The UK blogger who unmasks Russian hitmen and Syrian war criminals
17 January 2021 • 12:00pm
In his book We Are Bellingcat, ‘civilian investigator’ Eliot Higgins shows how to sift the internet to hold governments to account
It is strange, given that it deals with the shelling of cities, the obliteration of civilian airliners, torture and executions, the grisly reappearance in the modern age of chemical warfare and cruel and unusual state-sponsored assassinations on British soil, that Eliot Higgins’s We Are Bellingcat should be such an uplifting book
But Higgins, a peculiarly contemporary amalgam of activist and nerd, human rights investigator and journalist, is a fundamentally optimistic figure – a screen warrior who, in an astonishingly brief period, has risen from obscurity to demonstrate that the information free-for-all spawned by the web is not solely a tool, as it can sometimes feel, for the obfuscator and peddler of disinformation, the election fixer and the conspiracy theorist.
Rather, in this short and riveting account, he shows how this ocean of online information – so confusing and complex, so vast it provides justification for all views and none – can, with application but no secret spy tricks, actually be trawled for the very facts that skewer the lies and humiliate the agitators, even if they reside in the Kremlin.
And as the title suggests, he believes he is not alone, nor is the investigative agency – Bellingcat – founded on his methods. Rather, the desire to reclaim the internet and defend truth itself is widespread, and achievable. Thank goodness for that.
It is quite a story. The span that took Higgins from part-time Leicester-based blogger in a dead-end job to unmasker of Syrian war criminals and Russian hit squads – names, passports numbers, the whole lot – is less than a decade. For, as Higgins writes in his spare, elegant account, it was in only in 2011 that, fascinated by the unfolding Arab Spring, he began contributing to online message boards interesting titbits he had noticed from photos or tweets of the conflicts: the smoking wreckage of buildings in the background of one snap signalling a previously undocumented attack; a particular new rifle or rocket hinting at an arms shipment to one insurgent group or another.
Some of the people taking those pictures and posting those tweets were traditional foreign correspondents (including the Telegraph’s own) using the web to “empty their notebooks”, as Higgins puts it, of the material that would not make the final report. But others were from combatants themselves, gleefully using the smartphones that were becoming increasingly ubiquitous to boast of their victories and taunt or brutalise their enemies.
In those pictures and, increasingly, video footage, lay two things, both of which Higgins explores: first, and central to the narrative of this book, clues to help verify or disprove claims, cover-ups and war crimes, even amid the fog of war, even from thousands of miles away; secondly, the abandon of those who believe themselves to be anonymous, and their willingness to lie, even as they themselves post images that, with sometimes scant effort, reveal both their identities and the truth.
On this latter point, it would have been easy for Higgins to wallow and lament the indignity, depravity and inhumanity of the internet. But he does not, indeed, he cannot because, as he rightly points out, he is merely the flipside of the liars – someone using the web for a purpose, finding it unleashes capabilities impossible to imagine just a few years ago. More than that, he shares the indignation with the establishment that drives many individuals to the web’s fringes, traces the crumbling respect for our institutions and leaders back not to the dawn of the digital age but to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and the WMD lies told to sell it to us.
In that there is ample opportunity to be sanctimonious, but for the most part he resists – though it is hard as a former correspondent not to bristle a little at his contempt for mainstream news, with its “splashy headlines” and reliance on private “sources” rather than the “Osint” – open-source intelligence – in which he mostly deals. Perhaps like many who feel overlooked or betrayed, however, Higgins has a love-hate relationship with the establishment, best summed up by his joy when his aperçus begin to be picked up by the mainstream media. Sometimes, all people want is a little recognition.
That is a broader debate, however. What will fire people through these pages, gripped, is the focused, and extraordinary, investigations that Bellingcat runs, piecing together documentary evidence, notably of gas attacks in Syria, the shooting down over Ukraine of MH17 with 298 on board by separatists using a Russian-supplied missile, and the attempted murder of Sergei Skripal.
Each runs as if the concluding chapter of a Holmesian whodunnit, in which the scientific sleuth explains in crystalline manner his inescapable conclusions. We learn how photos are cross-referenced with Google Maps and shadow angles to pin down times and locations; how publicly available databases and social media sites are trawled for connections. In one breathtaking moment, confirmation of the identity of one of the Salisbury poisoners comes from his photo, emblazoned for all to see on the Far Eastern Military Command Academy’s “Wall of Heroes”, an image of which was posted online by a visitor in 2017. Bellingcat found another spy through a leaked vehicle registration list, which also contained ages, full names, and mobile phone and passport numbers. It turned out the spy had registered his car to Russian cyberwarfare headquarters. When Higgins’s team trawled the list to see who else had done so, they found another 305 people – one of the greatest unmasking of spooks ever, and all through a web search.
True, Bellingcat ultimately professionalises to the extent that they find themselves paying Russian bureaucrats for personnel dossiers on suspects – the same covert methods Higgins originally derides. But ultimately, the book consoles, reassuring readers that in a world where everyone has an opinion and objectivity feels extinct, the tools to prove and verify have never been more accessible. Indeed, some might close this book fearing not that nothing is knowable but, as we gorge ourselves on smartphones and CCTV, with ever more satellites staring down upon us, nothing can now be hidden. Welcome to the panopticon planet.