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The Irish soldiers who trained a rogue general’s army in Libya

Departing and former members of the Defence Forces provided services to strongman Khalifa Haftar in an apparent breach of a UN arms embargo

Former members of the Defence Forces have been providing military training for the forces of Libyan strongman Khalifa Haftar in an apparent breach of a United Nations arms embargo, an Irish Times investigation has found.

From early 2023 Irish Training Solutions, run by former members of the elite Army Ranger Wing and Defence Forces, recruited departing and former Irish soldiers and flew them to Haftar-controlled Benghazi, where they worked as trainers alongside military veterans from other countries.

There they worked as contractors training the 166 Infantry Brigade of Haftar’s self-styled Libyan National Army, rivals to Libya’s UN-recognised government in Tripoli, according to travel records and other documents, photos and footage, and the accounts of multiple people familiar with the situation who spoke to The Irish Times.

“We were teaching snipers. We had specialised snipers out to train them, we had mortars, reconnaissance, medical, machine gun support,” said one former soldier who worked in the operation and who spoke on condition of anonymity, having signed a non-disclosure agreement.


“It was basically part of Haftar’s army. What he wanted us to do was to take 150 troops and train them to be a special operations unit.” He said that several fellow trainers were former members of Ireland’s elite special forces Army Ranger Wing.

“The gig was sold that we were training a Libyan special forces unit. They wanted people of special forces background to do it.”

One person who flew out to work as a trainer in Libya was still enlisted as a member of the Defence Forces, according to three people familiar with the situation, while others had recently been discharged.

The provision of military training to forces in Libya has been banned under a UN arms embargo since 2011, which forbade “technical assistance, training, financial or other assistance, related to military activities” in a bid to stop the violent breakdown of the oil-rich country as it was torn apart by rival armed factions after the toppling of former leader Muammar Gadafy.

The UN arms embargo forbids the provision of “arms and related materiel of all types”. The provision of “technical assistance, training or other assistance” is banned under EU restrictions too.

Three sources familiar with the situation said that Irish Training Solutions, based in Clara, Co Offaly, had brought in material with them to equip the Libyan trainee soldiers, such as gear and uniforms.

“It was helmets, body armour, shooters’ belts, boots and full MTP [multi-terrain pattern] uniforms, backpacks,” the former soldier who worked in the operation said.

The directors of Irish Training Solutions – incorporated as Irish Training Solutions (XSF) Limited – did not respond when asked repeatedly to explain how the training was not a breach of the UN arms embargo.

The contract of Irish Training Solutions was renewed for 2024 at a multimillion euro value, according to a person familiar with the arrangements. The 2023 contract offered payment in two tranches, both amounting to multimillion euro sums. The latest accounts for Irish Training Solutions show that it had just over €1 million in “cash and cash equivalents” at the end of March 2023 and made a profit of €738,088 in its 2023 financial year, compared with just €1,365 the previous year.

Backed by substantial financial resources, Haftar has been seeking to professionalise his forces to solidify control of eastern Libya and his position as challenger to the Tripoli government, bidding for wider international credibility beyond his support from Russian Wagner mercenaries, Egypt, and the United Arab Emirates.

Wearing Tricolours and Army Ranger Wing patches

Images of the training show men in combats wearing Irish flag patches and the logo of Irish Training Solutions, sometimes alongside the black and yellow military badge of the Libyan National Army’s 166 Infantry Brigade.

Danny Cluskey (58), a well-connected former soldier who co-owns Irish Training Solutions, is pictured posing on an armoured vehicle while wearing the shoulder flash and insignia of his former unit the Army Ranger Wing, as well as an Irish flag patch and his company’s logo. A video shows Cluskey firing an AK47-type assault rifle among a group of men in fatigues.

“I have nothing to say about it,” Cluskey said when contacted by The Irish Times.

He declined to answer detailed questions that were put to him, or challenge any details of this story as they were explained. He did not respond to follow-up messages and calls.

Wearing Defence Forces uniform in irregular settings risks bringing Ireland’s military into disrepute, as well as the possibility it could endanger Irish forces deployed overseas as the State could be misunderstood to be fighting on one side of a conflict.

It would also cause a crisis for the State if a citizen irregularly wearing an Irish uniform were to be detained in a conflict overseas, according to defence sources.

“The Defence Forces is always disappointed if its former members act in a way that is at odds with our ethos and values,” a spokesman for the Defence Forces said.

The spokesman said that the discharge dates of individuals could not be confirmed due to data protection issues.

Members of the Defence Forces can sometimes accumulate substantial amounts of leave to use up before being formally discharged. Defence Forces authorities have previously had to step in to prevent members from moonlighting during their leave in private security roles overseas that clash with their army role. Departing soldiers remain bound by military law for six months after their discharge.

The situation in Libya runs contrary to Ireland’s participation in attempts to enforce the UN arms embargo. In the summer of 2023 as this training was taking place, the Defence Forces deployed the LÉ William Butler Yeats naval ship to patrol the waters off north Africa to prevent illicit weapons transfers under the joint EU mission Operation Irini.

UN member states, including Ireland, are obliged to enforce the arms embargo, which states that “all member states shall immediately take the necessary measures” to prevent the provision of military training or other assistance “from or through their territories or by their nationals”.

Any international private company active in Libya must check with their national authorities to ensure they are in compliance with their country’s rules on enforcing the embargo, according to UN guidance. There are exceptions only for humanitarian work, or if approved by a UN monitoring committee.

Tensions with Wagner

Images of the training seen by The Irish Times show men in fatigues shooting guns at targets in an outdoor firing range, aiming machine guns while lying on the ground, and practising the armed entry of an aeroplane.

Some photographs show men wearing the badge of Irish Training Solutions and Irish Tricolour patches, at times alongside the unit badge of the 166 Infantry Brigade of the Libyan National Army, of which Haftar is the general commander with his sons in powerful roles.

Cluskey was photographed signing papers at a desk in an office with the flag of Haftar’s Libyan faction hanging behind him. A nameplate on the desk reads “Brigadier Saddam Khalifa Haftar” in Arabic, the name of Haftar’s son and presumptive heir, considered to be a rising power in east Libya.

The trainers were given free rein over an area known as Chinatown, a sprawling complex of unfinished buildings that are a stalled megaproject from Gadafy’s time, according to people familiar with the situation. This area was used for training in close-quarters combat, assaults on houses, and room entry. The trainers also practised raids against drug smuggling.

The 2023 training course culminated in the performance of a military display attended by senior figures from the Libyan National Army, including the heir apparent Saddam Haftar.

Photographs of the occasion released by the Libyan National Army show 166 Infantry Brigade troops storming unoccupied buildings in a heavily-armed display as the dignitaries look on.

The Haftar faction enjoys a close relationship with Moscow, and has been given military support by Wagner group mercenaries, who remain present in key strategic points in the territory under its control.

On two occasions Wagner forces shot towards the Irish trainers – possibly viewing them as competition for military contracts – and on the second occasion an Irish Training Solutions contractor returned fire, according to a person who was present and another who was informed about the incident.

A company in Dubai

Irish Training Solutions, the company run by directors Cluskey, Darren Kelly (40) and Nigel McCormack (49) – all former Defences Forces personnel – recruited men with military experience offering them contracts that paid €300 a day to “provide training services” for a nine-month period, according to a copy of the contract.

McCormack, whose address in company records is in Clara, Co Offaly, and Kelly, whose address is given in Clogherhead, Co Louth, did not respond to repeated and detailed requests to comment on this story.

Starting in early 2023, the contractors were flown into Benghazi via Turkey and Spain, according to travel records.

Cluskey and other former Irish soldiers previously founded a company called Global Risk Solutions to provide private security training and consultancy in 2007 before going on to establish Irish Training Solutions in 2020, which describes itself as providing “education and training solutions for clients in Europe, the Middle East and Africa”. The acronym GRS was used to organise travel in early 2023, according to booking records. Global Risk Solutions changed ownership in the summer of last year, and both Cluskey and McCormack, previously the firm’s only directors, resigned in June 2023.

Part-way through the training programme, the source of salaries paid to trainers switched to a company called SOF Training in Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, which contractors were told would offer tax benefits. Those working as trainers in Libya suspect that the change was made to avoid scrutiny amid concerns that the Irish authorities might crack down on their activities, according to people familiar with the arrangements.

The ministry of economy of the United Arab Emirates – a country that has backed Haftar with funding and weapons in breach of sanctions, according to multiple UN reports – granted SOF Training a licence to provide “security training” on July 13th, 2023 according to business registration records. SOF is a commonly-used military acronym for special operations forces. Company ownership records in the UAE are private so it is unknown who the ultimate owner of SOF is.

‘It prolongs the conflict’

UN experts have issued multiple reports blaming the involvement of private military contractors and international powers seeking to shape the future of Libya for dragging out the country’s conflict and disorder.

“It prolongs the conflict, it kind of chips away at Libyan sovereignty, and it makes it very difficult to resolve,” said Emadeddin Badi, a Libya expert who is non-resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council.

The involvement of overseas contractors have “internationalised” the conflict, making Libya a stage for vying foreign powers, according to Dr Sorcha MacLeod, a member of the UN’s working group on the use of mercenaries.

“It’s been hugely problematic ... destabilising the entire peace process in Libya,” she said.

A Western diplomat, highly experienced on Libyan sanctions measures, said: “This is undoubtedly a violation of the arms embargo as it provides military support and training to Haftar’s forces.”

The 166 Infantry Brigade and the Libyan National Army did not respond to requests for comment.