Skripal poisoning, it was on the door

Skripal poisoning, it was on the door

Skripal poisoning, it was on the door

When Teresa May said in Parliament, “It is now clear that Mr Skripal and his daughter were poisoned with a military-grade nerve agent of a type developed by Russia. This is part of a group of nerve agents known as ‘Novichok’.”  Fingers were pointed at Russia as they have a history of using novel methods to assassinate people, Alexander Litvinenko is a case in point, it sends a message.

There is a lot of speculation about the exact nature of Novichok (новичок, “newcomer” or “newbie”) nerve agents.  Nerve agents are organophosphate based poisons designed to stop the enzyme acetylcholinesterase from working. It is the ‘off’ switch for a nerve and if you can’t turn a nerve off, your body loses control of all functions.

Novichock’s are very persistent agents, undetectable using standard equipment and they give off little or no vapour, so are designed to be absorbed through the skin.  Easy for an assassin to apply, virtually impossible for the authorities to detect.

What has yet to be confirmed by the police is exactly where the Skripal’s or Det Sgt Bailey were contaminated and how long it took from contamination to collapse. Nerve agents are extremely toxic and the absorption of a minute quantity, less than a grain of sugar’s worth, could prove lethal.

They can be applied to any surface by rubbing it with anything contaminated and an assassin would choose a surface they knew the victim would touch, like a door handle.  That would require some prior knowledge of the victim’s behaviour, so the Skripal’s were probably watched.

Once contaminated, cross-contamination is easy, holding hands or lifting a contaminated object such as a drinks menu would be enough. An assassin could transport their lethal cargo in a sealed small container with pre-contaminated wipes or a pre-made-up liquid or gel.

Nerve agents are designed to incapacitate quickly. The time from contamination to showing symptoms depends on many factors including, how much has got on the skin, its absorption rate through the skin and the size of the victim.  Large doses could be lethal in minutes, smaller doses may take a few hours.

The shocking contamination of three children through touching bread given by Sergei Skripal to feed the ducks shows just how easy it is to get contaminated and how minute an exposure is needed to cause symptoms. It also tells that Sergi Skripals’ hands were contaminated.

This was first exposed by @SelbyMirror in the Sunday Mirror on 25th March where I provided comment. Its a pity his insghts were not acted on on Sunday!

We need to know where the assassin and the container they transported the agent to the Skripal’s is now?

Note: This blog is written by Philip Ingram MBE, a former British Army Intelligence Offficer who was based near Salisbury in the past. If you would like any further comment from Philip, please contact him by clicking HERE

2018 will certainly be an interesting and challenging year

2018 will certainly be an interesting and challenging year

2018 will certainly be an interesting and challenging year

This is an abridged version of my full article which can be accessed HERE

So what are the Security trends for this year? 2018, the centenary year of the end of the War to end all Wars, World War One.  How curious that 100 years on we are seeing renewed European turmoil with BREXIT and an increased nationalist fervour in many regions across the globe.  Is this a major security concern for 2018 or what is?

Having been involved in the wider security business for many years, primarily as an intelligence officer before turning to writing, I am used to looking at trends and teasing out subtleties. The impact of subtle changes to the threats we have been experiencing over recent years will become evident.  These subtle changes are probably the most dangerous, as they can catch us unawares, believing our current processes, procedures, policies and kit are good enough.

A continuing threat that will remain the scourge of 2018 in the press, public opinion and government focus, will be the threat of terrorism.

Low tech, cyber inspired ‘lone wolf’ attacks are likely to continue, interspersed with the odd sophisticated high-tech attack such as we saw in Manchester.  However, in the UK we must put this into context, the biggest threat region in the UK remains Northern Ireland, 2016/17 saw 8 murders, 55 bombs, 113 shootings, 80 guns recovered, 53kg of explosives recovered and 244 terror-related arrests.

The next area of concern and one that will touch everyone, remains the issue of the Cyber Threat.   Setting the cyber terror or cyber-enabled terror threat to one side the criminal and state use of the cyber environment is becoming very interesting and will likely be the dominant threat through 2018. Cyber attacks as a Service, GDPR as a weapon and bot bitcoin mining are all cries we will hear more of.

I will group my final predictions into one band that I will call novel threats.  The first of these is what Donald Trump refers to as Fake News.  It’s nothing new, propaganda, information operations, deception operations are all phrases to describe the same thing.  Influencing decision making by the manipulation of people’s perceptions and thinking. In the commercial world, this is marketing except customers vote with their money not via a ballot box.

The final threat and one which is most likely to kill and injure the most people through 2018 is that which comes from man-made and natural disasters.  The man-made disasters are frequently war causing mass population movement as we have seen from Syria and Iraq.  The Natural disasters are caused by weather, volcanos, earthquakes, tsunamis and in particular, a disease will trump (no pun intended) the damage from any other threat.  Dr Tedros Adhanom is the director general of the World Health Organization warned in a summit in Dubai this month that, “Humanity is ‘vulnerable’ to a pandemic that could kill millions.”  Security, including humanitarian support to people affected by disasters, should be the biggest effort through 2018.

2018 will certainly be an interesting and challenging year for all of us involved in the security industry.

This is an abridged version of my full article which can be accessed HERE

Salisbury, sleepy hollow or spooks playground?

Salisbury, sleepy hollow or spooks playground?

Salisbury, sleepy hollow or spooks playground?

The assassination attempts on Sergei and Yulia Skripal on 4th March has left the world reeling in horror at the first use of a nerve agent in Europe, never mind one Teresa May described as a ‘military grade Novichok’ agent when she firmly pointed the UK finger at Russia. But is there more to Salisbury than meets the eye? Is it a Russian spooks playground?

Little has been heard about the investigation beyond the MET Counter Terrorism Unit taking control from the Wiltshire Police, which makes sense as they have the resources and numbers of people with sufficient levels of security clearance to work on this highly sensitive, complex, unusual and politically dramatic case. The full story would be perfectly suited to the pages of an Ian Fleming or John Le Carrie novel.

The revelation in the Telegraph that Sergei has a Russian ex-girlfriend who still lives in the area but is too scared to come forward and in the Sunday Mirror that three children were contaminated when given bread by Sergei to feed the ducks in the Avon Playground continues to add twists and turns to this incident. That scenario fits with Sergei’s hands being contaminated.

Again, the Sunday Mirror in their coverage is certain that the ‘ground zero’ for the attack was the fond door handle of Sergei Skripal’s house and where “spooks planted the deadly poison.” Wider questions have to be asked, who planted it? Where is the container they used to transport it to the Skripal’s house? How was it applied and where is the cloth or other item used to apply it? Where are the protective gloves used by the assassin? All of these items remain highly contaminated and could be anywhere. There hasn’t been a statement from the police confirming they have isolated any potential threat.

To have planted the agent on the door handle of Sergei Skripal’s house the assassin would have had to know that it was somewhere he touched on a regular basis. How did that know he didn’t come out of a side or back door all of the time or just pull the door to from its frame? There will have had to be what is called a ‘pattern of life’ study done by the assassin or someone working with the assassin. The Skripals will have been watched.

What was the motive for the attack? The attack was not to try and kill Sergei Skripal first and foremost.  Its primary aim was to send a message.  It’s timing, exactly two weeks before the Russian Presidential election is key.  The message was to dissenters of President Putin, you are not safe anywhere; to the people of Russia, Putin is strong and can operate anywhere; to the West, Russia is not afraid to do what it wants, where it wants and when it wants; and to any spies, you will never be tolerated.

So, why Salisbury? The main reason for Salisbury was the proximity of the DSTL Porton Down laboratories, it gave the perfect disinformation focus for a campaign of ‘plausible deniability.’  It gave the Russian people the excuse that it was a Western fit up and it was somewhere the Russians will have already got a well-established intelligence network. Salisbury and its surrounding villages are a perfect Russian spooks playground.

What attracts a network of Russian spooks to the Salisbury area? There are four reasons why the Salisbury area will have a network of Russian spooks, deeply embedded in the community.

The first is top secret MoD research establishments; DSTL Porton Down is in the news but the secret aircraft research establishment at Boscombe Down near Amesbury is an equally attractive target for hostile intelligence services to try and infiltrate.

Then we have Salisbury Plain, the largest Army training ground in the UK where not just current pieces of equipment are deployed on training but new types of equipment are put through their paces. The concentration of Army Units in the area is huge and the Russians are always keen to keep abreast of what the British Army is up to.

The third reason is intelligence. Just outside Salisbury, the British Army has two of its regular intelligence battalions and the headquarters of the Army’s Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Brigade.  These units will be high priority targets for Russian intelligence operations due to the highly classified nature of what they do.  An opportunity they will not want to miss.

The fourth reason is not immediately obvious.  It is the ease of getting from Salisbury to Southampton, a short hop down the A36.  Southampton has the UK’s military port facility where equipment going off to war is loaded.  Ports are always a spooks favourite.

Far from being a sleepy hollow, Salisbury is likely a Russian spooks playground and will have been for a very large number of years.  Their networks will be well established, blended into the local community and have sleeper agents for specialist tasks.  Was this attack carried out by a sleeper agent? The expulsion of undeclared intelligence officers from the Russian Embassy in London will have zero effect on any network they have in Salisbury and its surrounds. Anthony Horowitz and Danny Boyle have the perfect location for 007’s new mission to begin.

Note: This blog is written by Philip Ingram MBE, a former British Army Intelligence Offficer who was based near Salisbury in the past. If you would like any further comment from Philip, please contact him by clicking HERE

Sun Tzu and the Art of Fake News

Sun Tzu and the Art of Fake News

by Philip Ingram MBE

“That is #FakeNews” is one phrase that has rocketed to fame last year. President Trump’s legacy has already been left in Twitter land but why has it come to the fore, is it new and more importantly is it something that individuals or enterprise should be concerned about?  Philip Ingram MBE  takes a look at fake news, but with a 6th century twist.

There are elements of the press who seem to suggest that fake news is something new, it isn’t, and it has its roots back to the 6th century, but before I delve that far back I want to take a quick look to only 74 years ago. The Second World War shows just how important “fake news” was to the war effort; fake news, when targeted for an effect is also known as Propaganda. William Brooke Joyce, nicknamed Lord Haw-Haw, an American-born, Anglo-Irish Fascist who became the Nazi propaganda broadcaster to the United Kingdom during World War II was probably the most famous mouth of fake news, but the Japanese had English speaking female broadcasters who were nicknamed Tokyo Rose.

The use of fake news or propaganda was not limited to the Germans or Japanese and arguably the greatest military success of the Second World War, D Day, was enabled by fake news through an operation called Operation Fortitude.  With this being linked to a military operation this is where I want to bring in 6th century teachings.

Sun Tzu the 6th century Chinese general, military strategist, and philosopher, arguably the greatest military tactician and strategic thinker ever, said in his book the Art of War, “All warfare is based on deception. Hence, when we are able to attack, we must seem unable; when using our forces, we must appear inactive; when we are near, we must make the enemy believe we are far away; when far away, we must make him believe we are near.” His teachings have stood the test of time!

Operation Fortitude was a massive deception operation conducted by the Allied Forces to lead the Germans to believe that they would be landing in Pas-de-Calais and Norway, masking the true invasion through Normandy.

The aim was also to make them believe that the Normandy landings in May 1944 and in the south of France in June 1944 were mere diversions, so that the German army would concentrate its troops in the wrong place. The German authorities clung to their belief that the landing would occur in Pas-de-Calais right until September 1944.  Operation Fortitude held onto the principals set out so eloquently by Sun Tzu. The bluff worked but highlights how a country with extensive national intelligence assets looking at a situation unfolding, can be deceived.

The Russian term маскировка (maskirovka) literally masking, was defined in the International Dictionary of Intelligence from 1990 as the Russian military intelligence (GRU) term for deception. Vladimir Putin would have “grown up” in an organisation where maskirovka was a normal part of everyday thinking.  At every level of my military training we studied maskirovka, so imagine my surprise when Robert Hannigan, the ex-director of the UK spy agency CGHQ, said of the Russian threat in an interview this year, ‘We didn’t see Russian use of disinformation coming‘.  It clearly demonstrates a naivety with the UK’s senior intelligence officials, charged with keeping our politicians abreast of the threat to that which underpins our way of life, democracy.

This failure highlights that those self-same senior intelligence officials have forgotten one of Sun Tzu’s most famous quotes. “If you know your enemies and know yourself, you will not be imperilled in a hundred battles; … if you do not know your enemies nor yourself, you will be imperilled in every single battle.”

Should we be worried? Well in my professional opinion, I think we should be extremely worried.  This is not just something targeted country on country, it is being exploited by terrorists and so-called ISIS are masters at it, it is being exploited to gain commercial advantage especially when rumours can be generated in the money markets, huge sums can be gained, or lost.

In May last year many respected media outlets reported concerns by the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) over false reporting.  The FT outlined that the regulators were concerned that fake news was affecting investment decisions and reported evidence that seemingly independent outlets were being paid to promote stories.  They reported the SEC as saying, “keep in mind that fraudsters may generate articles promoting a company’s stock to drive up the stock price and to profit at your expense.

Supporters of so called ISIS are very quick to post across their networks details and pictures from any attack, thereby taking de facto responsibility in the eyes of their supporters even before any official statements are released.  This has the effect of stimulating potential copycat or other attacks as well as giving “oxygen” to their terror message, to paraphrase Margaret Thatcher. The manipulation of media messaging is extensively used by todays terror organisations.

The one factor that enables fake news to have such a rapid impact today is control, or lack of it.  Operation Fortitude was a carefully orchestrated national plan controlled at the highest levels, so all messaging was coherent and worked to a common aim. Today, fake news can be delivered to millions of people at the click of a button via social media and the average person in the street can send a message that the President of the US may read personally, without it going through his normal staffing and advisory chain.  The power of social media is phenomenal.

The Russians continue to use maskirovka as part of their global engagement techniques. We are already seeing proof of their involvement in the US elections and likely in the UK Brexit referendum and more.  Sun Tzu highlighted how this works when he said, “Speed is the essence of war. Take advantage of the enemy’s unpreparedness; travel by unexpected routes and strike him where he has taken no precautions.”  Remember, Robert Hannigan said he didn’t see it coming and those unexpected routes were Facebook, Twitter, big data manipulation, main stream press and good old fashioned human influence, powered by the internet.

Arguably Kim Jong Un from North Korea knows how to play President Trump using Sun Tzu.  As the 6thcentury tactician said, “If your opponent is temperamental, seek to irritate him. Pretend to be weak, that he may grow arrogant. If he is taking his ease, give him no rest. If his forces are united, separate them. Attack him where he is unprepared, appear where you are not expected.” It is this last line that is keeping the world’s breath held.  Kim Jong Un’s understanding of President Trump’s temperament is clearly excellent when he applies Sun Tzu’s principal, “If your opponent is of choleric temperament, seek to irritate him.” Trump gets irritated easily by ‘Rocket Man.’

With the ease of spread of fake news and its ability to influence, it is something that enterprise should be concerned about.  The instability caused by state on state activity is one thing but there is clear evidence of state on enterprise actions in cyberspace with the theft of IP. Fake news is another cyber enabled activity and the potential for enterprise on enterprise use of fake news is growing.

As an intelligence officer looking at a threat you ask 2 questions.  The first, does the capability exist and the answer is yes.  The second, is there intent to use it, and again the proof is that the answer is yes. Now is the time for risk managers in companies to ensure the impact of Fake News is something they plan for, remember it is a cyber enabled threat.

In one of Sun Tzu’s opening statements he said, “If your enemy is secure at all points, be prepared for him. If he is in superior strength, evade him.” The time has come for preparedness as you cannot evade this threat.

Note: If you would like any further comment from Philip, please contact him by clicking HERE

Is there a continuing clear and present danger?

Is there a continuing clear and present danger?

Is there a continuing clear and present danger?

by Philip Ingram MBE

As support from around the world grows for Prime Minister Teresa Mays stance on what she refers to as the “unlawful use of force” by the Russians on UK soil, with the poisoning of the former Russian intelligence officer, Sergei Skripal, his daughter Yulia and Detective Sergeant Nick Bailey on the streets of Salisbury using a “military grade nerve agent” Novichok, questions remain.

We must not fall into the trap of thinking the casualties are in the hospital, a few Russian spies are being ejected and the Royals are missing the world cup, job done. The job is far from done and the threat remains.  To coin a phrase from a novelist who could have created a best seller with this story, we still potentially have a “Clear and Present Danger,” thank you, Tom Clancy.

We now know that this 4th Generation, rarely if ever seen before nerve agent, that causes uncontrolled jerking of the muscles, foaming at the mouth, breathing difficulties and collapse in the minutest quantities, has reportedly been found in traces from the Skripals car, possibly their home, the Mill pub and Zizzi restaurant in Salisbury.

We don’t know how it got there or who put it there.  That means we don’t know where the rest is! The police may have already secured the means of delivery and are confident that there is no further danger to the public or the assassin too it with them.

We have to ask where is the container that the assassin used to carry the Novichok agent to Salisbury, where is the method of application to the Skripals car door handle or where ever it was placed, where is the protective clothing used by the assassin, if in fact it was delivered by a person, to stop them from being contaminated whilst dispersing the agent, what danger remains on our streets?

I am surprised that none of these questions came up from MPs of any party in the House of Commons yesterday after the Prime Ministers statement, I am surprised the Police have no issued a statement to say they have found all of these items so the is no danger, or they haven’t, and the public should remain vigilant.

I have contacted the Metropolitan Police in London and they have not been able to give me a comment as yet, but until clarified we have to assume that there could be a clear and present danger from this horrific substance somewhere else in the UK.

What should you be looking out for?  The assassin will have put all of the contaminated material into another container or some thick plastic bags which will be sealed with an airtight seal; it won’t need to be very large, so the only advice is if you notice anything that looks like sealed bags or a container that looks out of place – do not touch it.  To get contaminated you must come in direct contact with it and its primary absorption route is through the skin, standard medical grade surgical gloves are no barrier to this type of agent!

What does a nerve agent do to you? Nerve agents, including Novichok, are called acetylcholinesterase inhibitors.   Nerves transmit their signals using a transmitter substance called acetylcholine.  To switch the signal off there is an enzyme called acetylcholinesterase that is found throughout the nervous system, that disables the acetylcholine.  It acts as the nerve ‘off’ switch.  Nerve agents simply disable this off switch.

Novichok is from a class of nerve agents called very persistent so can remain around for weeks, after exposure initial symptoms are a runny nose, tightness in the chest, and constriction of the pupils. These are usually followed fairly rapidly by difficulty breathing, nausea, stomach cramps, drooling, uncontrolled muscle movement and collapse. They will degrade over time, especially in wet conditions but again there have been no statements as to how long the contaminated areas of Salisbury are likely to remain cordoned off.

As the world focuses on the political ramifications of this attack, we need the authorities to either reassure the public or to ask for their continued vigilance.  We need and deserve answers.

Note: This blog will be updated as new information is received.  The current version was updated at 1110 on 15th March 2018 – if you would like any further comment from Philip, please contact him by clicking HERE