Saturday, April 28, 2007

Saudi Arabia: democracy; terrorist cells

Momentum for democratic reform wanes in Saudi Arabia

Hassan M Fattah

International Herald Tribune 25 April 2007

JIDDA: It was a scene to warm the heart of any democrat: Here in this autocratic kingdom, elected City Council members vowed to stand up for poor fishermen and ask the government that a large section of seafront, on which a new university was planned, be left accessible to local residents.
After an hour of vigorous discussion recently, the City Council of Jidda actually passed a resolution calling for the waterfront to remain open to the people.
There was one catch - or rather three: The resolution is nonbinding, its wording will not be made public and it is unlikely to have any impact on the government's plans.
Two years ago, largely at the urging of the Bush administration, the first elections in the history of Saudi Arabia were held for municipal councils in a handful of cities, including Jidda, Riyadh and Mecca. Only men could vote and only half of the members were elected, but still the elections were praised as emblems of change.
Increasingly, however, they are being dismissed as symbols of the opposite: political stagnation.
"We thought all you do is call for elections and you're done," said Abdullah al Otaibi, an advocate of change who gave up and moved to Dubai last year to help open a research center. "Now we know things won't work that easily."
There are many reasons for the waning prospects for change, Saudi advocates of change say. Factors including an economic boom driven by high oil prices and a more aggressive regional foreign policy have put democratic change on the back burner.
"The curse of the oil money is that it has stopped all reforms," said Sulaiman al-Hattlan, editor in chief of Forbes Arabic, based in Dubai, and a longtime Saudi advocate. "The more money you have, the more arrogant you become, because you think you can implement anything your way."
Over the past year, the government has cracked down on advocates of change, placed restrictions on their meetings and even scrapped some long-promised initiatives. The city councils have proved to be powerless in the face of Saudi Arabia's ingrained governmental bureaucracy and a decidedly vague mandate. According to one council member, more than half the decisions made by the councils have not been carried out. Most of the others have been in support of the government.
"The people in the councils want to make you think that they're working, but ultimately they are powerless," said Bassim Alim, a prominent Jidda lawyer and an advocate of change. "The rest is all for show."
It was not supposed to be this way.
After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and the wave of terror in the kingdom itself in 2004 and 2005, many Saudis argued that stifling political and economic conditions had turned the kingdom into fertile ground for extremism.
King Abdullah - who at the time was crown prince - set out on a campaign for change, spearheading national dialogues, beginning new programs and popularizing the language of reform.
The environment reinvigorated civil society campaigners throughout the country, and they began openly calling for change.
In 2005, the government instituted elections for new city councils, allowing for half the 14 members of each council to be elected by the local population and the rest to be appointed by the government.
Some change did occur: The country's vice police force has been forced to restrain itself, and women have seen some of the most overbearing restrictions on day-to-day life eased, though they are still forbidden to do things that women elsewhere take for granted, like drive.
Some laws pertaining to public gathering and criminal procedures were also changed, Alim says, in accordance with requirements of the World Trade Organization, which Saudi Arabia joined in 2006. The city council elections, too, proved a symbolic step. And Saudis have become more willing to step forward and complain, council members say.
Still, many of the efforts have slowed considerably, if not come to a halt, advocates say. As high oil prices filled the country's coffers and allowed the government to reassert its position as a cradle-to-grave patron of its people, the sense of crisis has ebbed and the impetus for many changes has subsided, they say.
Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia's newly assertive foreign policy, focused on quelling the Middle East's numerous crises while responding to Iran's encroachment into the region, has focused Saudis' attention outside their borders, further damping the impetus for change.
Advocates also point to a longstanding split within the royal family itself. Matrouk al Falleh, a prominent Saudi change advocate in Riyadh, said he noticed the split in 2003, after he and a group of his compatriots presented then Abdullah with a petition calling for a constitutional monarchy. The prince encouraged the men, but two weeks later, Prince Naif, Saudi Arabia's mercurial interior minister, appeared to squelch the discussion, noting in an interview with the Kuwaiti newspaper Al Seyassa that the men had "misunderstood Prince Abdullah."

Many Saudi advocates have themselves abandoned the change agenda, analysts say, focusing instead on more easily attainable social goals, or simply jumping on the sectarian bandwagon and emphasizing fears of Iran's growing influence in the region.
Government officials still make a point of mentioning reform and speak in praise of change, but uniformly emphasize that it must come slowly and gradually. In the meantime, security officials have grown less tolerant of advocates who call for things like constitutional monarchy and elections of the consultative Shura council. In February, Saudi Arabia's security forces rounded up 10 men connected to Saudi Arabia's reform movement in several cities, charging them with financing terrorism.
The arrests were initially announced as part of the government's fight against terrorism. Security officials said the men, whose names were not initially disclosed, were collecting money and smuggling it to "suspicious" bodies in Iraq. A day later, however, it emerged that at least three of the men were signatories to a petition directed to the king, calling for a new constitution based on Islamic law, for curbs on the powers of the Interior Ministry, an election of members of the consultative Shura council and more equitable allocation of Saudi Arabia's wealth and land.
Shocked advocates saw the arrests as a signal for how low their fortunes had fallen. The group submitted the petition to the king this month, but members said they had heard no response.
"You see the absurdity of calling some of these men terrorists," Falleh said. "They are just doing this to kill off the reform movement and prevent any sympathy toward those were arrested."
Alim, who represents several of the men, does acknowledge that one of them had been to Iraq twice under the auspices of the Saudi Red Crescent, but insists that the visits were strictly humanitarian.
Alim adds that he, too, would have been arrested but that he had not signed the petition. Instead, he said, the government has banned him from traveling abroad. "Some people feel it's a hopeless case, that the government is the only force for change," Hattlan of Forbes Arabic said. "People don't want to enter a losing war. Society is not on your side, and you have a long way to go."

Terrorist Plots Foiled

Samir Al-Saadi

Arab News 28 April 2007

JEDDAH, 28 April 2007 — At least 172 suspects have been arrested in various parts of the Kingdom and seven armed militant cells dismantled, the Interior Ministry announced yesterday. Some of the arrested are foreigners.
“Some (of the suspects) had begun training in the use of weapons, and some were sent abroad to study aviation in order to carry out terrorist operations inside the Kingdom,” a ministry statement said. “One of their main targets was to carry out suicide attacks against public figures and oil installations and to target military bases inside and outside (of the country).”
Government officials did not say when or where these arrests were made, citing security concerns and ongoing investigations in the fight against militant extremism in the Kingdom.
Interior Ministry spokesman Mansour Al-Turki said the government believed these cells were working independently and did not fall under one organization.
Nationalities of the foreigners arrested will not be revealed until the countries of their origins are notified, he added.
Saudi TV yesterday showed undated footage of agents digging in desert areas and inside buildings bringing out weapons wrapped in plastic sheeting, including grenade launchers, plastic explosives, ammunition cartridges, handguns and rifles. Computers and stacks of Saudi riyals were also seized.
Security investigators were shown breaking tiled floors with hammers uncovering pipes that contained weapons. In one scene, an official upends a plastic pipe and bullets and little packets of plastic explosives spill out.
The ministry said in its announcement yesterday that the members of one cell was allegedly planning to raid a prison and free comrades. Authorities said many of the suspects planned to carry out terrorist activities “abroad”.
Some foreign wire services incorrectly reported that the suspects were all arrested yesterday and that $32.4 million in cash had been confiscated. Saudi officials said the arrests had been made over an unspecified period of time in recent months and that a total of SR20 million ($5.3 million) had been confiscated. Other confiscated items included documents, telecommunications equipment and electronic files containing militant propaganda and assault plans.
Out of the seven cells that were dismantled, 120 of the suspects came from two cells. The other five cells included the following number of suspects: 16, 13, nine, nine and five. The ministry did not specify how many of the suspects were Saudi.
The largest cell had 61 members, some of whom swore allegiance to its leader in front of the Kabaa. He sent some of the members outside the Kingdom to be trained as pilots so they can carry out terror attacks inside Saudi Arabia. Regarding the group’s funding, the ministry statement said that their leader misled a lot of people to invest in bogus companies.
The second largest group of 59 members was made up of mostly Saudis and were linked to outside terrorist organizations and camps.
One of the groups of nine suspects is accused of burying weapons caches in remote areas near their targets. The group of five suspects is believed to have been involved in the Feb. 24, 2006 attack on the Al-Abqaiq oil refinery.
The ministry said one of these men took pictures and participated in the shooting at the site while the other four played supporting roles, including reconnaissance.
Officials said without elaborating that they believe some or all of these cells are affiliated with outside organizations whose members went to training camps and who were helped in their return to Saudi Arabia with the intention of carrying out attacks.
Saudi authorities said all of these suspects had adopted the takfiri ideology (Muslims branding other Muslims as infidels) in order to justify their plans to commit murder and mayhem inside the Kingdom.
The ministry said that Saudi security forces were able to track suspicious movements, which included recruiting others and covering up financial operations.
Militants swearing allegiance to Al-Qaeda launched a violent campaign to topple the government in 2003, carrying out suicide bomb attacks on foreigners and government installations, including the oil industry. Militants in February killed four French expatriates working and living in Saudi Arabia in the latest attack on foreigners in the Kingdom.
Saudi Arabia warned foreign embassies last month that a group blamed for the killings could strike again.
Riyadh was calm and peaceful yesterday as the news of the arrests broke with the usual traffic for a Friday. The three checkpoints on the roads leading to the headquarters of the Ministry of Interior were functioning normally with no noticeable increase in security. Cars were stopped as usual at random and drivers asked to provide ID.
Some of the five-star hotels with underground and adjacent car parks did appear to be a little more cautious in their vehicle inspection, with security officials not only checking the undercarriages of vehicles with mirrors, but also the boots and beneath the hood.
An official who lives in the diplomatic district of the capital told Arab News that things were normal within the enclave.
In Jeddah, police at one checkpoint were seen jotting down license plate numbers of the vehicles they were stopping.
The United States welcomed the arrests. “I think this shows that the Saudis are continuing their efforts to be a good partner with us in the war on terror,” State Department spokesman Tom Casey told reporters in Washington.
“It’s important that they and other countries continue to do everything they can not only to try and deal with those who are responsible for acts of violence, but to break up those cells and break up those individuals who are intending to commit acts of violence or who in any other way — whether through financial means or otherwise — are supporting terror networks.”

Saudis arrest 172 suspected militants tied to multiple terror plots

Michael Slackman

International Herald Tribune 27 April 2007

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia: Saudi security officials said Friday that they had broken up a vast terrorist ring, arresting 172 men who planned to blow up oil installations, attack public officials and military posts, and storm a prison to free terrorist suspects.
The wide-ranging plot was uncovered over seven months, officials said, as one lead yielded another, allowing the authorities to seize a cache of weapons buried in the desert and more than $5.3 million in cash.
The government referred to the ring as a "deviant group," the phrase often used to describe the ideology of Al Qaeda.
"This did not happen overnight," said General Mansour al-Turki, a spokesman for the Interior Ministry. "This gives you the idea that terrorists are still trying to re-establish the activities in the kingdom. It is still a war going on."
Officials said that the suspects had trained abroad, in Somalia, Afghanistan and especially Iraq. The chaos in Iraq has fueled radical ideology among the region's youth while providing an environment for militants to train, officials and analysts here said.

It is the beginning of jihadi operations leaking out of Iraq," said Abdul Aziz al-Qassim, a retired Saudi judge and moderate Islamic activist. "It is clear that this is some of the effects of what is happening in Iraq, in terms of training and in terms of learning from the Iraqi experience."
An Interior Ministry statement said there were seven cells scattered around the country, comprised mostly of Saudi nationals. Some suspects had begun training to use weapons and others had been sent abroad to learn to pilot aircraft, though the authorities did not say what, specifically, the pilot training was intended for.
The statement also said that some weapons had been stored near targets and that one group was on the verge of launching its attacks.
In images broadcast on state television, investigators were shown digging up arms in the desert, including plastic explosives, handguns and rifles wrapped in plastic sheeting.
"One of their main targets was to carry out suicide attacks against public figures and oil installations and to target military bases inside and outside," the statement said.
In Washington, American intelligence officials said it appeared that the Saudis had disrupted a plot by Al Qaeda. One intelligence official said the plot was "well beyond aspirational," but declined to say how close the militants were to launching the operation.
Turki said the investigation was an ongoing operation in the kingdom's battle against an entrenched ideology that promotes terrorism and seeks to recruit young people. The official statement repeatedly referred to "takfir ideology," a view that effectively allows one Muslim to declare another Muslim an apostate, or nonbeliever, and then kill that person.
"We have never actually said we have reached an end," Turki said in an interview. "We always confirm that security forces' efforts are not enough. Not unless you really tackle the ideology that is inspiring these people in order to be involved in these activities."
The Saudi leadership was forced to address the rise of radical, violent Islamic thinking within its borders after the 9/11 attacks, where 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudi.
But the kingdom has had its own history of violence and at one time — after the seizure of the Grand Mosque in Mecca by militants in 1979 — found security in supporting some of the most radical Sunni Muslim religious voices. At the time, Saudi officials were also concerned about the Islamic revolution in Iran, which brought a Shiite government to power.
But in recent years, the ideology promoted by Al Qaeda has called for bringing down the royal family, saying it is un-Islamic. Security was stepped up markedly here after the American Consulate in Jidda was attacked and a housing complex for foreigners was bombed.
In recent months there has been a failed attempt to blow up an oil installation, the murder of three French citizens and the beheading of a state security officer, all actions that the authorities here link to the ongoing struggle with the most radical ideology. Officials have decided that in addition to relying on the security forces, they will try to "re-educate" those suspected of terrorist links.
The approach has led to a joke going around Riyadh that says the best way to get a job and a new house is to join Al Qaeda — and then repent to the government. Turki said that when officials change the minds of those caught, the prisoners also end up as useful informers.
"If they change their view, they work against the ideology, they help you, they tell you things," he said. "They tell you how you can improve your actions to prevent the continuation of the ideology."
The case announced on Friday showed just how much of a challenge the government faces. The number of people was large, officials acknowledged, and came just six months after another 136 people were arrested in a similar sweep and charged with plotting similar crimes, the general said.
"The fact that these young men were recruited points to a huge failure in fighting Al Qaeda," said Faris bin Hizam, a writer specializing in Al Qaeda. "Fighting Al Qaeda involves a security side and an ideological side. The security side is successful but the other side of combating Al Qaeda is ideological and it is not successful."
The announcement of the plot was made on Friday, the day of prayer and rest, when all offices are closed. What was most unnerving to some was the government's description of one of the cells: Officials said it was made up of 61 men, mostly Saudis, who had traveled with their leader to Islam's holiest site, in Mecca, where "they promised to obey him and promised complete obedience."
"Al Qaeda is no longer an organized structure," said Qassim, the retired judge. "It became an ideology and a system of work. This is Al Qaeda now."

Monday, April 02, 2007

Litvinenko: a book extract

The Moscow plot

The murder of Alexander Litvinenko horrified the world — and spurred former Moscow correspondent Martin Sixsmith into a dangerous hunt for the killers. As he reports in this extract from an explosive book on his findings, the clues lead into the heart of Russia’s secret police

Sunday Times 1 April 2007

It was six o’clock on a Monday evening and the snowstorm had set in for the day. Cutting down the side of GUM, the Victorian department store that stares across Red Square to the Kremlin, I could see barely 10ft in front of me.
The red brick of the Kremlin wall emerged from the gloom and I was transported back to the first time I had come here, 20 years earlier. Then I was a young reporter with a coveted pass to attend Mikhail Gorbachev’s groundbreaking Congress of People’s Deputies, where democrats slugged it out with communist dinosaurs as Russia engaged in real political debate for the first time.
Now, in 2007, I couldn’t help wondering if much had changed. The welcome at the Spassky Gate was pretty much the same: three uniformed guards with rifles and a metal detector. But they allowed themselves a welcoming smile.
From the shadows a figure called my name. Aleksei was young, slim and cheerily informal. We chatted as we turned into the long yellow-stucco building that houses the presidential administration, the seat of power.
In the lift to the third floor I asked Aleksei who he worked for. The answer was an embarrassed: “Actually I work for the FSB; but don’t worry, I’m not a spy.”
The FSB is the Russian security service, successor to the Soviet KGB. It was about the death of a former member of the FSB that I had come to the Kremlin.
I wanted to know whether President Vladimir Putin, Russia’s most powerful leader since Joseph Stalin, had ordered the agonising death in a London hospital of Alexander Litvinenko. IT is hard to imagine that only five months ago the world had never heard of “Sasha” Litvinenko, the boy from the deep Russian provinces who rose through the ranks of the world’s most feared security service, who alleged murder and corruption in the Russian government, fled to London and took the shilling of Moscow’s avowed enemy before dying in the most sensational of circumstances last November — apparently a martyr in the covert war between the Kremlin and its political opponents.
As a habitué of Russian exile circles in London, I knew who Litvinenko was and that he was closely associated with the kingpin of the exiles, Boris Berezovsky.
Litvinenko’s second wife Marina describes him as boyish and emotional, but she says he had ruthlessness in him too. Even his closest friends say he probably had the blood of more than one victim on his hands. But he dispatched them while carrying out his duty. His constant refrain was that he had always behaved loyally and honestly.
He spent most of his career being loyal to the authorities in his country, whoever they were: first the communists, then Boris Yeltsin’s reformers, then the hardline autocracy imposed by Putin. He used to speak of Putin, a former KGB spy, as his role model, idolising him with an intensity bordering on love. But he was transformed to an acrimonious, diehard foe.
For six years Litvinenko had been venting his bile on Putin from London, hurling ever more outrageous accusations including murder and paedophilia. He had also directed increasingly bitter polemics at his former colleagues in the FSB. He had become involved in murky business dealings, with dark suggestions of blackmail plots. And he had exasperated and finally fallen out with Berezovsky himself.
The details of his death are now known worldwide. The British police have established that — in London on November 1 last year — someone persuaded him to eat or drink a dose of polonium 210, which destroyed his internal organs before doctors could discover what was killing him.
There is overwhelming evidence that Andrei Lugovoi and Dmitri Kovtun, former FSB men who met him that day, left a polonium trail all over west London. But there is no evidence that they administered the poison. Nor is there any obvious personal motive for their wanting to kill him.
Many others did have a motive for murder. In the end someone’s patience snapped. So who had the motive, and the means, to carry out what was to all intents and purposes the world’s first act of international nuclear terrorism? The answer lies in the social and political upheaval that brought Putin to power and in the business conflicts, vested interests and political corruption that have divided Russia into warring camps.
In this war each side accuses the other of the darkest acts, sometimes without the slightest basis in fact, and the hand of Putin or Berezovsky is seen behind every evil. Men like Litvinenko have been turned into the expendable pawns of ruthless masters.
As I conducted my research into his background, I was amazed by the life he had led, the risks he had taken and the enemies he had made with such insouciance. His past threw up so many potential reasons for his murder that I was surprised he had survived as long as he did.
The son of a military man, Litvinenko did his military service in an elite division under the command of the KGB and was later invited to join the KGB’s counter-intel-ligence service in the twilight years of the Soviet Union. In the mid1990s, when Chechnya was fighting for independence, he was sent there with the new FSB’s special forces, the Osobysty. He claimed to have experienced an epiphany interrogating a teenage Chechen fighter who told him: “I am not alone; the whole of my class enlisted straight after we graduated from school. We just knew we had to do it . . . for our country.”
There were also less savoury tales of his conduct. His former FSB commander in Chechnya, Lieutenant-Colonel Alexander Gusak, publicly accused him after he was poisoned last November of having been a torturer, a killer and a coward.
It is indisputable that the FSB committed many atrocities in Chechnya, and some of Litvinenko’s closest friends accept that, as a member of the feared Osobysty, he must have been involved in dirty work.
Gusak, however, is not a disinterested witness. He was intimately linked with an episode that bears directly on Litvinenko’s murder.
AFTER Chechnya, Litvinenko was invited to join a new unit, the Directorate for the Analysis and Suppression of the Activities of Criminal Organisations (URPO), set up to wipe out the crime bosses who were plundering Russia.
In Chechnya, questions of legality and human rights rarely impeded FSB operations. Now the same bespredel (lawlessness within the state) was going to be unleashed in Moscow. Litvinenko would later describe URPO as the “bureau of nonjudicial executions”.
Andrei Nekrasov, a film maker and friend of Litvinenko, told me: “That unit, to be completely frank, was composed of people that the leadership thought were capable of pulling off quite violent operations . . . and never talking about them.”
The director of the FSB at the time, Nikolai Kovalyov, says: “Litvinenko and co supported the creation of so-called White Death Brigades — in plain language, hit squads. Their reasoning was that it was impossible to combat organised crime in Russia with legal methods, so illegal methods would have to be used. That is to say, murders . . .”
In late 1997, URPO was put under the control of a senior FSB colonel, Yevgeny Khokholkov, whom Litvinenko had investigated for connections with drug gangs. Despite a compromising videotape, Khokholkov had kept his job. Disenchantment was sown in Litvinenko’s mind.
It heightened when he was ordered to ambush and beat up Mikhail Trepashkin, an FSB lieutenant-colonel who had been probing allegations that high-ranking officers were involved in serious crime.
Unable to defend himself, the slightly built Trepashkin begged Litvinenko for the chance to explain what he had found out about FSB corruption. Marina Litvinenko says he convinced her husband that things were badly wrong in the FSB and that someone had to do something about it.
The chance to do something soon arose. On December 27 1997, according to Litvinenko, he and four other URPO officers were called into Khokholkov’s office and told to assassinate Boris Berezovsky.
No written order was given. There was clearly a well-established process of deniability in place: such decisions were taken in cosy chats on sofas in private offices with no minutes and no paper trail. This is of crucial importance now in examining the decision-making process behind Litvinenko’s own assassination nearly a decade later.
In 1997 Berezovsky was probably the most powerful man in Russia. He and other postcommunist billion-aires had rescued Yeltsin from defeat in the 1996 presidential elections with unlimited money and media support. In return, Yeltsin had rewarded them with the keys to Russia’s economy, auctioning off state companies at knockdown prices.
Berezovsky was also a media magnate. His real interest, however, was the acquisition of power. He exerted such influence over the weak and chronically drunk president that he was widely regarded as making decisions for him. By the time Litvinenko was ordered to kill him, everyone knew that Berezovsky was a man not to be trifled with.
Litvinenko had an additional problem: he knew Berezovsky well. He had investigated a bomb attack on the rising tycoon in 1994, and they had become friends. The relationship had been cemented when, Berezovsky says, Litvinenko prevented the Moscow police from framing him for the murder of a prominent television presenter. “Alexander really saved my life, there was no doubt about it.”
For two months, Litvinenko and his comrades carefully teased out who was behind the proposed assassination, talking to contacts and sources, trying to discover if its backers were themselves powerful people and whether or not it would be in their own interests to go along with it. They knew a bad call could mean an end to their careers and, quite possibly, their lives.
Concluding that the top people in the FSB didn’t know about the order to kill Berezovsky, they reported it to the director. The move backfired. Khokholkov denied their story, and they were put under investigation.
Meeting secretly, the five men decided to seek protection from their proposed victim. Berezovsky could be a very powerful patron for a group of ambitious FSB officers looking to further their careers. Litvinenko told him the whole story.
“Initially I thought it was just a joke,” says Berezovsky. But he also spotted the potential to get control of the FSB.
He asked Litvinenko to bring the other four men to his office to make a videotape of their allegations. Only three turned up, but on the video one is heard quoting the order they received: “He said to us, ‘If there was an order to knock someone off — sorry, to kill; he said to kill — could you fix it?”
Berezovsky: “To kill me?” Agent: “Yes, of course you.” An FSB man later identified as Alexander Gusak also describes on the tape a face-to-face meeting with Khokholkov where he was asked if he would kill Berezovsky. “I replied that if it was properly sanctioned and had the right stamps — that is, the stamp of the prosecutor’s office and the stamp of our own organisation — and it had the right materials to back it up, I would be ready to kill Berezovsky and anyone else.”
Berezovsky took the incriminating videotape to a rising star in the Kremlin: Vladimir Putin, at the time a presidential aide. Berezovsky considered him a reformer and a friend. They regularly visited each other’s houses and even took skiing holidays together.
At first the ploy seemed to work. Putin took charge of the FSB, and the hated Khokholkov was transferred. Litvinenko thought he would have a big role in a cleaned-up FSB under his hero Putin.
Berezovsky had helped get Putin appointed and now expected him to pay this favour back by installing friendly faces in all the positions of power. If things worked out, the FSB would become a loyal Berezovsky fiefdom for him in the looming power battles over the succession to Yeltsin.
It didn’t work out, however. Putin’s debt of gratitude was small beer compared with the need to look after number one. The Berezovsky camp was just one among several warring Kremlin factions he weighed up to decide where his best interests lay.
To apply pressure on Putin, Berezovsky told Litvinenko and his colleagues to go public with their revelations about the assassination plot in a televised press conference. When some of the shocked agents refused — it was unheard of for FSB men to go public — he told them they had come too far to turn back.
On the eve of the press conference he summoned them to a grey-stuccoed building that had once been the family mansion of the noble Smirnov family. Inside, they were served drinks in Berezovsky’s club, the Logovaz Salon, with its gilded walls, ornate decorations and giant aquarium. Then they were coached on the statements they would be making.
Next day, in front of the cameras, Litvinenko accused his superiors of extortion, kidnappings and murder and, in a not very coded message to Putin, called on the FSB to cleanse itself.
Litvinenko identified himself but the five men with him were not so brave: one wore a ski mask and the others dark glasses. I now believe I know their names, which would recur with ominous regularity in both Litvinenko’s future life and the investigation of his eventual death.
They included Gusak, who would accuse Litvinenko of war crimes in Chechnya; Colonel Viktor Shebalin, who sat next to Litvinenko making an exaggerated show of friendship and support; and Major Andrei Ponkin, who was the only other man to speak. Ponkin alleged, among other things, that he and others had been instructed to kill the dissident former FSB man Mikhail Trepashkin.
Far from being nudged into cooperating, Putin was infuriated. The whistle-blowers were called in by FSB interrogators. Some were threatened, others offered inducements. It was made forcefully clear to them that they had brought shame on the service and the motherland. They could face the prospect of prison, or they could recant and agree to work against the “traitors” who had led them astray.
The question of exactly which of Litvinenko’s comrades succumbed to these blandishments is a vital piece of information for anyone seeking to unravel the events that led to his death.
Marina Litvinenko claims Shebalin was working all along for the FSB as “a provocateur”. Litvinenko’s friend, the historian Yuri Felshtinsky, believes Shebalin, Ponkin and Gusak all took roles in Putin’s subsequent war against Berezovsky and Litvinenko.
From that day on they would have every incentive to silence the increasingly irritating voice of the man they claimed had tricked them into putting their lives and careers on the line.
Events then moved rapidly. Berezovsky slid down the greasy pole of Kremlin politics as Putin rose up it. He was given a ceremonial job that kept him out of Moscow, and in March 1999 he was ousted altogether. Within days Litvinenko was arrested for trumped up petty crimes.
Felshtinsky says that the FSB tried to persuade Litvinenko to cut a deal in the same way that his former colleagues seem to have done. “When he refused . . . the FSB told him, ‘Look. Now you must know the end of the story. The end of the story is that you are going to be killed, or you are going to be put in prison and killed in prison. But you know our organisation: there is no other way. You are going to be killed’.”
He was charged with beating up an arrested terror suspect. To seasoned FSB men this was ridiculous; few could think when arrested terror suspects were not beaten up.
The prosecution produced a grainy video of a blond FSB officer punching a crouching prisoner in the face. The interrogator is wearing a military cap and I certainly could not identify him as being Sasha Litvinenko. He is, however, surrounded by apparent URPO agents.
Two officers who had served with Litvinenko recognised the film and they knew the man in it was not him. They found the original of the tape, which had other footage proving his innocence.
According to Litvinenko’s father, Walter, they were about to produce the tape in court when Litvinenko was threatened in his cell. “The FSB came to him and said, ‘You have a son. If you produce that video in court, you should be very afraid for your son’.”
Even without the video, the military judge threw out the case. But as he did so a team of crack spetsnaz troops — Russia’s SAS — stormed into court and the military prosecutor announced new charges. After another acquittal a third trial was ordered, and harassment continued.
FSB interrogators warned Litvinenko: “If they find you not guilty this time, it’s not you we’ll be talking to; we’ll sort things out with your wife and your kid. You don’t think you’ll get away, do you? You’re a traitor to the system and you’re going to be punished.”
His friend Felshtinksy made an unofficial approach to an FSB general, asking if a deal could perhaps be done for the Litvinenkos to slip quietly into exile abroad. The general replied, “I can honestly tell you there is no way for that man to leave Russia alive. And if ever I meet him again, I will personally kill him with my two hands.”
That, says Marina Litvinenko, is when Sasha made up his mind to flee, as Berezovsky had done. During his personal drama Yeltsin had resigned and Putin was now president.
SEVEN years later, at the end of a wide Kremlin corridor, Aleksei ushered me through an anteroom into the large office of Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s head of information.
Peskov is a sprightly man in his early forties, a career diplomat who enjoys the confidence of the president. Over a cup of hot Georgian tea I tried to gauge if his boss really could have been involved in the Litvinenko poisoning, as the dead man’s friends have claimed, or if the accusations were merely the fabrications or wishful thinking of enemies at home and abroad.
An earnest, sophisticated man, Peskov is far removed from the bullying, stonewalling Soviet officials I used to meet. He comes across as reasonable and sincere in his love for his country and his faith in his president. He knows Putin intimately — he works with him every day — and feels personal resentment on behalf of his boss.
I knew he had discussed the Litvinenko case with Putin at great length and had given him advice on how to remain calm and measured in the face of what the president believed to be an unjustified personal affront against himself.
“You know, I would never discuss that [advice] in public. But nevertheless, what is obvious is that the president felt himself necessary to express his condolences to the family of Litvinenko. He accepted that it was a human tragedy — a man died — but he never tried to camouflage, to hide the fact that he was not fond of Mr Litvinenko. And you will find very few people in my country — including his first wife, by the way, and his two children — who are fond of him or who are proud of him. This is not the case in my country.”
It was a strange sensation, sitting in the heart of the Kremlin discussing the personal feelings of the most powerful man in Russia. Would previous occupants of these quarters have been so open with a foreigner?
I asked how Putin felt about the allegations levelled at him personally, how it felt to be accused of murder. Peskov said he would not discuss such things in public, but I later spoke to another source close to Putin who knew about his feelings.
“The president is very upset by this,” he told me. “He is upset by these accusations made personally about him. He simply can’t believe that people are saying these things about him as a person. He’s very angry about the way the British press has named him as a murderer — that’s why he won’t speak about it any more.”
I asked why, if this was the case, Putin had refrained from expressing his anger and hurt. He told me: “The president doesn’t like his feelings being discussed in public.”
Even if Putin had not personally ordered the Litvinenko killing, it could still have been the unauthorised work of the Russian security services. I asked Peskov if the president had ordered an inquiry to make sure the FSB was not involved.
“Look, I don’t know. I am being very frank with you now. It’s not a question of Putin not being sure if such an involvement was possible or impossible. It is hard for us to imagine that there is the slightest idea that such a possibility could exist. For us the tiniest possibility is out of the question. There is not even the tiniest possibility, not even a hypothetical possibility of our special services being involved.”
Up to now I had been convinced by what I had heard. On the balance of evidence I was coming to the conclusion that Putin himself had had no hand in the murder. But this was something different: Peskov could offer no evidence that ruled out the possibility of a freelance operation, or that suggested Moscow had even tried to rule one out.
When I pressed him he told me: “For that purpose our prosecutor’s office has opened its own investigation.” It was clear where I would have to go.
The office of the prosecutor general of the Russian Federation is set behind a small, anonymous-look-ing wooden door on Bolshaya Dmitrovka, a street behind the Bolshoi theatre. The prosecutor’s office is a powerful institution, combining oversight of policing, investigation and prosecution. The Metropolitan police’s finest visited it two weeks before me, looking for clues in the Litvinenko case.
As in the Kremlin, my reception was warm and friendly. Two young detectives, Sasha and Kolya, walked me upstairs to a cosy, overheated second-floor office. An attractive woman in her mid-thirties introduced herself as Marina Gridneva, senior legal counsel and head of the information division. She introduced another detective, and they produced a teapot and a large sponge cake topped with apricot jam. It was, explained Marina, homemade. With a cup of a very unusual, aromatic tea, I ate two slices.
The charm offensive seemed genuine and they laughed when I said journalists would not get similar treatment from Scotland Yard. But hospitality did not mean they were going to answer my questions. All my inquiries about the possibility of FSB involvement in Litvinenko’s murder were met with a steely: “That is part of an ongoing investigation so we cannot comment.”
After 20 minutes we seemed to be getting nowhere. I decided to be a little provocative. “What about the new laws of July 2006?” I asked. One of them allows the president to use the Russian secret services to eliminate “extremists” in Russia and on foreign territory. And another expands the definition of “extrem-ism” to include anyone “libellously critical of the Russian authorities”?
“It looks like a pretty clear mandate to go out and kill people like Litvinenko, doesn’t it?” I suggested.
The two detectives asked for a moment to consult. They tapped at a computer and phoned for some documents. My tape recorder registered an air of mild panic. Marina’s voice is heard asking me to help myself to some more tea and cake while they sort things out. Then, after a lengthy pause, they are back with the explanation: those laws were not adopted with any evil intent. They were a response to the abduction and murder of five Russian diplomats in Iraq.
It seemed I was going to get nowhere. They had stonewalled me with a charming but immovable double act. So I said, “Okay, thanks very much”, and they clearly thought the interview was over because they started smiling and suddenly became very expansive. Fortunately, my tape was still running to record what came next.
“Look, Martin, do you really think we’d bother assassinating a nobody like Litvinenko? Someone who left the country God knows how long ago? Who was no threat to us and didn’t have any secrets to betray? . . . He just wasn’t important enough. He didn’t know any secrets that would be a reason for liquidating him . . . Do you think we would have mounted such a special operation to eliminate him . . . with polonium that costs the earth? That we would have spent so much money on him? My God, we could have used the money to increase pensions here at home. If we’d needed to eliminate Litvinenko, we would have done it ages ago.”
I thanked them and switched off the tape recorder. It was the closest I was going to get to an admission that such operations do after all take place. And if they take place, was it not possible that someone had his own reasons to conclude that Litvinenko actually was worth the price of a vial of polonium?
The more I probed, the more I was becoming convinced that Litvinenko had been poisoned by a group of people independent of the Kremlin but with close connections to the Russian security forces.
I knew it was a group with its own reasons to target Litvinenko, a group that could advance FSB interests to justify the murder, interests that would confer at least some immunity on it if the Kremlin were to become aware of what it had done.
How was I to find these men? I sat in my Moscow hotel room, a half empty bottle of vodka in front of me, and picked up the telephone.

© Martin Sixsmith 2007

Extracted from The Litvinenko File by Martin Sixsmith, to be published tomorrow by Macmillan at £16.99.