Flanked by two colleagues, a 60-something Englishman quietly worked the lobby of Benghazi’s Tibesti Hotel last week, targeting people likely to be the power brokers in a new Libya.
Approached by a Reuters reporter, the man declined to give his name or even shake hands, describing himself as “a very private person”.
Evenings, he was at the bar, smoking cigars and talking to friends — not in short supply given the number of former British military currently in Benghazi, a rebel stronghold. The men are there, a few of them told Reuters, as fixers or “pathfinders”. Their mission is to gather intelligence and build relationships on behalf of UK companies in post-Gaddafi Libya, Reuters reports.
His rivals said this man is a “super fixer”.
They identified him as John Holmes, a highly decorated former SAS commando and retired British army Major General. This was confirmed by a a western diplomat and a member of Libya’s National Transitional Council (NTC) who has held talks with his client, British firm Heritage Oil.
Heritage declined to comment when asked about its activities in Libya and Holmes’ presence there. A representative of his own company, Mayfair-based Titon International, said only that he would pass on a message when told Holmes had been spotted in Benghazi. Reuters did not receive any response to that message.
Former members of the highly secretive Special Air Service (SAS), or “The Regiment” as it is also known, have a “frontiersman spirit” that makes them particularly well suited to this sort of work, says one person with detailed knowledge and experience of the inner workings of Britain’s special forces.
“They enjoy operating in alien cultures and environments and like to be using their skills to be out ahead of the pack,” said the person, who spoke to Reuters on condition of anonymity, noting that many are also good linguists.
Holmes — a fluent French speaker to judge by his conversations in the hotel lobby — is a former director of Britain’s Special Forces and holder of the Military Cross, one of the country’s highest awards for gallantry, according to a brief biography published by the alumni association of The Royal Military Academy Sandhurst.
Sources within the NTC say Holmes has made a number of proposals on behalf of Heritage Oil, including providing oil field security to help protect the Sirte basin from attacks.
One fixer, dressed in desert camouflage and wearing an engraved bracelet to honour a dead comrade, told Reuters he had served as a soldier in Iraq and Afghanistan and now worked for one of about half a dozen companies competing for contracts to assess damage to Libya’s oil facilities.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, he said Holmes’ job is to forge relationships with senior officials.
Others are sceptical about how much a retired army officer can offer. “I’ve seen lots of former SAS guys in the Gulf allying themselves with various advisers,” said one European diplomatic source. “They are totally divorced from the government now but present themselves as part of it.”
Holmes is well connected, however, having started his army career in one of the regiments that form the Queen’s Household Division and traditionally recruit officers from elite boarding schools, the aristocracy and families with long-established military pedigrees.
“These men often already have the advantage of social confidence and wide connections … Many, but not all, are also academic high flyers,” the special forces source told Reuters. “SAS men will have operated in high-level political situations and strange environments and are unlikely to be intimidated by power — political, commercial, financial, criminal or any other.”
One contemporary of Holmes’ in the Scots Guards and SAS was Eton-educated Simon Mann who, like Heritage Oil boss Tony Buckingham, later worked for private military contracting firm Executive Outcomes. In 2009 Mann was freed from an Equatorial Guinea jail after serving one year of a 34-year sentence for his role in a failed 2004 coup plot.
During his army career, Holmes also worked under U.S. general and onetime challenger for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination Wesley Clark. Since leaving the military he has expanded his expertise and network of contacts, conducting a study on behalf of London’s Metropolitan Police into what the private sector can do to combat terrorism.
Filings with Companies House show Holmes to be a director and major shareholder of Titon International. The company lists its core services as gathering business intelligence, recovering stolen assets, covert anti-fraud operations, protecting intellectual property and electronic counter-espionage.
Some in Britain believe the training given to the special forces, moulding self-starters in an environment where officers must win respect, may make them better suited to the sometimes lonely role of fixer than former U.S. Green Berets, Navy SEALs or members of Delta Force.
“While SAS soldiers can be good team members they are also highly individualistic and independent. They will have no difficulty operating in difficult or dangerous situations by themselves,” the special forces source said. “This individualistic trait may be one of the characteristics that distinguish them from other nations’ Special Forces.”
Holmes may not say much in public, but in a talk with Sandhurst alumni in March 2005 entitled “Leadership Contrasts: A Military Heart in a Civilian World”, he is recorded as saying he realised while serving in Arabia “that to lead the local tribesmen successfully it was important to have integrity, understand and respect the culture, share dangers and use a ‘carrot and stick’ approach, often by the judicious use of money …
“Above all, intuition was needed to remain safe in hostile environments.”