Weapon of Mass Discovery How a gamer created ‘Bellingcat’ and became a world-famous military expert

Meduza
Photo: bellingcat.com

On February 17, the Bellingcat website created by British analyst Eliot Higgins published a study on the conflict in Eastern Ukraine. Higgins, aided by his team of volunteers, concluded that Russian artillery was responsible for shelling Ukrainian territory during the summer of 2014. Their report is based on open-source data: records pulled from social networks, photos, videos, and satellite images. Higgins and his colleagues spoke to Meduza’s Ilya Rozhdestvensky and explained how a humble admin worker and professional gamer managed to become one of the world’s foremost experts on military weaponry. 

When he started Bellingcat, Eliot Higgins, who’s 35-years-old today, had no professional experience in journalism. He had no connections with human rights organizations and he didn’t speak a word of Arabic. In 2012, however, he became known as the man who uncovered the plot to ship illegal arms to Syria. He tracked down Croatian weaponry, proved that Sarin gas was used in the suburbs of Damascus, and got the attention of the British Parliament. What’s more, he managed to do all this without leaving his small house in Leicester. The only tool at his disposal, while sitting in the living room among his daughter’s scattered toys, was an ASUS laptop.

Eliot Higgins
Eliot Higgins
Photo: REX / Fotodom.ru

In his youth, Higgins was expelled from the Department of Journalism at Southampton University. He then became a bank clerk, and the last place he worked at was a lingerie store. He married a woman of Turkish descent, whom he met on ICQ, and in October 2011 they welcomed a daughter into the world. Higgins found himself no longer glued to the computer for 36-hour sessions of World of Warcraft, Fallout, and Command and Conquer. Now he had other priorities. But after six months, he needed something to replace his old habit, and he became interested in the conflict in Syria. Under the pseudonym of Brown Moses, taken from a Frank Zappa song, he became an active commentator on Internet news articles: On the Guardian’s website alone, he left about 5,000 comments. Today, he says he was “just bored.”

“I guess I'm a bit argumentative,” admits Higgins.

In January 2012, he started a blog, where he published his views about the war in Syria and the fighting between the opposition and the forces of Bashar al-Assad. He had no background in weapons, but they became the focus of his investigations. With incredible attention to detail, he meticulously studied the videos and photos that appeared on the Internet. Every evening he sifted through Syrian accounts on YouTube, Twitter, and Google+ (distracted only by the TV series Eastenders and Columbo). When he began, he was following only 15 channels on YouTube. Today, he says the number is closer to 600 channels. Comparing the materials available there, he could, for example, confirm that cluster bombs made in China were being used in Syria. Higgins compiled a database that included information about the use of cluster bombs in 491 separate videos, and added a detailed map. Some journalists say Higgins must have sold weapons, because he knows so much about the subject, but these accusations just make him laugh.

Remnants of a RBK-250/275 AO-1SCh cluster bomb in Deir Jamal from a strike on February 28, 2013
Remnants of a RBK-250/275 AO-1SCh cluster bomb in Deir Jamal from a strike on February 28, 2013
Photo: Human Rights Watch

“Before the Arab spring, I knew no more about weapons than the average Xbox owner. I had no knowledge beyond what I'd learned from Arnold Schwarzenegger and Rambo.”

Higgins catalogued tens of thousands of messages on the social networks. The flow of information, which no journalists had time to sift through, began to make some kind of sense. Definite patterns started to emerge from what before had just seemed like "white noise." A few months later, Brown Moses Blog was being read by employees at all the major media outlets, as well as by British and American officials. Higgins’ anonymity almost backfired on him: he was accused of having links with the CIA, MI5, MI6, Mossad, and even with the Bilderberg Club.

In the spring of 2013, the blog started to bring in some money for Higgins. He has collected about $17,000 in donations, half of which has come from the world's largest crowdfunding service, Indiegogo. Then he began accepting commissions to analyze social networks. His clients have included organizations such as Human Rights Watch. This came as some relief for Higgins’ spouse, he says, who was waiting for him to find a "normal job.”

In August 2013, it was Higgins’ investigation that helped to prove the use of chemical weapons near Damascus. While the United States, Britain, and France already claimed to have such evidence, they refused to disclose more detailed information, arguing that it was classified. Higgins, however, presented a detailed report, which confirmed everyone’s worst suspicions: it was Sarin gas.

In the summer of 2014, Higgins stopped blogging, founded the Bellingcat project, and set up a small team. Bellingcat was financed by donations coming through Kickstarter. To run the project for six months, he needed about £47,000 (about $73,000), which he managed to collect in a month. Now, Higgins is working with about 20 people, including Aaron Stein, an expert on the Iranian and Turkish nuclear programs, and Aliaume Leroy, an expert on Southern Sudan and the drug trade. He is also working with Dan Kaszeta, a former officer in the US Army Chemical Corps and a former Secret Service agent, and Karl Morand, who served 4.5 years in the US Army, half of which he spent in Iraq.

Fundraising for Bellingcat began on July 15th. Two days later, in the sky above Donbas in Ukraine, Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, a Boeing 777-200 en route from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, was shot down. Al 298 people on board were killed. Higgins’ colleagues and followers asked him to get on the case. A few hours later, he discovered the Buk anti-aircraft missile system and the next day was able to say with confidence that the Buk had been seen in Thorez about 15 kilometers from the crash site. In late July, Higgins described in detail how the SAM (mobile, radar-guided surface-to-air missile) had been moved through the Donetsk region.

“Our methods of investigation are applicable to many situations, and the conflict in eastern Ukraine is no exception. So I created a team of volunteers who began to study the data in the public domain,” explains Higgins. “You don't really need a team of artillery specialists, the process itself is quite straightforward, and we put together a tutorial for the team explaining each step of the process.”

Collecting information about the war in eastern Ukraine was slightly easier than analyzing data about the Syrian opposition. First, unlike Syria, there are some journalists in Donbas who are ready to help Higgins confirm or deny his theories. Second, there are two Russian speakers on the Bellingcat team. One of them is Ignat Ostanin (his friends call him Iggy). His parents immigrated to England when he was 9-years-old, and he speaks Russian, albeit with a slight accent.

Igor was captivated by events in Ukraine from the beginning of the conflict. However, he failed to satisfy his curiosity by reading the Russian media because, he says, he saw that news articles contained too many lies. For a while, he argued with Internet users in the comments sections of various news stories, later taking the investigation into his own hands. While studying law at the University of York, he produced several articles and passed them on to Higgins. His first publication on Bellingcat, which he dedicated to the memory of those killed on flight MH17, was published on September 8 and became a sensation: Ostanin argued that the plane was shot down by a Russian Buk, which was controlled by a Russian military group from the 53rd anti-missile air defense brigade Kursk. The results of the investigation have appeared in the media, and bloggers themselves translated the article into Russian. 

The next translation appeared two months later: a report dated November 8, which explained how the Buk entered Ukrainian territory, who operated it, the location of the SAM on July 17, and what happened to it after the crash. According to Ostanin, the Russian authorities released a satellite image in response to his article, which supposedly shows a jet fighter attacking the Malaysian plane. The story was aired on Channel 1 on Mikhail Leontiev’s program Odnako. It soon became clear that the satellite picture was a crude forgery, and Leontiev was forced onto the defensive: "I do not know what those bloggers proved. I know one thing: there is the objective evidence. Russia presented its data, maybe not all of it. Show us your data, you brutes! Damn, do they have any experience working in intelligence or in space exploration, these bloggers? So give us their names, their titles, and so on."

One of the frames used to restore the chronology of clashes in Mariupol, May 9, 2014
One of the frames used to restore the chronology of clashes in Mariupol, May 9, 2014
Photo: bellingcat.com

The investigation into flight MH17 continues, but there have been no big breakthroughs, so far. At the same time, in the summer of 2014, the Bellingcat team engaged with the broader theme — the presence of Russian troops in eastern Ukraine. They found Russian tanks close to the border, secret separatist training camps, Russian Special Forces in Donetsk and found connections between Pskov paratroopers and neo-Nazi groups. Since the beginning of 2015, they have shown how Russian weapons have crossed the border and been involved in the fighting in Eastern Ukraine. They tried to find out whether chemical weapons were used at Donetsk airport, and establish a chronology of the events in Mariupol on May 9.

Higgins and his team do not limit their analyses to social networks and videos, however. In mid-February, they released a report detailing launch sites of artillery fire on Ukrainian territory in the summer of 2014. As well as using traditional investigative techniques, they have developed a method for analyzing Google satellite imagery: using maps in the public domain, they spotted clusters of craters formed by artillery fire. Craters were divided into two types: low-angle fuse quick craters and high-angle shell craters. This research method was invented by Sean Case, who has worked with Bellingcat since November 2014, when he discovered a large number of craters caused by artillery shells near the border inside Ukraine. He then created a website where he published the results of his preliminary investigation and contacted Higgins. It turned out that knowing an artillery specialist was very useful for Bellingcat.

“I developed the first versions of the crater analysis technique we use by reading artillery manuals drafted by the US military. Artillery craters close to the Ukrainian-Russian border are very clear on Google Maps satellite imagery captured between July and September 2014 (resolution 0.5 m). Depending on the type of armament used, artillery craters leave very specific shapes in the ground—shapes that are routinely analyzed by armed forces worldwide using standard techniques to determine the origin of fire. As I mentioned above, I studied US army artillery manuals to learn about different crater-analysis techniques. I used these same crater-analysis principles, and just adapted them to satellite imagery,” Sean explains.

Traces of burnt grass, which can be seen in the Google images, helped Bellingcat find the exact location of the artillery. Tire tracks were used to establish what type of weapons were mounted on vehicles. Three attack sites were analyzed this way. It was possible to determine nine trajectories, eight of which indicated that shelling came from inside Russia, according to Case.

“It is possible that analyzing an attack site from satellite imagery containing very few artillery craters could result in some uncertainty and variation in the trajectory. But when you analyze a minimum of 200 craters at the same site, and then determine the average trajectory (as we did), the probability that you have got the trajectory completely wrong is extremely small. Indeed, we found that the average trajectory of each attack site passed very close to unusual burned areas in the ground (very specifically-shaped burned areas indicative of MLRS fire present only in areas in the conflict zone), giving us evidence that certain Russian military positions were used to fire artillery. In this way, we had a second confirmation to show that our crater trajectory analysis was accurate.”

In the near future, Bellingcat’s team plans to investigate the shelling of Donetsk and Lugansk, although, according to Higgins, the available information may not be enough to determine which of the parties of the conflict was shooting at residential areas.

“We had a look, but I don't think the evidence available was conclusive enough to blame one side or the other.”