Her name is Olga Kolobova, and on August 26, Bellingcat in conjunction with Der Spiegle and Repubblica concluded their investigative journalism piece on her, revealing her life as a GRU illegals officer operating under the name of “Maria Adela Kuhfeldt Rivera” with a false persona that carried all the hallmarks of a Russian illegal false identity package. And like all intelligence operations, the devil is in the details and lack of attention to detail was exactly what helped the journalist investigators to piece together her multiple years of operational activity in Naples, Italy, and elsewhere.
Kolobova – Russian Illegal
Kolobova is believed to have been born in 1982. Her father was the Head of Military Faculty at the Urals University in Yekaterinburg. He retired in 2007.
The investigators learned that Kolobova purchased two condos in Moscow during her stint in Italy. In 2013, she bought a small studio, and in 2020, she made another purchase, which was a high rise with a value of 800,000 euros. Her work in 2020 was with Russia’s Pension Fund, so it is suggested that she had an alternative source of income sufficient to acquire not one, but two units in Moscow.
Russian Illegal’s Tasking
It would appear that Kolobova was sent to Malta to set herself up as a well-funded socialite and ingratiate herself into the “high society.” She did. She befriended Marcella D’Argy Smith, former editor of UK edition of Cosmopolitan magazine and shared her tale of woe, being abandoned by her Peruvian mother at the 1980 Olympics and being raised by a kind Russian family. A family that treated her poorly.
From Malta she transited to Italy, landing in Naples where she set up her jewelry boutique and began ingratiating herself into the community, which included the NATO community.
She did marry an Ecuadorian-born Russian in 2012. Her husband in July 2013 traveled to Moscow, never to return. The story (whether true or not) was that he unexpectedly died of “double pneumonia and systemic Lupus.” Perhaps he is still living and his persona was created to draw attention away from the flawed Peruvian cover story being used by Kolobova.
While Bellingcat is careful not to claim she penetrated the NATO facilities in the area, there is ample evidence, to include first hand knowledge that she ran in the NATO circles and appeared to have received an invite to the “Joint Command Ball” in 2017 in Naples and other public and semi-public events.
Furthermore, her involvement in the Lions Club chapter in Naples provided her with informal access to NATO employees and spouses. In addition, Bellingcat interviewed one individual who claimed to have had a romantic relationship with Kolobova.
Her frequent trips in the region and back and forth to Moscow is indicative of a support asset with low level elicitation tasking requirements.
What were the shortcomings in her tale?
Sometimes, the stories that get spun start to highlight missing pieces in the plot line.
1. Peruvian citizenship
The Peruvian persona of one Maria Adela Kuhfeldt Rivera was total fiction. While lawyers produced a birth certificate for a female infant born in September 1978 and was provided to the Citizenship Registry of Peru, the Peruvian investigators for the registry were suspicious. Their suspicion had them asking for additional documentation on this individual who is presenting papers in 2005 that they were a citizen born in 1978. The lawyers submitted a baptism certificate from September 1978. The Peruvian investigator reached out to the church to ask the priest at the church to check the baptism records. It wouldn’t be necessary. The church in which the alleged baptism took place was established in 1987. Nine years after the alleged baptism. The application was denied by the Peruvian government and the government would go on to publish her name in their annual report to the Peruvian congress in 2006 that the “migration and naturalization office” had discovered a fraudulent request for citizenship for Maria Adel.
2. Russian passport issued
Whether the lawyer operating at Russia’s direction in Peru pursuing the citizenship registry shared this with the GRU or not, the lack of citizenship closed the door on her obtaining a Peruvian passport. The GRU had to tap dance or restart the creation of her operational and living legend. They opted to tap dance and accept a risk that no one would check into the birth of the persona of Maria Adel. (NB: Readers will remember the recent case of the GRU officer who was documented as a Brazilian arrested in The Netherlands. The GRU invested over 10 years in developing his persona, with intermittent trips back to Moscow for debriefings, training and assimilation.)
A Russian passport was issued to Maria Adel in 2006. The passport issued happened to fall within a series of passport numbers known to be used by GRU intelligence operatives, including two previously outed by Bellingcat for their role in the Skripal poisoning in 2018. Whoever was in charge of getting her a passport at the GRU took the easy road and just pulled one from the GRU stash instead of sending her down to the Moscow passport office and applying for a passport like every other citizen.
3. OPSEC fail
The last nugget which cemented the fictitious persona with the real Kolobova was her poor OPSEC. The Bellingcat team uncovered a Facebook site belonging to Adela Serein (another of her casual aliases) and a WhatsApp account belonging to Kolobova and lo’ and behold she used the exact same photo for both. Her true name account with WhatsApp and her defunct (to her) operational account in the name of Adella Serein, thus connecting two additional dots.
Exit stage left
So in 2018, when Bellingcat pieced together the existence of the GRU passport sequence, the GRU pulled the plug on Kolobova and ordered her emergency, yet orderly, departure from Naples. She collected her dog, a bag, and left.
The tip of the hat for unraveling this tale belongs to Bellingcat, who may have been uniquely responsible for other illegal operations terminating due to the sequenced passport numbers. Immigration offices around the world have had three years to check if any of the passports in that series have entered their country. We’d not be in a position to know, but the exit of the individual in a hurry contemporaneously with Kolobova might be a good indicator that this individual Russian was up to no good. .
While this tale is convoluted as most are when unraveling an illegal’s cover story, the bottom line is that this is the second illegal laid bare operating in Europe in the last six months. There is no doubt there are more to be discovered.