Business Insider Edition

An apparent assassination in Germany has all the hallmarks of the Kremlin — and Russia doesn't seem to care

Mitch Prothero , Business Insider US
 Sep 06, 2019, 11:58 AM
Footage broadcast by Germany's WELT news channel shows police investigators at the scene of a killing in Berlin, suspected to be linked to Russia.
  • The daylight killing of a Chechen militant in Berlin looks increasingly like the work of Russia, though the Kremlin denies it.
  • Investigators recently published evidence they say proves the suspect had a fake ID which only the Russian state could provide.
  • A longtime Israeli intelligence operative, speaking anonymously, told Insider that the cover provided would not withstand much scrutiny - a common feature in Russia-linked killings.
  • Extensive databases and new technology, the source said, mean that techniques once used to falsify identities no longer work.
  • For Russia to continue such work, knowing the likelihood of getting caught, is tantamount to saying that it does not care.
  • For more stories go to

An apparent assassination in a park in Berlin appears increasingly likely to be tied to the Russian government - and the case appears to show the Kremlin's increasingly brazen methods for dealing with its enemies.

A Russian man - named by German authorities as Vadam S. - was apprehended as a suspect in the killing of former Chechen rebel leader Zelimkhan Khangoshvili, who fought Russia in the past.

The man was caught shortly after the killing on August 23, carrying a passport with the name Vadim Andreevich Sokolov.

He was caught by police while in the processing of putting on a wig and trying to escape by electric scooter, according to multiple media reports.

Suspect's ID points to Russian security service

According to a newly-published investigation, however, "Sokolov" was using a fake name, and carrying documents issued in a way that has the hallmarks of the Russian security services.

Russia has denied having anything to do with the killing.

One intelligence source told Insider that modern counter-intelligence methods almost guarantee that most attempts to give operatives a fake ID will now be found out.

Security services know this, the source said. His conclusion was that Russia has decided that it doesn't care if its agents are unmasked.

A similar situation occurred in the 2018 attempted killing of double agent Sergei Skripal in the UK.

A map showing the Kleiner Tiergarten park in Berlin, where a Georgian man was killed in August 2019.
Google Maps/Business Insider.

There are clear signs that "Sokolov" was traveling on fake papers that could have only been issued by the Russian state, experts on the country's security operations have said.

Investigators from the open-source investigations group Bellingcat published a joint project with Russian outlet The Insider (which has no relation to this publication, Insider), and Der Spiegel in Germany. It centered on tracking the passport found on the suspect at the time of the murder.

They say that they used a variety of leaked databases from inside Russia, as well as with the cooperation of sources with access to official Russian government registrations.

Details on "Sokolov" pointed to the Russian security services having issued the passport in his possession as a way to hide his identity, the researchers said.

The investigators say that "the assassin travelled to Berlin via France under a validly issued, non-biometric Russian passport in the name of Vadim Andreevich Sokolov, born in August 1970."

However, the identity did not withstand scrutiny.

The Bellingcat story said: "Despite the fact that he used a legitimate passport, we have determined that no such person exists in Russia's sprawling, comprehensive national citizen database."

Sergei Skripal.
ITV News

"In addition, no trace of such a person exists in a trove of hundreds of leaked residential databases, previously obtained and aggregated by Bellingcat."

They concluded that: "This discovery makes Russia's claims that the killer is not connected to the Russian state implausible, as no person in Russia is in a position to obtain a valid Russian passport under a fake identity without the involvement of the state bureaucratic and security apparatus."

A familiar playbook

Such an approach has been used with Russia-linked killings in the past. The most recent was when two suspected Russian agents were accused of using nerve poison to try to kill Skripal, the defected spy, and his daughter last year in Salisbury, England.

A source with a background in Israeli intelligence told Insider that the advent of vast online databases mean that even secret services struggle to make convincing false identities for agents.

The source - a former undercover intelligence agent who now works as a contractor for the Israeli government -spoke on condition of anonymity due to his past work in intelligence.

He said:

"These blunders will continue because, with the linking of national databases as well as the use of both biometric data embedded in passports as well as the constant scanning and storing of images in facial recognition software, it's basically impossible to just issue someone a new identity as we did in the recent past."

"All the great technical tricks we can use to track our enemies and targets are no longer the province of states."

"All those same things are often commercially or openly available to anyone and thus very effective at identifying intelligence teams operating abroad."

The source said that even in the past few years the process of establishing covers for intelligence operators has become significantly harder.

Former tactics focused on finding operatives with secondary passports from Western countries like Canada and Australia, he said.

He continued: "We used to recruit someone and train them then we could establish a proper cover for them, get them a Canadian passport from someone in the Israeli diaspora and then forge a bunch of visa stamps to 'season' the cover so that it looked legit."

'Bulls--t passports will not hold up to scrutiny'

"Now none of those skills - forging, human intelligence, networking - can make up for the facial scans of people traveling through airports, or that, for a passport to truly be a legitimate cover and travel document it has to be more than good looking, it has to be properly linked to all the right databases."

But even then, said the source, the passport won't hold up if the host nation decides to truly scrutinize the documents, pointing to a 2010 assassination of a Hamas financier in a Dubai hotel room.

"That team got into Dubai, tracked and eliminated the target and left the country... no problem," he said. "But the second the police realized what happened and began to investigate, all of the team members' covers completely collapsed.

"We were lucky they'd left because, in the modern networked environment, bulls--t passports will not hold up to scrutiny."

But what concerns the Israelis, in terms of international opinion, doesn't seem to bother Russia.

In 2006, Russia made its policy clear when it legalized killing internal enemies who fled the country.

Shortly after the new law was approved, suspected Russian agents killed former agent, Alexander Litvinenko, with a lethal dose of radioactive material.

Since Litvinenko's murder in 2006, hits against Russia's former and current enemies have taken place at a steady clip - and show no sign of slowing.

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