Analysis: All evidence points to professionals behind Skripal poisoning

Skripal SalisburyMost state-sponsored assassinations tend to be covert operations, which means that the sponsoring party cannot be conclusively identified, even if it is suspected. Because of their covert nature, assassinations tend to be extremely complex intelligence-led operations, which are designed to provide plausible deniability to their sponsors. Consequently, the planning and implementation of these operations usually involves a large number of people, each with a narrow set of unique skills. But —and herein lies an interesting contradiction— their execution is invariably simple, both in style and method. The attempted assassination of Sergei Skripal last Sunday in England fits the profile of a state-sponsored covert operation in almost every way.

Some have expressed surprise that Skripal, a Russian intelligence officer who was jailed in 2004 for selling Moscow’s secrets to British spies, would have been targeted by the Russian state. Before being allowed to resettle in the British countryside in 2010, Skripal was officially pardoned by the Kremlin. He was then released from prison along with four other Russian double agents, in exchange for 10 Russian deep-cover spies who had been caught in the United States earlier that year. According to this argument, “a swap has been a guarantee of peaceful retirement” in the past. Thus killing a pardoned spy who has been swapped with some of your own violates the tacit rules of espionage, which exist even between bitter rivals like Russia and the United States.

This assumption, however, is baseless. There are no rules in espionage, and swapped spies are no safer than defectors, especially if they are judged to have caused significant damage to their employers. It is also generally assumed that pardoned spies who are allowed to resettle abroad will fade into retirement, not continue to work for their foreign handlers, as was the case with Skripal, who continued to provide his services to British intelligence as a consultant while living in the idyllic surroundings of Wiltshire. Like the late Russian defector Alexander Litvinenko, who died in London of radioactive poisoning in 2006, Skripal entrusted his personal safety to the British state. But in a country that today hosts nearly half a million Russians of all backgrounds and political persuasions, such a decision is exceedingly risky.

On Wednesday, the Metropolitan Police Service announced that Skripal, 66, and his daughter Yulia, 33, had been “targeted specifically” by a nerve agent. The official announcement stopped short of specifying the nerve agent used, but experts point to sarin gas or VX. Both substances are highly toxic and compatible with the clinical symptoms reportedly displayed by the Skripals when they were found in a catatonic state by an ambulance crew and police officers last Sunday. At least one responder, reportedly a police officer, appears to have also been affected by the nerve agent. All three patients are reported to be in a coma. They are lucky to have survived at all, given that nerve agents inhaled through the respiratory system work by debilitating the body’s respiratory muscles, effectively causing the infected organism to die from suffocation.

In the past 24 hours, at least one British newspaper stated that the two Russians were “poisoned by a very rare nerve agent, which only a few laboratories in the world could have produced”. That is not quite true. It would be more accurate to say that few laboratories in the world would dare to produce sarin or VX, which is classified as a weapon of mass destruction. But no advanced mastering of chemistry or highly specialist laboratories are needed to manufacture these agents. Indeed, those with knowledge of military history will know that they were produced in massive quantities prior to and during World War II. Additionally —unlike polonium, which was used to kill Litvinenko in 2006— nerve gas could be produced in situ and would not need to be imported from abroad. It is, in other words, a simple weapon that can be dispensed using a simple method, with little risk to the assailant(s). It fits the profile of a state-sponsored covert killing: carefully planned and designed, yet simply executed, thus ensuring a high probability of success.

By Wednesday, the British security services were reportedly using “hundreds of detectives, forensic specialists, analysts and intelligence officers working around the clock” to find “a network of highly-trained assassins” who are “either present or past state-sponsored actors”. Such actors were almost certainly behind the targeted attack on the Skripals. They must have dispensed the lethal agent in liquid, aerosol or a gas form, either by coming into direct physical contact with their victims, or by using a timed device. Regardless, the method used would have been designed to give the assailants the necessary time to escape unharmed. Still, there are per capita more CCTV cameras in Britain than in any other country in the world, which gives police investigators hope that they may be able to detect the movements of the attackers. It is highly unlikely that the latter remain on British soil. But if they are, and are identified or caught, it is almost certain that they will be found to have direct links with a foreign government.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 08 March 2018 | Permalink

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British intelligence already sees Kremlin behind ex-spy’s poisoning, say sources

Sergei SkripalBritain’s counterintelligence service is nearing the conclusion that a foreign government, most likely Russia, tried to kill a Russian double spy and his daughter, who are now fighting for their lives in a British hospital. Sergei Skripal, 66, and his daughter Yulia Skripal, 33, are said to remain in critical condition, after falling violently ill on Sunday afternoon while walking in downtown Salisbury, a picturesque cathedral city in south-central England. Skripal arrived in England in 2010 as part of a large-scale spy-swap between the United States, Britain and Russia. He was among four Russian citizens that Moscow released from prison and allowed to resettle in the West, in exchange for 10 Russian deep-cover intelligence officers, who had been arrested earlier that year by the Federal Bureau of Investigation in the United States.

Since Skripal’s poisoning made headlines on Monday morning, the basic details of his story have been reported extensively. He is believed to have served in Soviet and Russian military intelligence for several decades, rising to the rank of colonel. But in 2004 he was arrested and eventually convicted by Russian authorities for spying on behalf of the British Secret Intelligence Service (MI6). He had served nearly 7 years of a 13-year sentence in 2010, when he was pardoned by then-Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and allowed to resettle in England with his immediate family. He did so in Salisbury, where he was found in a near-fatal state last Sunday, slumped on a street bench next to his equally catatonic daughter. Inevitably, the story brought back memories of the assassination of Alexander Litvinenko, a former officer in the Soviet and Russian intelligence services, who defected to Britain but was poisoned to death with a radioactive substance in 2006. His murder prompted London to expel four Russian diplomats from Britain, a move that was countered by Moscow, which also expelled four British diplomats from the country.

Despite the close parallels between Litvinenko and Skripal, the British government has not publicly blamed Russia for Sunday’s attempted killing. But according to The Times newspaper, officials at the Security Service (MI5), Britain’s counterintelligence agency, are already pointing to Russia as the culprit of the attempt on Skripal’s life. The London-based paper cited anonymous sources in Whitehall, the administrative headquarters of the British government, who said that MI5 experts were already briefing government officials about the details of the assassination attempt by Russian government agents.

Actions taken by the British government in the past 24 hours also point to Whitehall viewing the attempt on Skripal’s life as an operation sponsored by a state, most likely by Russia. The investigation of the incident is now being led by the counterterrorism branch of the Metropolitan Police Service in London. Additionally, samples of the victims’ tissue, as well as blood and other bodily fluids, have been sent for examination by toxicologists at the Ministry of Defence’s top-secret Science and Technology Laboratory in Porton Down. It also emerged last night that British Home Secretary Amber Rudd has called an emergency meeting of the British government’s Cabinet Office Briefing Rooms (COBR, also known as Cobra) group, which she chairs. The group consists of cabinet ministers, senior civil servants, and the leadership of the Metropolitan Police and the intelligence services, who meet to respond to developing emergencies of a national scale.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 06 March 2018 | Permalink

Sweden grants citizenship to man accused by Iran of being a Mossad spy

Ahmadreza DjalaliThe government of Sweden has granted citizenship to an academic who is on death row in Iran for allegedly helping Israel kill Iranian nuclear scientists. Sweden’s Foreign Affairs Ministry confirmed on Saturday that Ahmadreza Djalali, who lives in Sweden and has lectured at Stockholm’s renowned Karolinska Institute, is now a Swedish citizen. IntelNews has covered extensively the case of Dr. Djalali, 45, a professor of disaster medicine who has also taught at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB) in the Belgian capital, as well as in the VUB’s European Master’s program in Disaster Medicine in Italy.

It is believed that Djalali was arrested in Iran in 2016, during a visit from Sweden, where he has been living for several years. He was sentenced to death last year for allegedly helping Israel assassinate nuclear scientists and sabotage Tehran’s nuclear program. Four Iranian physicists, who were employed in Iran’s nuclear program, are known to have been assassinated between 2010 and 2012. Most were killed by magnetic bombs that were placed on their vehicles by unknown assailants, who were then able to escape on motorcycles. Tehran believes that the assassinations were carried out by the Mossad, Israel’s external intelligence agency, with the help of agents recruited by the Israelis from within Iran’s nuclear program.

The office of Tehran’s public prosecutor claims that Djalali admitted holding “several meetings with the Mossad”, during which he allegedly “provided [the Mossad] with sensitive information about Iran’s military and nuclear installations”. The Iranians further claim that Djalali gave Israel the names and addresses of at least 30 senior members of the country’s nuclear program. The list included nuclear physicists, engineers, as well as intelligence and military officials with nuclear specializations. In return for supplying inside information, the Israelis allegedly helped Djalali secure permanent residency in Sweden and financed his move there. Iran claims that the information given to the Mossad by Djalali resulted in the assassination of at least one Iranian scientist. But in a letter written from prison in Iran, the jailed academic claims that he was sentenced to death after he refused to carry out espionage operations on behalf of the Iranian state.

A spokeswoman for Sweden’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said on Saturday that the Swedish government was aware that Djalali had been granted citizenship by the country’s Migration Board. Consequently, the Ministry was in touch with Iranian authorities and had requested access to the jailed scientist, she said. She added that the Swedish government’s demand was that “the death penalty is not carried out” in the case of Djalali.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 19 February 2018 | Permalink

Lebanese media accuses Mossad of assassination attempt in Sidon

Mohammad HamdanMedia reports from Lebanon claim that Israel was behind a bomb explosion that injured an official of the Palestinian group Hamas in the southern Lebanese city of Sidon eight days ago. The official, Mohammad Abu Hamza Hamdan, who is originally from the Gaza Strip, suffered light wounds when his parked car blew up on January 14. Television footage posted online by Lebanon24 from the site of the alleged attack shows smoke coming out of a white BMW car, parked on the courtyard of Hamdan’s home. Reporters at the site said the car belonged to Hamdan and that it had been booby-trapped by unknown assailants. Hamdan was reportedly transported to a nearby hospital, where he received treatment for light wounds.

Reports quoted Lebanese officials who pointed to the fact that the booby-trapped car was parked inside the enclosed courtyard of Hamdan’s home as evidence that the attack was specifically targeted at Hamdan. Others said that the attackers may have originally planned to kill Hamdan’s brother, Osama Hamdan, also from the Gaza Strip, who has served as Hamas’ Lebanon representative for 30 years. Now a new article published by Lebanon’s Al Akhbar newspaper has accused Israel’s Mossad intelligence agency of having orchestrated the assassination attempt. The paper also said that Lebanese security officials had managed to identify the Mossad operatives that carried out the attack. It said they were headed by Ahmed Battiya, a Dutch-born Lebanese man who was recruited by the Mossad in Holland and has participated in prior assassination operations perpetrated by the Israeli spy agency. Al Akhbar said that Battiya had traveled extensively inside Lebanon on behalf of the Mossad, in order to identify Hamas officials and track their movements. The article was published hours after Hassan Nasrallah, leader of the Shiite paramilitary group Hezbollah, also accused Israel of attempting to kill Hamdan.

In Israel, however, government officials appeared to reject claims that the Mossad was behind the attack on Hamdan. The country’s Minister of Defense, Avigdor Liberman, told reporters that the Lebanese media blames Israel for everything that happens in Lebanon, and warned Hamas not to open a “new front against Israel from Lebanon”. Yisrael Katz, Israel’s Minister for Intelligence, said that, if Israel had been involved in the attack against Hamdan, “this wouldn’t have ended with him lightly wounded”.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 22 January 2018 | Permalink

Western agencies warned Lebanese prime minister of assassination plot, say Saudis

Saad al-HaririWestern intelligence services warned Lebanon’s former Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri of an assassination plot against him, thus prompting him to resign on Sunday, according to Saudi news media. Hariri is a Saudi-born Lebanese politician, reputed to be one of the world’s wealthiest people. He is the second son of the late Rafiq Hariri, who ruled Lebanon for much of the 1990s but was assassinated in 2005. Saad al-Hariri spent most of his life in Saudi Arabia, the United States and France, but returned to Lebanon in 2014 to lead the Future Movement, a center-right political party supported by Sunni Muslims and some Christians. He became prime minister in 2016.

On Friday, Hariri flew from Beirut to Riyadh for a scheduled high-level visit. But on Sunday he shocked the Arab world by announcing his resignation from the post of prime minister. He did so in a surprise television address from the Saudi capital, which was broadcast live in Lebanon. Hariri told stunned Lebanese audiences that he was resigning in order to protect himself from a plot that was underway to assassinate him. He added that the political climate in Lebanon was intolerably tense and reminded him of the conditions that led to the assassination of his father 12 years ago. He also accused Iran and Hezbollah of acting as the primary destabilizing factors in Lebanon and much of the Middle East. Hariri and his supporters believe that Hezbollah was behind his father’s assassination in 2005. There was intense speculation in Lebanon on Monday that Hariri would remain in Saudi Arabia for the foreseeable future, fearing for his life if he returned to Lebanon.

On Sunday, the Saudi-based newspaper Asharq al-Awsat claimed that Hariri decided to resign after he “received warnings from Western governments” that there would be an assassination plot against him. The newspaper did not name the Western governments, nor did it identify those who are allegedly trying to kill Hariri. Later on Sunday, Saudi television station al-Arabiya al-Hadath alleged that an assassination attempt against Hariri had been stopped at the last minute in the Lebanese capital Beirut earlier in the week. Both news media cited “sources close” to the Lebanese leader, but did not provide specific information, nor did they give details of the alleged plot or plots. It is worth noting, however, that Lebanese security officials denied these reports from Riyadh. Lebanese media quoted senior security official Major General Abbas Ibrahim as saying that no information about assassination plots had been uncovered. Major Ibrahim, who heads Lebanon’s General Directorate of General Security, said that his agency had no information about attempts to kill Hariri or other Lebanese political figures.

This could mean that the information about a possible assassination plot against Hariri was given directly to him by Western intelligence agencies, probably because the latter fear that Lebanese security agencies are infiltrated by Hezbollah sympathizers. Or it could mean that the Saudi media reports are inaccurate. Lebanon is now awaiting further details by Hariri regarding the alleged assassination plot against him. In the meantime, the already fragile political life of Lebanon appears to be entering a period of prolonged uncertainty.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 07 November 2017 | Permalink | Research Credit: B.M.

Attack kills wife of Ukraine commander behind alleged plan to assassinate Putin

Amina Okuyeva Adam OsmayevAn armed attack in the outskirts of Kiev has killed the wife of a Chechen commander of a Ukrainian paramilitary unit, who is wanted in Russia for an alleged plan to kill President Vladimir Putin. Adam Osmayev is believed to have survived the attack, but his wife, Amina Okuyeva, was reportedly shot in the head and died on the spot. Osmayev, a Russian Chechen, became widely known in Ukraine in February of 2012, when he was arrested by police in Odessa, a major port city located on the northwestern shore of the Black Sea in the country’s south. He was found to be carrying forged identity documents. When police searched his apartment, they found large quantities of illegal explosives. Authorities in Moscow told the Ukrainian government that Osmayev was involved in a conspiracy to kill Russian President Vladimir Putin. A Chechen associate of Osmayev, Ilya Pyanzin, was handed over to Russia by the Ukrainians and was given a 10-year prison sentence by a Moscow court.

But Osmayev’s legal team was able to argue that his human rights would not be guaranteed if Ukraine extradited him to Russia. In 2013, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that Osmayev should serve his sentence in Ukraine, at which point Kiev rejected Moscow’s extradition request. In late 2014, Osmayev was released from prison and allowed to remain in Ukraine. Soon after his release from prison, Osmayev entered the ranks of the Dzhokhar Dudayev battalion. The armed group was one of over 30 paramilitary units organized by Ukraine’s Ministry of Defense to combat pro-Russian separatists in southeastern Ukraine. By early 2015, Osmayev had risen to the rank of commander of the battalion and was increasingly treated as a celebrity by Ukrainian nationalists. But he continued to face threats from Russia and pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine. On June 1 of this year, Osmayev and Okuyeva survived an apparent assassination attempt by a man who was wounded but managed to escape following a shootout with the couple.

Ukrainian media reported on Monday that Okuyeva was killed earlier that day, after the car that her husband was driving was ambushed by a group of masked assailants on the outskirts of Kiev. According to eyewitnesses’ accounts, the assailants opened fire at Osmayev’s car as it was passing through a railway crossing. Osmayev was reportedly injured in the attack, but Okuyeva was shot in the head and died at the scene. Footage aired on Ukrainian national television showed Osmayev’s heavily damaged car, which reportedly sustained “a hail of bullets” fired by the attackers. The Chechen paramilitary commander told reporters that the attackers’ main goal was to assassinate him. No group or government has claimed responsibility for the attack.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 31 October 2017 | Permalink

Iran upholds death sentence for man accused of helping Mossad kill scientists

Ahmadreza DjalaliA court in Iran has sentenced a prominent Iranian academic to death for allegedly helping Israel assassinate nuclear scientists and sabotage Tehran’s nuclear program. Four Iranian physicists, who were employed in Iran’s nuclear program, are known to have been assassinated between 2010 and 2012. Most were killed by magnetic bombs that were placed on their vehicles by unknown assailants, who were then able to escape on motorcycles. Tehran believes that the assassinations were carried out by the Mossad, Israel’s external intelligence agency, with the help of agents recruited by the Israelis from within Iran’s nuclear program.

On Tuesday, Iranian authorities revealed that one of these alleged Israeli agents has been sentenced to death following a secret trial. The office of Tehran’s public prosecutor did not name the alleged agent, but said that he admitted holding “several meetings with the Mossad”. During those meetings, the agent allegedly “provided [the Mossad] with sensitive information about Iran’s military and nuclear installations”, according to Iranian authorities. The Iranians claim that the agent, who is himself a physicist, gave Israel the names and addresses of at least 30 senior members of Tehran’s nuclear program. The list included nuclear physicists, engineers, as well as intelligence and military officials with nuclear specializations. In return for supplying inside information, the Israelis helped the alleged agent secure permanent residency in Sweden and financed his move there, according to the Iranian prosecutor’s office. Iran claims that the information given to the Mossad by the agent resulted in the assassination of at least one Iranian scientist.

In a statement published on Monday, the international human-rights pressure group Amnesty International identified the alleged Mossad agent as Ahmadreza Djalali, an expert in disaster medicine. Djalali’s name had been reported before in connection with a trial in Iran, but authorities in Tehran had not mentioned any connection between the accused and the assassination of Iranian nuclear scientists. Amnesty said that Djalali has taught and carried out research at several European universities, including the Universiteit Brussel in Brussels, lUniversity of Eastern Piedmont in northern Italy, and the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Sweden. It is believed that he was arrested in Iran in 2016, during a visit from Sweden, where he has been living for several years. Iranian media said that Djalali was sentenced to death on October 21, and must appeal by November 10 if he wants to challenge his death verdict.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 25 October 2017 | Permalink