Ex­pelled Rus­sian hack­ers linked to Swiss lab­o­ra­tory test­ing novi­chok

The Guardian - - NATIONAL | SALISBURY POISONINGS - Daniel Bof­fey Brus­sels Pa­trick Win­tour

The Dutch govern­ment ex­pelled two al­leged Rus­sian spies this year af­ter they were ac­cused of plan­ning to hack into a Swiss chem­i­cals lab­o­ra­tory where novi­chok nerve agent sam­ples from the Sal­is­bury at­tack were an­a­lysed, it has emerged.

The men were ar­rested in The Hague this spring as part of an op­er­a­tion involving Bri­tish, Swiss and Dutch in­tel­li­gence agen­cies.

The Swiss daily news­pa­per Tages-Anzeiger re­ported that the men were car­ry­ing equip­ment that could be used to break into the Spiez lab­o­ra­tory’s IT net­work when they were seized.

Is­abelle Graber, com­mu­ni­ca­tions chief at the Swiss in­tel­li­gence ser­vice, the Fed­eral In­tel­li­gence Ser­vice (FIS), said in a state­ment: “The Swiss au­thor­i­ties are aware of the case of Rus­sian spies dis­cov­ered in The Hague and ex­pelled from the same place.

‘We con­trib­uted to the preven­tion of il­le­gal ac­tions against a crit­i­cal Swiss in­fra­struc­ture’ Is­abelle Graber Swiss in­tel­li­gence ser­vice

“The FIS par­tic­i­pated ac­tively in this op­er­a­tion to­gether with its Dutch and Bri­tish part­ners. The FIS has thus con­trib­uted to the preven­tion of il­le­gal ac­tions against a crit­i­cal Swiss in­fra­struc­ture.”

Sergei Skri­pal and his daugh­ter, Yu­lia, were poi­soned in Sal­is­bury on 4 March. The Spiez lab­o­ra­tory, near Berne, sub­se­quently con­firmed a Bri­tish claim that the Skri­pals had been vic­tims of the mil­i­tary-grade nerve agent novi­chok. The lab­o­ra­tory has also been in­ves­ti­gat­ing poi­son gas at­tacks by the Syr­ian regime backed by the Krem­lin.

It is un­clear why the two ex­pelled men were in The Hague, which hosts the head­quar­ters of the Or­gan­i­sa­tion for the Pro­hi­bi­tion of Chem­i­cal Weapons (OPCW).

The Swiss fed­eral of­fice for civil pro­tec­tion said in June that the Spiez lab­o­ra­tory had been tar­geted by hack­ers said to be from the Rus­sian govern­ment-af­fil­i­ated group Sand­worm. It is not clear whether the ex­pul­sion of the two spies from the Nether­lands was linked.

The Sand­worm hack­ers posed as the lab­o­ra­tory’s or­gan­is­ing com­mit­tee and cir­cu­lated a doc­u­ment with in­struc­tions for a forth­com­ing con­fer­ence on chem­i­cal weapons in Septem­ber. They then tar­geted chem­i­cal weapons ex­perts who had been in­vited to the con­fer­ence and opened the doc­u­ment.

“Some­one posed as the Spiez lab­o­ra­tory,” Kurt Münger, of the Fed­eral Of­fice for Civil Pro­tec­tion, said at the time. “We im­me­di­ately in­formed the con­fer­ence in­vi­tees that the doc­u­ment was not ours and pointed to the dan­ger. The lab­o­ra­tory it­self has not reg­is­tered any out­flow of data.”

In an in­ter­view with the Rus­sian TV chan­nel RT, two men iden­ti­fied as Alexan­der Petrov and Rus­lan Boshi­rov, who have been ac­cused by the UK govern­ment of poi­son­ing the Skri­pals, ad­mit­ted they had vis­ited Switzer­land on a num­ber of oc­ca­sions.

Petrov, who claims to be in the fit­ness and nutri­tion busi­ness, but is ac­cused with Boshi­rov of be­ing a mem­ber of the GRU, the Rus­sian in­tel­li­gence agency, said: “We went to Switzer­land on holiday. We did have some busi­ness trips there as well, but I can’t re­ally re­mem­ber when it was.”

The Spiez lab­o­ra­tory “ad­vises na­tional au­thor­i­ties and in­ter­na­tional or­gan­i­sa­tions in im­ple­ment­ing and de­vel­op­ing arms con­trol and non­pro­lif­er­a­tion agree­ments”, ac­cord­ing to its web­site. It is also “in­volved in in­ter­na­tional mis­sions re­lat­ing to arms con­trol and en­vi­ron­men­tal pro­tec­tion”.

In April Sergei Lavrov, the Rus­sian for­eign min­is­ter, said he had re­ceived con­fi­den­tial in­for­ma­tion from the Spiez lab­o­ra­tory that the nerve agent used to poi­son Sergei Skri­pal in Bri­tain could be a sub­stance never pro­duced in the Soviet Union or Rus­sia.

He said the doc­u­ments pointed at a western-de­signed nerve agent, the so­called BZ sub­stance, as a likely cause of the poi­son­ing, thus ex­clud­ing Rus­sia’s in­volve­ment in the at­tack. He did not dis­close the source of his con­fi­den­tial in­for­ma­tion but said: “We are ask­ing the OPCW why the in­for­ma­tion which re­flected the con­clu­sions of spe­cial­ists from the Spiez lab­o­ra­tory was com­pletely omit­ted from the fi­nal doc­u­ment.”

His al­le­ga­tions were later re­jected since the BZ sub­stance was only be­ing used in the lab as a counter-sam­ple.

The role of the OPCW has be­come a hotly con­tested diplo­matic is­sue as Rus­sia tries to re­but claims that forces loyal to the pres­i­dent of Syria, Bashar al-As­sad, have re­peat­edly used chem­i­cal weapons in Syria.

The con­tro­versy comes as Rus­sia faces ac­cu­sa­tion of pre­par­ing to stage chem­i­cal weapons at­tacks in the re­bel­held Idlib re­gion.

PHO­TO­GRAPH: DAVID GOD­DARD/GETTY IM­AGES

▼ Sam­ples of nerve agent from the at­tack in Sal­is­bury, be­low, were iden­ti­fied as novi­chok in Switzer­land

▲ The Spiez lab­o­ra­tory near Berne was a planned tar­get for cy­ber-at­tack

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