REVEALED: Russian spies tried to hack chemical weapons lab investigating Salisbury attack
Russian spies attempted to hack into an international laboratory investigating the chemical weapons attack in Salisbury, it has been revealed.
Four officers from the Kremlin’s military intelligence service, known as the GRU, travelled to Amsterdam in April with the aim of targeting the headquarters of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons in The Hague.
At that time, the OPCW lab was examining the Novichok nerve agent used in the Salisbury attack on former Russian agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia.
But senior UK sources said they were caught “in flagrante” by Dutch intelligence officials while using hi-tech equipment hidden in the boot of a rented car parked in a street nearby.
The men, who travelled on Russian diplomatic passports, were named as Alexaei Morenets, Evgenii Serebriakov, Oleg Sotnikov and Alexey Minin.
Their attempts to destroy the hacking equipment failed, leaving behind a huge cache of evidence about their activities.
A senior government source said it was virtually certain that they were attempting to disrupt the Salisbury investigation.
“It’s hard to know their full intent as their operation failed,” they said. “Judging by past form elsewhere, discrediting the investigation could have well been their motivation.”
At the time of the attempted hack, the OPCW lab was also preparing to assess evidence gathered about the chemical weapons attack on the Syrian city of Douma in April.
It is understood that the GRU had tried to hack into the OPCW’s computer systems from Moscow, but when that failed they had sent in a “clean-up” squad to operate on the ground.
Whitehall officials also revealed that the GRU had tried to remotely hack the computer systems of the Foreign Office as well as the Porton Down military research centre in March and April.
At a press conference in The Hague, Peter Wilson, the UK’s ambassador to The Netherlands, said: “The GRU is an aggressive, well-funded official body of the Russian State. It can no longer be allowed to act aggressively across the world against vital international organisations with apparent impunity.”
He added: “On the basis of what we learned in the Salisbury investigation, and what we know about this organisation more broadly, we are now stepping up our collective activity against malign actions and specifically against the GRU.
“We will increase further our understanding of what the GRU is doing, and attempting to do in our countries. We will shine a light on their activities. We will expose their methods, and we will share this with our allies.
“This includes strengthening international organisations and working to protect other potential targets from further harm.
“Through our institutions, including the European Union, we will work with allies to update sanction regimes to deter and respond to the use of chemical weapons, combat hostile activities in cyber space and punish human rights abuse.
“The GRU can only succeed in the shadows. We all agree that when we see their malign activity, we must expose it to the light together.”
In a joint statement, Theresa May and Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said: "This attempt to access the secure systems of an international organisation working to rid the world of chemical weapons, demonstrates the GRU's disregard for the global values and rules that keep us all safe.
"Our action today reinforces the clear message from the international community. We will uphold the rules-based international system, and defend international institutions from those that seek to do them harm."