Kristof Clerix, Belgium, works as an investigative reporter for the Belgian weekly news magazine Knack.
Belgium chases Russian spy couple
The Belgian Federal prosecutor’s office has launched an inquiry into two Russian intelligence officers that have clandestinely acquired the Belgian nationality with the help of Belgian diplomats.
According to several well informed sources, the Russian spy couple got married in Belgium before moving to Italy, where it has supposedly carried out its intelligence activities. The Federal prosecutor’s office confirms the news. The couple, M.E. and I.R., are still in posession of their Belgian passports.
The pre-inquiry by the Belgian Federal prosecutor’s office into forgery, the use of false passports and corruption was launched in 2012 after a tip from the Belgian State Security.
In the past years the State Security has reconstructed the whereabouts and backgrounds of the spy couple M.E. and I.R.
The story could be a scenario for The Americans, the popular espionage series about a couple Russian intelligence officers that used to live in the outskirts of Washington during the eighties: Elizabeth and Philip Jennings and their two children pretended to be a commonplace American family with a job in a travel agency – the perfect cover for their clandestine activities as Russian “illegals”.
The difference is that the tale of spy couple M.E. and I.R. is not Hollywood fiction but reality.
Ultra secret intelligence officers
Foreign secret services operating in Belgium often use classical covers to conceal their espionage activities. Their intelligence officers pose as diplomats, lobbyists, journalists or exchange students. The disadvantage of those covers is that they can easily be spotted by the counter espionage in Brussels – the State Security, the military intelligence SGRS, NATO’s Office of Security, NATO’s Allied Command Counter Intelligence and the security departments of the European Council, Commission and European External Action Service.
Therefore the Russian intelligence services for decades have been using an ultra secret category of intelligence officers, the socalled “illegals”. They live under a complete fake identity, are very hard to trace down and can operate secretly for many years furthering Moscow’s intrests.
An “illegal” is a full time employee of an intelligence service working under fake identity but with a civil legend – so not in the frame of a diplomatic representation. “Illegals” often operate during a long period in a target country.
Within the Russian foreign intelligence service SVR, “Line N” is specialised in setting up covers and legends in order to help infiltrate Russian “illegals” abroad.
Documenting the couple M.E. en I.R. already took off at the beginning of the 1960’s. This operation by “Line N” took place in two steps. In the first phase, from the 1960’s until the early 1990’s, falsified documents (e.g. birth and wedding certificates) were collected in several European and Latin American countries. To achieve this, local civil servants have been bribed.
In the second phase, in the early 1990’s, those falsified documents were assembled at Belgian consulates abroad, for the request of authentic Belgian identity documents.
The name of M.E. was inscribed in the birth registry in Uruguay after a civil servant had been bribed.
The Belgian passport of mr M.E. mentions Artigas (in the north of Uruguay) as a birth place. His father allegedly was a Belgian citizen, his mother socalled British. Her identity had been stolen by the Russian intelligence services from a British girl that had died at young age.
Recycling socalled dead doubles is a technique that was used more often in order to create legends. Russian spies are known to have scrutinised cemeteries, looking for “recyclable profiles” – preferably of children who had passed away on a young age and therefore hadn’t left too many public traces behind.
The name of M.E. was inscribed in the birth registry in Uruguay after a civil servant had been bribed.
The fake family tree of lady I.R. has been set up in a similar way. According to her Belgian identity papers, I.R. was born in Ambato, a city in the heart of Ecuador. Her socalled father was a Belgian citizen, her socalled mother Ecuadorian.
Turning a blind eye
Fake identities have been inserted into the Belgian population registry, leaving clear traces behind.
In 1990 and 1992 two Belgian consuls assisted during the final step of the documenting process: fake identities have been inserted into the Belgian population registry, leaving clear traces behind.
Obviously the Russian intelligence services knew all the ins and outs of the Belgian nationality code. When you are born abroad and one of your parents is Belgian e.g., you can request the Belgian nationality once you are 18 years old.
It’s this rule that, according to well informed sources, was used by the Russians to request a Belgian passport for M.E. at the Belgian consulate in Rome (Italy). The passport of I.R. was requested and delivered at the Belgian consulate in Casablanca (Morocco).
The Belgian consuls that collaborated with the Russians during this crucial step in the documentation process, had to turn a blind eye. As a rule, one has to request and pick up one’s new passport personally. The Russians however used go-betweens for the paper work.
The inquiry shows that the then Belgian consul in Casablanca – who now is residing in an elderly home – was bribed. The then Rome consul meanwhile has passed away. His motive for collaborating with Russian intelligence remains unknown.
Double life in Belgium
Once the passports had been delivered in Rome and Casablanca in the early 1990’s, M.E. and I.R. could further elaborate their legend as “Belgian citizens”. They did not have a striking appearance or a typical Slavic physionomy, which made things easier.
From the outset the man and woman started a double life in Belgium seperately from each other
From the outset the man and woman started a double life in Belgium seperately from each other. It is known e.g. that I.R. lived in Belgium a couple of years and also worked there for a while.
The two Russians with falsified Belgian identity got married in Ixelles – a district of Brussels – in the autumn of 2000.
A befriended couple of M.E. and I.R. were the official witnesses of the wedding. Were they aware of which game they were playing in? The discrete collaboration between several Belgian and foreign intelligence and security services has not led to any incriminating information about the witnessess. Apparentely, they do not have any connection to Russian intelligence.
Before moving to Italy – where according to well informed sources they deployed their intelligence activities – the couple rented an appartment in Belgium. Later they had to return back to Belgium every now and then, in order to renew their identity papers.
Which intelligence activities M.E. and I.R. have undertaken in Italy, is currently being investigated by the Italian justice. Through similar cases substantial information on the clandestine activities of Russian “illegals” abroad is available in open sources though.
‘”Illegals” are being seen as prodigies, because they have been chosen and trained very carefully’
In 2011 the German authorities arrested the couple Andreas and Heidrun Anschlag. These Russian “illegals” traveled with falsified Austrian passports and were allegedly born in Argentina and Peru – again Latin American countries.
In Germany the couple has been convicted for espionage against the EU and NATO.
‘”Illegals” are being seen as prodigies, because they have been chosen and trained very carefully’, the German verdict of the Anschlag couple states: ‘They are prepared to live under a false biography for years. For such a coherent legend, verifiable across generations, no efforts are spared. Birth certificates, witnesses, driving licenses and work permits have to be provided. Characteristic for the legends of “illegals” is that they infiltrate the target country through at least one third country. The “illegal” is provided with a fake identity but at the same time with real official documents.’
‘The efforts that are undertaken for the legend are also reflected in the high level of education of the “illegals”. Often they have been chosen already at young age, sometimes even during their studies. Before being sent to the target country, they are being trained three to seven years. During this training, the intelligence officers learn operational communication and behavioural techniques, learn languages and study the target country.’
‘Loyal, trustworthy and faithful’
Also according to the verdict of the Anschlag case, the work of “illegals” is less focused on quick successes, and more on long term deployment. “Illegals” have the reputation of being very loyal, trustworthy and patriottic.’
‘Thanks to their legend and because they can conceal their true origin and identity, they can gain access to information unhindered – without constantly being observed by the counterintelligence.’
Their prior task in target countries, the verdict states, is to run qualitative or sensitive sources with access to information. ‘They can meet those sources without having the risk of being watched. “Illegals” can also play a role in anticipation of recruting informants. They can give give directions as to which people have access to valuable information, or they can provide general environment information.’
Married with children
The pre-inquiry by the Belgian Federal prosecutor’s office is focused on the Russian couple, the Casablanca consul and the people that bribed the consuls at the time.
‘The decision as to who will be prosecuted will only be taken at the end of the inquiry’, spokesperson Jean Thoreau of the Federal prosecutor’s office comments. ‘Currently there is no juge d’instruction in charge of the investigation. This is a pre-inquiry that fully depends on the Federal prosecutor’s office. Meanwhile we have sent rogatories to Italy, the UK and Uruguay.’
Because the offenses date back to 1990 and 1992, prescription might be an issue.
Because the offenses date back to 1990 and 1992, prescription might be an issue. On the other hand, the clandestinely obtained Belgian documents have still been used up to a couple of years ago.
Apart from the penal dimension, the case will also have to be settled administratively. The names of M.E. and I.R. will have to be deleted from the Belgian population registry. An additional problem is that the spy couple meanwhile also has children. Their Belgian nationality can not be revoked.
The current whereabouts of the Russian spy family are unknown. Obviously, they have left Italy in the period that elsewhere in the world networks of Russian “illegals” have been unraveled.
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