FIGHTING N.A.T.O.

How a former Australian SAS soldier was hired to bring Russian and South African mercenaries to Libya to fight against NATO for President Gaddafi

PHIL MILLER
14 APRIL 2022

Mercenary soldiers, euphemistically know as ‘foreign fighters’, are in demand for the seemingly never-ending supply of new wars. Following the eight-month devastating NATO-led bombing campaign, and the overthrow and murder of President Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, as many as 20,000 mercenaries entered the country – Libya descended into further brutality and chaos, the country divided between two rival rebel forces. (Photo: Modern Diplomacy)

Colonel Gaddafi’s son, Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, contracted an Australian military veteran to bring Russian mercenaries to Libya during the Arab Spring. 

Saif al-Islam Gaddafi paid the Australian former special forces soldier to help organise the defence of Tripoli during NATO’s bombardment of Libya’s capital in 2011, a new book reveals.

John Gartner, director of Osprey Asset Management – Middle East (OAM), is an Australian former SAS soldier, who later fought as a member of Rhodesia’s and South Africa’s special forces.

Gartner claims he arranged for up to 150 South African and Russian mercenaries to form a military training group to support the North African dictator. 

However, anti-Gaddafi rebels took power before the foreign fighters could be operationally deployed. After an Arab Spring uprising had begun in February 2011, Gaddafi’s government was removed in October 2011 by rebel forces who were backed and supported by NATO aircover.

Writing in his memoirs, The Fading Light, Gartner says the Gaddafi regime gave him approval ‘to contact my colleague in Moscow, a former senior KGB (later FSB) officer now establishing his own private military company’.

The Russian company, which Gartner does not name, was at the time aspiring to guard Gazprom and Lukoil projects in Iraq.

Although Gaddafi’s regime fell before Gartner’s men could be deployed, other Russian mercenaries from the notorious Wagner Group would fight in Libya’s subsequent civil war. 

From March to October 2011, NATO forces led by the USA flew 26,500 bombing sorties and hundreds of civilians died, in NATO’s seven month war against non-nuclear armed, oil-producing, independent nation of Libya. A NATO spokesperson in 2012 stated: “NATO conducted the campaign for Libya with unprecedented care and precision and to a standard exceeding that required by international humanitarian law… NATO did everything possible to minimise risks to civilians, but in a complex military campaign, that risk can never be zero… We deeply regret any instance of civilian casualties for which NATO may have been responsible.” (Photo: Africa Archives)

Wagner Group fought for Libyan General Khalifa Haftar, who had become Libyan military commander following the fall of Gaddafi. The UN has accused Haftar of committing atrocities. Wagner, which was formed after the Arab Spring, is now believed to have deployed to Ukraine.

An Australian in Tripoli

John Gartner was first approached in Perth in 2002 by a former senior officer of Austrade, the trade wing of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT), who introduced him to an intriguing proposal.

Muammar Gaddafi’s son, Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, was exploring the possibility of training bodyguards for the ‘close protection’ of his family, and OAM was being suggested.

Gartner wanted to be sure that ‘this training would not breach Australian legislation’. He says he contacted DFAT head office, and a senior official flew from Canberra and personally met him in Perth. 

‘We met in the DFAT offices in the CBD…where I was given clearance to travel to Libya.’

 ‘Internationally recognised security and risk management adviser’ John Gartner, director of OAM-Middle East, has worked in Iraq, Iran and Saudi Arabia, Africa (Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Sierra Leone, Guinea, Liberia, Ivory Coast, Mali, Niger, Mauritania, Nigeria, Ghana, Gabon, Republic of Congo, Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, Uganda and Kenya), Eastern Europe, South America (Brazil and Peru), and SE Asia (Indonesia, Thailand, Singapore, Laos, Brunei and PNG). Here he is pictured in Moscow on a trip to discuss security contracts of Russian security management teams for Russian state-owned multinational energy corporations Gazprom and Lukoil. (Photo: OAM-Middle East)

Gartner drafted a training program and assembled ‘a provisional team of…former [Australian] SAS operators’ to act as instructors, but ultimately for reasons unknown the project did not go ahead.

Fast forward to 2011, the Gaddafi family was again in need of security support and again called on Gartner, through an Australian intermediary. He flew to Tunisia, then travelled by car from the capital, Tunis, to the Libyan capital of Tripoli in August 2011, when it was ‘under almost daily aerial bombardment from NATO air forces’.

A representative of Saif al-Islam then briefed him over dinner by the swimming pool of the Radisson Blu hotel, ‘while intermittently bombs detonated around Tripoli’.

Gaddafi’s son had initially wanted Gartner to again provide him with bodyguards for his family, ‘but by the time I had arrived in Tripoli, expectations had become more ambitious’.

‘I was now tasked with advising Libyan combat-capable formations in the field, operationally,’ Gartner said. ‘In the view of the Libyans, I was the specialist, it was therefore up to me to determine their exact needs, the costs involved and time frame.’ 

The next day, Gartner hired 50 South African former soldiers as ‘consultants’ and provided Libyan authorities with their passport details to fast track their visas. 

He then left Libya by road, entering neighbouring Tunisia, undercover as a mining specialist ostensibly for an unidentified Australian investment group, and stopping over at Djerba, an island resort inside the Tunisian border. There, Gartner gave an associate 10,000 US dollars in cash ‘to cover his immediate expenses’ to act as his ‘man on the ground’.

The entry point for John Gartner to the Libya-NATO war was by plane to Tunis in northern Tunisia, and then by road via the assembly point on the resort island of Djerba, then across the border to Libya’s capital Tripoli. (Image: Ian Macky)

Within a few days, anti-Gaddafi rebels were threatening the highway from Tripoli to Tunisia, jeopardising Gartner’s eastward access route. Undeterred, he moved half of his South African team to Djerba, ‘ready to deploy into Libya the moment the call came’.

The Serbian suggestion

Saif al-Islam’s representative, who had been Gaddafi’s chief pilot, then asked to meet Gartner in Beirut in Lebanon, where he requested another 100 mercenaries, preferably from Serbia.

Over dinner at a five-star seafood restaurant, Gartner advised strongly against hiring Serbians, warning they had a ‘reputation for brutality’ and would be a ‘poor proposition in the battle to win the international publicity war’.

Instead, Gartner suggested a ‘Russian group in Moscow, comprised of former Special Forces soldiers who had fought in Afghanistan and Chechnya’.

He was given approval by the Gaddafi regime to pursue his Russian contact, but later that month Tripoli fell to rebel forces before the second half of his South African staff had even reached Tunisia.

‘I was shocked by the sudden turn of events, as nothing had prepared me and my team members for such a sudden reversal of fortunes for the Libyan army,’ Gartner commented.

‘The bloody end to the Gaddafi regime did not immediately signal the conclusion of my contract, as I had been employed by Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, not his family, and I held out hope that he would continue to defy the rebellion and reassert his own authority.

Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, the son of Libyan dictator Muammer Gaddafi, at his father’s residential complex in the Libyan capital Tripoli in August 2011. That month, Saif al-Islam hired Australian former SAS soldier John Gartner to form up a mercenary force to ‘advise Libyan combat-capable formations in the field operationally’, in the war against NATO. (Photo: AFP)

‘But with Saif’s paymaster now having gone missing, and no chance of further payments coming my way,’ Gartner withdrew his men from Tunisia and told the remaining contingent in South Africa to stand down.

Saif al-Islam was captured by rebels, but released in 2017. Despite being wanted by the International Criminal Court, he is running in Libya’s new presidential election in June.

A gun for hire

John Gartner joined the Australian army in 1971 and became one of the youngest soldiers to enter its elite Special Air Service, aged 19.

Frustrated at missing Australian SAS deployments to Vietnam, he moved to Rhodesia in 1974 and fought in defence of Ian Smith’s white minority government.

Following their defeat by black nationalist forces, Gartner relocated to South Africa in 1980 where he joined the apartheid regime’s security apparatus. 

He was assigned to Operation Barnacle, a secret mission to sabotage Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress (ANC) and its allies.

It saw him conduct covert operations in Zimbabwe, Botswana, Swaziland, Lesotho, Zambia, Namibia, Angola and Mozambique until 1986.

Australian former SAS soldier, John Gartner, fourth from left, in Sri Lanka on a training mission with government military forces in 1986-88 during the bloody war against the Tamil independence forces. (Photo: OAM-Middle East)

Thereafter, he joined Keenie Meenie Services (KMS), a British mercenary company embroiled in Sri Lanka’s brutal civil war with Tamil independence activists.

From 1986-88, Gartner trained Sri Lankan military units, who he felt were ‘very nationalistic, and supremely chauvinistic when it came to their views about the Tamils, which I used to reinforce my training message’.

The War Crimes Team of the Metropolitan Police in London is investigating allegations British mercenaries including helicopter pilots working for KMS may have been involved in war crimes in Sri Lanka. 

In 1989, KMS (renamed as Saladin Security) gave Gartner a new role guarding Sheikh Ahmed Zaki Yamani, Saudi Arabia’s former oil minister.

After six years shadowing Yamani, he left Saladin and found work advising Brunei’s notoriously corrupt royal family on security.

Then in the late 1990s, Gartner founded his own mercenary company, Osprey Asset Management (OAM) [since 2016 recast as OAM-Middle East (OAM-ME)].

John Gartner kitted-up in the Green Zone in Baghdad, for an armed-escort contract during the Allied occupation of Iraq. (Photo: OAM-Middle East)

OAM-ME would go on to guard gold mines in Indonesia, escort convoys delivering new police vehicles to Abu Ghraib in Iraq, and advise iron ore projects in west and central Africa.

John Gartner was contacted and asked about his security firm’s operations, including his work in Libya, but did not respond by the publishing deadline.

PHIL MILLER is a journalist and author. He is Declassified UK’s chief reporter, and is the author of ‘Keenie Meenie: The British Mercenaries Who Got Away With War Crimes’. Follow him on Twitter at @pmillerinfo 

This story has been prepared and co-published with the London-based DeclassifiedUK.