The Stena Imperio, what next?
With the UK flagged tanker Stena Impero being seized by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard in the Strait of Hormuz, reportedly in Omani Territorial waters according to the UK Defence Secretary Penny Mordaunt, what can be done next?
Whatever the next step is, it will by default be seen by the Iranians as escalatory. We are entering a very dangerous phase that would tax the most experienced and hardened of Prime Ministers never mind a new one starting next week.
The Foreign Office has summoned Iran’s charge d’affaires in London, in the first step of what will be a fraught period of diplomacy where every word counts. Penny Mordaunt has already declared it as a ‘Hostile Act,’ a significant choice of words in the diplomatic world as it is one associated with the easing of a military’s rules of engagement and a precursor to greater military deployments.
Once severe displeasure has been lodged with the Iranian charge d’affaires it is likely that Teresa May and Jeremy Hunt, the Foreign Secretary will be on the phone to allied to ask them to pass their condemnation onto Iran’s representatives in their capitals. We should start to see statements of condemnation and concern from allies coming out.
The next formal step will likely be an emergency meeting of the United Nations Security Council early in the week, to pass a resolution ordering Iran to release the Stena Impero and her crew and to stop all aggressive behaviour in the region. If the phrase ‘hostile act’ gets into the UNSCR the next phrase to watch for is “by all means necessary” when it comes to enforcing the resolution. That is in effect a UN authorisation to go to war if necessary. Words are important!
Given Iran’s links to Syria and therefore Russian activity in Syria they would probably hope that Russia would veto any resolution worded too strongly. However, given there is a Russian citizen amongst the crew and there is already pressure on Russia elsewhere, this is less likely.
Iran is angry at the UK’s seizure of an Iranian oil tankerthe Grace 1in Gibraltar’s waters, for operating against EU sanctions on Syria. Iranian TV’s Channel Two, broadcast part of an interview with Mr Abbas Mousavi, an Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman who said the seizure was “a form of piracy”
The issue is however much bigger and Iran’s beef with the UK goes far back in history with recent disputed over undelivered tanks, ordered during the Shar’s reign and partially paid for but not delivered due to the Iranian Revolution. The initial payments were never refunded, and Iran has taken the UK Govt owned company who brokered the deal, to court.
Iran is concerned about current sanctions and sees the UK as a bedfellow of their arch enemy the US. President Trumps recent withdrawal from the Iran nuclear treaty has enflamed tensions. Those tensions are further enflamed by the continuing proxy wars in Syria and Yemen where British weapons and supplied military capabilities are being used against Iranian backed rebels.
The one conclusion form all of this is it is a mess and will be very difficult to unpick, it is likely the Stena Impero will be in Iranian waters for quite some time to come. Any next step is likely to enflame tensions further and I suspect activity in Portsmouth will be increasing rapidly to prepare more ships for sea. Not a good time for RN personnel if they have annual leave booked.
Note: This blog is written by Philip Ingram MBE, a former British Military Intelligence Officer and now journalist who has served in the Gulf. If you would like any further comment from Philip, please contact him by clicking HERE
Related Article: https://greyharemedia.com/the-intelligence-game-how-will-we-know-it-was-iran/
Salisbury and Novichok the truth and myth
Updated 07/0718 1645 by request for additional information
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.
Also, having commented widely in the national and international press I thought I would put all my thoughts in one place.
What is Novichok?
Novichok (новичок meaning “newcomer” or “newbie”) are a series of organophosphate-based nerve agents. They were designed by the Russians in the 1970’s and 80’s as they sought to produce a binary chemical warfare agent whose constituent parts would fall out with the chemicals that were to be banned in the International Probation of Chemical Weapons Convention, that was in its diplomatic infancy at the time.
A binary device consists of two ‘safe’ compounds that when mixed together form the nerve agent but on their own are little or no danger. An organophosphate nerve agent is one that works on attacking the chemical switch inside every nerve cell in your body that turns the nerve cell off after being stimulated. That chemical switch is an enzyme called acetylcholinesterase and nerve agents destroy the body’s ability to synthesise that enzyme.
Nerve agents fall into 3 persistence categories, non-persistent, eg Sarin (used by Assad in Syria), which has the consistency of petrol and evaporates relatively quickly; persistent agents eg Vx (used to assassinate Kim Jong Nam (Kim Jong Un’s half-brother) in Kuala Lumpur airport last year and has the consistency of engine oil; and very persistent such as Novichok that can be in a solid, powder or treacle level of consistency.
Aside from Sarin, the primary method of absorption for nerve agents into the body is through the skin, so it is unlikely that you would know that you have been contaminated with this the colourless, odourless substance until you start to exhibit symptoms. The symptoms can build slowly for low exposure or come on rapidly for high dose exposure and include: Runny nose and eyes, small pupils or blurry vision, coughing, chest tightness, wheezing, or shortness of breath, nausea and vomiting, abdominal pain or diarrhoea, fatigue, headache, or sweating, muscle twitching or a seizure, leading to collapse, respiratory failure and death. Nerve agents are designed to cause casualties first and foremost to overwhelm evacuation and medical facilities on the battlefield and to deny ground through a sort of chemical minefield.
Why were the Skripals attacked?
Contrary to popular belief assassinating Sergei Skripal was not the main aim of his attack. Sergei Skripal was chosen because he lived in Salisbury and in President Putin’s eyes, was a legitimate target, more of which in a minute. The main reason for this attack, 14 days before the Russian Presidential election was to send a message to any Putin dissenters across the globe that he could get them anywhere, any time and in a horrible way. The second reason was to build a nationalistic strength call, into his campaign domestically.
Sergei Skripal was chosen because Salisbury in next to DSTL Porton Down, the UK’s chemical defence labs and this allowed an element of plausible deniability where President Putin could claim that this was set up to undermine him in the eyes of the international community, and that is exactly the messaging that came out in the immediate aftermath of the attack. The Russians have a doctrine called маскировка (maskirovka) which is all about this and is central to all they do.
The Russians also have an unhealthy belief in conspiracy theories and that the west is out to get them no matter what!
Was this a new attack or related to the Skripal attack?
This latest incident is almost 100% related to contaminated detritus left from the Skripal attack. Novichok has only ever been used once, and that was 4 months ago in Salisbury.
Looking at the timeline from probable contamination to hospitalisation my assumption for what happened would be: Dawn Sturgess in Queen Elizabeth Park touched some residual contamination on a bench, or spotted a syringe (or other object) in the hedge. Knowing children were in the park, she picked it up to put in a bin or dispose of later. She wouldn’t have noticed the colourless, odourless contaminant that had been transferred to her skin. The nerve agent will have started its path of adsorption through her skin and into her bloodstream. Initial symptoms would be minor, building over time and dependent on 2 factors, the amount she was exposed to and the absorption rate through her skin. Only when sufficient was absorbed would she collapse with classic nerve agent poisoning symptoms.
At some stage later, she touched her partner Charlie Rowley, possibly just held his hand. Some of the contaminant would have been transferred but a smaller dose than Dawn had been exposed to but his path to showing symptoms would have been the same. It is possible (I say possible, as there are other scenarios and this is pure hypothesis) that the dose Dawn was exposed to was extremely small and that is why it took time to build up to show symptoms of nerve agent poisoning and that smaller dose, combined with slower absorption is why it took several hours more for Charlie to exhibit symptoms.
If the reports suggesting they were known drug users are accurate, their drug habit could affect the absorption rate, symptoms and treatment they are receiving but I am not a medic and this borders on a speculative comment. Eventually, the nerve agent would build up to an LD50 level where 50% of people with that quantity in their body would die, the amounts we are talking about are extremely small, probably less than a grain of salt.
So, what was missed?
My Blog (https://greyharemedia.com/clear-and-present-danger/), ‘Is there a continuing clear and present danger?’ published on 15th March 2018 and quoted the following weekend in some of the national newspapers, outlined a continuing threat. That threat related to the would-be assassins.
The would-be assassins will have transported the Novichok in a container, they will have worn some form of protective clothing when they applied it and, unless this was left at the crime scene, they will have taken it away with them. That meant that there was Novichok contaminated item or items somewhere away from the immediate crime scene and possibly anywhere in the country.
I fully expected the police, if they had recovered these items, to make a statement like they do on murder-suicide cases along the lines of “we are not looking for anyone else in respect of this crime.” That type of statement didn’t come and I was concerned that this container and the protective clothing could have been discarded over a school fence, in a train station, in the local fast food restaurant, anywhere! I called the MET Police who refused to discuss it.
It seems that after the path the Skripals took that fateful evening had been checked and decontaminated, the threat from potential residual contamination was wished away and the police followed what I call the ostrich effect and hoped. Unfortunately for Charlie Rowley and Dawn Sturgess, that hope didn’t protect them.
In defence of the police and other security and emergency services.
Novichok is very, very, difficult to detect as it is designed to evade what is normal nerve agent detectors and whilst very persistent it will degrade, albeit very slowly, over time. It also requires you to come into direct contact with it to get contaminated. So, the chance of getting contaminated, even if the assassins gear was never found, was very low indeed. Maybe Charlie and Dawn should have bought a lottery ticket!
That difficulty in detecting means that swabs, samples, items found have to be sent to Porton Down for testing. Porton Down won’t have a high capacity testing capability, so it takes time to get through the hundreds or thousands of samples collected, a lot of time.
Is Public Health England right in their advice?
In a word, yes, the statistical chance of coming in contact with a contaminated object or area is very small but there is a chance! So they should have caveated their advice. The advice to wash clothes and wipe objects down with baby wipes is sound, it is a matter of chemistry for minute amounts of this substance.
What should be done?
The local council should set up a hotline and app to report discarded items as a specialist collection team sent to recover them quickly. This would be expensive but would leave Salisbury the cleanest city in the country and restore public and tourist confidence. It would be a lot less costly than another city close down!
The police have to find the container used and any protective clothing discarded by the would-be assassins – this is a very small needle in a very large haystack and doing it blindfolded with your arms tied behind your back. It is that easy!
Government scientists should be developing a method for testing for Novichok easily in the field. Of note, only today I was talking to one British Biotech company who have the solution to this problem, the issue is they are a research company and not manufacturers. They just need someone to rapidly develop what they know works, for the current threat. A challenge to the wider biotech world and government research laboratories, drop me a line if you want to know more, but I can’t put more out publicly, unfortunately.
Note: This blog is written by Philip Ingram MBE, a former British Army Intelligence Officer 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?
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