We are Bellingcat, by Eliot Higgins, describes the past decade in open-source intelligence. It charts the creation of Bellingcat, an “intelligence agency for the people”, which compiles open-source evidence to analyze war and government malfeasance, notably as perpetrated in Arab countries after the revolutions in 2011 and by the Russian state across the world.
Having begun his work as a blogger attempting to verify facts in the wars which followed the Arab Spring, Higgins now runs an operation in Bellingcat that has many members and moving parts. His book is remarkable and this is, at least in part, because of its resolutely ordinary tone. It describes extraordinary things in ways which are largely practical, lofty ambitions as though they are obvious and possible, and results that few could have imagined as though they were arrived at through processes of extreme simplicity.
Higgins is the founder and chief spokesman of the Bellingcat group — a collection of formerly amateur digital detectives who seek to use almost exclusively open-source information to pin war crimes and acts of violent espionage on powerful perpetrators. In practice, this means using sources opportunistically — from satellite imagery to leaked phone records — in order to pin down the dates, locations and times of significant events whose causes and perpetrators are not only often unknown, but actively disputed by nation states, as well as observers.
Many of Bellingcat’s recent investigations have either focussed on stories which are of major international importance or given rise to the reporting of those stories themselves. Higgins gives a background assessment of how his team was able to:
- Locate the Buk missile launcher that downed flight MH17 over Ukraine in 2014;
- Unmask a cell of chemical assassins run by Russia’s GRU military intelligence service;
- Geo-locate chancers who posted photographs of pieces of paper pledging their allegiance to the Islamic State from locations across the world; and
- track smaller-scale war criminals in Syria and Libya’s civil conflicts.
Because of his ability to uncover these crimes, Higgins is often deprecated by the state media of dictatorships, who use their resources to commit crimes that they believe will either go unnoticed or unpunished.
Each investigation builds small pieces of evidence — individually flimsy or trivial — into irrefutable tapestries. Bellingcat’s methods are scrupulous, and it only publishes things its people can see from every angle. The rigor of the Bellingcat approach belies its scrappy origins.
Higgins started his work as a blogger obsessed with the wars in the wake of the Arab revolutions at the beginning of the last decade. He was a creature of forums and newspaper website comment sections, who realized that concrete truths could be extrapolated from the mountains of video, photography and audio produced by participants in these conflicts.
He ran a small but influential blog, Brown Moses, which pioneered a transferable approach to conflict analysis, rather than one built upon deep knowledge of a given society’s deep history and traditions, or an individual conflict’s peculiarities. He would trace shipments of guns despite having no curator’s knowledge of firearms. He dipped his toe into the process of geolocation — something many in public policy were either new to entirely or conceived of as something almost magical in its abstraction.
Truth Can Be Ascertained
Higgins says that he was prompted to professionalize this approach when he witnessed the incompetence of intelligence agencies and the ignorance of politicians in responding to these conflicts. They spoke nonsense when the truth could be ascertained. They produced thin reports based on confidential sources when better evidence could be extracted from mountains of online information.
This much is true: there is great potential in open-source investigation — even when pursued by amateurs. Although, as Higgins hints, these avenues are only useful if they are explored by people determined to establish facts and not to substantiate agendas, and only when followed by groups with a strong system of ethics — something so many online interlocutors discussing war and peace clearly lack. Much of the book focuses on the practicalities of open-source investigation, and by relaying stories which feature these tools in use, individuals can learn for themselves how to use open sources.
Collecting Verifiable Facts
Higgins is adamant, there is little point in this work if it is not particular and intricate. The aim ought to be adding individual, verifiable facts to the collective store rather than favoring a tribal side or supplementing an argument already complete. Higgins explains how to “reverse search” an image offered by a number of search engines and how to uncover clumsy forgeries and misappropriated photographs with ease — regularly holding a number of state media operations below the water line.
When attempting to geolocate an event, or identify a person, it is crucial to find precise matches. The topography of a landscape or the topography of a face each have distinctive features. They cannot be approximated or estimated to be the same. However if — with appropriate sources and careful attention to perspective and shadow — these features all match, an investigator can feel satisfied.
Mapping software is remarkably effective — even in its lowest resolution versions — and can be useful, not only in matching shots taken from omniscient satellite-view, but also in more subjective questions of topography with various tools which allow for a 3D view. Photographers’ tools, including SunCalc — an online service which computes the angles of shadow and heights of the sun, can be helpful in establishing the time of day. More importantly, it is vital to survey and compile primary sources put out by local media, terrorist groups, protestors and campaigners.
Purging of History
With so much primary video from the Syrian revolution and civil war vanishing from both YouTube and other video sharing sites — in what resembles a years’ long rolling purge — much history has seemingly been lost. As social media firms prioritize their own clean hands over their duty to recent history, archiving material personally is often the only way to ensure that it survives.
The Bellingcat method is allied to the Bellingcat philosophy: facts are demonstrably true and matter, truth can win the day and truth and justice may not go hand in hand, but correspond frequently and that, in an age of impunity, all of this is not a waste of time.
Bellingcat’s methods have significantly affected the way many newsrooms operate, and they have led to some prosecutions for grave crimes. However, as Higgins writes, his aim is not to continue to work as a team, with increasing notice and fame. Instead, it is to propagate a method for sceptical and truthful investigation of murky data — the stuff thrown out by social media that defines modern life. These methods are so far removed from the worst habits of social media use, that they may seem difficult to emulate. But there is little harm in picking up the toolbox and attempting, carefully, to use it to do good.
European Eye on Radicalization aims to publish a diversity of perspectives and as such does not endorse the opinions expressed by contributors. The views expressed in this article represent the author alone.