Novichok and Salisbury – a British Military failure

Novichok and Salisbury – a British Military failure

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.

The Russians, who I more firmly than ever assess were behind this attack have a doctrine of маскировка (maskirovka), literally masking. This was defined in the International Dictionary of Intelligence from 1990 as the Russian military intelligence (GRU) term for deception and if we are ever seeing a deception operation in play today just look at all of the Russian statements around every reason why everyone else was to blame for the Salisbury attack.

Looking at what we the public know and the thinking behind it means there can be only one guilty party. That guilt is based on an intelligence assessment and intelligence is not an exact science.  In fact, to make an intelligence call, very often you are working only on a balance of probabilities rather than what a court of law would require with a ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ call.  Intelligence does not, and rarely is as certain.  That is why it is a professional business and why, when amateurs or politicians, such as happened in the ‘dodgy dossier’ case for the Iraq war, think they can amend carefully worded assessments, they get it wrong in a spectacular way.  We have not seen and won’t see the publication of a political interpretation of the intelligence, we have seen a political statement of what the agencies assess.

Intelligence looks at two things, capability and intent, and Gary Aitkenhead, a MoD employee, has clearly outlined the capability side of the argument.  Often scientific analysis can identify not just the lab was an unusual substance is made but the individual who made it; that is clearly not the case with this novichok compound. However, it is not the remit of DSTL to comment on intent.

The theories I outlined in my blogs here: and here:  continue to hold accuracy and I continue to believe that on the balance of probabilities, the Russian President, Vladimir Putin ordered this assassination attempt using novichok. He did it for a number of reasons including sending a powerful message to anyone who opposes him and remember this happened 14 days before the Russian Presidential election and to stick a proverbial 2 fingers up at the West, he wanted the world to know it was probably him hence the choice of a novichok agent, as he would have known it would be traced back to him. This was a political attack rather than an assassination attempt; the means required the assassination attempt.

So why do I call this a British Military failure? Earlier this year Robert Hannigan, the ex-director of GCHQ, said of the Russian threat in an interview, ‘We didn’t see Russian use of disinformation coming‘.  Combine this with the Vice Chief of the Defence Staff General Sir Gordon Messenger telling The Times that the need to win the information war concerns him more than the latest model of tank, fast jet or warship.

He said, hardware still has a role but wants to see an evolution in the military mindset about the importance of using data to help defeat and destroy an enemy. “We have to wake up to the idea that our ability to turn data into information advantage, our ability to respond faster through cleverer decision-making which is enabled by the flow of information, is actually frankly as important if not even more important than whether our tanks out-range an anti-tank missile.”

These statements clearly demonstrate a naivety with the UK’s senior defence decision makers and a failure to remember what they have been expensively taught at military staff colleges. General Messenger will be staff college trained and educated as a member of the Royal College of Defence Studies, an elite course tailored for those heading to the top, both courses will have taught the importance of маскировка (maskirovka) and its use by the Russians as well as its historical underpinning by the ancient Chinese General and Philosopher Sun Tzu in the 6thCentury. The military mindset should be there already.

How can defence have forgotten what is taught and allowed Gary Aitkenhead to give a very public interview where only the most naïve wouldn’t have realised the potential implications and the information operations gift it would give Russia? Yet it happened in a vacuum of zero MoD pre and post-interview messaging to reinforce the MoD’s part in the wider government intelligence assessment process.

This is a basic tactic that the MoD should have deployed yet instead we have silence. That silence is tantamount to providing an advantage to another state to cause harm to the UK. It has and will continue to embolden the Russian маскировка (maskirovka) campaign and cause the UK political damage domestically through naïve anti-government groups and internationally to those who want to keep Russia onside for a bit at least.

In law, often doing nothing is as much a crime as committing the criminal act if it is known about. Here we have the MoD knowing a statement from a MoD official, will likely cause national harm, yet it does nothing. That is the failure and that failure needs to be held to account. We don’t need an enemy with capability anymore, intent is good enough, we give them the capability.

It is akin to the MoD making IEDs for terrorists to use, it is wrong and has to stop. So, either CDS has failed or he has been ordered by his political master not to do anything, one or other must account for damaging the nation.

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

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