A group of operatives from a secret sub-unit of Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) were responsible for the assassination attempt on opposition figure Alexey Navalny in Tomsk this summer, says a joint investigation from Bellingcat and The Insider, in cooperation with Der Spiegel and CNN.
By analyzing call metadata, overlapping flight records and previously leaked offline databases, we have identified at least 15 operatives who appear to work within this clandestine sub-unit of the FSB Criminalistics Institute. At least eight of these [...] were in close contact at various stages of the operations to tail Navalny and in the days and hours prior to his poisoning.
The overlapping flight records revealed that members of this FSB sub-unit had flown to dozens of the same Russian cities as Navalny since 2017 — they were usually traveled in groups of two or three, purchasing tickets under their real or fake names, and attempting to travel on parallel flights (usually from another Moscow airport, rather than on the same flight as Navalny). The group was most active in 2017, when Navalny announced plans to run for president, and in 2020.
The investigation identifies the real names and aliases of the eight operatives implicated in Navalny’s poisoning. Apparently, three of them were responsible for following the opposition figure on his trip to Novosibirsk and Tomsk in August. While the operatives used burner phones throughout the operation, one of them turned on his main phone on two occasions — once near the hotel where Navalny’s colleague Maria Pevchikh was staying in Novosibirsk, and once not far from the hotel where Navalny was staying, according to geolocation data.
Bellingcat and its partners also maintain that all 15 operatives on the team tailing Navalny have “backgrounds in chemical and biological warfare, medicine, and special operations.” And that they are supported by specialists involved in developing chemical warfare agents:
This sub-unit appears to report to a scientist who previously worked in Russia’s military chemical weapons program in Shikhany, where nerve agents from the Novichok family were originally developed, and is supported by a network of other chemical weapons specialists dispersed at several government-run institutes.
Moreover, according to the investigation, the attack in Tomsk was the second recent attempt to poison Alexey Navalny this year — less than two months earlier, the same operatives made an attempt on his life in Kaliningrad; apparently causing his wife Yulia to fall mysteriously ill.
Commenting on the investigation, Navalny himself said its findings describe “state terrorism”:
These aren’t FSB [operatives] working on the orders of an oligarch or an official who I offended with [one of] my investigations. An entire FSB department under the leadership of high-ranking officials has been conducting an operation for two years, during which they have tried to kill me and my family members several times by obtaining chemical weapons in a secret state laboratory. Of course, an operation of such magnitude and such during can’t be organized by anyone other than FSB head [Alexander] Bortnikov, but he would never have dared do it without [President Vladimir] Putin’s order.