By PATRICK REEVELL, ABC News
(NEW YORK) — The independent investigative group Bellingcat says it has identified a team of Russian intelligence agents that it says were behind the poisoning of the opposition leader Alexey Navalny with a nerve agent this summer.
In a detailed investigation published on Monday, Bellingcat said it was able to use phone and flight records to show that a squad of officers from Russia’s domestic intelligence agency, the Federal Security Service (FSB), had trailed Navalny for years and were in his vicinity in the Siberian city of Tomsk shortly before he fell sick.
Navalny, Russia’s most prominent opposition leader, fell critically ill on a passenger flight from Tomsk in August and was later evacuated to Germany for treatment. A German government lab determined he had been poisoned with a Novichok nerve agent, a type of chemical weapon developed by the Soviet Union and the same kind used to poison the former Russian double agent Sergey Skripal in Britain in 2018.
Russia has denied any involvement in the assassination attempt on Navalny and sought to blame it on the activist himself or Germany.
But Bellingcat said its new investigation showed the squad of FSB officers had followed Navalny since at least 2017 as he traveled around Russia for his activism, beginning shortly after he launched a thwarted campaign for president.
At least three members of the same squad followed Navalny to Tomsk at the time of his poisoning and were in contact with an FSB chemical weapons specialist around that time, Bellingcat said.
Bellingcat is well-known for its open-source investigations and has previously published evidence showing Russian involvement in major incidents, including the Skripal poisoning and the shooting down of MH17.
The group’s researchers said it had used phone data, leaked passport information and flight records to track the movement of the FSB team, which overlapped heavily with those of Navalny. According to Bellingcat, the FSB officers took 37 trips to the same destinations at the same time as Navalny between 2017 and 2020. Of all the trips undertaken by the FSB officers together, only one did not overlap with a trip taken by Navalny, Bellingcat said.
Bellingcat said it had identified at least eight FSB operatives who it believes were involved directly in Navalny’s poisoning in Tomsk and posted the men’s photographs. All of them belong to a unit within an FSB body called the Criminalistics Institute or Scientific-Research Institute No.2 or NII-2, Bellingcat said. The Criminalistics Institute is formally tasked with forensic work for the FSB but, according to KGB defectors, is also home to a secretive poison lab. Bellingcat said that mobile phone tower data showed the men frequently visiting and making calls from the institute’s offices in Moscow.
Phone records showed that the same officers who had followed Navalny were in regular contact with a military scientist who previously worked on Russia’s chemical weapons program, Bellingcat said. The researchers said the scientist was Col. Alexander Makshakov, who now runs the FSB’s clandestine poisoning program. Some of the men, including Makshakov, were also in contact with senior FSB commanders, including Vladimir Bogdanov, who is currently head of the FSB’s Special Technology Center.
When Navalny traveled to Siberia in August to meet with volunteers from his activist group, three of the same FSB officers traveled with him, according to Bellingcat. It named them as Alexey Alexandrov and Ivan Osipov, both trained medical doctors, and Vladimir Panyaev. Based on phone data, the men then followed Navalny to Tomsk, the report said.
Bellingcat said phone records showed members of the team communicating throughout the period and that there was a “sudden peak” in communication among the FSB officers just before the poisoning and that some of the officers in Tomsk were exchanging messages with Makshakov, the chemical weapons specialist, while they were there.
Bellingcat said it strongly suggests the “poisoning attempt on Navalny’s life was mandated at the highest echelons of the Kremlin.”
The Bellingcat report does not answer how Navalny was poisoned. The report notes that on night before he fell sick a barman at his hotel had persuaded him to drink a Negroni cocktail.
“Navalny accepted the suggestion, but told us he couldn’t take more than one sip as “the cocktail tasted like the most disgusting thing I’ve had in my life,” the Bellingcat report said.
The report draws no conclusions on whether Navalny could have been poisoned with the cocktail. A German lab found trace amounts of Novichok on a hotel water bottle drank by Navalny, but said the amounts were likely left there by Navalny’s lips after he had already been poisoned.
The Bellingcat report also suggests that Navalny and his wife might have been targeted by another botched poisoning attempt less than two months before. Navalny said his wife Yulia became mysteriously unwell while the two were in the Russian city Kaliningrad for a romantic break in early July. She experienced symptoms similar to what he felt on the plane after he was poisoned.
Bellingcat said two members of the same FSB team who were in Tomsk had booked flights to Kaliningrad on the same day as the Navalnys. Just before their flights, the officers made multiple phone calls to Makshakov, according to Bellingcat.
Navalny on Monday said the investigation laid bare the plot to kill him.
“I know who wanted to kill me. I know where they work. I know their real names,” Navalny said in a video posted on YouTube. Navalny is currently undergoing rehabilitation in Germany after recovering from the attack which left him in a three-week coma.
Navalny, who made his name with explosive investigations detailing alleged corruption among members of Putin’s circle, is Russia’s best-known opposition leader. He has been repeatedly jailed for his activism over the years and suffered frequent harassment, including sometimes physical attacks.
Top Russian officials have denied any involvement in Navalny’s poisoning and instead have floated a series of contradictory explanations, including that he suffered from diabetes or that Germany poisoned him. Putin reportedly told France’s Emmanuel Macron that Navalny could have poisoned himself.
The European Union imposed sanctions on senior Russian officials over the poisoning, including members of Putin’s presidential office.
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