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What is the point of Bellingcat? Allegations of our involvement with security services are fuelled by a lack of understanding

Two Russian men on a cathedral-touring holiday of England. Photo by Metropolitan Police via Getty Images

Two Russian men on a cathedral-touring holiday of England. Photo by Metropolitan Police via Getty Images


February 15, 2021   6 mins

“Who is the real Bellingcat?” That was the question asked by journalist Mary Dejevsky in a recent article for UnHerd, and while I hope that the contents of the book We Are Bellingcat would go some way to answer this question, helped by our unusually open online methodology, I would like to tell our story.

In early 2012, I began the Brown Moses Blog, under a pseudonym I used on various forums, borrowed from the title of a Frank Zappa song. In the previous year, I had spent a lot of my free time arguing about the conflict in Libya on the Guardian Middle East Live Blog and posting, somewhat obsessively, the latest news and links on a thread on the Something Awful forums. Having my teenage years bookended by the Gulf War and the 2003 Invasion of Iraq, I developed an interest in conflict and the Middle East from what might be described as a leftist Western perspective, devouring books by the likes of Robert Fisk, Noam Chomsky and John Pilger. So, in 2010, I gravitated towards discussions on forums and social media about the Arab Spring.

Several things frustrated me about those discussions. While information, videos and photos were being shared online, they were often the subject of much debate if they showed one particular side in a bad light. Usually the question was “how do you know it’s real?” or “how do you know they’re telling the truth?” These are, of course, reasonable questions. But in early 2011, when rebel forces in Libya shared a video of the  town of Tiji, which they claimed had been captured, I stumbled across a way to at least show where videos were being filmed.

By using satellite imagery, freely available on Google Maps, it was possible to match features visible in the Tiji video, such as the dome of a mosque and its position in relation to a major road, to prove the video had been filmed there. I reviewed the footage over and over, looking at smaller and smaller objects, such as trees, walls and utility poles, and matched them to what was visible in the satellite imagery. This process, now a core skill of any online open source investigator, is known as geolocation, and became the basis of much of my initial work.

Because the satellite imagery and video was publicly available, I could demonstrate to those questioning the validity of the video not only the process I went through to locate it, but also the sources of evidence I was using. As I moved from arguing on internet forums to starting a blog in 2012, this transparency of both the process and the evidence became an integral part of my own writing, and what eventually became a common approach for the online open source community.

For some of the older generation of journalists, this form of radical transparency in both sourcing and methodology runs counter to the custom of keeping your methods and scoops to yourself. For me, it came from the understanding that I was no more credible than any other random internet commentator, so I could only demonstrate how I had come to my conclusions step by step, pointing to the evidence I was using, and sharing it as widely as possible.

Fast forward 10 years and the BBC and New York Times are winning top tier journalism awards for open source investigations, human rights NGOs are collecting open source material and the likes of the ICC are examining the use of open source evidence and analysis in their own work. It has become difficult to recall a time where now-established online open source investigation techniques were barely known and practised by just a handful of people.

That was the situation when I first started doing this, and it is only because of  transparency that trust and understanding has developed in online open source investigation over the years. That transparency not only involved publishing detailed investigations, with the methodologies and sources explained at length, but appearing at a wide range of conferences, talking to activists, journalists, policy-makers and others, giving detailed presentations and workshops about my work and how online open source investigation was done. Often, the reaction from the audience was as if I were performing magic tricks on stage; but after years of presenting the work online open source investigation went from magic to something more akin to science.

For those outside this years-old process, it might seem as though Bellingcat appeared from nowhere. However, it was born from my efforts to spread the use of online open source investigation as transparently as possible; a community grew around our work. Journalists, activists, researchers and policymakers who followed the conflict in Syria came to know and trust my work, thanks to this transparency. When Flight MH17 was shot down in July 2014, Bellingcat’s work on Ukraine and Russia also became widely known, not least when the official criminal investigation in 2016 confirmed many of our findings. With Russia’s bombing of Syria in 2015, those online and offline communities were brought together once more, further growing the online open source investigation community and returning me to the topic I had started blogging about in 2012.

As with so much of our work, it was not the dictates of editors (or intelligence agencies) that directed what to cover, but the natural evolution of the community based on the interests of its members. As I found with my own early work, the best results are produced when people are investigating topics that interest them. As Bellingcat has grown from a Kickstarted organisation of volunteers to a foundation in the Netherlands with 20 staff members, that ethos, allowing investigators to dig into whatever subject they find most interesting, is still at the heart of how we operate.

While the natural evolution of the open source investigation community has followed many of the activities of the Russian Federation, Bellingcat has covered a wide range of subjects. These include dozens of investigations into Saudi airstrikes in Yemen, hundreds of incidents of police violence against Black Lives Matters protesters and journalists covering protests in the US, the involvement of Frontex in illegal border pushbacks, the underground trade in wild animals in Dubai, the rise of QAnon, the US bombing of a mosque full of civilians in Syria and much, much more. Despite that, Russia and its supporters have continued to insist that Bellingcat is especially Ruso-focused,  frequently alleging that this shows it is tied to Western governments or the intelligence services.

This disinformation and paranoia is fueled by a perspective that sees the West and Russia in direct opposition to each other, where one side must be picked above another, and all those on the opposing side do not genuinely believe what they are saying, but have somehow been compromised. A useful mindset for those who prefer their opinions over evidence, but one that leads only to conspiratorial thinking and worldviews.

This conspiratorial thinking about Bellingcat went into overdrive with our work on the Skripal poisonings. While we generally only use online open source evidence in our investigations, the Skripal poisoning left us with an ethical and investigative quandary. Russia is an extremely corrupt state, and as a result, a black market for personal data has emerged online and offline. Back in 2009, the Financial Times found a literal market in Russia where CDs “with names such as “Ministry of Interior — Federal Road Safety Service”, “Tax Service” and “Federal Anti-Narcotics Service” were sold openly. Today, a simple Google search yields brokers on Russian forums selling data that includes travel and phone records.

Using this kind of data, our lead researcher (and volunteer) Christo Grozev began to piece together the true identities of the Skripal suspects, allowing us to reveal them as GRU officers, not sports nutrition salesmen on a trip to Salisbury to visit the “famous 123m spire”, as they had explained to Russia’s RT News.

For those who already had conspiratorial leanings, and a total ignorance of these data markets, Bellingcat’s revelations fed their paranoia. They claimed, like the Russian authorities, that we were somehow being passed information from the intelligence services, churning it out without any verification. These claims have persisted with our continued use of Russia’s black market in data, linking the team involved in the Skripal affair to an earlier poisoning of a Bulgarian arms dealer, later identifying chemistry labs where members of Russia’s Novichok programme were reassigned, and had been in contact with the same GRU unit responsible for the Skripal poisoning up until the assassination attempt took place.

Allegations of our involvement with the intelligence services are of course false, fueled by a lack of understanding of our work (despite detailing our process on our website and it being verified by independent Russian media).

These allegations, and their veracity, can be summed up by claims made by the Russian Ambassador to the UK, shortly after we published our first stories on the Skripal poisoning. During a lengthy press conference in October 2018 he repeatedly alleged that Bellingcat was “part of the British deep establishment” with financial links to the intelligence services. When asked what his evidence was, he replied “I cannot present you the evidence, this is, you know, some kind of information that we have we’re not using this, but we’re taking is, is a something that we in the back of our mind so that’s it. I can’t present you anything, but we have a feeling so I cannot present it to you.” Which cleared it up.

At Bellingcat, we ask for evidence, not feelings. In oppressive states like Russia, allegations of involvement with foreign intelligence services can lead to harassment, abuse, violence or imprisonment. But across the world there are rising challenges to press freedom and journalists’ safety, and as oppressive regimes use terror and violence to scare their opponents and get their way, our aim is to ensure that the whole world knows about it.


Eliot Higgins is the founder and executive director of Bellingcat. His book We are Bellingcat is available now.

EliotHiggins

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Charles Hedges
CH
Charles Hedges
3 years ago

I would suggest that part of the problem with jounalists and academics is the lack of knowledge and experience. The days when a journalist spoke several languages, had deep knowledge of history going back to Greece; lived in countries for decades ( as perhaps his family had ) , had served in combat or been say in the Foreign Office/ICS ( Toynbee ) are long gone. Examples of people with this breadth of knowledge and experience which are long gone are :- Gertrude Bell, T E Lawrence, A Toynbee, GM Trevelyan, John Glubb( RE Officer and had served in Iraq and Jordan from 1920 to 1955 ), Mark Tully( born in India, speaks several languages), Paddy Leigh Fermour, Charles Wheeler( Born in Germany to a father who worked in shipping, lived there and served in 30 Assault Unit ), Northcote Parkinson ( Historian and WW2 staff officer under Monty ).
When it comes to reporting on a riot, especially if there is gunfire, it is difficult to understand what is happening. However, a reporter who has led soldiers in street fighting can judge types of gun fire, distance and direction or know that buildings will cause noise to be altered. Wellington said one could not report on a battle. There is also the gut feeling. If one has certain sensitivity and lives in an area one can feel the change in atmosphere leading up to a disturbance. Good reporters will be picking clues; the waiter who goes from being friendly to civil to hostile over a few days.
The result is that Westerners become used in conflicts within families, between families, clans, tribes, religions, cast and and language. Conflicts can go back hunfdreds or thousands of years. When was the first conflcit recorded between India and Sri lanka? The conflicts between Croatia and Bosnia could be said to back to the divide in Roma in AD 325. The conflict between Saudi Arabia and Yemen goes back to when tribesmen first started raiding northwards which is how many thousands of years ?
There is also the reality of people getting into positions of authority who are utterly clueless. It would be easy to construct a conspiracy theory that Chamberlain, Baldwin and the Labour Party were in the pay of Hitler based upon decisions made from 1933 to 1940.None of these people went to Germany and actually loooked at what Hitler was doing after 1933, understood the history and analysed war production data. There was a journalist from The Time who wrote a book( Insanity Fair, I think ) in about 1938 warning about the Nazis based on his travel but he was sacked and then mocked by everyone.
There are two views of history, the c**k up and conspiracy. The conspiracy hides the c**k up. When was the last time a politician, state employee, academic, reporter, lawyer, activist, etc admit to a c**k up ?
When it comes to a riot ask these questions: when did you start living in the area, do you know people from all walks of life( criminals included), do you speak the languages, understand the divides, where were you, can you identify types distances and direction of gunfire ( difference between 5.56mm, 7.62m AK47 and 7.62mm NATO, 9mm or 0.45 side arm ), cartridge cases found, what could you see at night, who was injured and how, when and where and how do you know, are there blood patterns. but no bodies |( bodies been removed ) Have parties tried to conceal the truth , if so how? If areas were washed evidence was destroyed. The reality is that even reporters with film and sound recording from top teams do not know what is happening, how can they, unless they are a Tully reporting from the Indian sub-continent?

Jos Haynes
JH
Jos Haynes
3 years ago
Reply to  Charles Hedges

Insanity Fair by Douglas Reed. First published April 1938, and by August was on its 16th impression. Reed lived in Vienna from 1937-38

Charles Hedges
CH
Charles Hedges
3 years ago
Reply to  Jos Haynes

Thank you. Read it many years agao and as far as I can remember, outlined nazi threat and was sacked by The Times : am I correct?

Alex Lekas
AL
Alex Lekas
3 years ago

hundreds of incidents of police violence against Black Lives Matters protesters and journalists covering protests in the US,
Hundreds you say? That must be why, well, hundreds of cops have been hospitalized while the same cannot be said of either BLM protesters or journos. Andy Ngo is about the only journo I can think of who saw violence, but it wasn’t the cops who did it.

Colin Macdonald
CM
Colin Macdonald
3 years ago

You mention hundreds of acts of violence against BLM. You’d kinda expect police to come out swinging billy cubs when BLM tries to burn city centres to the ground! What would the Gendarmarie do if “youths” attempted the same on the Champs Elysee?

Fraser Bailey
FB
Fraser Bailey
3 years ago

Exactly. The police and the judiciary etc has been very tolerant of BLM/Antifa when you consider that they killed numerous innocent people and caused tens of billions of damage in terms or rioting, burning and looting etc.

corustar
DF
corustar
3 years ago

I find reading many Bellingcat articles highly informative. However your coverage of the rioting in America just doesn’t come across as trustworthy and is written by journalists appearing to revel being a part of the riots on other social media instead of neutral commentary.

Derek M
DM
Derek M
3 years ago

I certainly hold no candle for the kleptocratic and thuggish Russian government but it’s noticeable in it’s coverage of non-Russian targets where this organisation’s political bias lies. For example, It’s very keen on ‘exposing’ ‘far-right’ groups in the US but is totally silent on Antifa

Colin Macdonald
CM
Colin Macdonald
3 years ago
Reply to  Derek M

I think their bias must make it pretty straightforward for intelligence services to “play” them. Something that the author completely failed to address. How can he be sure his Russian sources don’t work for MI6?

Benedict Waterson
BW
Benedict Waterson
3 years ago

he said his ‘Russian sources’ were info bought on the Russian black market

Judy Johnson
Judy Johnson
3 years ago
Reply to  Derek M

Does the author not explain his bias when he writes, ‘the best results are produced when people are investigating topics that interest them’?

stephen f.
SF
stephen f.
3 years ago

The statements on BLM/police violence undermine your claim of being disinterested…

mike otter
mike otter
3 years ago

Being fair to the guy he does admit to left wing bias in his article, so its no surprise he’s pro BLM, pro rioting etc etc. Regardless of his student type politics i think Bellingcat has overall been a force for good. Whether or not you have video or still photo evidence geo data can be very useful to corroborate or falsify a theory. You don’t have to agree with their politics to praise their methodology, though i can’t help wondering what the Bellingcat types make of the US election? Videos show official observers being thrown out of poll counts and testimony of the 47 missing USB drives in Delaware County, Penn.

Swiveleyed Loon
SL
Swiveleyed Loon
3 years ago

I noticed this: ‘..as oppressive regimes use terror and violence to scare their opponents and get their way, our aim is to ensure that the whole world knows about it.’
Sounds like a pretty good description of the way the UK police forces are dealing with protesters against lockdown, backed by politicians who have found an excuse to turn our long-standing liberal democracy with its bedrocks of free association and free speech into a police state ruled by a cabal of politicians and a secretive set of so-called scientists.

stephen f.
stephen f.
3 years ago

“Think globally-act locally”. Fascinating and instructive how so many governments and regimes around the world have joined hands and jumped on this “never let a good crisis go to waste” opportunity.

David Bottomley
PG
David Bottomley
3 years ago

Police state? You are doing a massive disservice and insult to North Korea, the old USSR, Cuba, Franco’s Spain. Secretive set of so-called scientists? Are you for real? What, in your mind is a ‘real’ scientist?

Dennis Boylon
DB
Dennis Boylon
3 years ago

Bellingcat is a propaganda service for the intelligence agencies. They don’t do intelligence work. They do propaganda. HIggins is a complete fraud who peddles lies.

Roger Inkpen
RI
Roger Inkpen
3 years ago
Reply to  Dennis Boylon

I see the St Petersburg troll factory is working overtime…

David Simpson
David Simpson
3 years ago
Reply to  Dennis Boylon

Evidence?

David Otness
David Otness
3 years ago

Utter codswallop and not worthy of a read. Funded by the Atlantic Council and who knows how many 3-letter/numeral agencies. Higgins has been exposed since like forever. GTFOH