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Blurred military lines: When Defence Forces soldiers cross over into the world of private contractors

Some Irish soldiers - often looking for more pay - have worked in private security in overseas countries while on leave

Danny Cluskey

Government and defence officials have been rushing to mitigate the fallout from the revelations – detailed this week following an investigation by The Irish Times – that serving and former Irish military personnel have been training troops for a rogue Libyan general in apparent contravention of UN and EU embargoes.

The Garda has begun a preliminary investigation to determine whether criminal law may have been breached, while Tánaiste Micheál Martin has demanded explanations from Defence Forces chief of staff Seán Clancy.

Mr Martin has signalled he would like to see stronger legislation to prevent both serving and former Irish military personnel serving with private military contractors (PMCs) in contravention of international sanctions.

It seems likely that senior defence officials, from both the Defence Forces and the Department of Defence, will be called before an Oireachtas committee to answer questions on the controversy.


But this is far from the first time the Defence Forces has had to deal with fallout from its members taking up controversial overseas roles.

Since the beginning of the US wars in Afghanistan and Iraq at the start of the century, the demand for contractors with military training has exploded.

This demand has mostly been met by soldiers who – eager for more pay and sometimes more action – sign up with private military contractors in large numbers where they are employed as bodyguards, consultants and military trainers in unstable countries in Africa and the Middle East.

Irish soldiers have been no different. In certain circumstances, personnel in the Defence Forces are permitted to take “harvest leave”. As the name suggests, this was originally granted so soldiers could return home to help on the family farm at harvest time.

Over the decades, harvest leave developed into an official sabbatical during which soldiers could take leave for education, travel or to care for a sick relative.

It has also been regularly used to take up employment in the private sector, including sometimes with PMCs.

In one known case in the Defence Forces, after the 2003 US invasion of Iraq, one young Irish officer used his leave to travel to the country for a short-term security job. His superiors found out and the officer quietly resigned after being told he may face an investigation under military law.

Several years later, five serving Irish soldiers used their leave to take up private employment providing security services to the government of the Seychelles, which was dealing with a piracy problem at the time.

The incident sparked an internal investigation in the Defence Forces. Military lawyers determined the soldiers had not acted improperly but that measures were required to prevent serving personnel engaging in such work in the future. One of the soldiers involved now holds a senior role in the Defence Forces.

Around the same time, personnel were discovered to have travelled for security work in Afghanistan, and one soldier was suspected of using his leave to fight with the Kurdish YPK militant group in Syria.

All of this led to the introduction of a formal regulation that forbids Defence Forces members from using their military training for private gain.

The order was drafted in a deliberately broad manner. As one military source pointed out, it technically bars someone who learned to drive a truck in the Army from driving one in his spare time.

However, it is rarely enforced to the letter. The real purpose of the order is to prevent troops engaging in PMC work that could bring the military into disrepute.

As seen this week, this has not been entirely successful.

Irish Training Solutions (ITS), the Co Offaly-based company set up by former Army Ranger Wing members Danny Cluskey and Nigel McCormack, mainly recruited retired Defence Forces personnel to help train a special forces unit on behalf of Khalifa Haftar, the 80-year-old Russian-backed general who controls much of eastern Libya and is a challenger to the Tripoli-based government recognised by the United Nations.

But in one case, a Defence Forces member went to work for ITS while still subject to military law. The soldier had lodged papers to resign from the military and was using up the last of his leave when he travelled to Libya.

In another case a serving member was suspected of using his parental leave to travel to work for ITS before returning to his unit. Military authorities determined there was insufficient evidence to bring charges.

The concern among officials is not just related to serving members. The employment of former Irish military personnel with ITS has the potential to cause serious reputational damage to the State, especially as some of those employed were from the Army Ranger Wing, the most elite unit within the Defence Forces.

It is understood that US officials have already raised concerns with their Irish counterparts over the training of Haftar’s forces by former Irish soldiers. This explains the strong and immediate response from the Tánaiste Micheál Martin on Wednesday after The Irish Times revealed details of the training.

ITS is far from the only Irish security company recruiting soldiers and gardaí. These recruits often come from elite units, such as the Army Ranger Wing, or the Garda’s Emergency Response and Liaison and Protection units.

But more often than not, the recruits are from ordinary units, although they typically have specific skill sets such as medical, communications or driving expertise.

Some companies recruiting in this area compete solely for contracts with Government departments, NGOs and the EU – jobs that carry little controversy.

Services may include static protection duties outside embassies, close protection for dignitaries travelling abroad and “hostile environment training” for staff stationed in dangerous areas.

Last year, ITS personnel came under fire from Wagner mercenaries in Libya who were angry the Irish company was stealing their business, sources say

The complexities of geopolitics are never far away. Irish-Libyan national Abdullah Duibi was formerly chief executive of Security Side, a large Libyan-based company that provided training to the forces of Libya’s Government of National Accord, the UN-backed faction that is competing with Haftar’s Libyan National Army for power.

In 2020, Duibi stepped down from Security Side and established a new Irish-based company, Septimius Security. The company, which is not accused of any wrongdoing, has had significant success since, winning various valuable contracts from the EU, opening up 10 international offices and growing to more than 200 staff.

To meet this demand, they have been attempting to recruit former soldiers and gardaí over the past year.

“We will look to offer employment at home and abroad to suitably qualified ex-Garda and Irish Army personnel,” Duibi told the Garda Review last year.

Other security companies attempt to grow their business by bidding for contracts on behalf of governments or agencies in the developing world, which may carry more reputational risk.

More than a decade ago, Glenevin, another Irish company founded by former Army Rangers, won a contract to provide security services for the Ugandan government. This included providing 20 Irish staff to train the Ugandan public order unit and improve the police force’s international reputation.

It also provided anti-piracy services to the Seychelles and security training in Nigeria. Glenevin, which ceased operations in 2018, is not accused of any wrongdoing.

These contracts were lucrative – the deal with the Ugandan police was worth €5 million for one year – and other companies took note. “People saw what Glenevin were doing in Africa and decided they wanted a slice of that pie,” says one industry source.

We are recognised as being among the best in the world, even though we tend to undersell ourselves. This high standard applies to all ranks

—  Danny Cluskey in a 2017 interview with the official Defence Forces magazine

In 1986, Danny Cluskey, the former Army Ranger who went on to found ITS, became the youngest person to date to pass the gruelling selection course for the Army Ranger Wing and went on to specialise as a sniper.

Over the following two decades he became the outfit’s chief instructor in close protection, during which he also went on various overseas tours, including to East Timor.

In 2004, while still on active service with the Wing, he used his harvest leave to work with a PMC in Iraq, where he led a large close protection team for a UK PMC.

“For the first year I was kind of double-jobbing as a serving member of the Irish Army Ranger Wing and as a civilian at the same time,” he told a US podcast in 2021. “So I got away with that for a year or so until it just wasn’t viable any more.”

After about two years in Iraq, he formed Global Risk Solutions with fellow former ranger Nigel McCormack and started running bodyguard courses in Ireland. When the recession hit, the company found work providing protection for receivers of bankrupt and indebted companies, including the Quinn Group.

More success followed, with Cluskey and McCormack winning contracts with the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs and various companies and agencies in Africa and the Middle East. Global Risk Solutions set up an office in Saudi Arabia to provide security training there and won a valuable contract training personnel to guard oil rigs in Nigeria.

“Danny is a very charismatic guy and [has] a really wide skill set. It wasn’t hard for him to get clients,” says one former colleague.

From the start he recruited personnel with military backgrounds, with Cluskey placing a premium on Defence Forces experience.

“We are recognised as being among the best in the world, even though we tend to undersell ourselves,” he said in a 2017 interview with An Cosantóir, the official Defence Forces magazine.

“This high standard applies to all ranks; we all know how to follow instructions, how to present ourselves well and we know about hierarchy and manners.”

The same article detailed the services offered by the company, which included investigation, surveillance, close protection and mobile security. It also offered private training courses discounts available to serving and former Defence Forces members.

Like many security companies, it operated a panel of freelance former soldiers who could be recruited as needed for short-term jobs.

The Athlone-based company built up important connections in official circles in Ireland and overseas. In 2013 it recruited Felix McKenna, the former head of the Criminal Assets Bureau, to its board.

The next year Global Risk Solutions staff were photographed with the then taoiseach Enda Kenna at a meeting of the Saudi-Irish Joint Business Council in Riyadh.

A valuable sideline was providing hostile environment training and other services to the media. In 2015 the company helped RTÉ with a reality television programme called Tested on Humans during which the presenters were abducted in a mock tiger kidnapping. Cluskey appeared as an expert commentator on the programme.

However, the kind of large contracts obtained by other security companies proved elusive.

“They were never really making the big, big bucks. I think that’s why they made the change,” says an industry source.

In 2020 Cluskey and McCormack set up ITS, which operated from the same premises as Global Risk Solutions, business records show. Three years later they resigned as directors of Global Risk Solutions.

The pair then used their connections in the international military and political spheres to win a contract training Haftar’s 166th Bridge into a special forces unit.

“We were teaching snipers. We had specialised snipers out to train them; we had mortars, reconnaissance, medical, machine gun support,” says one former soldier who worked in the operation

The gamble seems to have paid off, at least in financial terms.

The deal signed in 2023 is believed to be worth more than €10 million, bringing ITS into the top echelons of Irish private security companies and putting them in direct competition with controversial international entities such as the Wagner Group, which has fought alongside Russia in Ukraine.

Last year, ITS personnel came under fire from Wagner mercenaries in Libya who were angry the Irish company was stealing their business, sources say.

It is difficult to predict what lies in store for ITS following this week’s publicity.

It will be hard to walk away from such a large contract in Libya and it seems unlikely Haftar will be too concerned about investigations by the gardaí or the Department of Enterprise, the relevant competent authority that investigates breaches of UN or EU embargoes.

However, it seems equally unlikely the Irish business will be considered for future work with the Irish Government or the EU given some of its recent choice of clients.