Colonel Robert “Bob” Denard (April 7, 1929 – October 13, 2007), sometimes known under the aliases Gilbert Bourgeaud and Saïd Mustapha Mahdjoub, was a French soldier and mercenary. He was known for having performed various jobs in support of Françafrique (a term referring to France’s sphere of influence in its former colonies) for Jacques Foccart, in charge of French president Charles de Gaulle’s policy in Africa. Having fought in Algeria during the Algerian War, he then took part in the Katanga secession effort in the 1960s and fought in many African countries including Congo, Angola, Rhodesia (today Zimbabwe), and Gabon. Between 1975 and 1995, he participated in four coup attempts in the Comoro Islands. It is widely believed that his adventures had the implicit support of the French state, even after the 1981 election of the French Socialist Party candidate, François Mitterrand, despite moderate changes in France’s policy in Africa. He was the father of eight children and married seven times (polygamously), after converting to Islam.
After having served with the French Navy in Indochina and in French Algeria, Denard served as a colonial policeman in Morocco from 1952 to 1957. In 1954, he was convicted of an assassination plot against Prime Minister Pierre Mendès-France, a left-wing member of the Radical-Socialist Party who was negotiating the end of the Indochina War and withdrawal from Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria, and served 14 months in jail. An adamant anti-Communist, Denard then took part in many anti-colonialist struggles, simultaneously on his own behalf and on the behalf of the French state. Once he was freed from jail, he worked for the French secret services during the war in Algeria.
After his discharge from the French navy, Bob Denard was briefly a policeman in Morocco and a demonstrator for washing machines in Paris. He began his mercenary career, which was to span three decades, in Katanga, probably in December 1961 when he and other foreign mercenaries were brought in by the leader of the mercenaries in Katanga, Roger Faulques. He became famous after rescuing white civilians encircled by rebels in Stanleyville. Denard fought there until the secessionist movement led by Moise Tshombe collapsed in January 1963. Then, Denard and his men fled to Portuguese-controlled Angola.
Denard is known to have participated in conflicts in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), Yemen, Iran, Nigeria, Benin, Gabon, Angola, Zaire and the Comoros, the last-named nation having been subject to more than twenty coups d’état in the past decades. For most of his career Denard had the quiet backing of France and the French secret service which wished to maintain French influence over its ex-colonies.
In mid-1963 he was in North Yemen, which was then in the middle of a civil war between a Nasserist government and royalist tribesmen. The royalists were supported by the Western European and Saudi Arabia governments. The French and British sponsored a number of mercenaries to train the royalist volunteers in military techniques, and Bob Denard was among those who joined the Imam al-Badr, leader of the royalists.
After about eighteen months Denard returned to the Congo to take employment under Moise Tshombe who was now the prime minister of the central government in Leopoldville from July 1964 till October 1965 when was dismissed by President Joseph Kasa Vubu. Denard served for two years in the Congo battling Simba rebels supporters of the late Congolese leader Patrice Lumumba, who had been murdered in Katanga in 1961 after having been overthrown by rival politicians and severely tortured while in transit. The Simba rebels were backed by the Chinese and Cubans, including Che Guevara while Lumumba’s murderers were tacitly backed by America and Belgium. Denard was in charge of his own unit of French mercenaries called les affreux (lit. : the awfuls). Denard helped put down an attempted coup on behalf of Tshombe by Katangan separatists in July 1966.
A year later Denard sided with Katangan separatists and Belgian mercenaries led by Jean Schramme in a revolt in eastern Congo. The rebels were soon bottled up in Bukavu. Denard was wounded in the initial rising and flew out with a group of more seriously wounded men to Rhodesia. In January 1968 he invaded Katanga with a force of a hundred men on bicycles in an attempt to create a diversion for a breakout from Bukavu. The invasion was a farce.
Denard was not involved in mercenary activity in Biafra during the Nigerian civil war during the late 1960s. From 1968 to 1978 he was employed supporting the government in Gabon and was available to carry out military actions on behalf of the French government in Africa. He may have been involved in a raid against Guinea in 1970. He was involved in a failed coup attempt in Benin (Opération Crevette, or Operation Shrimp), against Mathieu Kérékou, the leader of the People’s Revolutionary Party of Benin, in 1977. Although Jacques Foccart denied knowledge of the attempted coup after its failure, he did recognize that it had been backed-up by Gnassingbé Eyadéma (Togo), Houphouet-Boigny (Ivory Coast), Omar Bongo (Gabon) and Hassan II (Morocco), all allies of France.
His “favorite” targets were the Comoros. He attempted to overthrow the government of this small island group four times. On orders from Jacques Foccart, he ousted the first president, Ahmed Abdallah, who had just unilaterally proclaimed the Comoros’ independence on July 6, 1975. Ahmed Abdallah was replaced by Ali Soilih.
He then failed at a coup in Benin in 1977 and carried out some operations in Rhodesia from 1977 to 1978 as part of the Rhodesian Army’s short-lived French-speaking unit, 7 Independent Company. With the support of the Rhodesian government, he returned to the Comoros with 43 men on May 13, 1978 and carried out a coup against president Ali Soilih, who had turned toward socialist policies. Soilih was killed under mysterious circumstances on May 29, 1978. Helped by Denard, Ahmed Abdallah took the presidency back. For eleven years (1978-1989) Denard headed Abdallah’s 500-strong presidential guard and had strong influence and business interests in the archipelago, marrying and converting to Islam and eventually becoming a citizen of the country. He adopted the Islamic name Said Mustapha Mahdjoub upon his conversion.
The Comoros also served as his logistic base for military operations in Mozambique and Angola. He was then supported by Paris, as the Comoros provided France for a base to get around the embargo against the apartheid regime of South Africa. Denard built an empire in the Comoros, composed of hotels, lands, and the presidential guard.According to Xavier Renou, author of a book on private military contractors, Denard foreshadowed the transition between traditional mercenaries to contemporary private military contractors, creating a small army during his stay in the Comoros in the 1980s.
1989 coup and subsequent trial
In 1989, fearing a probable coup d’état, president Ahmed Abdallah signed a decree ordering the Presidential Guard, led by Bob Denard, to disarm the armed forces. Shortly after the signing of the decree, a military officer allegedly entered president Abdallah’s office and shot him, injuring Denard at the same time. A few days later, Bob Denard accepted to leave the Comoros after meeting French businessman Jean-Yves Ollivier, and was evacuated to South Africa by French paratroopers.
Bob Denard then waited in the Médoc region, in France, for his trial for the murder of president Ahmed Abdallah in 1989. With his lieutenant Dominique Malacrino, he had to face charges in May 1999 for his role in the 1989 coup, in which, according to the French prosecution, president Ahmed Abdallah was killed on the orders of Denard because he was about to remove Denard as head of the presidential guard. The prosecution said Ahmed Abdallah was shot on orders from Denard during a faked attack on his palace on the night of November 26, 1989. But a few days before the trial, Abdallah’s family dropped their suit, and finally Bob Denard and Dominique Malacrino were acquitted because of lack of evidence. The Comoros experienced its twentieth coup attempt since independence on the day that the trial began.
Afterward, president Mohamed Taki Abdulkarim declared that he refused Bob Denard’s return to the Comoros. On November 6, 1998, Abdulkarim died under suspicious circumstances. His family suspected a poisoning and asked for an autopsy. The post-mortem examination was refused and Abdulkarim was said to have died of natural causes.
1995 coup and subsequent trial
On the night of September 27, 1995, Denard landed on the Comoros with 30 men in Zodiac inflatable boats in an attempted coup against president Said Mohamed Djohar, Abdallah’s successor. On October 4, in accordance with an agreement between France and the Comoros, the French army put an end to the attempt. Denard was brought back to France by the French DGSE intelligence agency for trial.
Denard was arrested in 1995 when he launched a fourth coup, Operation Kaskari, against Saïd Djohar, in the Comoros. The French government sent an expeditionary force to capture Denard and his 33 mercenaries. Despite having over 300 armed Comorians ready to fight and having machine gun posts set up, Denard surrendered without a shot being fired and spent ten months in a Paris jail. At his trial a number of former Gaullist politicians, including Charles Pasqua, spoke on his behalf.
Later trials and death
In 2001, Guido Papalia, Italian attorney of Verona, prosecuted Denard for having tried to recruit mercenaries in the far-right Italian movement (through Franco Nerozzi) in order to make a coup against Colonel Azali Assoumani, the current president, also opposed to his return to the Comoros.
On March 9, 2006, attorney Olivier Bray asked for five years of prison for the 1995 coup d’état against Said Mohamed Djohar under the code-name “Eskazi”, and sentences between one and four years for his 26 accomplices. During the three-week-long trial, Bob Denard and his accomplices tried to convince the court that they had acted with implicit support of French authorities. Dominique Malacrino talked about the “numerous phone calls of Jacques Foccart, then responsible for the African office at the Elysée palace” to Bob Denard. Emmanuel Pochet, another suspect, declared that Denard had “support from senior officers of the special forces of the DGSE”, the French external intelligence agency. Olivier Feneteau, another suspect, declared that he had belonged in the past to the “action service” of the DGSE. On March 9, Denard’s lawyer presented declarations by former president Djohar, who had stated, during an interview to Comorian newspaper Kashkazi at the end of October 2005, that his security chief, Captain Rubis, a French officer that the French authorities had recommended to him, “was aware of the coup”.
In June 2006 Denard, who by then was suffering from Alzheimer’s, was found guilty of “belonging to a gang who conspired to commit a crime”, and was given a five-year suspended jail term. During the trial, the role of the French secret services in the 1995 coup against Saïd Djohar was recognized, but not deemed sufficient to discharge the mercenaries of their guilt. However, the knowledge of the French authorities of the attempted coup was one of the reasons given by the Court to abstain from ordering a firm prison sentence. During his trial in 2006 before the Court of Appeal, a former head of the foreign intelligence service explicitly stated that “When special services are unable to undertake certain kinds of undercover operation, they use parallel structures. This was the case of Bob Denard.” In July 2007, he was sentenced by the Court of Appeal to four years of prison (one firm, three suspended). However, he never served his sentence for health reasons.
His death was announced by his sister on October 14, 2007.
Denard converted to Judaism in Morocco, to Islam in the Comoros, and ended his life as a Roman Catholic. His funeral took place at the Paris church of Saint François Xavier.