Toxic by Dan Kaszeta – a review

Toxic by Dan Kaszeta – a review

Toxic by Dan Kaszeta – a review

(A History of Nerve Agents, From Nazi Germany to Putin’s Russia)

By Philip Ingram MBE

I have the unenviable label attached to my profile as a CBRNE expert partly through modules on my Applied Science degree from The Royal Military College of Science being nicknamed the ‘Chemistry of Death,” partially because one of my Masters degree projects was in emerging CBRN threats and partly through my military service having had to deal with CBRNE threats both theoretical and actual all during my 26 years in Service.

I therefore looked forward to the book “Toxic” by Dan Kaszeta, delving into the history of nerve agents from Nazi Germany to Putin’s Russia. Of course, I was considered an expert, I had made organophosphate compounds in a lab, I knew the Germans had invented nerve agents on the back of pesticide research and that the British had invented Vx and Novick’s were Russian; so, what would I learn?

All I can say is a hell of a lot!  Toxic is a comprehensive, exceptionally well researched and thorough explanation of nerve agents, where they came from, how, in broad terms they are made, stored, weaponised, used and work. Having sat in a laboratory being lectured about nerve agents, they can be a very dry subject to say the least, but Dan Kaszeta has managed another coup, to tell their history in a way that reads like a spy thriller. Toxic is a page turner!

That page turner is enhanced by Dan’s very real credibility having been a US Army Chemical Officer and, in the US Secret Service, protecting POTUS from CBRN threats. His knowledge, practical experience and ability to put things in real context shines through.

The title of the opening chapter gave away that the book was well written ‘Axis of Weevils’ brought together the German connection with pesticides, a summary of the whole chapter in 3 words, brilliant.  Importantly he describes how it was the German Army and not the SS who controlled the militarisation of the pesticide research discoveries, a clear example of the real tensions there were between different elements of the German war machine.

The other two important point that came out from his analysis of the German development of nerve agents were the complexity manufacturing them and how this was greatly magnified when attempting industrial level production and secondly the importance of the stocks, documents and scientists captured by the allies at the end of the war.

The complexity issue is critical and reinforced at every turn as the history weaves its way thought the 1950’s and the UK discovering Vx and the 60,70and 80’s with the challenges of not just manufacture but storage and of course delivery means. It is critical when examining the flippant way many so called scientists suggested they could easily make Novichok in a laboratory as part of their defence of Russia post the Skripal affair.

I have one comment to them – I dare you – I know none would even consider it and I shudder at my own fume cupboard concoctions (to be clear none were nerve agents or close).

The unpredictable nature of nerve agents as a weapon and their lack of real impact on the battlefield was well explained as he described their use in the Middle East by Iraq.  Such is their political psychological impact we mustn’t forget it was partially nerve agents that led to the second Iraq war and all of the consequences being still suffered today.  Dan highlights with clear examples why nerve agents are not good weapons of war and not as effective as their deadly reputation suggests.

Given that, I was hoping he might have uncovered more detail around a little reported Operation Avarice where the CIA bought chemical weapons in Iraq in 2005 and 2006.  The few press stories about it are misleading, inaccurate and only tell skewed parts of the story, however I suspect the real files relating to Avarice won’t be released for many years, if ever! One for the next edition.

Having clearly explained how difficult nerve agents are as a weapon of war he explains their effectiveness as weapons of assassination, carefully targeted as in the Vx attack on Kim Jong Nam and the Novichok attack on Sergei Skripal. It is refreshing to read sound accurate analysis, logically explained and completely myth busting.

In all, if you have an interest in military weapon systems, chemical warfare, the impact of personality on decision making and intelligence gathering, the intrigues of manufacturing, storing and weaponising nerve agents (without too much detail) then this is the book for you.  If you like espionage, intriguing factual accounts of real events and a really good read, then this is the book for you.  I highly recommend it.

You can order the book here:


The Salisbury Poisonings – an informed opinion

The Salisbury Poisonings – an informed opinion

The Salisbury Poisonings – an informed opinion

The BBC Drama that has had over 7 million viewers, The Salisbury Poisonings, was a emotional look back at yet another unprecedented incident, the first use of the deadly nerve agent Novichok anywhere in the world, never mind on the streets of Salisbury, a sleepy hollow nicknamed ‘Smallsbury’ because of its village feel but made famous through its now infamous 142 m spire.

A difficult story to tell in a drama because there were and are so many moving components. We have to remember the incident is still subject to an active murder investigation after the death of Dawn Sturgess, having sprayed herself with what she and her boyfriend Charlie Rowley thought was perfume. In reality it was Novichok from a container discarded by the pair of would be assassins, Colonel Dr Alexander Mishkin and Colonel Anatoliy Chepiga of the GRU, the Russian Military Intelligence.

The drama focused on the human stories behind The Director of Wiltshire’s Public Health, Tracy Daszkiewicz, Detective Sergeant Nick Bailey, one of the early responders, and Dawn Sturgess, rather than the incident, the actual response, the investigation and the unresolved issues.  It was a powerful piece of television especially considering the potential impact on many of these involved who are still coming to terms with what was a life changing event.

A clearly deliberate move gave the series a direction that people not familiar with the story could relate to and in a very emotionally charged way, it highlighted many of the stresses and strains of the time. It gave a personality to Dawn Sturgess, who in press reporting at the time had her as a person clouded by many of the daemons she was battling but never gave her that personality.  It also showed the stress on the Bailey family and the impact of having their lives turned upside down. It tried to highlight the complexity Tracy Daszkiewicz had to face when coordinating a large multi-agency response but missed elements of that to concentrate on her personal journey.

For the informed as with any drama there will be frustrations, I am sure A&E consultants and staff cringe at Casualty when it is on, but still find it entertaining, so these observations are meant in that vein.  I don’t think the initial paramedic and A&E response was portrayed as well as it could and the scenes in the hospital at times were a little wooden, as was the portrayal of Porton Down; but these were not central to the plot, the people were.

I was frustrated at the lack of trying to further interpret many of the unanswered questions, but that frustration is tempered by the fact is it still an ongoing and active murder investigation, so that speculation couldn’t have happened in any detail and wouldn’t have added to the people element of the story.

Some of the questions to my mind that remain unanswered include;

Why the public were not warned about a clear and present danger remaining, I had reported the probability to CT Police, written a detailed blog about it and had a story about it published in the Sunday Papers on 15thMarch as well as having commented on it on many radio and TV interviews?

What evidence is there of a second team that will have carried out a pattern of life study against Sergei Skripal in the days prior to the attack? How were he and his daughter Yulia monitored by Russian Intelligence and does Salisbury have a permanent interest from Russian Military Intelligence?

What were the full movements of Mishkin and Chepiga on the weekend of the attack? Where else did they go in Salisbury, who else did they meet? Why have we not seen more of the CCTV?

What happened to the gloves and other potential PPE Mishkin and Chepiga will have worn as they deployed the Novichok on Sergei Skripal’s front door? Why has that never been found and what is the real story surrounding the perfume bottle found by Charlie Rowley? Why has there not been a definitive statement about any potential remaining threat?

In all a very good series and well put together.  However, I have to ask if it was too soon after the incident? Only Tracy, Nick and Dawns family can answer that. I feel it has reopened many of the questions I have highlighted above and think there should be a more documentary style look back at the whole, unprecedented event soon. I would go further and ask more about the Russian influence in the UK, their intelligence operations and if they have a particular continual interest in Salisbury and its surrounds?


A link to my collated blogs from the time is here:   – if you would like any further comment from Philip, please contact him by clicking HERE

The Skripal affair – a history in blogs

The Skripal affair – a history in blogs

The Skripal affair – a history in blogs and the unanswered questions

By Philip Ingram MBE

This post is a library giving introductions and links to the 15 blogs I wrote relating to the Skripal attack.

There remains a number of unanswered questions which we are unlikely to get detail on as this remains an active investigation by Counter Terror Police (CTP) UK.  They have released enough information to get formal charges and an INTERPOL Red notice issued against the believed perpetrators, Colonel Dr Alexander Mishkin and Colonel Anatoliy Chepiga of the GRU, the Russian Military Intelligence.  CTP UK don’t need to release any other information at this stage

The bigger questions that remain unanswered include:

What evidence is there of a second team that will have carried out a pattern of life study against Sergei Skripal in the days prior to the attack? How were he and his daughter Yulia monitored by Russian Intelligence and does Salisbury have a permanent interest from Russian Military Intelligence?

What were the full movements of Mishkin and Chepiga on the weekend of the attack? Where else did they go in Salisbury, who else did they meet? Why have we not seen more of the CCTV?

What happened to the gloves and other potential PPE Mishkin and Chepiga will have worn as they deployed the Novichok on Sergei Skripal’s front door? What has that never been found and what is the real story surrounding the perfume bottle found by Charlie Rowley? Why was the potential clear and present danger not highlighted at the time?

Blog links are in chronological order:

07/08 March 2019

Sergei Skripal – was it an assassination?

‪As someone who commanded an intelligence unit with a capability for the covert surveillance of Russian intelligence operations, I think I am qualified to do some analysis of detail that is coming out from the reporting of the Sergei Skripal incident.

11 March 2019

Sergei and Yulia Skripal – additional assessment

The reporting around how Sergei and Yulia Skripal were poisoned and how Det Sgt Nick Bailey came to get sufficient exposure to make him very seriously ill with another 20 or 21 casualties have to be treated for potential contamination raises a number of questions. The reason is, classic nerve agents, even thickened ones are not designed to be slow acting, they are designed to incapacitate first and foremost overwhelming evacuation and medical facilities, sending a clear psychological message to anyone operating in the area where chemical weapons are used.

13 March 2019

Новичок – Novichok what do we know and what do we not know?

Prime Minister Teresa May confirming the agent used in the assassination attempt on Sergei and Yulia Skripal, that put Detective Sergeant Nick Bailey in intensive care and contaminated a number of other people as Novichok, has clarified some of what the country speculated and raised a whole new set of questions; not least of which is what is Novichock? What do we know about it and more importantly what do we not know about it? 

14 March 2019

Novichock, what response would be appropriate for Russia?

With the Russians having failed to respond to Prime Minister Teresa Mays deadline to answer the simple question of “how this nerve agent came to be used” relating to the use of military grade Novichock in an attack on Sergei and Yulia Skripal that put Detective Sergeant Nick Bailey in intensive care on Sunday 8th March in Salisbury.  How should she respond, what are her options, can she really punish Putin and Russia?

15 March 2019

 Is there a continuing clear and present danger?

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.

26 March 2019

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?

28 March 2019

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.

11 April 2019

Novichok and Salisbury – a British Military failure

It should have been a strategic gift, an assassination attempt using an agent that as we have heard from Gary Aitkenhead, the chief executive of the MoD, Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (DSTL), said was a military-grade novichok nerve agent, which could probably be deployed only by a nation-state. Instead, we are being led a merry dance in information terms regarding the burden of proof and apportionment of blame.

07 July 2019

Salisbury and Novichok the truth and myth

As someone who commanded an intelligence unit with a capability for the covert surveillance of Russian intelligence operations, has studied organic chemistry related to defence against chemical and biological weapons at both degree and master’s degree level, I think I am qualified to do some analysis of detail that is coming out from the reporting of the Sergei and Yulia Skripal and subsequent incidents in Salisbury.

09 July 2019

 How did Dawn and Charlie get contaminated?

I have been talking to a number of press outlets regarding how the detritus from the Skripal attack could have come to be in a position to contaminate and kill Dawn Sturgess and put her partner Charlie Rowley into intensive care in Salisbury District Hospital.

15 September 2019

GRU and Salisbury, a more complete account.

It is not every day that a quiet little English city is caught in the grips of a story that would be a page-turner in any spy novel, where the readers would be sceptical that what was being written about could actually happen.  Well, it did, with the tragic death of Dawn Sturgess and the hospitalisation of Charlie Rowley, Nick Bailey, Yulia Skripal and her father, the intended target of a nerve agent attack, former Russian GRU Colonel, Sergei Skripal.

04 October 2019

The GRU is on the Ropes

At one-minute past midnight on 4thOctober 2018 a statement came out from the British Government saying that the National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) had “identified that a number of cyber actors widely known to have been conducting cyber-attacks around the world are, in fact, the GRU.”

07 November 2019

The Skripal Files by Mark Urban, a review by Philip Ingram MBE

02 March 2019

Skripal and Salisbury an infamous combination

It is now a year since Colonel Dr Alexander Mishkin and Colonel Anatoliy Chepiga, traveling under the false identities of Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov, both members of the Russian Military Intelligence Service, the GRU, entered Britain through Gatwick airport. They had a deadly intent, kill the double agent who was living in the sleepy city of Salisbury, Sergei Skripal, using the deadly nerve agent Novichok.

20 May 2019

The Skripal Investigation, the next revelation.

The Skripal Investigation, the next revelation.

On Saturday The Guardian Newspaper published a story which said: “The Russian men suspected of poisoning Sergei and Yulia Skripal in Salisbury received a phone call after returning to London on the day of the alleged attack, raising the possibility that a backup team played a role in the operation.

Note: These blogs were written by Philip Ingram MBE, a former British Army Intelligence Officer and Chemical Weapons Expert who was based near Salisbury in the past. If you would like any further comment from Philip, please contact him by clicking HERE


Have we lost the art of resilience planning, initiative and balance?

Have we lost the art of resilience planning, initiative and balance?

Have we lost the art of resilience planning, initiative and balance?

by Philip Ingram MBE

Sitting watching the debates that are going on in the press about reopening schools, about whose fault the spread of the COVID-19 disease in our care homes is, I am saddened by two things.  The first is the desire to find fault at any cost, and that cost is a lack of balance, I will explore that further below.  The second is the blinkered lemming image I get when I hear some of the debates and again, I will explore that below.

Let me put out my store at the start.  Throughout a large part of my military career I was a military planner, much, not all from an intelligence perspective.  I would say I was a successful planner as I deployed to execute those plans and can now go on holiday to many of those places I was deployed to. I have been formally commended for my efforts in two of the planning tasks.

I have deployed on a lot of operations and the success or otherwise of what we have delivered has never been through what government ministers have done or not.  I have never had all of the equipment I have needed and often not the right equipment, I have taken pay cuts to be sent to war zones, I have been landed in war zones with inadequate weapons, with no ammunition, with inadequate “PPE”. We made it work, and we made it work because of sound planning and a resilient must do approach to the tasks in hand.  I have seen politicians in war zones, but they have never had responsibility for success or otherwise, that has been down to commanders; the military management and the attitude of those under their command, the workers.

I have made enquiries with schools to see if they had pandemic planning in their resilience plans or if Academy CEOs or Head Teachers had even talked about it, as it was the top threat in Local Resilience Planning guides for at least 10 years.  I checked with 2 different school and academy governors and they saw nothing in their schools. I spoke to someone responsible for business planning and operations for 14 schools and academies and they admitted they hadn’t considered anything from Local Resilience Forums. One has to ask what they base their contingency planning on and how they justify funding, if it is not against a recognised risk?  However, government guidance in 2014 ordered schools to take account of a potential pandemic and have it as part of their emergency plans:

They also had no plans for expanding capacity to meet social distancing and hadn’t considered talking to local authorities about joint planning, nor had they pre-prepared any educational output to be delivered remotely, they were expecting ministers to deliver this, yet their salary was greater than the education minister or any of the Education Department civil servants.  In 10 minutes yesterday, I identified 7 facilities suitable to be used as extra classrooms within 500 meters of a local school. Their use has never been considered.

Simply put they had failed to consider an issue Government had been telling them about for years and given clear instructions to do, whilst drawing a salary for a post all about delivering planning and operations. Identifying and securing additional capacity for schools is relatively straight forward and the digitisation of learning is something that in today’s society should be routine. Neither would be costly and in pandemic times would likely be funded by central government. It just takes local initiative to identify the plan.

I look at the issues around our care homes and see some that through their own management decisions implemented pandemic control plans including lockdown very successfully and have had no cases of COVID-19. I have seen others who haven’t thought it through, or done any planning, yet they are happy to make profits for their limited companies whilst there is no threat yet blame a system they keep at arm’s length until it is invoicing time.  A pandemic plan for care homes is simple but requires the owners to have thought of it, and to implement it.

When looking at the press coverage and seen Head Teachers, Care Home owners and the like interviewed, many journalists are happy to elicit criticism aimed at others by them but not explore failings in their planning and preparation and question their accountability. The interviews have been unbalanced thereby delivering unbalanced reporting.

The NHS implemented a highly successful plan with the Nightingale Hospitals and a massive expanse of procurement to supply items to others who have never been part of the NHS supply chain. Every hospital had their own plans, and all seem to have worked. Why have our Schools, Academies and Care Homes not had plans and why do they think it is not the responsibility of their highly paid leaders? What has our press not called out these leaders in communities for their failings?

The time has come for the right people to be held to account and resilience plans, their understanding and leaders engagement to be part of any inspection regime providing assessments of our schools, academies, our care homes and more. The time has come for those happy to take pay and reward for leadership positions to relearn planning and the use of initiative, and for our commentators to bring back balance.

**Updated 13 Jun 2020 with a link and reference to: **

Traffic Analysis for MI5 – If I were Putin, I would, wouldn’t you?

Traffic Analysis for MI5 – If I were Putin, I would, wouldn’t you?

Traffic Analysis for MI5 – If I were Putin, I would, wouldn’t you?

By Philip Ingram MBE

I am going to start this blog with a caveat, not good practice, but important as what I am saying in it is purely speculative, it is not based on anything more than the supposition of a rambling mind, but I do like to question things I observe.  In addition, I wish to make it clear that I have no evidence, nor am I stating that RT is engaged in espionage in any way, I am merely using its geographical presence for illustrative purposes.

“Covert activity – using false identities – was blended with overt information through Russian media outlets like RT. Too often those in the West focused on one element of this activity – hacking or social media – but failed to see the full spread,” said the BBC Security Correspondent Gordon Corera in his new book Russians Amongst Us when he was talking about interference in elections in 2016.

In 2014 Russia Today launched a dedicated TV channel in the UK rebranded as RT.  Again, according to Gordon Corera’s book he said, “Putin had said the aim of the network had been “to try to break the Anglo-Saxon monopoly on the global information streams.”  I will come back to RT later.

One of the key activities during the Second World War that enabled the Top-Secret team at Bletchley Park to break the Enigma code was what is referred to as Traffic Analysis.  That Traffic Analysis allowed a picture of what communications networks operated where and when and technical analysis of that traffic, i.e. operator fingerprinting, frequencies used, network discipline and more.

According to the US Manual TM 32-250-AFll 100-80, Fundamentals of Traffic Analysis (Radio Telegraph) published on 9 Jun 1948, it defined Traffic analysis as, that branch of signal intelligence (SIGINT) analysis which deals with the study of the external characteristics of signal communications and related materials for the purpose of obtaining information concerning the organisation and operation of a communication system.”

The modern equivalent of Traffic Analysis would be the identification of work and personal mobile phones associated with an organisation. However, would need a collection capability to be able to collect the information from phones as they first switch on and connect to a network and that rarely happens in one place, or does it?

Speaking to Matthias Wilson is a former SIGINT analyst with the German military and Germany’s foreign intelligence service he said, “What happens when a mobile phone first connects to the network? In order to understand this, we have to look at the unique identifiers each phone has. The first would be the serial number of the phone itself called IMEI, the International Mobile Equipment Identity. This 15-digit number contains information on the brand and model of the phone and number unique number allocated to one specific device.

Secondly, each mobile phone will have one (or more) SIM cards containing information provisioned by the provider. The SIM has the IMSI, or International Mobile Subscriber Identity, saved on it. In most cases the IMSI will also consist of 15 digits and is linked to one’s phone number. It is used to identify a user within the mobile network. From the IMSI, you can derive the country and provider the card has been issued through.

When a mobile phone is switched on, it immediately searches for a network to connect to. If a preferred network is found, the phone will send a request to the network and basically ask for a connection to this network. This request will contain the IMSI and in some cases the IMEI as well. If the IMSI is registered in the networks databases, an authentication process takes place between the phone and the network.” The critical data is contained in the initial network login.

He concluded, “data intercepted from mobile phones logging into a network will provide a rough location, the IMSI that can be linked to a phone number and thus an intelligence target, and in some cases even information on the type of device that is used through the IMEI. Collecting this initial logon is also crucial to following a target of the course of time, as apart from this first connection, a phone will be identified by the temporary IMSI in all further connections.”

OK, so the theory is there, what is next? This comes down to Location, Location, Location.

The RT Studios in London opened in 2014 occupy a couple of floors of the 118-meter-high Millbank Tower, the highest tower block in the area. Its roof is the natural place for mobile phone antenna from many networks, providing good coverage for this area of London. RT have a direct feed over a high capacity communications link to their main studios in Moscow via satellite with the uplink dishes also on the roof.

They have a legitimate reason to be on the roof of the building with specialise engineers and their own equipment, configured in any way they need.

When anyone goes into the MI5 or MI6 building, they are not allowed through reception without mobile phones being taken off them and locked away, in most cases people will switch them off before locking them away or putting them in special faraday bags, cutting their signal off from the networks.

When people leave the building again, they naturally switch their phones on, and they register with the nearest and strongest network. I have noticed this on the many occasions I have walked past both MI5 and MI6 HQs and observed people leaving. That network, in proximity to the buildings is likely to be via the antenna on the roof of the Millbank Tower, where RT have sophisticated data uploading capabilities, transmitting their TV data from Russian state-controlled assets, back to Moscow.

Over time simple pattern of life analysis combined with the Traffic Analysis would enable a picture to be built up of the movement of every phone that registered if that could be identified. Whose phones do the most registering through these masts on a regular basis, who is switching on and off more than normal?

Matthias Wilson continued, “Given the close proximity to the target, I could do this with my own passive collection device and a small stub antenna.”  “There are so many more opportunities,” he added, “as Bluetooth tracking and collection would be easy as well.” Another SIGINT specialist who asked not to be named said, you’d probably forget about the cellular side of things and tap into the backlink,” referring to the signal from the antenna going back to the network.

As I said at the start of this blog, this is pure speculation based on observation from the ground, a vivid but partially informed imagination and I am sure the security teams in MI5 and MI6 will have examined this particular threat scenario carefully.  However, If I were Putin, I would, wouldn’t you?


This blog was written by Philip Ingram MBE, a former senior military intelligence officer with the overt help from Matthias Wilson and covert advice from a number of others for which he is very grateful.  Philip is available for comment if necessary.