“It was the actions of Russia that really put Bellingcat on the map.” Sarah Hurst reviews Eliot Higgins’ ‘We Are Bellingcat: An Intelligence Agency for the People’

3 February 2021

by Sarah Hurst

Sarah Hurst reviews: We Are Bellingcat: An Intelligence Agency for the People, by Eliot Higgins, Bloomsbury Publishing, London, 2021, 272pp, ISBN 9781526615725.

In the space of a few years Bellingcat has become a household name for its revelations about the downing of MH17 and the poisoning of the Skripals and Aleksei Navalny. This fascinating account by its founder of how it got started and what it does also describes many other investigations into events around the world, but it was the actions of Russia that really put Bellingcat on the map. The group of obsessive researchers proved that MH17 was shot down by a Russian Buk missile and identified the military unit that operated the weapon, as well as the commanders who gave the orders. They also found the real identities of “Alexander Petrov” and “Ruslan Boshirov” after the novichok assassins appeared on RT claiming to have been viewing the spire of Salisbury cathedral. 

Eliot Higgins explains how he became absorbed in current affairs while he was doing an office job in Leicester in 2011, watching the Arab Spring unfold online. He moved from the Something Awful message boards to his own blog under the name Brown Moses, taken from a Frank Zappa song. Higgins describes this process step by step, as he does in Bellingcat investigations, so that anyone can trace it back and check the facts for themselves. He is all too aware that the Russians, who regularly insult him on RT and social media – one “diplomat” constantly talks about “Bellingcrap” – will seize on any opportunity to claim that the CIA and George Soros pay him to invent stories if there are any holes in his account.

Higgins started geolocating when a Libyan rebel video that appeared to have been made in the town of Brega appeared on YouTube. From the start he was ruthlessly dedicated to searching for the truth, wherever it led. He wanted to have more to contribute to online debates than the usual furious but unsubstantiated assertions. He couldn’t understand Arabic, but drew a sketch map based on the video and rotated it on the roads of the town on Google Maps until suddenly it fitted their layout. He had proved that the rebels had taken part of Brega. “I had found evidence nobody else had, not even the journalists on the ground,” he writes. “I watched as my discovery filtered through the message boards. Even news professionals took note.” 

The war in Syria was the next huge challenge, and Higgins set about documenting and verifying as many videos from it as he could, with the help of volunteer collaborators. He had more energy and commitment than most in doing this, and could tolerate looking at the atrocious scenes of violence. He became an expert on the bizarre array of weapons being used by all sides: “I found a heavy machine gun mounted on a trolley; fuse-lit explosive bottles fired with an oversized slingshot; a homemade missile that looked like a hybrid of a firework and a space rocket.” After verifying cluster bombings and chemical weapons attacks Higgins’ blog was becoming popular and he was invited onto NPR’s Weekend Edition.

At the same time Russia had joined what it calls the “information wars,” spreading disinformation via RT and social media – some of which originated from American conspiracy theorists such as Alex Jones, according to Higgins. “Repressive states, which had long faced bad press abroad, could now bypass independent journalists, injecting propaganda directly into foreign countries,” Higgins writes. “Disinformation became a key lever of foreign policy.” RT’s editor-in-chief, Margarita Simonyan, stated this overtly in 2012 when she said, “The Defence Ministry isn’t fighting anyone at the moment, but it’s ready for defence. So are we.”

In late 2013 Higgins decided to set up an organisation to expand his activities, and got the name Bellingcat from journalist Peter Jukes, who told him a story about mice escaping from a cat by hanging a bell around its neck. Bellingcat’s motto would be “Identify, Verify, Amplify.” Gradually the group has established itself as an “intelligence agency for the people” that rushes into action when a high-profile incident happens anywhere in the world, from novichok poisonings to far-right attacks in the United States. Bellingcat is at the forefront in using digital tools to analyse events. It has also moved from relying exclusively on open source intelligence to acquiring Russian databases on the black market to trace the car-purchasing habits of FSB operatives. The ethics of such activities can be debated, but Bellingcat has developed a code of ethics and believes that public scrutiny will result in some kind of consensus emerging on whether the ends justify the means. 

Higgins, who is now based in The Netherlands, has been asked to be a witness in the trial of the MH17 suspects in The Hague, and Bellingcat sends information to law-enforcement bodies before publishing it if it deems that to be the best course of action. “Today I am a member of the International Criminal Court’s technology advisory board, helping judicial officials understand how open-source investigation can apply to their cases,” he writes. It isn’t entirely surprising that governments and large bureaucratic institutions have been much slower to adopt the new technologies than highly motivated private citizens. Bellingcat has fully capitalised on that advantage.

Of course, these tools are also available to dictators, terrorists and criminals, and their use for harm rather than for good will pose an increasing threat in the coming years. Someone’s life and reputation could be destroyed with the use of deepfakes, for example, and we can’t always rely on there being enough citizen journalists out there to debunk them and convince audiences that they aren’t real. Databases of personal information can be used as a weapon if they fall into the wrong hands. Bellingcat is sometimes compared to WikiLeaks, which started out exposing war crimes in Iraq but ended up as a mouthpiece for the Kremlin. Bellingcat is certainly the Batman of the digital investigative world, but there are plenty of Jokers around. “We Are Bellingcat” vividly exposes that Pandora’s Box. 

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