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.
The list included upgrades to short- and long-range radar as part of North America’s air defences; improvements at three Belgian military bases; expansion of “American military dock facilities” in Newfoundland; refurbishment of a NATO data centre for air operations; and support for Canadian troops in Bosnia and Afghanistan.
SNC also described its work building and maintaining Canada’s naval fleet; establishing safe warehouses for weapons; and constructing storage spaces for Canada’s submarines and light-armoured vehicles.
The proposal recommended a joint venture between SNC and Mr. Gadhafi’s Corps of Engineers. An organization chart suggested that the joint-stock company would supervise three teams: one responsible for infrastructure and industrial projects; another for specialized tasks such as telecommunications; and a third team of “secured personnel” for military projects.
The military team would be “tailored to meet the specific military security, execution and deployment requirements of the office of the Commander-in-Chief of Engineers of Libya,” the proposal says.
Documents show that the Canadians followed up their proposal a month later, with a delegation to Libya headed by SNC-Lavalin vice-president André Béland. Minutes from their meeting with Libyan officials on Dec. 14, 2008, show the Canadians offered help with the basic structure of the Corps and pushed their idea about a joint venture. The first item on the agenda, according to the minutes, was SNC touting its skills related to “modern and developed methods in managing and executing strategic projects in Libya, either military or civil.”
SNC wanted to split the startup costs 50-50 with the Libyans, but the two sides eventually settled on a 60-40 split, with the Canadian company providing the bigger share of capital.
Enter the heavy hitters
As an initial step, the Libyans intended to purchase SNC’s expertise with a six-month consulting job, worth $1-million, the details of which were spelled out in a technical services agreement dated Jan. 9, 2009. The agreement notes that the Corps would require the services of five SNC-Lavalin consultants, each of them with impressive resumés.
Retired Vice-Admiral Buck’s resume says that he joined the Canadian navy in 1967 and became its commander in 2001. Shortly after his appointment as Chief of the Maritime Staff he was thrust into a lead role in Canada’s largest naval deployment since the Korean War, as ships responded to the 9/11 attacks.
In 2004, he was appointed Vice-Chief of the Defence Staff, responsible for allocating a $12.1-billion military budget. His solid reputation made him a leading contender for the top job in Canada’s military, but he was passed over in favour of General Rick Hillier in 2005.
Another retired officer joined the vice-admiral on the consulting team: Gary Wiseman, chief of staff for SNC-Lavalin Defence Contractors, whose resumé describes 25 years of military service. As Chief Engineer of the Defence Industrial Taskforce, he represented Canada’s Defence Department during U.S.-Canada free-trade negotiations in the 1980s and later served on the Treasury Board.
The rest of the team included Peter Langlais, general manager of SNC-Lavalin Defence Contractors; Armand Couture, an engineer and former partner at Lavalin who also previously worked as president of Hydro-Quebec; and Mr. Béland, an engineer who specializes in water projects.
The agreement copy obtained by The Globe and Mail is unsigned, but the document indicates that Saadi Gadhafi would sign for the Libyans and that Canadian heavy hitters would be tasked with drawing up an organizational chart for the Corps. It also described the qualifications necessary for candidates in each job and setting out “procedures for the efficient operation of the Corps of Engineers.”
Canada’s own export controls include restrictions on “instruction, skills, training, working knowledge, [and]consulting services,” for foreign militaries, and any such services exported should appear in the government’s regular updates on military exports. The $1-million SNC consulting job is not listed in the 2007-2009 report, which shows that no Canadian companies gave any such assistance to Libya during that period. This may indicate that SNC did not report its activity, never performed the work, or received an informal ruling from Canadian bureaucrats that the job didn’t fall under the regulations.
More than a year after the initial proposal, Mr. Gadhafi asked SNC again for another appraisal of the unit, according to a letter from an SNC executive dated March 4, 2010.
SNC also embarked on a joint venture with the Corps, for work “in the civil and military fields,” as noted in a draft agreement between the two sides.
The joint venture called itself “The Executing Agency” and held its first board meeting on Aug. 30, 2009, presided over by “Brigadier Saadi Gadhafi,” naming him as its board chairman. The SNC-Lavalin executive vice-president, Mr. Aissa, became deputy chairman. According to a signed copy of the meeting minutes, they agreed on a company logo somewhat reminiscent of the SNC-Lavalin logo, “with colours blue for SNC-Lavalin and green for Libya.”
SNC said in a statement Friday that “[t]e Executing Agency was set up as a management company to run this project and others, if there were to be any … We were never involved in any programs related to technology, munitions or combat: Our role was and is strictly civil engineering and infrastructure. … No embargoes, regulations or rules regarding permits, hiring, etc. were broken to our knowledge and, in fact, we were extremely conscientious about respecting all rules or laws that were in effect at any particular time.”
Gadhafi’s grand ambition
Mr. Gadhafi played a personal role in awarding some construction work to his Canadian partners – in a letter on Dec. 16, 2009, for example, he submitted a letter of interest to Mr. Aissa for development of an airport in the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi.
Minutes from the Executing Agency’s second board meeting, on Jan. 17, 2010, notes the three-way co-operation between the joint venture, SNC-Lavalin and the Corps of Engineers.
“It is considered that a beneficial synergic effect can be arranged among the three organizations to make use of the equipment, personnel and training resources to meet each other companies [sic]needs,” the documents say.
The military needs of Mr. Gadhafi may have exceeded SNC-Lavalin’s field of expertise, however. The Canadian company has no known track record with procurement of fighter jets, shopping for tactical missiles and training of special-forces teams – activities that interested the Gadhafi regime.
A spokeswoman for SNC-Lavalin has portrayed Mr. Gadhafi’s Corps of Engineers as focused on “infrastructure-building within the country in the same style as other engineering corps around the world.” This impression is partly reinforced by the fact that Libyan officials had a translated Arabic copy of an organizational chart from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which is best known for civil construction projects.
But documents show that Mr. Gadhafi’s military ambitions went further than civil construction. He was known outside Libya for his brief career as a professional soccer player and his antics in European nightclubs; his playboy lifestyle included a $1.6-million penthouse in Toronto. In Libya, however, he was often addressed with the honorifics “Engineer,” reflecting his education in the profession, or “Brigadier,” in deference to his service in a special-forces unit.
Libyan records show Mr. Gadhafi’s interest in setting up an elite Special Operations Task Force of about 1,000 men, including air, navy and ground elements. Former soldiers had submitted their resumés, presumably for consulting work, including three men who boasted of 26-, 16- and 12-year careers in the French special forces. One of the job candidates described a history of clandestine service that included assistance to Afghan guerrillas during the war against Soviet occupation in the 1980s; leadership of an “explosives ordnance and sabotage cell;” advisory roles in protecting the French president and nuclear facilities; and several years in the senior ranks of military intelligence.
During the 2011 uprising, Mr. Gadhafi was widely reported to be leading elite military teams. “It is very well known that Saadi is the worst of the Gadhafi sons,” said Abdul Hafiz Ghoga, vice-chairman of the National Transitional Council, Libya’s interim government.
Four government and human-rights officials in Libya, interviewed by The Globe and Mail, confirmed that Mr. Gadhafi arrived in Benghazi just before security forces massacred hundreds of demonstrators at the start of the uprising in February. A Libyan soldier told the BBC that he heard Mr. Gadhafi give orders to shoot unarmed protesters, although Mr. Gadhafi denies this. He is on the run from Libyan authorities, living in Niger, and has hired a lawyer who specializes in war crimes and rejects claims of wrongdoing.
With a report from Paul Waldie