By FOIA Research
on March 21, 2023 - Last updated: November 7, 2023

Rafael Bardaji

Rafael Luis Bardají López (born in Badajoz, 1959) is a far-right Spanish political strategist and former national security advisor to the Spanish government. For decades attached to the post-Francoist, right-wing Partido Popular (PP), in 2018, he changed his affiliation to the far-right Vox party. Bardaji has been described as "brain of Vox" by journalist Miguel Mora,1 and the Italian journalist Steven Forti argued that Bardaji's role in Vox as being "the main channel that has put the Vox leaders in contact with the American neocon world," including Steve Bannon.2 Having posed with the helmet of Darth Vader in a 2019 interview, he has earned that nickname ever since.

Affiliated to a plethora of right-wing and transatlantic think tanks and endowed with ample business contacts, Bardaji can be considered an éminence grise of Spanish far-right politics. Bardaji was the founder of the PP-affiliated Grupo de Estudios Estratégicos think tank in 1986/1987, which kicked off his career as adviser on defense and security issues. From 1996 to 2002, Bardaji worked as a policy advisor to People's Party defense ministers Eduardo Serra Rexach (1996-2000) and Federico Trillo (2000-2004).3 After that, he remained an adviser to former Prime Minister of Spain, the PP-affiliated José María Aznar. During the Iraq war, he worked hand in glove with Republicans in Washington.

Bardaji was i.a. a member of the Strategic Advisory Board of NATO's Special Operations Forces Command from 2008 to 2015, and since 2006 is part of the Strategic Advisory Group of the Atlantic Council. Since 2012, he is a senior fellow at the Center for Transatlantic Studies (SAIS) at Johns Hopkins University.4

He is a co-founder and executive director of the Friends of Israel Initiative (FOII), a Zionist think tank and lobby group that was established in 2010. And he leads the FOII-affiliated High Level Military Group since its foundation in 2015.4 FOII and HLMG serve i.a. as vehicles for its members to acquire military contracts or lucrative advisory posts. As such, Bardaji joined the board of directors of Explosivos Alaveses (Expal Systems) in 2019 on the invitation of the Rhône Group, owned by FOII supporter Robert Agostinelli, which had bought 45% of Maxam explosives in August 2018. FOII supporter John Bolton is a senior adviser of the Rhône Group.

Currently, Bardaji is an adviser at the NYC-based intelligence and advisory firm Ergo5 and since 2013 CEO of the Miami-based consultancy World Wide Strategy.4 He was also a senior advisor to the Spanish cyber security firm MNEMO with subsidiaries in Mexico and Colombia.6 7

He has been awarded the Aeronautical Merit Cross (1991) the Naval Merit Cross (2000) and the Army Merit Cross (2003).8

Timeline

Bardaji graduated with degrees in political science and sociology from the Complutense University of Madrid (UCM). He "specialized in Strategic Issues and Military Affairs at Oxford University, Harvard and MIT," according to an online CV.8

1980s & 1990s

Already in his 20s, in 1986/1987, Bardaji founded the Grupo de Estudios Estratégicos (Strategic Studies Group, GEES), a right-wing defense and security think tank made up of university professors and analysts, for the most part ideologically linked to the People's Party.9 He remained director of the think tank until 1996.4 The GEES maintains close relations with like-minded American foundations such as the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) or the Project for the New American Century (PNAC). During the first Aznar government (1996-2000), the GEES migrated from an academic to a more activist profile, and the main analysts of the GEES, such as Florentino Portero, Ignacio Cosidó or Rafael Bardají, played a role similar to that of George W. Bush's "hawks."10

Bardají claims to have been a member of the People's Party since its founding in 1989.11 The PP was a re-foundation of the People's Alliance (AP), a party led by former minister of the dictatorship Manuel Fraga (1922-2012) and founded back in 1976 as alliance of post-Francoist proto-parties. During the Franco regime, Fraga was Minister of Information and Tourism (1962-1969) as well as Ambassador to the United Kingdom (1973-1975). After Franco's death, he served as Minister of the Interior in 1975, as Second Deputy Prime Minister (1975-1976), and as intermittent President of the People's Alliance (1979-1989). In 1989, with the addition of several lesser Christian democratic parties and the remnants of the Democratic Center Union, he refounded the People's Alliance as the People's Party (PP). Later in the same year, Fraga encouraged the election of José María Aznar as the party's new president. Fraga was then appointed as PP's honorary president.

PP has made headlines not only for its Francoist roots, but also for its vast corruption. In May 2018, the Spanish National Court found that the party profited from the illegal kickbacks-for-contracts scheme of the Gürtel case. The case confirmed the existence of an illegal accounting and financing structure that ran in parallel with the party's official one since the party's foundation in 1989 and ruling that the PP helped establish "a genuine and effective system of institutional corruption through the manipulation of central, autonomous and local public procurement."12

From 1996 to 2002, Bardaji worked as a policy advisor to People's Party defense ministers Eduardo Serra Rexach (1996-2000) and Federico Trillo (2000-2004).3

Early 2000s

In the early 2000s, Bardaji was "a member of the International Institute of Strategic Studies (IISS) of London, of the International Council of the Institute for Foreign Policy Analysis (IFPA) of Massachusetts, of the International Committee of the Fondation pour la Recherche Stratégique of Paris and the Conseil Economique de la Défense, attached to the French Ministry of Defence."13 As of 2003 Bardaji was Deputy Director of Research and Analysis of the Elcano Royal Institute (Real Instituto Elcano de Estudios Internacionales y Estratégicos), whose honorary president is King Felipe VI.13 The Elcano Royal Institute has received commissions by the Spanish Defense Ministry to produce reports.14

In 2002, he became National Security Advisor to the Spanish Prime Minister, José María Aznar.8 After the start of the Iraq war in 2003, Bardaji worked hand in glove with Republicans of the George W. Bush White House. In an interview with La Gazeta De La Iberosfera, Bardaji noted15 :

I spent a lot of time in Washington, both in the Pentagon and in the White House, preparing ... It was a strategic relationship, one of dialogue, but also a good personal relationship. When one experiences strong moments, bonds are forged that usually don't emerge in other situations.

According to Diagonal, "An example of this are the two visits that Rafael Bardají ... made to US President George W. Bush: on September 9, 2004, in the company of Aznar, Ana Botella and Alejandro Agag; and on January 19, 2005, on the occasion of Bush's inauguration of his second term."16

On his LinkedIn profile, Bardaji states that he was an "assistant" at Georgetown University from 2004 to 2011.4 From 2004 to 2016, he was International Policy Director at the Fundación para el Análisis y los Estudios Sociales (FAES), another think tank strongly tied to Partido Popular and presided over by Aznar. "FAES was born in 2002 from the merger of the five major foundations that were linked to the PP at that time: Fundación Cánovas del Castillo, Popular Iberoamericana, Popular Iberoamericana de Análisis y Estudios Sociales Popular Iberoamericana de Estudios Europeos and the Institute of Political Training," La Marea reported.17

The latter states:

The senior management, at the time of registration ... was made up of José María Aznar (president), Javier Arenas (vice president) and Baudilio Tomé (general secretary). Of its 43 members, 35 were men and eight women. Among them were 19 ministers of Aznar and others belonging to previous governments. Members such as Mariano Rajoy, Marcelino Oreja, Esperanza Aguirre, Ángel Acebes or Manuel Fraga stand out. ... Five of these members ended up charged and one, Eduardo Zaplana, are in prison. ... From 2003 to 2016, the foundation has received more than 35 million euros in the form of grants from the Ministry of Culture and Foreign Affairs and Cooperation ...

According to Diagonal16 :

The networking of these institutions [GEES, FAES etc.] allows them to be connected with the main neoconservative think thanks in the world, both in the United States (Project for the New American Century and Middle East Forum) and in Israel itself (Middle East Media Research Institute and Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies).

In the mid-2000s, Bardaji also started to contribute to the right-wing news site Libertad Digital.18

2006

Since 2006, Bardaji is a member of the Strategic Advisory Group of the US Atlantic Council.4 That year, he joined the International Advisory Board of Repsol, a Spanish multinational energy and petrochemical company based in Madrid.4

Around 2006, he joined the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs as senior research fellow.19 20

2008

Bardaji was a member of the Strategic Advisory Board of NATO Special Operations Forces Command from 2008 to 2015.4

2010

From 2010 to 2011, Bardaji was a columnist for La Gaceta of the Intereconomia group.4

Bardaji has described himself as a Zionist and a supporter of Israel.16 As such, he was a co-founder of the Zionist think tank and lobby group Friends of Israel Initiative (FOII) in September 2010, with three branches worldwide: an American branch in Miami, a Spanish branch in Madrid, as well as a defunct UK branch (2011-2018).21 FOII was created by an alliance of "hawks" from various Western countries in support of Zionism and the Right in Israel. Among them were several key supporters of the Iraq war, some of whom had already hooked up in the context of the UK-based Henry Jackson Society (HJS). HJS is a London-based think tank in sympathy with the arch militarist, though Democrat, US Senator Henry Jackson from Seattle, Washington, the home of Boeing aircraft, which notably includes former MI6 head Richard Dearlove among its supporters.22

The figurehead of the FOII initiative, José María Aznar, was Prime Minister of Spain from 1996 to 2004, as well as leader of the People's Party, who still serves as honorary chairman.23 After that, Aznar worked in the private sector, but remained honorary president of the party until 2016, when he renounced that title. Other co-founders on the Spanish side were, besides Bardaji, the PP politicians Enrique Navarro Gil, Pablo Casado and Carlos Bustelo, former Spanish Minister of Industry.24

Among the co-founders from abroad were former Trump security adviser John Bolton, Forza Italia's former President of the Italian Senate Marcello Pera, former President of the Czech Republic Václav Havel, Peru's former President Alejandro Toledo and billionaire financier and founder of the Rhône Group, Robert Agostinelli, and British Conservative Party peer, former First Minister of Northern Ireland and Nobel Peace Prize winner David Trimble.23 25

The FOII is an international effort, to "seek to counter the attempts to delegitimize the State of Israel and its right to live in peace within safe and defensible borders," as mentioned on its website.26 The group also campaigns against Iran, in particular in relation to its potential development of nuclear armaments. Aznar states that FOII is non-Jewish in nature and not linked to the Israeli government, and only non-Jews can become members of the board. Aznar believes that if Israel were to disappear, Europe would then be directly confronted by radical Islam elements.27

FOII was officially launched on July 19, 2010, at the British House of Commons, at an event hosted by the Henry Jackson Society.28 29 At least four early supporters of the Henry Jackson Society were involved in the foundation of the Friends of Israel Initiative: David Trimble, Alan Mendoza, Robert Halfon, and Andrew Roberts.22 Mendoza has been HJS's Executive Director since 2006.30

According to La Marea11 :

The origin of this foundation ... dates from September 8, 2010. Bardají ... created the non-profit organization Friends of Israel Initiative Inc. in Miami (Florida, USA), indicating as an address 'Diego de León, 47. Madrid. Spain' (that is still maintained today). ... Sixteen days after the foundation's registration in Florida, on September 24, 2010, this same Madrid address appears as the address of the Spanish foundation Friends of Israel Initiative.

On December 7, 2010, the UK branch was registered. The only person present on the board of all three FOII branches is Bardaji. Although detailed statements about FOII's Spanish and UK finances are missing, the US branch has received over 13 million dollar so far, some of which ended up in Spain. According to the latter's 990 forms, none of the board members have received any salary over the years, although Bardaji specified from 2014 onward that he invested up to 30 hours per week in the organization.31 This leaves room to speculate who actually pays for their work.

Three branches of the Friends of Israel Initiative, located in the United States, Spain and the United Kingdom.

Investigations into the provenance of the money revealed that FOII received one million dollars in 2015 and 2016 each from the Adelson Family Foundation of the casino magnate Sheldon Adelson (1933-2021).11 Adelson was reportedly a major donor to Donald Trump's election campaign.

2011

In March 2011, Bardaji joined yet another foreign policy initiative, Beyond Sanctions: The Next Iran Strategy. According to The Atlantic, "The Freedom House and the Progressive Policy Institute, along with other think-tankers and foreign-policy minds, launched a coalition ... aimed at shifting the focus of Iran policy toward human-rights and democracy - issues, they say, go hand in hand with nuclear weapons as the reason why Iranian nukes are threatening in the first place."32 The list of members in the group's announcement goes as follows32 :

  • Andrew Apostolou, co-chair, Freedom House
  • Joshua Block, co-chair, Progressive Policy Institute
  • Jim Arkedis, Progressive Policy Institute
  • Rafael Bardají, Atlantic Council/Fundación para el Análisis y los Estudios Sociales
  • Jeffrey Herf, University of Maryland
  • Ken Pollack, Saban Center for Middle East Policy, the Brookings Institution
  • Steve Beckerman, American Israel Public Affairs Committee
  • Renee Redman, Iran Human Rights Documentation Center
  • Ray Takeyh, Council on Foreign Relations
  • Michael Adler, Woodrow Wilson Center

Generally, Bardaji is critical of Islam and has argued that Islamic teachings have been responsible for terrorism and that non-violent passages in Islam still encourage intolerance.33 However, in 2015, he claimed that contrary to other opinions, the Islamic state could not be defined as a typical terrorist outfit as it was establishing an apparatus of security and order in comparison to the government of Syria.34 35

Prominent members of the Friends of Israel Initiative met with President Shimon Peres in July 2011 at the official residency of the President in Jerusalem. The delegation included Aznar, Bolton, Agostinelli, and Trimble. The President held a working meeting with FOII and presented an overview of the on situation in Israel and the region at large.36

Meeting of the Friends of Israel Initiative in Israel in July 2011. From left to right: Lord David Trimble, Former PM Jose Aznar, President Shimon Peres, Former Amb. John Bolton, Robert Agostinelli.

2012

Since 2012, Bardaji is a senior fellow at the Center for Transatlantic Studies (SAIS) at Johns Hopkins University.4 That year, he was for seven months director of the Office of Strategic Evaluation at the Spanish Ministry of Defense.4 From 2012 to 2014, he joined the Miami-based IC2 Partners, "which specializes in projects related to the public transportation system and its associated technology."37 Manager of IC2 Partners is Juan T. O'Naghten,38 longtime secretary of the US FOII branch, who also serves as "Special Delegate for Latin America" of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta.39

2015

As of 2017, Bardaji was involved in the High Level Military Group (HLMG), a project of the Friends of Israel Initiative.40 The group was "born in 2015 to assess the conduct of the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) during Operation Protective Edge in Gaza," according to a 2017 HLMG report, whose introduction Bardaji wrote.41 The group includes around 15 high-ranking military men, with the exception of India and Colombia, all from Western countries, in addition to Bardaji and Davis Lewin. Lewin, identified as HLMG's rapporteur, is the Deputy Director and Head of Policy and Research at the Henry Jackson Society.

Members of the High Level Military Group from 2015 through 2022.

2017

"In May 2017, still a PP militant, he was the first Spaniard to visit the Trump White House,"according to La Marea.11 "We agree on 'America, first,' Spain and the Spanish people first," he summed up his opinions about Trumpism.42

A 2017 HLMG report made its way to Boris Johnson, as a picture on Twitter of the latter holding it in its hand shows, incidentally standing alongside Bardaji.43

2018

In 2018, Bardaji announced he had ended his longstanding affiliation with the People's Party and had joined Vox. Although he was not on any electoral lists and did not hold any public office, as soon as he joined Vox, he was appointed to the National Executive Committee, which directs the party.15 The Italian journalist Steven Forti argued that Bardaji's role in Vox as being "the main channel that has put the Vox leaders in contact with the American neocon world."2

In April 2018, "Rafael Bardají, a member of Vox’s National Executive Committee, traveled to Washington ... to meet Bannon, as well as other members of the U.S. government, so he claimed," Slate reported.44 In an interview in La Gaceta De La Iberosfera, the mouthpiece of Vox's think tank Fundación Disenso, he affirms that he met Steve Bannon "through a mutual friend from the financial world," that he had "the opportunity to visit him on various occasions" and that they even "worked together, hand in hand, in his small and crowded office in the West Wing.”15 Among his interlocutors at the White House, he cites two: Trump's son-in-law, Jared Kushner and John Bolton, a former senior George W. Bush official and former National Security Adviser under Trump.45

Vox posted a picture of Bannon and Bardaji on social media with the following caption46 :

Stephen Bannon, the architect of Trump's victory, fully enters the Vox campaign: work meetings will be held to establish strategies against separatist propaganda outside of Spain and reduce its international support as much as possible.

An interviewee of La Marea stated in a dossier on Bardaji11 :

There are clearly three stages in Vox. Vox 1.0 began with Vidal Quadras and Ignacio Camuñas, who contribute the founding manifesto. Vox 2.0 began when Abascal and his current DENAES [a foundation created by Abascal in 2006 and in which today's prominent members of the party such as Javier Ortega Smith or Iván Espinosa de los Monteros participate] took control in September 2014. And Vox 3.0, the current one, begins with the arrival [in March 2018] of Bardají, someone fundamental, and I am very surprised that not enough is being said about him.

2019

In autumn of 2019, he joined the board of directors of Explosivos Alaveses, SA (Expal Systems), a company dedicated to the manufacture of weapons and ammunition,3 Expal Systems, at the time owned by Maxam, appointed "Bardají as a director at the proposal of Rhône Capital, a fund led in Spain by José Manuel Vargas, former president of Aena."3 The Rhône Group had bought 45% of Maxam explosives in August 2018, a company founded in the 19th century by Albert Nobel, which in turn owns Expal.47 A senior adviser of the Rhône Group is notably John Bolton, who joined the company on October 1, 2019, after having served as Assistant to U.S. President Donald Trump for National Security Affairs from April 2018 until September 2019.48 In November 2022, Expal was bought by the German Rheinmetall.49

As of July 2022, Volodymyr Zelenskyy asked Spanish companies to "stop doing business" with Russia and Vladimir Putin, singling out three companies, including the Spanish explosives giant Maxam.42

2020

In 2020, Bardaji set up another company together with Juan T. O'Naghten: RAFA Y PILAR LLC, MIAMI.50 While O'Naghten serves as registered agent, Bardaji and Pilar Martinez serve as managers. However, it is unclear what the company does.

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