What was harder for him to get than such favours was his father’s respect. Moammar Gadhafi pushed his children to build their own prestige within the country, via businesses and militias. After humouring Saadi’s attempts to make his way in pro sport and Hollywood, Libya’s supreme ruler gave his son a written order in 2008, commanding Saadi to set up a new branch of the Libyan military.
The order briefly outlines a vision for a Military Engineering Corps, under Saadi’s personal leadership and funded from the national defence budget. Like many missives from Moammar Gadhafi, the order is vague. It lists “military duties” first among the responsibilities of the new unit, but then discusses ways the Corps could serve the country—mostly tasks usually associated with civilian engineers. Still, the dictator was making himself clear: Saadi must get serious.
Saadi had barely more qualifications to run a military engineering operation than he did to play pro soccer. But luckily, in this arena, he could hire the expertise he needed.
In November, 2008, while Saadi was still in his film period, Ben Aïssa sent him a formal proposal suggesting that the brand-new Military Engineering Corps should set up a joint venture with SNC-Lavalin. The proposal emphasized SNC’s history as a defence contractor, with 37 of the 41 pages in the document including the word “military.” Text accompanying an organizational chart said that SNC personnel could supervise “security specialists” for implementation of military projects “tailored to meet specific military security, execution and deployment requirements of the office of the commander chief [sic] of engineers of Libya.”
Saadi, the newly minted commander who demanded that his entourage refer to him by his official title, “Brigadier Engineer Saadi,” personally approved a crest that would be worn on the uniforms of the men who answered to him. A draftsman’s compass represented his joint venture with SNC-Lavalin. Other items symbolized the unit’s specialties: roads, tunnels, waterworks, educational facilities, military fortifications. At the centre of the crest was an orange starburst, representing an exploding land mine.
If a Canadian company like SNC—a onetime land-mine manufacturer—wants to help a foreign army, any products sold may fall under export control regulations. The company says its operations did not run afoul of those rules: “To the best of our knowledge, SNC-Lavalin has never been involved in any Libyan programs related to military technology, munitions or combat,” SNC spokeswoman Leslie Quinton wrote in an e-mail.
The board of directors for the joint venture included a former official with the Libyan football federation and Abdulrahman Karfakh, a notorious bribe collector for one of Saadi’s older brothers. It’s not clear how many of Saadi’s ambitions for his military unit turned into reality in the years before the revolution. An inventory list for three of his engineering brigades calls for each to be equipped with toolboxes and trailers for planting mines. Another document, marked “Top Secret,” prepared by a lieutenant-colonel, suggests that engineers in a remote southern town would also be equipped with mine-planting devices. As well, Saadi’s men were shopping for state-of-the-art equipment for mine removal, including the MK III Husky mine detection vehicle used by Canadian forces.
Saadi appears to have been putting together an elite special-forces team and looking for advanced weaponry. A 54-page training manual suggests that Saadi wanted his men to be prepared to handle offensive and defensive chemical-weapons operations, among other skills. Photographs show a grinning Saadi meeting a sales team for the French-made Rafale fighter jet. The jet also appears on operational plans that showed how Libya could build a commando force numbering 3,000 men, capable of operating independently of the rest of the Libyan military on air, water and land.
Saadi’s plans called for attack helicopters and short-range missile systems mounted on trucks. His elite forces would carry shoulder-mounted missiles for destroying tanks, as well as laser guidance devices for directing air strikes. Saadi was moving forward with buying some of this equipment—his subordinates had glossy brochures for modern missiles and had end-user certificates for attack boats.
Such hardware is easily obtained by any oil-rich autocrat, however; the more difficult part is human resources. Saadi reached outside of Libya for the expertise to build his organization. His files included the resumés of former French special forces officers, apparently offering their services as consultants. It’s not just the sober expressions on the profile photos of these chiselled men that makes them appear deadly serious; it’s also the clandestine adventures described in their curricula vitae. One resumé mentions a history of assistance to Afghan guerrillas during the war against Soviet occupation in the 1980s; leadership of a “sabotage cell”; and work as a security adviser for the French president.