Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, a leading expert on chemical weapons, talks to MATT WITHERS about being on Vladimir Putin’s radar, weaponising Covid and complacency about the threats facing the West.
Hamish de Bretton-Gordon’s autobiography starts like the opening of a high-octane film. It is February 1991, the protagonist, on his first military tour, is in the Saudi desert and he and his fellow soldiers are coming under a Scud attack. The incoming missiles are thought to be carrying sarin and de Bretton-Gordon’s gas mask is refusing to work.
“If I keep the mask on, I’m going to choke to death,” he writes. “If I take it off, I’m going to be suffocated by gas. And if I stand and run, I’m going to get shot in the crossfire.”
Eventually he made it to a Land Rover, dragged himself inside and careered away. (It turned out to be a false alarm, to the young soldier’s “deep shame”).
Given that he made a vow to himself then and there to never put himself in a situation that could involve chemical weapons, de Bretton-Gordon admits it is “completely ironic” that he is now one of the world’s leading experts in the topic, with a propensity to willingly put himself in extraordinary personal danger.
In 2004 he was put in charge of the relatively new Joint Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear (CBRN) Regiment, much to his displeasure. “I was an unwilling participant in the chem-bio counter-terrorism world,” the now 57-year-old tells me from his home in Salisbury.
“I wanted to command my tank regiment. In the military that’s proper soldiering, tank soldiering and being an infantryman. Being a specialist – that’s what people do who can’t do the other thing.”
But that – and being “terrible at science in school” – aside, he flourished, building up a unique understanding in how to prevent and deal with such attacks.
That led to him leaving the military in 2011 to form a business offering CBRN expertise, and on to his work with a task force in Syria, not only training doctors in dealing with chemical attacks, but taking great personal risks in attempting to get proof of them out of the country. His book, Chemical Warrior, is a real page-turner. The account of his first, spur-of-the-moment attempt to get into and out of Syria with evidence of a nerve agent attack on the rebel-held city of Saraqeb by Bashar al-Assad’s regime, reads like a suicide mission, I tell him. “On reflection, and I don’t mean to sound glib, it does,” he says.
“I have a very high personal threat threshold, which is one of my many weaknesses. And I think at the time I didn’t really know enough about Syria to make a judgement.”
He knew travelling to the country would be “meaningless” if he could not bring back proof of the use of chemical weapons, he says. The first attempt failed, de Bretton-Gordon burying the evidence at a roadside near the Turkish border when he realised it was not conclusive enough to risk being caught with it. But the “spur of the moment” decision to go in the first place was the start of a series of events which would eventually lead to him joining up with the CBRN Taskforce, an independent organisation which collects evidence of chemical attacks in Syria and attempts to get them to the outside world.
A grassroots body set up by Houssam Alnahhas, a medical student, initially to treat casualties and put in place procedures to react to an attack, de Bretton-Gordon says “an awful lot of evidence came from the CBRN Taskforce that found its way to New York, to London and elsewhere that built up the picture” of what was happening in the country.
“So I suppose in a way, myself and Houssam, who’s this phenomenal fellow who I work with there, the evidence he collected at some stage will convict those people who are responsible in the International Criminal Court in The Hague – probably in 10 or 15 years’ time, as evidence did for the generals who committed atrocities in the Bosnian war.”
There are points in the book, I say, when I thought I’d like to be interviewing his wife, Julia, and find out what she thought of his frequent trips into a war zone. Did she learn anything new from it?
“That’s a really poignant question. I think the phrase in the book that really sums it all up is at the very beginning when she says I’m a bit of an a**e. But… these trips into Syria and Iraq are very short and sharp whereas, as a soldier away for six or 12 months tours – that is quite difficult.” The pair celebrated their 28th wedding anniversary the weekend before he speaks to me.
Oh, and it’s probably worth mentioning de Bretton-Gordon, a one-time press-up world record holder, discovers he has a ticking time bomb in his own chest: a heart condition called sudden death syndrome that could kill him at any time (now tackled with beta blockers). He was also diagnosed last year with prostate cancer, albeit the less aggressive Gleason 6 form. “I’ll probably die with it, not of it,” he says.
There are times in his book when you feel that, when it comes to western politicians and their attitudes to Assad’s actions against his own people – particularly the 2013 House of Commons vote in which MPs blocked military action to deter the despot’s use of chemical weapons – de Bretton-Gordon is pulling his punches.
“Oh, entirely,” he says. “I was in parliament at the time. I was going around briefing MPs from all sides of the House and, you know, a lot of them were getting it. But then Ed Miliband for, I think, political reasons rather than national reasons, decided to… I mean, he was responsible for the vote being lost in the House. It was a free vote. And a lot of people I know who voted against it now agree with me.
“And seven years later, Assad’s still in power, half a million more people have been killed and chemical weapons have proliferated around the world.”
The experience has put him off an earlier desire to enter politics himself, he says. “When I first got involved in all the Syria stuff I met lots of politicians from all sides, lots of ministers. I rather naively thought that the 650 best people in the country were running it as MPs.
“I quickly realised that’s not quite the case. There are many brilliant MPs who do fantastic work, and I was very fortunate to meet Jo Cox and a bunch of others, but there were also a lot of people who I felt knew little of life outside the Westminster village.”
I can’t tell, having read the book, where his politics lie, I say.
“Well, entirely, and I’m not sure either. I think I’m more of a Martin Bell [the war reporter turned independent MP] than a Labour or a Conservative person.”
We then turn to Covid. “Not that Covid is a biological weapon, but it could be,” says de Bretton-Gordon.
“You could imagine a weaponised Covid not just bringing the world to its knees as Covid-19 has done, but a toxic Covid-25 could be the end. I mean, forget about climate change and nuclear war, these are things that we really need to get a grip of as a priority, not just as a secondary thought.”
He doesn’t share the view some have that the virus was manufactured: “At the moment my view is that it probably was zoonotic, in other words came from the wet markets in Wuhan.”
But, he adds, “it could have come from the Wuhan level-4 laboratory. In the last few years the amount of level-4 [the highest biosafety level] laboratories, where the most deadly pathogens are stored, have exploded.
“Thirty years ago, there were five of them, one being Porton Down [in Wiltshire], now there’s 70 and in the next few years that’s expected to grow to 100 in all countries of the world. And they don’t all have the security of Porton Down.
“And every dictator, despot, terrorist and rogue state has seen what Covid has done. So if you want to create terror or bring states down then breaking into a level-4 laboratory and stealing an engineered pathogen is something you would want to do. And I think at the moment we are paying lip service to it.”
Inevitably, in the post-truth world, there are many online – and many of them academics at respected universities – who deny vigorously that Assad has used chemical weapons, in the face of all evidence. And indeed you don’t need to delve far into their Twitter world to see de Bretton-Gordon decried as an MI5 stooge.
“These are the people I coin the useful idiots,” he says. “They spout propaganda from Syria and Russia denouncing all these attacks where there’s overwhelming evidence.
“But they’re also the same people who are Holocaust deniers, 9/11 deniers and now on the sort of Covid anti-vax type thing. So they strike me as psychologically small people who take great delight in furthering the message of dictators and murderers. It’s the price of democracy, I suppose.”
There is a further dark irony in de Bretton-Gordon’s story when he steps off a stage in Abu Dhabi in March 2018, having given the keynote address at a security conference, to learn of another chemical attack – in his home town of Salisbury. It was, he says, “a miracle that not more people were killed” in the poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal.
“A Russian state attacking, with a chemical weapon, on British soil – I mean, wars have started for less.
“In 2017 the Russians declared that they’d destroyed all their chemical weapons stockpile. Now we clearly know that’s not the case… they have Novichok. Probably not hundreds of tons of it, but enough to keep us worried.”
Should de Bretton-Gordon be worried, personally? In 2016 he received a message from Vladimir Putin, via a proxy, that he should stop accusing his ally Assad of carrying out chemical attacks.
“It’s certainly an area of concern for my family, that’s for sure,” he says.
“But I think, actually, the [Putin critic Alexei] Navalny assassination attempt has really brought it back that the Russian state doesn’t stand people who oppose it, but actually it’s their own [they are most concerned about].
“The Russians don’t give a damn about what people think outside. They have no worries about collateral damage, but they’re worried about their own who are opposing them.
“So people like myself are probably an irritant but I’m not a Navalny or a Skripal or a [Boris] Berezovsky. I’m not concerned a Russian GRU hit squad is going to come and take me out, but, yeah, I’m sure that my face is on a wall in Moscow somewhere as a pain in the a**e.
“And, you know, so be it. Don’t go quietly into the night. Rage, rage on. These things are too important – if people like me don’t do stuff and take risks then what hope is there?
“Without being too clichéd, Edmund Burke said that evil succeeds when good people do nothing, and there’s been too much of that over biological and chemical weapons, so I intend to keep up the pressure on politicians all over the place to get a grip on this.”
- Chemical Warrior: Syria, Salisbury and Saving Lives at War is published by Headline, priced £20