Kerry Stokes and Andrew 'Twiggy' Forrest (Images: AAP)

As Australia’s political and military leaders express their horror and disgust at alleged war crimes committed by Special Air Service (SAS) soldiers in Afghanistan, Kerry Stokes has vowed to fund the legal fight of those accused.

But it appears he won’t be bankrolling their defence on his own.

A little-known charity originally set up to help the widows and children of SAS veterans is behind his efforts. And the organisation tells its own story about the powerful and well-connected backers of the elite Australian soldiers, many of whom are now accused of war crimes.

Last week Stokes said the so-called SAS Resources Fund could be used to help pay for accused soldiers’ legal costs.

The charity was set up in the wake of the 1996 Blackhawk helicopter disaster, which killed 18 soldiers in a training exercise in Townsville.

Its purpose was to support the families of SAS members killed in operations. Yet its activities have evolved far beyond its original mission, now providing general welfare and respite for “all serving members of the SAS Regiment”, not just their families.

And with a high-powered board backed by billionaires including Stokes, it has morphed into a powerful lobby group for the elite fighting force.

Elite backers

From day one the fund’s board was a who’s who of money and power in Perth, where the charity and the SAS is based. It quickly became enmeshed with Western Australia’s legal, business and political fraternities, drawn largely from Perth’s wealthy suburbs.

A group of prominent WA identities were among inaugural trustees, including Judge Peter Blaxell of the WA District Court, and Malcolm McCusker QC, who went on to become governor of Western Australia.

The fund was originally chaired by the former WA chief justice David Malcolm, helping attract funding from state and federal governments early on. A $10 million donation from Kevin Rudd, pledged when he was in opposition, helped broaden the fund’s reach to include financial support for all former members of the regiment and their families. Smaller donations flooded in from the Queensland, WA and NSW governments.

The fund quickly came to stand for much more than its charity work. Its high-profile board members and corporate backers helped promote the regiment’s “unique and hazardous role” in the defence force. This was helped by a new billionaire trustee — mining magnate and Australia’s biggest philanthropist Andrew “Twiggy” Forrest — who joined the board in 2012.

Annual fundraisers contributed large amounts of cash to the fund’s three different trusts as well as attracting high-profile speakers, including Foreign Minister Marise Payne, former prime minister John Howard and former governor-general Peter Cosgrove.

Political connections

The fund’s lobbying effort gathered pace at the same time as the SAS evolved from an obscure, clandestine regiment into a cult-like force whose members were revered as gods of the battlefield — something chief of defence Angus Campbell has said contributed to its toxic culture.

As politicians try to distance themselves from the regiment and denounce its conduct, the fund has maintained its deep political connections. One of those, Chris Ellison, John Howard’s long-serving justice minister, worked closely with former Australian Federal Police (AFP) head Mick Keelty during his time in government.

Keelty played his own role in the war crimes scandal, tipping off Victoria Cross recipient Ben Roberts-Smith to a covert AFP inquiry into his conduct. Another former Howard adviser, Peter Fitzpatrick, is also a trustee on the board.

The fund is now poised to support the SAS through its most vulnerable period. But with $2.7 million worth of assets across its trusts as of June 2019, it may fall short of the money needed to help the 19 SAS soldiers now being referred for possible prosecution for the alleged murder of Afghan prisoners and civilians.