A Kickstarter funded citizen journalist site is making huge strides in its first two weeks of operation.
In the past week alone, Bellingcat claims to have located the spot where US photojournalist James Foley met his death, an ISIS training camp, and the true perpetrators of the 2013 Syrian sarin gas attacks in Damascus.
It’s due largely the efforts of a former UK government admin worker named Eliot Higgins, who, since he was laid off in 2012, has been more commonly known online as “Brown Moses”.
When he found himself unemployed, Higgins began devoting more time to blogging about a very particular interest of his.
“When I started my blog I had been very interested in the conflict in Libya, and saw so much stuff being produced from Libya that seemed interesting to me, but was being totally overlooked by the mainstream media,” he said.
“Verification of that content was an issue, so I taught myself ways to verify as best I could.”
In January, 2103, he “verified” that Syrian rebels had got their hands on a batch of Croatian weapons, using a combination of watching the countless number of YouTube videos posted by militants, advice from ammunition experts and pure logic.
He used that information as the basis of a post he had been invited to write for the New York Times, which in turn used the information to eventually uncover an international smuggling operation.
“(It was) run by the Saudis, with the knowledge of the US government, where they purchased arms from the Croatian government, flew them to Jordan, and smuggled them across the Syrian border to the Free Syrian Army,” Higgins wrote about it in a later post.
“This was the first time a major arms route to the opposition had been recorded and exposed.”
Within a couple of months, media organisations such as The Guardian and the BBC were knocking on his door, hailing him as a pioneer and one-man news service.
“There is no finer citizen journalist than Brown Moses” – deputy chair of the British Labour Party, Tom Watson.
“He’s probably broken more stories than most journalists do in a career” – BBC news producer Stuart Hughes.
In the year and a half that’s followed, Higgins has piled success upon success.
Having developed a system for collecting some 600 YouTube channels into lists and sorting them by region, Higgins has become an almost indispensable resource for deskbound journalists and war correspondents alike, often referred to as an “accidental arms expert”.
He was one of the first to note the use of improvised barrel bombs by the Syrian Government last year. He has a collection of more than 500 videos detailing the same government’s use of cluster bombs, which it had up to that point denied.
Accidental or not, he’s worked himself into the realms of “foremost” when it comes to describing arms experts.
Here’s a simple example from a post “ISIS Deploys Croatian Weapons Against The Iraqi Army” which demonstrates Higgins’ eye for detail:
A series of images were posted on Twitter by the account Alanbar_news, an account used by the al-Qaeda linked Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, with the @Alanbar_news account covering their operations in Al Anbar Governorate of Iraq. The images show their operations against US-made armoured vehicles belonging to the Iraqi army (collected here), and one image in particular stood out:
This photograph appears to show a M79 Osa, as supplied to the Free Syrian Army at the start of 2013, being used to attack Iraqi armoured vehicles inside Iraq. The following image compares the M79 Osa to what’s visible in the above photograph:
“When I started my blog I just used what I had learnt from Libya with Syria, and started developing more techniques to work with the content and tools available,” he said.
“I enjoyed doing it as well, so it never felt like a job, just something interesting to do with my spare time, then it just got bigger and bigger, and continues to do so.”
The Brown Moses Blog continues, but Bellingcat has allowed Higgins to widen his investigative scope. Its earliest posts date back to July 17, but it officially launched on August 14 after successfully meeting a Kickstarter funding goal of 50,000 pounds ($88,000).
“I really wanted to launch a new site that wasn’t just ‘the Brown Moses Blog v 2.0’,” Higgins said.
“I had two core ideas that I really wanted to work on, one bringing together people like myself who have used open source information to find out really interesting stuff that no-one else had, and to teach other people how to do that.
“I kept seeing so many interesting tools and techniques shown off at this various events I kept being invited to speak at, but not many people actually using them afterwards, so I wanted to get people engaged with that sort of thing.”
As a result, Higgins can count up to 12 contributors and three staff on Team Bellingcat, and an immediate boost in audience numbers.
“I used to get around 150,000 page views a month on the Brown Moses Blog, and at the very peak that was about 25,000 a day, during the August 21st attacks.
“This weekend on Bellingcat I had 250,000 page views from Friday to Monday, starting with the Islamic State training camp piece, then the James Foley work.”
The post that exposed the location of an IS training camp was widely covered by mainstream media and is a good example of how Higgins is using his new resources to expand Bellingcat’s investigative reach beyond the largely weapons-based content of Brown Moses.
Bellingcat starts by spotting a bridge in a ISIS martial arts class graduation photo:
The caption states the photo was taken in Ninewa Province, northern Iraq. It only takes a little bit of Googling to find a couple of likely bridges in the area:
This building in the background might help:
Using the more up to date Flash Earth imagery, the team spots a likely candidate:
Location tagging site Panoramio confirms a logo on the bridge in one of the graduation photos is a match for one in the same area Bellingcat has pinpointed:
A tower from one of the photos is spotted on Google Earth, but the buildings in the ISIS pics don’t seem to be present:
But FlashEarth imagery confirms the new construction:
All this leads the team to conclude the students marched at least 2.9km and allows them to map the likely course:
It’s a strong aspect of Higgins’ mission with Bellingcat to spread awareness of the tools he uses to pull newsworthy information from photos and videos.
“There’s a real lack of awareness of them,” he said.
“I want to do what I can to spread those ideas as far as possible, and I’m looking forward to seeing what can be achieved in the future by people who read Bellingcat, and go on to do something with what they’ve learnt there.”
Although widely celebrated as such, he doesn’t consider himself a “citizen journalist” (“It’s a term that has been reduced down to people sending in photos of bad weather to 24 hour news channels”), although perhaps a “citizen investigative journalist, or a citizen open source investigator”.
He’s happy to work with and alongside traditional forms of journalism. For Higgins, the most important part of what he does is that people are either receiving all the right information or that they know how to find it.
And that includes journalists.
“It’s going to be very important to at least have a basic understanding of geolocating and verification social media content, and those who go and do it themselves will give themselves an advantage,” he said.
“I think it’s down to media organisations to decide how they’ll work with people like myself, for example, with MH17 we were able to provide information to media organisations that allowed them to direct their investigations on the ground, and there’s been an immense interest in the Islamic State work we’ve done.
“It seems to me those individuals and organisations learning about this kind of work now, and figuring out how to use it as part of their organisation are going to leave the groups and individuals who don’t in the dust.”