Part Two of a Three-Part CAM Series on Mercenaries and Clandestine Operations in Ukraine
[In Part Two of this three-part series on foreign mercenary fighters in Ukraine, (see Part 1) the nexus between mercenaries with experience in Syria, Ukraine and U.S.-EU-NATO armed forces becomes more apparent. This second part of the investigation looks at Shaun Pinner, Alexander Tobiassen, John Harding, Sjoerd Heeger, Craig Lang and Ben Fischer.—Editors]
From Bosnia and Northern Ireland to Syria and Onwards to Ukraine: Shaun Pinner
While in Syria, British mercenary Aiden Aslin [whose experiences are discussed in Part One of the series] befriended fellow UK citizen Shaun Pinner (aka Snowy), a 48-year-old former British soldier. Pinner spent nine years in the Royal Anglian Regiment, an infantry unit in the British Army, completing two tours in Bosnia and three tours in Northern Ireland in the 1990s. Pinner was even featured in 1994 on the front cover of Soldier, a British military magazine.
In 2016 and 2017, Pinner was in Syria with Aslin and John Harding, the unit commander (who would later join him in the Azov Battalion) fighting with the YPG against ISIS. He was a member of the Tactical Medical Unit (YBT) alongside U.S. citizens including Justin Schnepp, Damien Rodriguez, Lucas Chapman, Taylor Hudson and Kevin Howard.
Howard (aka Kane Harley) was a former U.S. Marine who went on to serve in the French Foreign Legion before going to Syria. He committed suicide in 2019. Taylor Hudson also served in the French Foreign Legion. According to conversations with people who were in northeast Syria at the time, the medical unit was notorious for rampant drug abuse amongst its members.
YBT members used medical supplies that were critical for battlefield injuries for their personal consumption. The drug of choice was tramadol. Following a lengthy investigation, YPG leadership disbanded the unit and sent home a few of its members, notably its commander. Other former members have made varying claims as to why the unit was disbanded.
After leaving Syria in late 2017, Pinner traveled to Ukraine. Landing at the airport in Kyiv, he was picked up by Alexander Tobiassen. Pinner joined the Azov Battalion, a neo-Nazi group that was formally integrated into Ukraine’s National Guard following the 2014 Maidan coup d’etat.
He has fought against the Lugansk and Donetsk People’s Republics for a few years and, in a 2019 documentary titled Robin Hood Complex: Ukraine—Europe’s Forgotten War, director Emile Ghessen interviews Pinner and other fighters who are former British military soldiers who fought in Syria and now are fighting with the Azov Battalion in eastern Ukraine.
In the documentary, Pinner is seen next to John Harding, his former commander of the Tactical Medical Unit (YBT) who is now with him in Azov.
Harding also served in the British military prior to leaving for Syria and Ukraine. All three of the men, Pinner, Harding, and “Tony,” also reveal their distinctive black and red tattoos that they have which says “Happy Days” with a sniper’s crosshair. Aiden’s recent photograph after his surrender shows that he also has this same distinctive tattoo.
Pinner also states during his interview that he gets paid to do all these travels to war zones to fight. This was unique since other internationalists I spoke to who traveled to Syria reported no compensation for their volunteer time.
Pinner also describes his motivation for coming to Ukraine as a desire to “train to a NATO standard.” When asked about Azov Batallion’s Nazi ideology, he downplayed it, claiming that there might be a small contingent, “but all we see is nationalists.”
In October 2020, Pinner earned his green beret and airborne wings, becoming a Ukrainian Marine. Like Aiden, Shaun also married a Ukrainian woman and lives in Mariupol.
Western media also reported heavily about Shaun Pinner in the lead-up and initial phases of the Russian Special Military Operation. He was seen on the front lines near Mariupol with Aslin where they were both serving in the 36th Marine Brigade of the Ukrainian Armed Forces. According to media reports, he was the commander of a unit on the front.
When Aslin surrendered to Russian forces, the media could not confirm Shaun’s whereabouts. Shaun eventually surrendered to Russian forces. Both Aiden and Shaun remained in custody for crimes that included their military service in the Azov Battalion on the Donbas front.
Shaun has recently been interviewed in the Russian media. It was even reported that during the interview he said that he would want, along with Aiden Aslin, to be exchanged for Ukrainian politician and businessman Viktor Medvedchuk, who is currently imprisoned by Ukrainian authorities.
Shaun Pinner pleaded guilty in court for crimes including “terrorism, committing a crime as part of a criminal group, and forcible seizure of power or forcible retention of power.” The court sentenced Shaun Pinner to death on June 9, 2022. He, along with Aiden Aslin, have indicated through their lawyer that they will appeal the ruling.
Along with Shaun and Aiden, John Harding was also arrested and imprisoned after being captured in July. He has been charged and faces the death penalty for being a mercenary member of the fascist and neo-Nazi Azov Battalion and for war crimes. In a video posted widely to Telegram, Harding asked for former UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson to intervene to save them.
Shaun Pinner, Aiden Aslin, and John Harding were released as part of a prisoner exchange between Russia and Ukraine in September 2022.
The U.S. Army Vet Aiding Shaun Pinner and Aiden Aslin in Ukraine: Alexander Tobiassen
Alexander Tobiassen was born in Florida and moved to Newport, Rhode Island, with his family when he was four years old. At 17, he joined the Rhode Island National Guard, completed U.S. Army Infantry School and Airborne School in Georgia. Tobiassen deployed to Afghanistan in 2012 as a turret gunner on an MRAP.
He left his deployment early and returned stateside. He was honorably discharged from the Army due to an injury. He resorted to a life of drugs and crime, saying in a recent interview that, at that time, “I was essentially a junkie.”
Eventually, his addiction turned from OxyContin and Percocet to heroin. He was living in Washington, D.C., at the time. He was arrested for attempting to rob a Cumberland Farms convenience store in Middletown, Virginia, in December 2015.
A Newport County grand jury indicted Tobiassen with one count of first-degree robbery, felony assault, and possession of a knife. According to court records in Rhode Island, there are two warrants (SC0072905 and SC0072906) for Tobiassen that were issued on January 26, 2017, due to his failure to appear in court for a sentencing hearing.
In a recent article on Tobiassen, he recounted his thoughts in late 2016. “My life is such a mess and disaster,” he said. “I want to go to Iraq. I want to be a soldier again. I want to complete a deployment because I left mine early.”
He traveled through Jordan to Iraq to join the YPG. That ultimately did not work out due to logistical issues. Tobiassen, instead traveled to fight in Ukraine. Tobiassen states in the article that he “fought in the Donbas conflict several times.” He joined the Georgian National Legion, a unit founded in 2014 by Mamuka Mamulashvili. In 2017, he fought on the front lines with the Georgian National Legion against the people’s militias of Donetsk and Lugansk.
Tobiassen is married to Iryna, a Ukrainian woman, and has a four-year-old daughter named Sasha. He also has a ten-year-old son in the U.S. Tobiassen and his family were living in Odessa as of February. His wife and daughter have since left the country for Romania.
Currently on the front, Tobiassen has been in active combat since the start of the Russian Special Military Operation according to his Instagram. He is quoted as saying, “I’ve lived in Ukraine now for five years. This place is home to me. I have a Ukrainian daughter.” “I see this at this point as the fate of the free world,” he went on to say.
The Right Sector to YPG Pipeline: Sjoerd Heeger
Shaun Pinner, Aiden Aslin, John Harding, and “Tony” are not the only former YPG members with connections to neo-Nazi organizations in Ukraine.
In late 2016, Dutch national Sjoerd Heeger (nom de guerre Baran Sason), traveled from Europe to northeast Syria via Iraq to join the Kurdish YPG under the SDF. Sjoerd attended the YPG International Academy outside Al-Malikiyah (Dêrik) in the northeast corner of Syria. Upon completing his training around February 2017, Sjoerd was assigned to a Kurdish unit. He was killed fighting against ISIS in Deir ez-Zor on February 12, 2018.
While at the YPG International Academy, Sjoerd’s far-right political views were known to the other internationalists and to the YPG Academy leadership. What was unknown to many until his death was the full extent and depth of his background and beliefs.
Prior to his arrival in Syria, Sjoerd had traveled to Ukraine, where he joined Right Sector, a neo-Nazi group that formally became a political party following the Maidan coup. Little is known about his time with Right Sector or the full extent of his fighting in Ukraine. After his death, however, photos were made public on social media revealing his allegiance to Nazi ideology, and his blog and YouTube channel surfaced, where he made neo-Nazi views explicit.
In one photo, he appears next to a weapons cache in Ukraine holding a book titled Third Reich Pilgrim.
His blog, titled “The Sword’s Awakening,” features pictures including him holding a pistol and axe in front of a Nazi flag, a drawing with a Ukrainian fighter with the colors of the Ukrainian flag and the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA), which collaborated with the Nazis to mass-murder Jews and ethnic Poles, with the black sun as a halo behind the fighter’s head, and Waffen SS artwork. His neo-Nazi views ran deep and his website, which includes his writings and musings on life, politics, and current events, are replete with fascist imagery and beliefs.
Upon arriving in Syria, Sjoerd used the Kurdish nom de guerre Baran, claiming to have changed his ideological perspective. He publicly stated that he was supportive of the Kurdish struggle and of Abdullah Ocalan’s theory of “democratic confederalism.”
However, his views on the Kurds contradicted this supposed ideological conversion. Sources we spoke to who knew him claim that he viewed the Kurds as Aryans who were worthy of protecting and fighting for. According to some who interacted with him in Syria, he maintained his fascist views in private.
After his death, Sjoerd was given the title of martyr by the YPG as well as by the Marxist-Leninist Communist Party (MLKP) of Turkey/Kurdistan and the Internationalist Commune. He was given a martyr’s funeral service attended by many and was buried in northeast Syria.
After Heeger’s death, U.S. Army veteran Craig Lang hailed him as a “brother” and said they would “meet again in Valhalla.” It is interesting to note how many of these internationals with links to the neo-Nazi groups in Ukraine use the term “Valhalla.” Even Aiden made an Instagram post for a fellow fighter who had died and, after posting a picture with him, said, “Till valhalla bro R.I.P.”
Lang is a hardened neo-Nazi, now living in Ukraine. He grew up in North Carolina and joined the U.S. Army in 2008, deploying to both Iraq and Afghanistan. In 2013, he attempted to murder his wife who he thought was having an affair. He was jailed and, in 2014, was dishonorably discharged. His wife took custody of their child and he lost his military benefits, gun license, truck and house. In May 2015, Lang left the United States to fight in Ukraine.
He joined Right Sector and had some kind of affiliation with the Georgian National Legion. Lang fought against independence militias in Donbas. He was part of “Task Force Pluto,” a squad of like-minded internationals who had a “fetish for death and torture.” Lang’s prominence in far-right and neo-Nazi social media prompted him to become a de-facto recruiter for other fascists from abroad who were looking to fight in Ukraine.
According to David Plaster, another American who fought with Lang in Ukraine, Lang boasted about “fucking people up” and doing “extrajudicial shit” in the war zone in the Donbas, in particular to enemy combatants captured by Right Sector. This amounts to an admission of war crimes.
Lang and fellow American Alex Zwiefelhofer traveled to Africa in 2017 to supposedly fight against al-Shabaab, an al-Qaeda affiliate. While at the Kenya-South Sudan border, both were arrested and spent two months in jail in Nairobi. They eventually returned to the U.S. in 2017.
Upon arrival, Zwiefelhofer was found with child pornography on his phone but after he was released on bond, he fled. Lang was under investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice for possible war crimes committed against civilians in Donbas.
After a few months in the United States, according to the FBI, Lang and Zwiefelhofer traveled to Miami with weapons. It was there that they lured Deana and Serafin Lorenzo, both Army veterans, with an internet advertisement for used guns. Once the couple arrived to make the purchase, Lang and Zwiefelhofer opened fire on their truck, killing them in a hail of gunfire. They stole $3,000 in cash.
After murdering the couple, Lang spent time in Washington State and North Carolina, then traveled to Colombia. There he planned to join mercenaries plotting to assassinate Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro. Matthew McCloud, who joined Lang in Colombia, got cold feet and, upon returning to the U.S., was arrested.
He cooperated with the FBI and revealed Lang’s involvement in the killing of the Lorenzos. McCloud stated “He is also very troubled because of war. It caused him to do some very unspeakable things. He confided in me some very gruesome details. I can’t really elaborate on what I know for legal and safety reasons.” For reasons unknown, Lang did not follow through with his plans and instead boarded a flight to Kyiv.
Upon arriving in Ukraine, he impregnated a Ukrainian neo-Nazi named Anna Osipovich. They married shortly thereafter. After living in Ukraine for a period of time and teaching English, he traveled to Moldova to renew his visa. While crossing back into Ukraine, he was arrested due to an INTERPOL notice which was triggered by his cross-border travel. He was subsequently released and returned to Kyiv.
Zwiefelhofer was arrested in the United States and is currently in prison. Craig Lang currently lives in Ukraine with his Ukrainian wife. Lang was facing extradition and appeared before a Ukrainian court. While there, he wore his hair in the oseledets style, popular among far-right nationalists and neo-Nazis. His mask was red and black, the colors of the UPA, and a patch on his sleeve had the number “88,” code for “Heil Hitler.”
The Ukrainian court originally halted extradition, but they eventually reversed course. Lang appealed to the European Court of Human Rights. He claimed that his extradition would “violate all the UN conventions” and that he was being persecuted for his politics. He defended his actions during the war as a soldier serving Ukraine.
In the spring of 2021, ABC News Investigative Correspondent David Scott interviewed Lang in Ukraine. Responding to a question about right-wing extremism in Ukraine, Lang said, “I’m going to say that the amount of, like, neo-Nazis or people with extreme views is very, very minimal, very, very minimal.”
Currently, his status is unknown but he is still supposedly in Ukraine. Should he leave Ukraine, he would presumably be extradited to the United States.
From Kosovo to Ukraine to Syria and Back to Ukraine
One of Lang’s close friends in Task Force Pluto was Austrian citizen Ben Fischer, a high school dropout who, seeking to avoid an “indoor life,” joined the Austrian Army. Both have the same tattoo, Molon Labe, the classic Spartan phrase attributed to King Leonidas.
Fischer served in the Austrian Army from 2009 to 2013. He was deployed to Kosovo on a KFOR Mission where he aided the CIA-trained Kosovo Liberation Army during their war to dismember Serbia. The Kosovo Liberation Army has also been accused of having had a massive network of illegal organ harvesting during the war, which amounts to war crimes.
Afterwards, he went to fight in Ukraine with Right Sector and then went to Syria to fight with the YPG in 2014. He eventually left Syria to rejoin Right Sector in 2015 where, according to multiple sources, he stayed until 2017.
A dossier has been created which highlights his history and background as well as the case for war crimes he committed against the people of Donbas. In 2017, Fischer was arrested at the Polish border, accused of having “killed soldiers who had already surrendered or civilians on the side of the Ukrainian troops in the battle for Donetsk airport.” His case is currently being handled by the Austrian government.
The case of these individuals identified in this article not only highlights their connections to both Ukraine and Syria but how these foreign mercenaries are all connected to U.S.-EU-NATO operations in three different regions where operations are ongoing. This sinister nexus of military personnel, neo-Nazis, and intelligence networks is eerily reminiscent of Operation Gladio following the Second World War—a state terrorist operation involving the creation of underground armies to fight the Soviet Union and political left in Europe.
CovertAction Magazine is made possible by subscriptions, orders and donations from readers like you.
When you donate to CovertAction Magazine, you are supporting investigative journalism. Your contributions go directly to supporting the development, production, editing, and dissemination of the Magazine.
CovertAction Magazine does not receive corporate or government sponsorship. Yet, we hold a steadfast commitment to providing compensation for writers, editorial and technical support. Your support helps facilitate this compensation as well as increase the caliber of this work.
Please make a donation by clicking on the donate logo above and enter the amount and your credit or debit card information.
CovertAction Institute, Inc. (CAI) is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization and your gift is tax-deductible for federal income purposes. CAI’s tax-exempt ID number is 87-2461683.
We sincerely thank you for your support.
Disclaimer: The contents of this article are the sole responsibility of the author(s). CovertAction Institute, Inc. (CAI), including its Board of Directors (BD), Editorial Board (EB), Advisory Board (AB), staff, volunteers and its projects (including CovertAction Magazine) are not responsible for any inaccurate or incorrect statement in this article. This article also does not necessarily represent the views the BD, the EB, the AB, staff, volunteers, or any members of its projects.
Differing viewpoints: CAM publishes articles with differing viewpoints in an effort to nurture vibrant debate and thoughtful critical analysis. Feel free to comment on the articles in the comment section and/or send your letters to the Editors, which we will publish in the Letters column.
Copyrighted Material: This web site may contain copyrighted material the use of which has not always been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. As a not-for-profit charitable organization incorporated in the State of New York, we are making such material available in an effort to advance the understanding of humanity’s problems and hopefully to help find solutions for those problems. We believe this constitutes a ‘fair use’ of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. You can read more about ‘fair use’ and US Copyright Law at the Legal Information Institute of Cornell Law School.
Republishing: CovertAction Magazine (CAM) grants permission to cross-post CAM articles on not-for-profit community internet sites as long as the source is acknowledged together with a hyperlink to the original CovertAction Magazine article. Also, kindly let us know at info@CovertActionMagazine.com. For publication of CAM articles in print or other forms including commercial internet sites, contact: info@CovertActionMagazine.com.
By using this site, you agree to these terms above.
About the Author
Christopher Helali is a doctoral candidate in philosophy at Tongji University and a freelance investigative researcher and journalist.
His work has appeared in the Tehran Times, Valley News, and CGTN and he is a frequent guest on RT and PressTV.
In 2020, Chris discovered and brought to light the second phone “black” book belonging to Jeffrey Epstein which was investigated and reported by Business Insider in 2021.