannily correct. In the 18 months since we spoke, the Telegraph has tried to corroborate or disprove his extraordinary account by every means possible. But, as he predicted, no one wanted to talk about it.

Niemoller still lives in South Africa. He has been convicted of illegal mining and is alleged to have connections with armed farright Afrikaner movements. Reached by telephone, he told the Telegraph that he could not recall events of more than 30 years ago and would not comment further. Other former members of the CCB did not respond to requests to comment. In Britain, a freedom of information request submitted to the Home Office for the police files on the case was rejected on the grounds of national security.

Kieran Prendergast, the former diplomat who signed most of the FCO documents, told us that he remembered almost nothing about the case. Baroness Lynda Chalker, the Tory peer who at the time was the Foreign Office minister responsible and answered questions about the case in Parliament, also told us she had no recollection of it.

Her private secretary John Sawers, who was copied in on almost all the FCO documents, later went on to head MI6. He did not respond to a request to comment via an intermediary. A former British intelligence officer who did confirm through an intermediary that he had knowledge of the case initially agreed to meet but then stopped responding to messages.

None of that corroborates Green’s incredibly tall story. But even knowing who he is, it is difficult to entirely break the spell his stories cast. After all, the feeling that one has fallen into the pages of a Scandi noir thriller is, well, thrilling.

A few hours after we parted, an envelope with my name on it was left at the reception of my hotel. Inside was a sheet of thick yellow paper bearing a red wax seal stamped with the initials WG. It bore instructions to an unidentified bank to release the contents of a safe-deposit box to international news agencies in the event of Green’s demise, and the imprint of a stamp bearing the name of an Oslo notary public (a legal official who verifies documents such as wills).

There was also a slim booklet containing advice for police officers on how to avoid surveillance and check your car for IRA bombs. I went up to my room to ring my wife. But first I locked myself in the bathroom and turned on the taps. Can’t be too careful, I thought.

Related Topics
MI5, Telegraph Magazine, Terrorism