Canadian engineering firm SNC-Lavalin worked closely with a son of Colonel Moammar Gadhafi to set up a joint civil-military unit in the years before the dictatorship collapsed, offering advice from experts such as the former deputy chief of Canada’s military and a former president of Hydro-Quebec.
Documents obtained by The Globe and Mail in Libya reveal that SNC met repeatedly with the North African leader’s notorious third son, Saadi Gadhafi, the two sides discussing a venture that would create a new board and also a logo that would fuse the green of the Libyan flag with the blue of SNC.
For almost three years, from 2008 to 2010, Canada’s leading engineering company played a role developing the Libyan Corps of Engineers, a military and civilian unit that fell under Mr. Gadhafi’s personal supervision. In their discussions with Mr. Gadhafi, the Canadian firm described its services as a defence contractor, documents show, touting the experience of former military officers such as Vice-Admiral Ron Buck, former head of Canada’s navy.
SNC says the company was never involved in any programs related to technology, munitions or combat. “Our role was, and is, strictly civil engineering and infrastructure.
“The only military-related project we performed in Libya was the Engineering Corps program for the detention centre to develop capacity-building,” a company spokeswoman wrote in an e-mail, alluding to a controversial, $275-million prison near Tripoli. “Apparently, at one point there was talk of other future projects, but they were put on hold when the civil unrest happened.”
Mr. Gadhafi, 38, burnished his public image by giving his military engineers a series of civilian projects – planting trees and refurbishing hospitals – but the paper trail also indicates that he and his subordinates got involved with training elite commando teams and buying advanced weapons from various international contractors.
SNC was only one of many international firms that offered their wares during the Libyan government’s billion-dollar shopping spree for military technology, kicked off when the United Nations lifted its arms embargo in 2003.
Former Canadian prime minister Paul Martin led a delegation to Tripoli in 2004, and the Conservative government followed up with a trade mission in 2008. Petro-Canada, and later Suncor Energy, established huge stakes in Libya’s oil and gas sector.
Saadi Gadhafi and SNC join forces
The untold history of SNC in Libya and its close relationship with the Gadhafi family may hurt the company’s opportunities under the new government. SNC boasted 2010 revenues of $418-million from Libya – 6 per cent of total company revenues – and its annual reports featured images of civilian projects: water pipes, airport construction, oil and gas infrastructure. SNC wants to resume such projects, portraying itself as neutral.
Like so many projects during the old regime, the Libyan Engineering Corps got started with a command from the so-called “Brother Leader.” A two-page order from Saadi’s father, Col. Gadhafi, in 2008 established the Corps with “military duties” listed first among its responsibilities. The new unit was also given a mandate for “innovation” and “construction works in general.” The Corps would be subordinate to the Libyan military and obtain funding from the defence budget, but Col. Gadhafi’s next order made it clear that the Corps would enjoy a degree of autonomy: He named his son, Saadi, as head of the new unit.
The young Mr. Gadhafi was determined to build his new Corps into a powerful arm of the regime. During one meeting of Corps officials, which started March 20, 2010, at 9 a.m., Saadi began with a speech about his vision for the organization.
“The Corps of Engineers must enter all scientific fields, because it’s an important weapon, and such units are considered in other countries of the world as an advanced weapon,” he said, according a four-page summary of the meeting. Building such an asset would require “the help of the Lavalin company,” he added.
In a Nov. 4, 2008, proposal, Riadh Ben Aissa, an executive vice-president for SNC-Lavalin Group who has been responsible for ventures in countries such as Algeria, Tunisia and Venezuela, wrote a cover letter addressed to Saadi. The first sentence promises “state-of-the-art realization of major projects both of a military and civilian nature in Libya,” and the rest of the document continually emphasizes SNC’s role as a defence contractor: 37 of the 41 pages in the proposal contain the word “military,” as SNC touted its work on a long list of sensitive projects.