Accused Russian spy worked for U.K. intelligence, met with prime ministers and princes

LONDON — In a semi-secret courtroom in an overheated basement, a three-judge tribunal this week heard testimony about an alleged Russian spy who may have burrowed deep into Britain’s top intelligence agencies, gaining access to secret documents and meeting with prime ministers and British royalty when they traveled to Afghanistan.

The British security services allege that the man, who may only be identified as “C2” and whose name is redacted in publicly available court documents, probably served as spy for Russia’s military intelligence agency, known as GRU. He arrived in the United Kingdom in 2000 as an Afghan refugee claiming asylum.

C2, who held multiple roles in the British government, is not charged criminally but is in court seeking to restore his British citizenship, which was revoked in 2019. A muscular-looking middle-aged man with a trim beard, dressed in a leather jacket and jeans, he did not speak with the handful of reporters who attended the sessions.

C2 denied to the court that he served as a Russian agent. Rather, he served Britain honorably, he said. It was dangerous work. He claimed he survived several assassination attempts.

C2’s lawyers allege that the U.K. security services provided only circumstantial evidence that C2 was a spy.

His lawyers said that C2 may have attended meetings with a pair of Russian military attachés named Boris and Dimitri in Kabul, as alleged by the government, but that these were just friendly get-togethers between men who liked to attend alcohol-fueled parties in Kabul and share pictures of rocket launchers and naked women.

Either way, Britain’s assertion that C2 may have been a Russian spy is embarrassing to the government and its intelligence services. Either he was a spy who worked at the heart of British intelligence, or they have misread the evidence and gotten the wrong mole.

The remarkable case is being heard by the Special Immigration Appeals Commission, known as SIAC, which is charged with handling secret evidence, or what it calls “closed material.”

Last year, SIAC heard an appeal from the British youth Shamima Begum, the “Jihadi bride” who went to Syria to marry a fighter from the Islamic State. After she was found in a refugee camp in Syria, Britain’s then-Home Secretary Sajid Javid stripped her of her British citizenship. SIAC dismissed her appeal.

In these cases, the judges have access to closed material denied not only to the public but even lawyers for C2.

The glimpses of C2’s life and times came from the guarded testimony heard in the “open” portions of the trial and court papers, from sources such as “FL” who worked for the agencies but was not especially forthcoming.

In C2’s case, the government security services assessed that he may have served as a Russian spy and that he posed a future risk to national security — and so they yanked his British citizenship. Still, C2 got out of Afghanistan on one of the Britain’s last evacuation flights before Kabul fell to the Taliban.

C2 is in court to win back his British citizenship and avoid possible deportation to Afghanistan or Russia.

C2 was born and raised in Afghanistan, where his father was a career military officer. The Times of London, which has been following the case closely, reported earlier this week that on his day of testimony, C2 said in court that MI5, the U.K.’s domestic counterintelligence and security agency, accused him of being groomed by the Russians from age 5.

In the 1990s, C2 said, he traveled to Moscow, crossing into Russia from Afghanistan with the aid of a smuggler. He lived in Moscow for six years, attended university there and married a Russian.

In 2000, with the aid of another smuggler, he said he was given a fake Russian passport and boarded a flight to a Caribbean vacation, with a stopover in London. At Heathrow Airport, he claimed asylum, saying he was fleeing the Taliban. He admitted he lied to authorities.

Regardless, C2 appears to have thrived in London. He worked as a translator, attended Brunel University and got an MA in intelligence and security studies.

While an alleged Russian asset, C2 rose through the ranks of British intelligence, working for the Government Communications Headquarters, the country’s intelligence, security and cyber agency, in London.

According to the government’s brief, C2 returned to Afghanistan, employed by the U.K.’s Foreign Office, as a cultural affairs adviser in a reconstruction team in the Helmand, Afghanistan.

In that post he met with then-Prince Charles, now king, and Prince William, former prime ministers David Cameron and Gordon Brown. He was featured in a U.K. Defense Department news release praising his work.

Court papers also showed C2 spent time in the employ of NATO in Kabul. He went on to serve as an official in the Afghan Ministry of Commerce. Later he was involved in oil deals.

His lawyer, Robert Palmer, told the judges that the Russians were key trading partners with Afghanistan; that his client spoke multiple languages, including Russian. He suggested C2 was a player in Kabul, a hard-working hustler at the shadow world of wartime Kabul, at the embassy parties and military bases, familiar with bribes and dealmaking — and that he might have suspected his Russian friends were GRU handlers “but he couldn’t know for sure.”

“Everybody in Afghanistan was fishing for information,” Palmer said.

In his closing arguments, Palmer said, in essence, that the fishing expeditions included one by the MI5, who hooked C2 up to an hours-long “alleged lie detector test” and then told him that he failed it. Perhaps strangely, one of the questions C2′s interrogators asked was whether he had ever met Donald Trump.

The lead judge in the case, Justice Robert Jay, told the courtroom it was possible for the tribunal to find C2 credible but he could still be considered a threat to national security.

Rory Dunlop, the lawyer who represented the government’s Home Secretary, said bluntly that C2 had given the court “misleading and implausible answers.” He said, “he has told multiple lies.”

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