In New Book, Journalist Alleges Russian Links To Mysterious Deaths Abroad

Nov 19, 2019
Originally published on November 19, 2019 1:40 pm

In 2006, as Russia was preparing to host the G-8 summit in St. Petersburg, its parliament passed a law legalizing extrajudicial killings of accused "extremists" abroad.

"It was an extraordinary moment," BuzzFeed News journalist Heidi Blake says. "Even as Western leaders were sitting around the table with Putin in St. Petersburg, at that very moment, laws were being passed ... that enabled enemies of the Russian state to be murdered by Russian state agents on foreign soil with absolute impunity."

Blake maintains that Russia subsequently engaged in an assassination program that targeted exiled Russian oligarchs, security officials and others critical of the Kremlin.

"We could see there was a pattern of suspicious deaths linked to Russia," Blake says. "And in every single case there was evidence that would appear to connect those deaths to Russia."

Blake and her BuzzFeed News team were finalists in 2017 for their investigation of Russian assassinations on British soil. Her new book based on that reporting, From Russia with Blood, chronicles 14 suspected assassinations in the U.K., including the death by poisoning of former KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko, a defector who had been critical of the law allowing extrajudicial killings.

"Litvinenko was trying to warn publicly that this [law] would mean that Russian defectors living in Britain would be at risk — and it was only months later that he himself was assassinated," Blake says.


Interview Highlights

On the Russian state's development of tools for assassination

Putin has, in a very concerted way, poured [resources] into a number of laboratories in which government scientists just dedicate their lives to the development of weapons and poisons, which are designed to kill without leaving a trace. We know that the Russian state has a whole armory of poisons, which are designed to trigger, for example, fast-acting cancers or to trigger cardiac arrest — or even psychotropic drugs, which are designed to destabilize enemy targets, to mood-altering substances, which can create the appearance that the person has plunged into a very deep and profound depression.

One of the things our intelligence sources have talked to us about is the study of suicide clusters in which there is a suspicion that the Russian state may have either driven individuals to kill themselves or has so successfully destabilized them that when their deaths are made to look like suicides, there's a pretext in which that can be made believable, because their behavior in the weeks leading up to their deaths has been so disordered.

On why many Russian exiles and oligarchs settle in Great Britain

London, in lots of ways, made the perfect playground for these superrich Russians who fled Vladimir Putin's regime, because it's a place where there is a kind of degree of respectability about investing your money in the United Kingdom. But actually, the vagaries of the British financial system make it very easy to establish shell companies, with fairly little scrutiny, into which money can be moved. It actually has been historically and, to some extent, still to this day, very easy to plow huge amounts of money into British properties, British companies and British banks without a huge amount of scrutiny from the authorities.

So it is possible for these Russian runaways to come to Britain to expatriate huge fortunes and reinvest them, and then also to launder their reputations into the West by sending their children to some of the most prestigious public schools that Britain has to offer, to making endowments to the colleges of leading universities in Britain, buying up some of the most prestigious stately homes in the country, and really kind of crafting a life that bore all the hallmarks of kind of British establishment respectability — but which was funded entirely by money, much of which had been expatriated from Russia in fairly corrupt and dubious circumstances.

On how British police handled the 2014 death of Scot Young, an associate of Russian oligarch Boris Berezovsky's, who died under mysterious circumstances in 2013

In the case of the death of Scot Young ... who fell from his window [and] was impaled on the railings, the police came in and within minutes had shut that case down and treated it as a suicide.

We were able to establish that, in fact, the police had been called repeatedly by Scot Young in the months and years leading up to his death, that he told them that he feared he was being tailed by a team of Russian hitmen. He feared his life was in danger. ... His daughters had gone to the police and told them that he had been complaining that he feared for his life and that he didn't believe he was safe. And then, of course, we unraveled this whole series of connections to a number of deals in Russia that had come directly into the crosshairs of the Kremlin — that had angered the Kremlin — and that he'd been living in the shadow of serious threats. None of that had been investigated.

So really just the complete absence of any serious investigation by the police suggested to us that there was a strategic unwillingness on the part of the British authorities to look any further. -

The police hadn't even dusted for fingerprints in his apartment. They hadn't taken any CCTV footage. They hadn't sought extra witnesses. They'd really done absolutely nothing to investigate. They hadn't even taken photos of the window ledge from which he fell — and if they had, they would have seen that there were scratches on the ledge, which were later found by his daughters, which were about as far apart as the fingers on two hands, suggesting that he may have been fighting to stay in when he fell out.

So really just the complete absence of any serious investigation by the police suggested to us that there was a strategic unwillingness on the part of the British authorities to look any further.

On secrecy orders that prevent cases from being properly investigated

There are a number of cases in which the British government has obtained secrecy orders to prevent evidence being disclosed to inquests, which are the formal investigations into cause of death which take place when deaths in Britain are unexplained.

I think the most striking example is the death of a man called Gareth Williams, who was a British spy who was found dead in his in the apartment, which was paid for by the British intelligence services in London. He was found zipped up and padlocked inside a large sports bag which had been placed inside the bathtub of his flat. The authorities very quickly shut that investigation down and deemed it as nonsuspicious.

[Gareth Williams] was found zipped up and padlocked inside a large sports bag which had been placed inside the bathtub of his flat. The authorities very quickly shut that investigation down and deemed it as nonsuspicious. -

Now, I was able to talk to the murder detective, who was the first on the scene of Gareth Williams' death. He said that he believed that the scene was too clean. It appeared to have been cleaned up and wiped down. There were no fingerprints anywhere in the flat. There were no [fingerprints] anywhere on the bathtub or on the bag's zipper, which is pretty much impossible if Gareth Williams had zipped himself into the bag himself, which ... was the line that the police ultimately took. But that investigation had been taken over by the counterterror police, who are the unit who liaise most closely with Britain's intelligence services. That detective was very strongly of the view that that had been done in order to conceal the involvement of some foreign states in Gareth Williams' death. What we were able to establish was that what he had been working on was strongly linked to Russia and that there was intelligence suggesting that he had been assassinated as a result of that work.

On why the British government is reluctant to pursue these cases

That's the really burning question at the heart of our investigation. And we've spent a huge amount of time talking to, I think, it's more than 40 current and former intelligence and law enforcement sources on both sides of the Atlantic to try to unravel that. And the answer is kind of complex and multilayered, but I think at the heart of it is a desire by the British government to foster close relations with the Kremlin. Putin was very strategically important as an ally for the West in the war on terror. He was seen as a critical ally in the Middle East and in Syria for many years. He was seen as a crucial part of the Iran nuclear deal and the resistance to Iran's development of nuclear weapons. There are many reasons on a grand geopolitical scale why the West wanted to try to bring Putin in from the cold and try to cultivate an alliance with him.

Then along with that, there is a huge amount of Russian money that has really propped up the British economy throughout the recession and beyond. And there is the central importance of Britain's energy investments in Russia, and the fact that Europe and Britain are pretty reliant on Russian energy to just keep the lights on.

So there are lots of reasons why Britain has wanted to continue to curry favor with Putin. But on top of all of that, there's the fact that Putin's ascent to power ... came just before 9/11 and after that, really all of the focus of British and American intelligence gathering and security spending and resource was on the war on terror. The kind of capabilities of the elements of those agencies that are dedicated to monitoring Russian threats was really, really undermined by that. So there was also a sense in which Britain was weakened in its ability to detect and to respond to these threats — as well as being keen to keep the Kremlin close.

On the threats Blake and her colleagues felt while investigating this story

For our team, certainly, this was a dicey ride investigating this story. And we had a number of fairly disturbing instances along the way. One of us had a man in a dark car appear outside the house for many months during the course of the investigation. Somebody else had items moved around inside their home. We had members of the team very conspicuously followed in the course of the investigation. We took that very seriously.

Sam Briger and Joel Wolfram produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz and Molly Seavy-Nesper adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2019 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Two teachers from the American University in Kabul were freed by the Taliban today. Kevin King and Timothy Weeks were abducted more than three years ago. The Afghan government freed three high-profile Taliban members in exchange for their release. NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman joins us now. Hey, Tom.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Hey, Ailsa.

CHANG: So can you first just tell us a little more about who Kevin King and Tim Weeks are?

BOWMAN: Well, Kevin King is an American. He's 63. And Timothy Weeks is Australian, 50 years old. The Taliban released pictures of the two. King has a long beard and had been reportedly ill with kidney and heart disease. Weeks looks thin and pale. They were taken to Bagram Air Base north of Kabul. The King family released a statement, saying they were thankful and said Kevin King is now receiving medical treatment at Bagram.

CHANG: And what do we know about the Taliban members who were exchanged for King and Weeks?

BOWMAN: Right. The three Taliban include a senior Taliban leader who equipped suicide bombers and also a senior commander. But, Ailsa, the most notable is the third one - Anas Haqqani is the brother of the Taliban's military leader and the son of the founder of the Haqqani network. It's a brutal militant group aligned with the Taliban and based next door in Pakistan. They've been responsible for a number of suicide attacks, high-profile attacks in Kabul and elsewhere.

CHANG: Now, am I right? There was talk about this exchange happening, like, a week ago or more than a week ago. Why didn't it happen earlier then?

BOWMAN: Well, we believe because it was an attack - a deadly car bomb attack in Kabul. And the Afghan government apparently pulled the plug on the release, saying, in essence, unless violence decreases, they will stay put in prison.

CHANG: That does raise the whole question about how overall reduction in violence may be necessary in order for peace talks to resume. That has been part of the ongoing conversation. Do we even know when these U.S.-Taliban-Afghan peace talks might pick up again?

BOWMAN: You know, we really don't. Both the U.S. and Afghan governments say there must be a reduction in violence for peace talks to go forward, and this exchange of the Westerners for the Taliban is seen as a kind of sweetener to get talks going again. The three Taliban were flown to Doha, Qatar, where the Taliban has a political office and where peace talks were taking place with American envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, who, by the way, helped broker this prisoner exchange. And, of course, Khalilzad came up with a preliminary peace deal with the Taliban. That deal came to an end in September when President Trump scrapped it, again, because of increased violence, including the death of an American soldier.

CHANG: And any reaction to the release of - or the exchange of these prisoners?

BOWMAN: The reaction, actually, in Afghanistan is pretty grim. Most people polled by TOLOnews, one of the big networks there, said more than 80% were against this. They didn't think it was a good idea to release these three Taliban Haqqani members. So it's going to be tough for Ashraf Ghani, the Afghan president, if peace talks don't resume and if the Taliban don't eventually start talking to the Afghan government, which they've refused to do because they see the Afghans as just mere puppets of the American military. So there's a long way to go here.

CHANG: That's NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman. Thank you very much, Tom.

BOWMAN: You're welcome, Ailsa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.