British man recruited as 'Russian spy' charged with masterminding arson attack on Ukrainian-linked businesses in London

26 April 2024, 14:18 | Updated: 26 April 2024, 20:04

Eight fire engines and around 60 firefighters were called to a fire at an industrial estate on Staffa Road in Leyton, east London
Eight fire engines and around 60 firefighters were called to a fire at an industrial estate on Staffa Road in Leyton, east London. Picture: London Fire Brigade

By Flaminia Luck

A 20-year-old British man has been charged with masterminding an arson attack on Ukrainian-linked businesses in London after allegedly being recruited as a "Russian spy".

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Dylan Earl has been charged under the National Security Act 2023 - the first case to involve alleged offences under the new legislation.

The 20-year-old from Elmsthorpe, Leicestershire, is accused of organising and paying for an arson attack on two units on an industrial estate in east London on 20th March.

He is alleged to be connected to the proscribed terrorist group the Wagner Group, court documents show.

Four other men, Paul English, Nii Mensah, Jake Reeves and Dmitrijus Paulauska were also been charged in connection with the case.

The investigation is related to a large fire which broke out on an industrial estate on Staffa Road, Leyton, which the prosecution said was started using an accelerant such as petrol.

Eight fire engines and around 60 firefighters tackled a fire involving a range of industrial units at an industrial estate on Staffa Road in Leyton. Part of three single-storey units were damaged by fire, however there were no reports of any injuries. 

The cause of the fire was investigated by the Brigade and the Metropolitan Police Service.

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UK Daily Life 2024
All five men will next appear at the Central Criminal Court on a date to be confirmed, the CPS said. Picture: Getty

Earl is alleged to have targeted businesses which were linked to Ukraine in order to benefit the Russian state, the Crown Prosecution Service said.

He was arrested on 10 April 2024 under Section 27 of the National Security Act 2023 on suspicion of being involved in foreign power threat activity.

He was later charged on 19 April 2024 and appeared at Westminster Magistrates’ Court on Saturday 20 April.

He is charged with aggravated arson reckless as to whether life will be endangered, preparatory conduct to an act endangering life or a person or an act creating a serious risk to the health and safety of the public in the United Kingdom and assisting a foreign intelligence service.

A spokesperson for the Foreign Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) said in a statement: “The UK remains deeply concerned by allegations of Russian orchestrated malign activity on UK soil, as well as the wider reported pattern of behaviour we are witnessing on the part of the Russian Federation to sponsor such activity on the territory of other, sovereign states.

“We call for an immediate cessation of this activity and we will continue to work with our allies to deter and defend against the full spectrum of threats that emanate from Russia.”

What is Wagner?

Yevgeny Prigozhin - a wealthy businessman and convicted criminal - said he founded Wagner in 2014.

It was registered as a "private military company" in 2022, as mercenary forces are technically illegal in Russia.

Most Wagner mercenaries initially came from Russia's special forces and other elite units, and in its early days the group was thought to number about 5,000.

However, in 2022, Prigozhin recruited prisoners from Russian jails to fight in Ukraine, in exchange for pardons. In June, he said the group had 25,000 fighters.

The group also operated in Syria, Mali, the Central African Republic, Sudan and Libya.

Wagner troops were heavily involved in the battle for Bakhmut, in eastern Ukraine, which they captured for Russia in May 2023.

In June 2023, some 5,000 Wagner fighters staged a mutiny. They occupied the southern Russian city of Rostov-on-Don, and marched on Moscow.

Prigozhin halted the advance after making a deal with Russian President Putin, which was brokered by the Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko.

Prigozhin was confirmed dead in a plane crash in August 2023.

Mercenary group Wagner has been designated as a terrorist group by the UK government
Wagner, the Russian mercenary organisation, has been proscribed as a terrorist organisation. Picture: Getty

'Highly significant moment'

Commander Dominic Murphy, Head of the Met's Counter Terrorism Command said: "This is a highly significant moment and investigation for us.

"Not only are the charges that have been authorised by the CPS extremely serious, but it is also the first time that we have arrested, and now charged anyone using the powers and legislation brought in under the National Security Act.

"We have spoken publicly in recent times about various threats linked to national security that we have been facing, and the increase in operational activity required across counter terrorism policing to meet these.

"While these are very serious allegations, I want to reassure the public that we do not believe there to be any wider threat to them in connection with this matter.

"This investigation remains ongoing, but now that charges have been brought about I would urge everyone to respect the criminal justice process and not to speculate or comment further in relation to this case."

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Tom Tugendhat MP, Minister of State for Security, said the charges demonstrated the value of the National Security Act 2023.

The security minister said: "The first charges under the National Security Act 2023, as announced by the CPS, demonstrate its value in protecting the UK from those who threaten our way of life.

"We will continue to work with partners to crack down on threats from Russia and anyone facilitating hostile activities."

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Nick Price, head of the CPS Special Crime and Counter Terrorism Division, said: "Dylan Earl, 20, is alleged to have engaged in conduct targeting businesses which were linked to Ukraine in order to benefit the Russian state.

"Included in the alleged activity was involvement in the planning of an arson attack on a Ukrainian-linked commercial property in March 2024.

"Two further men, Paul English, 60, and Nii Mensah, 21, have also been charged with aggravated arson in connection with this case.

"Another man, Jake Reeves, 22, has been charged with agreeing to accept a material benefit from a foreign intelligence service as well as aggravated arson.

"A fifth man, Dmitrijus Paulauska, 22, has been charged with having information about terrorist acts."

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