Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

‘A chain of stupidity’: the Skripal case and the decline of Russia’s spy agencies

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Luke Harding reports in the Guardian:

In 2011 I was in Libya reporting on the civil war. Rebels backed by the US, the UK and France were advancing on the capital, Tripoli. The insurgents moved forward through bombed-out towns as Muammar Gaddafi’s forces retreated. Coastal cities in the west and east, oil refineries, Roman ruins and temples – all fell, one by one, as the regime lost ground.

These were dangerous times. In the town of Zawiyah I found locals celebrating victory in the main square. They were shooting in the air and doing wheelspins and skids in their cars and trucks. Gaddafi’s soldiers had left the previous night, fleeing down the road. I saw a small boy, maybe eight years old, stomping on a Gaddafi flag. “The city is ruined. No problem – we will rebuild it,” one local, Tariq Sadiq, told me.

The signs of battle were everywhere. The square’s four-star Zawiyah Jewel Hotel was a ruin. The lobby was filled with rubble. Mattresses where Gaddafi’s soldiers had slept lay strewn among crates containing mortar cases and empty plastic water bottles. The air crackled with jubilant gunfire.

The celebrations turned out to be premature. From their new positions, and without warning, Gaddafi’s army began shelling the square. I took shelter indoors. First one mortar, then six more. Each was a loud thunderclap, a sudden affirmative whomping, followed by puffs of black smoke.

At that moment, I wasn’t much interested in the types of munitions that were raining down. There was a simple urge: to escape. My role, as I saw it, was to tell the stories of those unwittingly caught up in conflict. I had brought to Libya the usual tools of a frontline correspondent: flak jacket, satellite phone and first-aid kit, carried in a rucksack.

A man named Eliot Higgins was following events in Libya, too – not from the front line, but from his home in the east Midlands. Specifically, from his sofa. It was a safer place to be – and, as it turned out, as good a perch as any from which to analyse the conflict, and to consider questions that, in the heat of battle, were interesting, but seemingly unanswerable. Questions such as: where did the rebels get their arms?


Higgins recalls growing up as a shy “nerd”. According to his brother Ross, Higgins was an obsessive gamer and early computer enthusiast. He liked Lego, played Pong on an antediluvian 1980s Atari and was a fan of Dungeons and Dragons. He spent hours immersed in the online roleplay game World of Warcraft, where participants pooled skills and collaborated across virtual borders. His instincts were completist: he wanted to finish and win the game. This would prove useful later on.

Higgins tried for a career in journalism and enrolled on a media studies course in Southampton. It didn’t work out, and he left without a degree. Next, he earned a living via a series of unlikely administrative jobs. One day Higgins logged on to the Guardian’s Middle East live blog. Libya was the centre of international attention. Higgins made his own contributions to the comment section of the Guardian blog, using the name Brown Moses – taken from a Frank Zappa song. The blog often featured videos uploaded by anti-regime fighters. There was fierce debate as to whether these images were authentic or bogus.

One such video showed a newly captured town. The rebels claimed it was Tiji, a sleepy settlement with a barracks that had been recently bombed by Nato jets, close to the border with Tunisia, and on the strategic main road leading to Tripoli. There was a mosque, a white road and a few little buildings with trees around them. The video showed a rebel-driven tank rolling noisily down a two-lane highway. There were utility poles.

Higgins used satellite images to see if he could identify the settlement and thereby win the discussion. The features were sufficiently distinctive for him to be able to prove he was correct: the town was Tiji. “I’m very argumentative,” he says. It was the first time he had used geolocation tools. He realised he could collect user-generated videos and later work out exactly where they had been filmed.

Shortly afterwards his first child was born. Higgins combined his new childcare duties with online research. Meanwhile, the uprisings in the Arab world spread. Soon Syria was at war, too.

What began as a way of scoring points over online adversaries evolved into something bigger. Smartphones with cameras, social media, Facebook, Twitter, Google Earth, Google street view, YouTube – the digital world was multiplying at an astonishing rate. This stuff was open-source: anyone could access it. By cross-checking video footage with existing photos and Google maps, it was possible to investigate what was going on in a faraway war zone.

These techniques offered interesting possibilities. Open-source journalism might be applied to the realm of justice and accountability. Sometimes soldiers filmed their own crimes – executions, for example, carried out on featureless terrain. If you could identify who and where, this could be evidence in a court of law. The shadow cast by a dead body was a strong indication of time of death.

At home, and surrounded by his daughter’s discarded toys, Higgins unearthed a number of scoops. He found weapons from Croatia in a video posted by a Syrian jihadist group. The weapons, it emerged, were from the Saudis. The New York Times picked up the story and put it on the front page – an indication of how armchair analysis could be as telling as dispatches from the ground.

Higgins documented the Syrian regime’s use of cluster bombs. He discovered that government soldiers were tossing DIY barrel bombs out of helicopters, and that rebels were fighting back around Aleppo with Chinese-made shoulder-launched missiles. His reputation spread. He launched a new investigative website: Bellingcat.

The idea was to consolidate pioneering online research techniques and to connect with a wider pool of international volunteers. In July 2014, three days after Bellingcat went live, a Malaysia Airlines passenger plane was blown out of the sky over Ukraine. Some 298 people – nearly 200 of them Dutch – died. The incident grew into Bellingcat’s first major investigation.

Higgins’s team discovered that the missile launcher had come from Russia’s 53rd anti-aircraft missile brigade, based in the city of Kursk. Video footage showed the launcher trundling across Russia as part of a military convoy. The system was filmed again by locals inside eastern Ukraine after MH17 was brought down, heading back to Russia with one of its missiles missing.

Bellingcat got bigger. One key figure was Christo Grozev, a fluent Russian-speaker and a Bulgarian from an anti-communist family. Grozev grew up in Plovdiv, Bulgaria’s second city; his father was fired from his job as a teacher for growing a hippie-style beard. Bellingcat joined forces with the Insider, an independent Russian news website run by Roman Dobrokhotov.

By summer 2018, the British police were confident they had identified the two Russian suspects who had tried to murder Sergei Skripal a few weeks earlier, in March. Skripal, a former officer with Russia’s GRU military spy agency, was poisoned in Salisbury, together with his daughter Yulia. The assassins’ names had not been made public. The hope was that they might travel to western countries where they could be arrested.

There were discussions inside the British government about what to do. One course was to demand their extradition – knowing Vladimir Putin would refuse, as he had with the killers of Alexander Litvinenko 11 years earlier. Another was to recognise that there was zero prospect of a criminal trial, and to publish concrete intelligence.

That September, prime minister Theresa May went with option two. She told the House of Commons that the two Russian assassins were Ruslan Boshirov and Alexander Petrov – adding that the police believed these names to be aliases. CCTV images from their trips to Salisbury were revealed. Also shown was the apparent murder weapon – a counterfeit perfume bottle containing the nerve agent novichok.

The new details were a boon for Bellingcat. During the next few weeks, its volunteers scurried all over the evidence. They would go on to inflict a series of humiliations on Russia’s GRU military intelligence spy agency that may have contributed to the fall of its chief, Igor Korobov.


In the 20th century, Soviet assassins were able to travel around Europe using fake passports. Their movements were seldom discovered. They may have been better, more professional spies – or lesser ones. It was an age before transparency.

The modern GRU was still using the old Soviet playbook when it came to covert operations such as the murder of enemies outside the country. These analogue plots now took place in a digital environment. GRU officers earned their spurs in the Soviet “near abroad” – in Tajikistan, Moldova or Ukraine, where there were few cameras to worry about, and not much of a CIA or other American presence.

Western Europe was different. Britain, in particular, was a counter-intelligence challenge. The UK had CCTV on every public corner – in railway stations, hotel lobbies and airports. Any passengers arriving on a flight from Moscow would be logged and filmed. A port-of-entry database was available to western security agencies.

Meanwhile, Russian markets sold CDs of mass official information: home addresses, car registrations, telephone directories and other bulk indexes. For £80 or so you could buy traffic police records. With the right contacts, and a modest cash payment, it was even possible to gain access to the national passport database.

Paradoxically, this low-level corruption made Russia one of the most open societies in the world. Corruption was the friend of investigative journalism, and the enemy of government–military secrets.

After the Metropolitan police published photos of Boshirov and Petrov, Bellingcat took up the hunt. It sought to unmask their real identities. The first step was to image search their photos via online search engines. This yielded nothing. They looked for telephone numbers associated with the two names. Nothing again.

And so the online investigators tried a deductive approach. They spoke to sources in Russia and asked where a GRU officer operating in western Europe was likely to have been trained. One answer was Siberia, and in particular the Far Eastern Military Command Academy in Khabarovsk, just across the Amur River from China. The men appeared to be in their late 30s or early 40s. This gave an approximate date of birth. . .

Continue reading. There’s more, and it’s interesting.

Written by LeisureGuy

24 June 2020 at 2:11 pm

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