Flight records and phone data allegedly link a hit squad from Russia’s domestic spy agency, the FSB, to the novichok poisoning of opposition leader Alexei Navalny, according to a joint investigation by journalists.
Bellingcat and The Insider also claimed on Monday to have uncovered evidence of a secret chemical weapons programme operated by the FSB.
Russia has consistently denied involvement in the poisoning of Mr Navalny.
The online investigators alleged that the Kremlin critic had been under FSB surveillance from at least 2017 and that there may have been other attempts to poison him before he was taken critically ill on a flight to Moscow from the Siberian city of Tomsk on 20 August.
They said their research “discovered voluminous telecom and travel data that implicates Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) in the poisoning”.
Bellingcat and The Insider claimed the poisoning “was mandated at the highest echelons of the Kremlin“.
Mr Navalny’s flight was diverted to another airport in Siberia after he collapsed on board on 20 August.
The 44-year-old was taken off for treatment and then transferred to a hospital in Germany.
German authorities later announced that Mr Navalny had been poisoned with a novichok nerve agent – the same kind of substance used against Sergei and Yulia Skripal, a former Russian double agent and his daughter, in a 2018 poisoning in Salisbury.
The European Union and the UK have since imposed sanctions on six top Russian officials over the poisoning, including the director of the FSB, Aleksandr Bortnikov.
They also sanctioned a chemical research unit called the State Scientific Research Institute for Organic Chemistry and Technology.
As part of their research, Bellingcat and the Insider published the names and photographs of seven individuals they claim were part of a team of at least 15 involved in the operation.
“Throughout 2017, and again in 2019 and 2020, FSB operatives from a clandestine unit specialised in working with poisonous substances shadowed Navalny during his trips across Russia, travelling alongside him on more than 30 overlapping flights to the same destinations,” the investigation, released on the Bellingcat website, claimed.
“It is also possible there were earlier attempts to poison Navalny, including one in the western Russian city of Kaliningrad only a month before the near-fatal novichok poisoning in Siberia.”
Bellingcat and The Insider said they had used travel data and metadata from phone calls to piece together the movements of the alleged FSB members.
They said this information showed that the team operated under the guise of a unit called the FSB Criminalistics Institute, which carries out forensic investigations of terrorist attacks.
But Bellingcat and The Insider alleged that “one of its key and secretive roles has been to provide cover for a clandestine sub-unit comprising approximately 15 operatives with backgrounds in chemical and biological warfare, medicine, and special operations”.
It concluded: “This report for the first time reveals data that directly links the August 2020 poisoning of Navalny to Russia’s domestic security services.
“This investigation is particularly important due to the legal vacuum in which no country other than Russia – the country implicated in the assassination attempt – has offered its jurisdiction for an official investigation into Navalny’s near-fatal poisoning.”
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