Category: Terrorism

PM says ‘highly likely’ Russia is responsible for nerve agent attack, without any conclusive evidence

The prime minister says that it has been concluded that Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia were poisoned by “military-grade nerve agent of a type developed by Russia.”

May revealed that experts at Britain’s Porton Down defence laboratory, coincidently very close to where the attack happened, have confirmed the Salisbury poisoning involved “highly-specialised” and “military grade” Novichok, first developed by the Soviet Union in the 1970s. 

Updating the Commons earlier today, the prime minister explained that as a result of the nerve agent being found to be military grade Novichok, it is “highly likely that Russia was responsible” for the act against ex-double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter, which also left Wiltshire Police Detective Sergeant Nick Bailey in a serious condition and parts of the medieval cathedral city closed off.

She also says the Russia was likely to be responsible for the attack because of Russia’s “history of involvement in state-sponsored attacks of this kind.” 

However, the Kremlin has denied involvement, while the Russian embassy accused Britain of playing a “very dangerous game” and warned of “serious long-term consequences.”  

Moscow responded, saying Theresa May’s words were “another political information campaign based on a provocation”, and has branded the prime minister’s suggestion that Moscow was “probably” behind the Salisbury poisonings as a “circus show”.

The spokesperson from Moscow also added, cryptically: “Before making up new fairy tales, let the British disclose how the Litvinenko case ended.” 

Russian dissident Alexander Litvinenko was poisoned with radioactive polonium-210 in London in 2006. It seems that Russia is pointing an accusation back at the UK. 

A former Kremlin adviser, Alexander Nekrasoff, has said that the nerve agent is “possessed by about 16 countries in their laboratories”.

“Why do I know this?” he added. “Because that’s how the antidote is developed.”

Andrei Lugovoi, one of the two men accused of assassinating Alexander Litvinenko with radioactive polonium in 2006, said Britain’s response to events was suspiciously quick. Evidence, he said, that London was operating according to its own script.

Any chemist or physicist will tell you that as a minimum you need some kind of serious expertise on a serious expert level to determine whether or not a country is responsible,” he told the Interfax news agency.

“When such statements are made in the course of a few days, this speaks only of irresponsibility and the fact that they haven’t set out to discover the truth.”

Novichok agents may feasibly be created in pesticide and agricultural fertilizer manufacturing plants, as they have an organophosphate core, as do other nerve agents. So far the government have offered no firm evidence of Russia’s involvement. 

May has said the decision to blame Russia is based on “Russia’s record of conducting state-sponsored assassinations and our assessment that Russia views some defectors as legitimate targets for assassinations”.Yet already the government are talking about ‘robust responses’, which is very worrying. 

The Washington Post reports: “Former special services agent Mikhail Lyubimov was quoted in Komsomolskaya Pravda, one of Russia’s most popular newspapers, as suggesting Skripal wouldn’t have been worth the trouble of a hit.

Skripal was sent to the West in a swap; that means he’s absolutely uninteresting to us. He’s a small-fry,’ Lyubimov said.”

Skripal was jailed for 13 years by Russia in 2006. In July 2010, he was one of four prisoners released by Moscow in exchange for 10 Russian spies arrested by the FBI as part of a swap. He was later flown to the UK.

On Sunday, Dimtry Kiselev, one of Russia’s most powerful media figures, spoke during his Sunday news programme on state-owned TV channel Rossiya-1, in Moscow. Kiselev suggested a possible connection between the poisonings in Salisbury, which British officials said resulted from exposure to an unspecified nerve agent, and international  upcoming World Cup football tournament. 

Kiselev suggested the poisoning could be a “special operation” aimed at justifying a boycott of the tournament. I don’t think that is likely, however.

Skripal wasn’t much use to Britain as an exposed ex-spy, but “as someone who’s been poisoned, who is ill, he’s very useful,” Kiselev said. 

The programme included an on-the-ground report from Britain. The reporter noted that Salisbury, the town where Skripal was lived and fell sick, is about a 20-minute drive from the Porton Down laboratories where Britain developed chemical and bacteriological agents.

“But in the British press and special services, there is no suspicion” [of any British involvement], said another reporter, Alexander Khabarov.

So Russia has been given an ultimatum. May goes on to say that if Russia does not give a “credible response”, the government will conclude that the attack involved “unlawful use of force by the Russian state against the United Kingdom”. 

May also said the UK must stand ready to take much more “extensive measures”, and these would be set out in the Commons on Wednesday should there be no adequate explanation from Russia.

The prime minister will then return to the Commons to outline retaliatory proposals, should there be no adequate explanation.

Here are the key passages from Theresa May’s statement today:

Mr Speaker, this morning I chaired a meeting of the National Security Council in which we considered the information so far available.

As is normal, the Council was updated on the assessment and intelligence picture, as well as the state of the investigation.

It is now clear that Mr Skripal and his daughter were poisoned with a military-grade nerve agent of a type developed by Russia.

This is part of a group of nerve agents known as ‘Novichok’.

Based on the positive identification of this chemical agent by world-leading experts at the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory at Porton Down; our knowledge that Russia has previously produced this agent and would still be capable of doing so; Russia’s record of conducting state-sponsored assassinations; and our assessment that Russia views some defectors as legitimate targets for assassinations; the Government has concluded that it is highly likely that Russia was responsible for the act against Sergei and Yulia Skripal.

Mr Speaker, there are therefore only two plausible explanations for what happened in Salisbury on the 4 March.

Either this was a direct act by the Russian State against our country.

Or the Russian government lost control of this potentially catastrophically damaging nerve agent and allowed it to get into the hands of others.

This afternoon my Rt Hon Friend the Foreign Secretary has summoned the Russian Ambassador to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and asked him to explain which of these two possibilities it is – and therefore to account for how this Russian-produced nerve agent could have been deployed in Salisbury against Mr Skripal and his daughter.

My Rt Hon Friend has stated to the Ambassador that the Russian Federation must immediately provide full and complete disclosure of the Novichok programme to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.

And he has requested the Russian Government’s response by the end of tomorrow.

Mr Speaker, this action has happened against a backdrop of a well-established pattern of Russian State aggression.

Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea was the first time since the Second World War that one sovereign nation has forcibly taken territory from another in Europe.

Russia has fomented conflict in the Donbas, repeatedly violated the national airspace of several European countries, and mounted a sustained campaign of cyber espionage and disruption. This has included meddling in elections, and hacking the Danish Ministry of Defence and the Bundestag, among many others.

During his recent State of the Union address, President Putin showed video graphics of missile launches, flight trajectories and explosions, including the modelling of attacks on the United States with a series of warheads impacting in Florida.

While the extra-judicial killing of terrorists and dissidents outside Russia were given legal sanction by the Russian Parliament in 2006.

And of course Russia used radiological substances in its barbaric assault on Mr Litvenenko. We saw promises to assist the investigation then, but they resulted in denial and obfuscation – and the stifling of due process and the rule of law …

Mr Speaker, on Wednesday we will consider in detail the response from the Russian State.

Should there be no credible response, we will conclude that this action amounts to an unlawful use of force by the Russian State against the United Kingdom.

And I will come back to this House and set out the full range of measures that we will take in response.

Mr Speaker, this attempted murder using a weapons-grade nerve agent in a British town was not just a crime against the Skripals.It was an indiscriminate and reckless act against the United Kingdom, putting the lives of innocent civilians at risk.

And we will not tolerate such a brazen attempt to murder innocent civilians on our soil.

In his response to May’s statement,  Jeremy Corbyn condemned the Salisbury attack, and he included criticism of the Tories for taking money from Russian donors. .

The government could impose unilateral sanctions on Russian individuals and businesses. However, it is unlikely to get support from European partners for tougher EU-wide sanctions. Brexit makes those kinds of negotiations much more difficult, and some EU countries are already trying to soften their approach to Moscow.

The government could also make it more difficult for Russians generally to get visas to the UK. However, this is unlikely as such restrictions might also hit Russian dissidents whom the UK welcomes and wealthy businessmen whose laundered cash the UK tolerates to support London’s property market. Few analysts believe targeting rich Russians with tougher asset-stripping orders would make much difference. They would simply take their money elsewhere. 

The government could pass a British version of the 2012 US Magnitsky act, which punishes Russians involved in corruption and human rights violations with asset freezes and travel bans. It is named after a Russian lawyer who died in custody after revealing alleged fraud by state officials. Opposition MPs have been pushing for a Magnitsky amendment to be added to the Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Bill now going through Parliament. 

Other options include the expulsion of Russian diplomats from the UK, as happened after the poisoning of former Russian Federal Security Service operative Litvinenko in 2006. 

There has also been discussion of taking Russian broadcasters such as RT (formerly Russia Today) off the air , and broadcasting regulator Ofcom has said it will “consider the implications for RT’s broadcast licences” after May speaks on Wednesday.  

The UK has already internationalised the matter by asking Russia to provide a “full and complete disclosure” of the Novichok nerve agent programme to an international agency, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.

By framing the poisoning as a possible “unlawful use of force” by Russia against the UK,  May has also prompted questions as to whether this could be a matter for NATO, the military alliance of 29 countries. The alliance’s policy of collective defence – under Article 5 – states that an attack on any one ally is seen as an attack on all. It was invoked for the first and only time by the United States after the 9/11 attacks in New York.

Lord Ricketts, a former UK national security adviser, told the BBC that such an “unlawful act” warranted the involvement of NATO.

Any action “will be much more effective if there can be a broader, Nato-EU solidarity behind us”, he said. So far, Downing Street has played down suggestions that this is an Article 5 matter, though.

However, the magnitude of the response that may be announced on Wednesday will depend on the scale of international co-operation that the government can secure, 

The risk with any of the options  considered is the scale of any Russian retaliation, of course.

Before the basic facts of the case have been established, both sides have indulged in an early confrontational exchange. Let’s hope and pray that a diplomatic solution can be reached, rather than any further potentially catastrophic escalation.

 

Related

From the age of nuclear ‘deterrence’ to an era of first-strike posturing – a creeping escalation

 


 

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A few personal thoughts following the devastating terrorist attack in Manchester


Like many others, I am shocked and horrified at the events in Manchester last night. I cannot begin to imagine the pain and suffering of those people at the Arena who were witnesses or directly affected by such an unthinkable, utterly senseless and despicable act of terrorism – one that resulted in the terrible and senseless murder of at least 22 people, while injuring at least 120 others, many of whom were children and young people – and my thoughts are very much with the victims and their families at this incredibly painful and difficult time.

I’m suspending my own political campaigning, as a mark of respect for those we have lost, for those still coming to terms with this brutal and tragic event, and because it’s a time of bewilderment, shock and anguish for our nation. Terrorism is calculated to generate a much wider degree of national hurt and international anxiety in the longer term, in addition to the immediate horror of those targeted victims that it so brutally and despicably claims.

It was in the most horrific and atrocious circumstances that the people of Greater Manchester showed the world how much humanity and generosity they have – how much they care for each other. Many were prepared to go out of their way to help those in need. Bless those many who have helped out, offering food and water, warm drinks, offering lifts, putting people up. That reflects the kindness, good will, spirit and solidarity of Manchester. And I’ve heard some tremendously heartening stories of doctors and nurses going into work to support and police officers, ambulance workers giving up their days off, turning up to help those in need. 

Among those rushing to help was a brave homeless man – Chris Parker – who has spoken of the moment when a woman died in his arms after he rushed inside Manchester Arena to help the victims of the terrorist attack. He was in the foyer at the time of the attack and was knocked to the floor with the force of the explosion, despite this, he ran inside the building to help the victims.

As  said of the strong community spirit in Manchester: Together we stand strong in these difficult times.” 

It’s a time of national unity, solidarity, and of hugging your own family a little closer than usual – a time of drawing together in defiance of the hurt and confusion inflicted on us by those who would damage our society.

Burnham, the newly elected mayor of Greater Manchester, spoke very well following the catastrophic event – as did local commentator Mohammed Shafiq, who was very mindful of the need for a Muslim voice of condemnation of terrorism.

Poet Tony Walsh added his voice in tribute to the spirit of Mancunians and the history of the city:

Watch Tony Walsh’s passionate recital of his powerful poem for Manchester – “This is The Place” – at the vigil held in Manchester this evening.

Yet in the face of pleas for unity, there inevitably comes the opportunist politicking, those willing to search for scapegoats, which makes social unity so much harder to achieve. Those toxic voices that are known for their divisive rhetoric have already used these terrible events and the tragedies of others to stir up emotions and extend a socially corrosive brand of nationalism – the public peddling of indecency to their own pecuniary or political advantage. We need to take the media megaphone from those who use it to inflame social tensions, ethnic nationalism and drive rage-led ideologies.

Hugh Muir says in the Guardian: “There is all-pervasive incivility in this angry age of illiberalism and social media – that, as democrats, we have to stomach. There are those who would attack us with bombs and knives. We expect nothing from them but nihilism and brutality. But a society undermined from within at a time of crisis needs champions unequivocally prepared to protect it. We elect and employ such people. It is their job, and they should leave no doubt that they will do it.”

The article – The rule of law applies to everyone. Even hate peddlers like Katie Hopkins  is well worth a read. He’s talking a lot of sense at a time when a senseless and despicable act has led to widespread uncomprehending horror and national uncertainty. 

We mustn’t let this catastrophic event lead to further catastrophic social divisions, by allowing established right wing demagogues to stir up and direct national anger and hatred. We must not permit such people to use other people’s grief as an opportunity to further their own political agenda.

, writing for the Intercept, voices a perspective I also share: “Then there is Tommy Robinson, former leader of the far-right English Defence League (think of a British Richard Spencer but, again, with a lesser intellect and a long history of criminality and violence). Robinson arrived in Manchester on Tuesday to accuse British Muslim residents of that city of being “enemy combatants.” They want to “kill you, maim you and destroy you,” he told his YouTube audience of fellow far-right bigots.

You can almost hear them cheering in Raqqa. ISIS wants to drive a wedge between Muslim communities and wider Western society; it wants to pit Muslims against non-Muslims. Nor is this a secret: The group’s leaders have admitted as much in their own publications. More than two years ago, in February 2015, the ISIS online magazine, Dabiq, made clear that one of the main goals of the group’s brutal attacks in the West was to destroy the gray zone — of peaceful co-existence between Muslims and non-Muslims — and provoke a backlash. “The Muslims in the West will quickly find themselves between one of two choices, they either apostatize and adopt the [infidel] religion … or they … [emigrate] to the Islamic State and thereby escape persecution from the crusader governments and citizens.”

This ISIS grand plan has always required the (perhaps unwitting) support of the group’s useful idiots in the West, the Islamophobes, whose harsh rhetoric and actions help drive marginalized and alienated Muslims into the wide open arms of the jihadists.”

Robinson’s bigotry isn’t confined to Muslims. He also likes to direct abuse at people if they are remotely politically left leaning. Especially women. I’ve had first hand experience of his apparently indefatigable inclination to incite hatred and subsequent schadenfreude, as apparently, I’m a “leftist”.  It’s all our fault, he claims. He also likes to give out people’s personal and social media account details on a very widely shared and malicious meme that invites the far right in its entirety to say what they think of a so-called quote (that wasn’t). Of course these “thoughts” included death threats, rape threats, threats from Combat 18, and threats directed at my children. For someone who objects such a lot about his own “free speech” being “restricted”, he sure puts considerable effort into trying to shut other people up with low-life threats and intimidation. He also likes to get others to do his dirtiest work. 

Mehdi goes on to say: “As my colleague Murtaza Hussain has observed, it is “perverse and counterproductive to lump [the West’s Muslims] together with ISIS and blame them for the group’s actions.” To do so is to “grant the Islamic State a propaganda coup, implicitly endorsing the group’s narrative of Muslims and Westerners collectively at war with one another.”  (See the full article – Reactions to Manchester Bombing Show How Anti-Muslim Bigots Are “Useful Idiots” for ISIS.)

A little of what I know about Manchester

I’m from Greater Manchester, though in the olden days of my childhood, my hometown – Bolton – was situated in Lancashire. Manchester is a city I have spent a lot of time in: it’s a city I love. Manchester is just 10 or 15 minutes away from Bolton on the train.

I used to work in the district of Chorlton. I spent my teen years going to concerts and gigs around the city. I saw many bands and performers in Manchester over the years, from Jon Otway and John Cooper Clarke to Pink Floyd, Alice Cooper, Hawkwind, PIL, Elvis Costello, A Certain Ratio and so many others. My own band – Oh no, it’s them again – played gigs around the city, once supporting the Salford Jets at the Gallery.

Over recent years, I have taken colleagues down to Manchester just for a night out. We stayed at the local Premier Inn. I was back in Manchester last October, speaking at a psychology conference in Ardwick Green (north). Afterwards I visited and stayed with my son in my home town, Bolton. It’s always been a unique, warm and wonderful city, people are always very friendly and helpful there. 

I’m horrified and shocked at the events of last night, and feel so very sorry for those who were there, the terrible and heartwrenching loss of life, the injured young people and adults. My thoughts are with those families, and my heart goes out to them. 

How you can help 

I used to work for Victim Support in the early 1990s.  This excellent organisation are providing immediate emotional and practical local support to victims and witnesses of the Manchester attack. You can contact Victim Support’s national support line on 0808 168 9111 or, if you live in Greater Manchester, call 0161 200 1950.

Greater Manchester police have issued a new casualty bureau emergency number for people trying to trace loved ones from last night’s attack: 0800 096 0095.

Greater Manchester Police are also appealing for any images or footage from last night that you believe can assist them. Please upload these to ukpoliceimageappeal.co.uk or ukpoliceimageappeal.com.

Many people have sent messages of support and comfort; the community spirit in the city region has shone through at this very sad time. If sharing information, please be sure to only share trusted information and follow @gmpolice on Twitter and Facebook for reliable updates and information.

A relief fund has been organised by Manchester City Council and the British Red Cross, you can donate here: https://www.justgiving.com/campaigns/charity/redcross/manchesteremergencyfund

Peterloo Massacre.png
Painting showing the Peterloo Massacre – part of the history of Manchester – by Richard Carlile. The politically directed massacre, which happened at a public protest highlighting the poor socioeconomic conditions for many at the time, and was part of the fight for universal suffrage, which led directly to the foundation of The Manchester Guardian (now The Guardian).

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