"And the Russian missile was THIS big." Credit: TOLGA AKMEN/AFP via Getty Images

February 8, 2021   6 mins

At a time when faith in the media is historically low — when reliably reported news is almost as likely to be branded “fake news” as the real thing — there is one glaring exception. One source whose reporting is treated as the new gold standard. In less than 10 years, an organisation has emerged from the obscurity of a bedroom in Leicester to enjoy almost universal respect. It’s almost too good to be true.

The mysterious creature known as Bellingcat bounded into the public consciousness in September 2018, when it “outed” the would-be Salisbury assassins. The two Russians who poisoned Sergei Skripal and his daughter had been identified by the UK authorities as Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov, but it was assumed that these names were false. Bellingcat found that the pair, who had presented themselves as tourists in a widely ridiculed interview on Russian television, were in fact intelligence officers: Alexander Mishkin and Anatoliy Chepiga.

Bellingcat commanded headlines around the world for its discovery, naming first Mishkin then Chepiga on its website, two weeks apart. What is more, unlike most traditional media, it revelled not only in its scoops, but in explaining step by step just how it had outsmarted the competition, by using information entirely in the public domain: Russian military academy yearbooks, open databases of car registrations, passport numbers.

Even before the Salisbury incident, Bellingcat had a reputation. It put itself on the global sleuthing map in 2014 by publishing its painstaking research into the downing of MH17, just four months after the disaster. Bellingcat showed that a Buk missile system had been transported to Ukraine from a military base in the Russian city of Kursk, before being spotted on the return journey without one of its four missiles. Its evidence has been key in the criminal trial of three Russians and one Ukrainian believed to have been involved, which opened last year in The Hague.

Again, Bellingcat researchers said they worked entirely from sources — such as various Google platforms, press photos, crowd-sourcing and social media — available to anyone with the time and curiosity to look.

Most recently, Bellingcat has garnered headlines for the help — though the extent and precise nature of that help is not entirely clear — that it provided to Alexei Navalny during his five-month stay in Germany after he was poisoned. Bellingcat also established that a top-secret FSB (Russian security service) team had shadowed Navalny around Russia for at least five years. It is not clear whether the team ever had orders to kill him. But Bellingcat describes it as a “poison squad” and says it included people with chemical weapons expertise.

Apparently, no issue is too daunting. Over a decade, the organisation has fixed responsibility for atrocities during the war in Libya; found evidence of the Syrian government’s use of chemicals weapons against rebel forces; located ISIS sympathisers in Europe; and identified neo-Nazis in the Charlottesville protests. It has also been tackling disinformation connected with the Covid-19 pandemic. Last year, it was nominated for an Emmy award, in the Outstanding New Approaches category.

So it’s worth asking: who is Bellingcat? This is the question its founder, Eliot Higgins, sets out to answer in his new book, We are Bellingcat. The story told is of a shape-shifting feline that grew from modest beginnings in a Leicester family home to become the global byword for open-source journalism. Higgins now has staff and a research fellowship at the University of California at Berkeley. Bellingcat has its claws hooked to a bunch of collaborative international ventures and is ever on the prowl for more. “This is only,” he concludes, “the start.”

In many ways, the evolution of Bellingcat has depended on a climate in which traditional journalism and traditional funding models are in difficulty. It is a non-profit; its methods are collaborative, transparent and moral — and enable it to prove what others cannot. Its early “staff” began as volunteers; they work from home, or wherever they may be. Bellingcat does not deal with commercial concerns; it crowdfunds where it can. It does not hack anyone or anything — or, just for argument’s sake, curry favour with anyone from the murky world of intelligence. That is olde worlde investigation; Bellingcat is the new.

The small team Higgins originally assembled — including an ex-Stasi agent, a Dutchman and a Bulgarian who first “met” through their obsession with social media investigations — would perfectly meet Dominic Cummings’s specification for “weirdos and misfits with odd skills”. Its motto is “Identify, Verify, Amplify”. The appeal should be obvious. It doesn’t matter where you come from or how many degrees you don’t have (Higgins himself dropped out of university): you are your results. In fact, he and his crew find a certain satisfaction in their lack of formal qualifications. They acquire their expertise — for recognising weapons, say, or reading satellite images — as they go along. But so skilled have they become, Higgins suggests, that old-fashioned professionals increasingly approach Bellingcat when their own investigations reach a dead end.

And this might be the nub of it. Bellingcat has, through its undoubtedly dogged and impressive work, achieved huge success and, with it, such standing that reporters lap up its every finding. Bellingcat basks in universally warm journalistic profiles.  The BBC routinely gives its findings top headlines and its Newsnight programme worked with Bellingcat on its research into the Salisbury “third man”. Higgins recently had “lunch with FT”, where he was presented as a doughty fighter against misinformation.

A recent article by Tom Burge, who works for the FCDO, a defence-related think tank, offered some insights. He noted that not only could such groups ferret out hard-to-find information, but that at a time of declining trust in officialdom, Bellingcat et al enjoyed a credibility Western governments have largely lost.

But is it not here that the alarm bells — from which, incidentally, Bellingcat’s name derives — might start tinkling at least a little? Why should Bellingcat be exempt from the scepticism that journalists are trained to apply to every source and every conclusion? How does its (now considerable) self-regard stack up?

Yes, Bellingcat’s methods are new in that they exploit the precision and global reach of new communications. But the opportunities — provided by the quantity of information out there — are newer than the actual methods. To probe beyond the “usual suspects” is fundamental to investigative journalism. Bellingcat, it should be realised, has antecedents. The Troubles in Northern Ireland provided fertile territory for digging up facts inconvenient to the governments of the day. The revelations about rendition and torture during the US-led “war on terror” relied on dogged research — using flight manifests among other things — not dissimilar to the methods used by Bellingcat. Such investigations were at least as challenging to the establishment of the time as Bellingcat, which has mostly discomfited foreign governments.

Another, more important, question rarely asked among the blizzard of facts kicked up by Bellingcat’s investigations is how transparent is the organisation really? How genuinely open are all its sources? Higgins is impressive in his insistence that every fact and every conclusion is tracked, so that any amateur with sufficient application can, as with the scientific method, replicate the findings. But this boast, it emerges, is not quite true.

Many of the Russia-related investigations have relied to a greater or lesser degree on enormous data bases that somehow came into Higgins’s possession; other information has, at one time or another, involved payment, both above and below board. Sometimes Higgins notes these exceptions in his book and the possible qualms they might prompt; at other times he skirts delicately around the subject.

And a central question that proceeds from that is whether Bellingcat might, at any stage, have cooperated with a nation’s security services. With very few exceptions — including a report of a US strike on civilians in Syria — Bellingcat’s findings bolster what might be called a Western case: for anti-Assad rebels in Syria, against the Kremlin (MH17, the Salisbury poisonings, Navalny).

Does Higgins know with whom exactly he is consorting? He is upfront about funding from, and cooperation with, the US-based Atlantic Council, which in turn has received money from the UK Foreign Office. But where does the initial information or the tip-offs come from? How trustworthy are they? Those leaked Russian databases — who acquired them? Might they have been doctored in advance? Higgins doesn’t even hint at the possibility.

When Bellingcat identified Mishkin and Chepiga as the culprits in the Salisbury poisoning — and a third, more senior, character called Denis Sergeyev — did this information really come as news to the UK security services? Or was it helpful, shall we say, for that information to be released by a source that journalists, and the general public, might find more credible than the guys whose duff intelligence triggered the Iraq War? It is admitted (usually behind closed doors) that launching this war on a false premise has undermined trust in the intelligence services for a generation.

Likewise, does the tracking of Navalny by Russia’s security service imply orders to kill? Bellingcat’s own headlines give that impression, but surveillance and hit squads are rather different things.

Higgins’s partial answer is that some recent Russian actions — restrictions on conscripts using social media, better data-base security — amount to an admission that Bellingcat got it right. But always, everywhere? If Bellingcat wasn’t beholden to anyone at the start, is it now? And even if it isn’t, are there ways in which it has knowingly or not been co-opted? Tom Burge argues that organisations such as Bellingcat provide cover for information that governments want out there, but do not want to sign. He also notes, with disarming frankness, “unaffiliated analysts are harder to smear”.

Which might prompt the biggest question of all. Just who is Eliot Higgins? Beyond the barest mention of his failure as a student of journalism, his obsession with gaming and his Leicester home, he refers only to having held some “administrative” jobs, before what had been an absorbing hobby made him an expert and progressively became his work. We are Bellingcat, says the title of his book, and by the end we know something about Bellingcat as “an intelligence agency for the people”, as the subtitle has it. What we don’t know is: who’s the “we”?

Mary Dejevsky was Moscow correspondent for The Times between 1988 and 1992. She has also been a correspondent from Paris, Washington and China.