A security consultant who has worked for the company that compiled the controversial dossier on US President Donald Trump was close to the Russian double agent poisoned last weekend, it has been claimed.
The consultant, who the Daily Telegraph is declining to identify, lived close to Colonel Sergei Skripal and is understood to have known him for some time.
Skripal, who is in intensive care and fighting for his life after an assassination attempt on Sunday afternoon (Monday NZT), was recruited by MI6 when he worked for the British Embassy in Estonia, according to the FSB, the Russian intelligence agency.
Skripal moved to Salisbury in 2010 and the Telegraph understands he became close to a security consultant employed by Christopher Steele, who compiled the Trump dossier.
The British security consultant, according to a LinkedIn social network account that was removed from the internet in the past few days, is also based in Salisbury.
On the same LinkedIn account, the man listed consultancy work with Orbis Business Intelligence, according to reports. Orbis is run by Steele, a former MI6 agent, who compiled the dossier on Trump that detailed his allegedly corrupt dealings with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The dossier has sparked a formal investigation in the US into Russian collusion in the US presidential election, to the fury of both Trump and Putin.
If the Kremlin believed that Skripal might have helped with the dossier, it could explain the motive for the assassination attempt in Salisbury town centre. Skripal's daughter is also in intensive care, as is a police officer who rushed to help them after they were attacked with nerve agent.
Counter-terrorism police, along with MI5, are trying to establish why Skripal was targeted seven years after being released from a Russian penal colony. He was sentenced to 13 years for being a traitor in 2006, but sent to the UK in a swap for Russian spies.
Valery Morozov, a former construction magnate who fled Russia after revealing corruption, claimed that Skripal, 66, was still working, and remained in regular contact with military intelligence officers at the Russian Embassy. That would raise the possibility that he was still feeding intelligence to people in Britain.
Morozov said that, as a result, he had decided to steer clear of Skripal for his own safety. He told Channel 4 News: "If you have a military intelligence officer working in the Russian diplomatic service, living after retirement in the UK, working in cyber-security and every month going to the embassy to meet military intelligence officers — for me, being a political refugee, it is either a certain danger or, frankly speaking, I thought that this contact might not be very good for me because it can bring some questions from British officials."
Time of attack
• The Skripals seen walking past a gym along Market Walk on CCTV
• Witness sees them on the bench
• Police report they are found unconscious on the bench
Neither Orbis nor the security consultant commented. The consultant's wife told the Telegraph, when asked if her husband had worked for Orbis and knew Skripal: "He won't be talking."
Police are now trying to piece together Skripal's recent movements. CCTV footage emerged yesterday showing him buying everyday items — milk, sausages and lottery scratch cards — in his local shop, apparently joking and seemingly oblivious to the imminent threat to his life. At the time, Skripal was awaiting a visit from his daughter Yulia, 33, who lives in Moscow but was due to visit.
It is thought that Yulia Skripal was visiting her father to mark the birthday on March 1 of his only son Alexander, who had died the year before, aged 43. Skripal had asked his housekeeper to clean his daughter's room on February 26, ready for her visit.
Security services now suspect that when Yulia Skripal flew out of Moscow, her departure triggered a "red flag" with a hit squad that was being dispatched to assassinate Skripal. It is thought that Yulia Skripal was being targeted with her father in a message that "traitors" are not tolerated by the Kremlin.
It is not clear when Yulia Skripal landed in the UK, but sources suggest the Russian team sent to kill her father was probably a day behind her.
Intelligence services suspect that the attempt on Skripal's life would have been made earlier but the snowstorm hampered the initial attempt.
The snow may have deterred father and daughter from venturing out, while it also would have put in doubt the assassination squad's likely escape. With flights cancelled and delayed at Heathrow, they risked arrest if they were stuck in the UK.
With Yulia Skripal on the brink of returning to Moscow the assassination squad had little room for manoeuvre and were forced into action in broad daylight in the middle of a busy shopping area.
"It now looks as though they got desperate by Sunday afternoon and decided to strike," said one intelligence source.
Proof of suspicions will be hard to find
Investigators are unlikely to ever prove suspicions of Kremlin involvement after the alleged poisoning of a Russian double agent, an academic has said.
Dr Samuel Greene, director of the Russia Institute at King's College London says the probe will never find evidence that will lead "all the way up the chain of command" in relation to Sergei Skripal, 66, and his 33-year-old daughter Yulia, who are fighting for their lives in hospital.
Yesterday Scotland Yard confirmed that the "substance" used against Skripal and his daughter was a nerve agent. Metropolitan Police Assistant Commissioner Mark Rowley said the poisoning was being treated as attempted murder and said the pair had been "targeted specifically". One of the first police officers on the scene was also critically ill.
Greene said: "The reality is we don't know the cause of the illness, so there's nothing to trace, we don't know where it's going to be traced to. I think the reality is that even if in fact this has been somehow sanctioned or ordered out of the Kremlin, the reality is that we're never going to find ... the investigation is never going to find hard and fast evidence that would lead all the way up the chain of command."
Greene said it is hard to imagine another explanation.
Asked if the public will ever know the truth about what happened, Greene said: "That's kind of the espionage game. It's very rare that the public actually gets to know really what was going on, even when we think we know."
Britain's Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson has already noted that the case has "echoes" of the death of Alexander Litvinenko, a Russian dissident who was fatally poisoned in London in 2006. A public inquiry concluded in 2016 that the killing had "probably" been carried out with the approval of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
It said the use of the radioactive substance — which could only have come from a nuclear reactor — was a "strong indicator" of state involvement and that two men had probably been acting under the direction of the FSB, Russia's state agency. Putin has refused to accept the inquiry's findings.
Yesterday Putin, in an interview with Russian state television, warned his country's enemies, and referred to poison. Putin was not addressing the Skripal poisoning when he made the comments.
He said Western sanctions for Moscow's annexation of Crimea and the insurgency in eastern Ukraine were part of "illegitimate and unfair" efforts to contain Russia, but added that "we will win in the long run". He continued: "Those who serve us with poison will eventually swallow it and poison themselves".
• VX: A nerve agent with the consistency of engine oil. It was used in the 2017 murder Kim Jong-nam — the estranged half brother of the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.Ricin: Ricin, the deadliest of the toxins derived from plant material, was used in London in 1978 to murder Georgi Markov, the Bulgarian dissident. He took seven days to die after an assassin fired a poison pellet into him, using an umbrella, outside Aldwych Tube station.
• Batrachotoxin: Is an extremely potent cardiotoxic and neurotoxic steroidal alkaloid found in certain species of frogs. Native Indians collect these frogs — Phyllobates terribilis and multicoloured Phyllobates bicolor — and sweat out the poison over a fire before putting it on their darts.
• Tetrodotoxin: A neurotoxin often found in puffer fish as well as the blue ringed octopus. Tetrodotoxin poisoning has been described as "rapid and violent", starting with a numbness around the mouth, then paralysis, finally death. The subject remains conscious to the end.
• Botulinum toxin: The most poisonous substance known to man. A couple of teaspoons would be enough to kill everyone in the UK, two kilos would kill every human on earth. The same toxin is found in Botox, where a tiny dose is injected to freeze muscles into place
- Telegraph Group Ltd, PA