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