Most state-sponsored assassinations tend to be covert operations, which means that the sponsoring party cannot be conclusively identified, even if it is suspected. Because of their covert nature, assassinations tend to be extremely complex intelligence-led operations, which are designed to provide plausible deniability to their sponsors. Consequently, the planning and implementation of these operations usually involves a large number of people, each with a narrow set of unique skills. But —and herein lies an interesting contradiction— their execution is invariably simple, both in style and method. The attempted assassination of Sergei Skripal last Sunday in England fits the profile of a state-sponsored covert operation in almost every way.
Some have expressed surprise that Skripal, a Russian intelligence officer who was jailed in 2004 for selling Moscow’s secrets to British spies, would have been targeted by the Russian state. Before being allowed to resettle in the British countryside in 2010, Skripal was officially pardoned by the Kremlin. He was then released from prison along with four other Russian double agents, in exchange for 10 Russian deep-cover spies who had been caught in the United States earlier that year. According to this argument, “a swap has been a guarantee of peaceful retirement” in the past. Thus killing a pardoned spy who has been swapped with some of your own violates the tacit rules of espionage, which exist even between bitter rivals like Russia and the United States.
This assumption, however, is baseless. There are no rules in espionage, and swapped spies are no safer than defectors, especially if they are judged to have caused significant damage to their employers. It is also generally assumed that pardoned spies who are allowed to resettle abroad will fade into retirement, not continue to work for their foreign handlers, as was the case with Skripal, who continued to provide his services to British intelligence as a consultant while living in the idyllic surroundings of Wiltshire. Like the late Russian defector Alexander Litvinenko, who died in London of radioactive poisoning in 2006, Skripal entrusted his personal safety to the British state. But in a country that today hosts nearly half a million Russians of all backgrounds and political persuasions, such a decision is exceedingly risky.
On Wednesday, the Metropolitan Police Service announced that Skripal, 66, and his daughter Yulia, 33, had been “targeted specifically” by a nerve agent. The official announcement stopped short of specifying the nerve agent used, but experts point to sarin gas or VX. Both substances are highly toxic and compatible with the clinical symptoms reportedly displayed by the Skripals when they were found in a catatonic state by an ambulance crew and police officers last Sunday. At least one responder, reportedly a police officer, appears to have also been affected by the nerve agent. All three patients are reported to be in a coma. They are lucky to have survived at all, given that nerve agents inhaled through the respiratory system work by debilitating the body’s respiratory muscles, effectively causing the infected organism to die from suffocation.
In the past 24 hours, at least one British newspaper stated that the two Russians were “poisoned by a very rare nerve agent, which only a few laboratories in the world could have produced”. That is not quite true. It would be more accurate to say that few laboratories in the world would dareto produce sarin or VX, which is classified as a weapon of mass destruction. But no advanced mastering of chemistry or highly specialist laboratories are needed to manufacture these agents. Indeed, those with knowledge of military history will know that they were produced in massive quantities prior to and during World War I. Additionally —unlike polonium, which was used to kill Litvinenko in 2006— nerve gas could be produced in situ and would not need to be imported from abroad. It is, in other words, a simple weapon that can be dispensed using a simple method, with little risk to the assailant(s). It fits the profile of a state-sponsored covert killing: carefully planned and designed, yet simply executed, thus ensuring a high probability of success.
By Wednesday, the British security services were reportedly using “hundreds of detectives, forensic specialists, analysts and intelligence officers working around the clock” to find “a network of highly-trained assassins” who are “either present or past state-sponsored actors”. Such actors were almost certainly behind the targeted attack on the Skripals. They must have dispensed the lethal agent in liquid, aerosol or a gas form, either by coming into direct physical contact with their victims, or by using a timed device. Regardless, the method used would have been designed to give the assailants the necessary time to escape unharmed. Still, there are per capita more CCTV cameras in Britain than in any other country in the world, which gives police investigators hope that they may be able to detect the movements of the attackers. It is highly unlikely that the latter remain on British soil. But if they are, and are identified or caught, it is almost certain that they will be found to have direct links with a foreign government.