The Russian agents who poisoned the Skripals likely stayed in the UK after the attack as ‘sleeper’ agents, espionage experts say

An image of Sergei Skripal under arrest by Russian authorities before he came to Britain.

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An image of Sergei Skripal under arrest by Russian authorities before he came to Britain.
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Sky News

  • Sergei Skripal left hospital last week after recovering from an assassination attempt.
  • One creepy prospect for the Skripals is that the would-be assassins may still be in the UK, as sleeper agents living undercover as normal people.
  • “An actual ‘illegal’ with an existing, years-long ‘legend’ would attract attention by going missing all of a sudden – i.e. friends, co-workers or neighbours might report a missing person to police,” a Russia intelligence expert tells Business Insider.

LONDON – Former Russian spy Sergei Skripal left hospital last week after recovering from an assassination attempt. Skripal and his daughter were poisoned with a nerve agent at his home in Salisbury in March by Russian spies, British counter-terror authorities have said.

One creepy prospect for the Skripals is that the would-be assassins may still be in the UK, living undercover as normal people, Russian espionage experts say. It’s easy to smuggle people out of Britain. For those of us not in the espionage business, it seems surprising that the attackers would stay in the country rather than escape immediately.

But Russia probably left its agents in place for an extended period after the attack.

Russia probably has more “sleeper” agents living as ordinary British people in the UK right now that during the Cold war, according to Victor Madeira, a senior fellow at The Institute for Statecraft, who testified to Parliament about Russian covert interference in Britain. Russia’s “illegals” program places agents in Western countries where they live apparently normal lives for years, all the while quietly collecting influential contacts. Russia might activate an illegal for a special mission like an assassination. Fifteen people are suspected to have been killed by Russian spies in Britain since 2003. The most recent was Nikolay Glushkov, a vocal Putin critic who predicted his own murder.

Madeira told Business Insider that if a sleeper agent was used in the attempt on Skripal’s life, he or she probably remained in Britain after the attack rather than trying to immediately escape back to Russia.

Victor Madeira, a senior fellow at The Institute for Statecraft.

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Victor Madeira, a senior fellow at The Institute for Statecraft.
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Victor Madeira

“Why leave someone here, at risk of detection, after such a high-profile attack?” he told Business Insider. “I can only think of two scenarios where that might happen:”

  • “An actual ‘illegal’ with an existing, years-long ‘legend’ would attract attention by going missing all of a sudden – i.e. friends, co-workers or neighbours might report a missing person to police, who might then put two and two together and tie that person to the Skripal attack. Better to keep him/her in place, living a mundane life again, their role in this operation now concluded.”
  • “Someone who isn’t an ‘illegal’ in the strictest sense of the word, but for now having to stay in hiding in the UK until things settle down a bit. Perhaps with a new set of ID papers, s(he) can eventually look to exit the country via a quieter, lower-profile exit point.”

Obviously, we cannot know exactly what the operative did after the attack. The Mirror reported in April that one suspect has flown back to Russia. Earlier that month, the Mirror’s source speculated that the sleeper agent would still be in the UK, ready for another mission. “Unless it were an absolute emergency and the operative had to chance a ‘crash escape’, this exit point would normally be carefully picked based on e.g. the set of ID papers available, the person’s appearance and overall profile, history in the UK if checked by the Border Force, how tight border controls were assessed to be at that exit point, etc.,” Madeira told Business Insider.