The Sunday Telegraph
‘Russia sees information as a battleground… you must fight’
Bellingcat identified Sergei Skripal’s would-be assassins and is now gathering evidence of war crimes in Ukraine. Harry de Quetteville meets its founder
Eliot Higgins struggles to tell his children, 10 and 7, much about his work. The thing is, it can fill his computer screen with graphic images of beheadings, gas attacks, and bombings – the atrocities of war. “Obviously it deals with terrible things,” he says. But he doesn’t have to hide everything he does. “My son loves to sit down with me and play the ‘geolocation game’. I’ll pick a photo from a city somewhere – not a war zone – and then he’ll Google stuff until we can find it.”
And in playing that simple game, father and son are echoing the basic principle on which Higgins has, in the past decade, not only made his name, but arguably changed both the overt world of war reporting, and the covert world of espionage, forever.
For Higgins, 43, is the spiritual father of Open Source Intelligence (Osint) investigations, drawing on freely available information and imagery on the web, much of it posted on social media. Surfing the smartphone age’s tidal wave of digital information, initially as a lone blogger a decade ago on a sofa in Leicester, and from 2014 as the founder of the Bellingcat investigative research agency, he has revealed some of the world’s dirtiest secrets, notably in Russia.
Named after an Aesop’s fable in which mice put a bell on a cat’s neck as a warning system, it was Bellingcat that identified the would-be assassins of defector Sergei Skripal in Salisbury – one through a freely available, visitorposted image of the Russian Far Eastern Military Command Academy’s “Wall of Heroes”, on which the killer’s mugshot happens to appear.
It was Bellingcat that “played the geolocation game” with smartphone snaps of a BUK missile launcher in the last Crimean conflict, helping to prove that Russian separatists in Ukraine used it to shoot down the Malaysian airliner, flight MH17, killing all 298 civilian passengers and crew.
It was Bellingcat that deployed some of the same techniques to unmask the would-be killers of Russian opposition figurehead Alexei Navalny; and it was Bellingcat that led exposure of chemical weapons use in Syria, and whose methods have dismantled propaganda, lies and cover-ups in conflicts from Cameroon to Yemen.
Today it is Russia’s invasion of
‘We know the Kremlin lies in the most absurd ways and we shouldn’t give it a platform’
‘The Russians have got worse at disinformation and everyone else has got a lot better’
Ukraine that is consuming Higgins. On the morning that we speak, he is busy on Twitter, debunking conspiracist claims that the civilian massacres in Bucha were staged or committed by Ukrainian forces. His posts have the robust tone of countless online wrangles, but differ in two ways.
First, Higgins backs up his arguments with video evidence, located with latitude and longitude coordinates and cross-referenced against multiple other independent sources, including satellite imagery. Second, Higgins is certainly not – like many casual keyboard warriors – just looking to score points. Rather, he says, modern communications have made information a more vital front than ever in warfare.
“Russia likes to think of information as a battleground, and you’ve got to be in a position to fight those battles,” he says. He refers to Russia’s ambassador at the UN trotting out the line that the bodies found at Bucha were not there until the Ukrainians arrived – “when we now have video footage of the Russians literally shooting a cyclist in exactly the same location where a cyclist’s body was found and satellite imagery showing that there were bodies there weeks ago…”
Such lies are so easily disprovable that they leave Higgins “frustrated”, because Russian spokesmen “are still treated as serious people. We know they lie in the most absurd and grotesque ways and we shouldn’t give them a platform to lie without challenging them.”
That many of Higgins’s critics are in the West he puts down to the lasting effects of the “moral injury” from the Iraq War in 2003 – “dodgy dossiers” and all. “There are certain people [here] who would defend Russia no matter what, because it fits with their world view that anyone who’s against the US or the West must be good. They bend over backwards to excuse Putin’s war crimes because they see him as against the West, so he must be OK.”
During the Ukraine war Higgins and Bellingcat (which still only numbers a dozen or so full-time staff) are working 16-hour days to ensure war crimes are ever harder to dispute. Such is its impact that those it unmasks have accused it of being an arm of the CIA, or MI6, but the truth is that it is funded by an assortment of grants – from institutions such as the EU to the giant UK trust of billionaire Sigrid Rausing – as well as individual donations.
The bedrock of that work is what the agency calls its “global authentication project”: collecting, validating and locating video and other source material from the battleground, and ensuring it is of high enough quality for use by what Higgins calls “accountability and justice processes” – war crimes tribunals.
The process involves marshalling a chaotic network of volunteers on social media, then training them. The result, says Higgins, is a database of contemporaneous video evidence that investigators can later trawl by date and location in order to track, build a case against, and potentially convict, war criminals.
Then there are Bellingcat’s own investigations, which pushed it into the spotlight after it was founded eight years ago. Perhaps most extraordinary of all was its complete unravelling in December 2020, just four months after the event, of the plot to kill Alexei Navalny using the same nerve agent, Novichok, that had been deployed against Skripal.
Trawling databases of flight passenger manifests, passport details and phone records, Bellingcat identified the agents in Russia’s FSB, successor service to the KGB, who had tailed Navalany for months before smearing his underpants with the poison. Yet that revelation was just the start. In a delicious coda, Navalny himself, once recovered, was able to call up one of those on the kill team, pretending to be his superior, and demand an account of what went wrong.
Then, when Vladimir Putin dismissed the result of the Bellingcat investigation, the agency was able to release the recording of the prank call with the FSB officer confessing the whole thing.
Higgins gives me an idiot’s guide to just how Bellingcat does it. “For any investigation we look at the initial digital footprint that is created by that incident,” he says. In many cases, as with the MH17 BUK launcher, the investigation team first must verify the exact time and place pictures were taken. This can be done by comparing background landscape details against pictures available on Google Maps, say, and finding a match. Time of day can then often be established simply by the angle of the sun’s shadow on vertical objects such as lampposts.
For actrocities in Ukraine like the shelling of the Mariupol maternity hospital, where time and place is not in dispute, the team gather as many photos and videos posted online from those on the scene, then cross-check them against before and after satellite imagery, to get an assessment of physical damage and the position of destroyed cars or buildings. The claims and counter claims soon follow.
In Bucha, for example, Russia first disputed the timing of the massacre, claiming that its forces had withdrawn before the bodies were seen on the street, then denied it had occurred at all, saying it was staged. In a simple yet painstaking process, Higgins compiled videos from social media showing corpses on April 1, before Russian troops pulled back. Similarly, he highlighted how Russian conspiracists had manipulated one film to make it appear a body had “moved”, claiming it was actually a “crisis actor”.
Of course, Bellingcat now has other, more sophisticated tools at its disposal. It can create a composite from individual frames of a film to render a blurred car number plate clear; it can also use AI face recognition tools to help identify suspects; and because Russia is so corrupt, it is easy to buy leaked passport or personal details in online marketplaces. But still, there’s no hacking, no secret source.
A few weeks ago Bellingcat received a call from a member of the Ukrainian team involved in informal peace talks in March, who was suffering symptoms of poisoning. The agency put them in touch with toxins experts to advise them how to proceed. Then it became clear that Roman Abramovich was one of those experiencing symptoms. “We were like, ‘Holy S---!’” Higgins says.
Bellingcat, he says, is still working to identify the poison, if any, at play. “We know they got sick in the apartment they were sharing.” In a departure from its usual Osint work the agency found itself in the Kyiv apartment “literally bagging and tagging tea cups” like forensic investigators. Was Abramovich an explicit target? “Once the poison is in the apartment there’s no way [the perpetrators] can have expected Abramovich would avoid being poisoned.”
If the Abramovich case was a surprise, the war itself was not. Bellingcat had been monitoring the build-up of Russian forces on the Ukraine border. Again, thanks to social media posts (this time “Russians filming on TikTok”) it could see that the troops going in – including riot police and medical units – were “nothing to do with normal training”.
Has Bellingcat, which has so powerfully demonstrated the effectiveness of open-source intelligence, dragged the spies out into the open? “I have a very strong feeling that our way of being as transparent as possible has influenced them,” says Higgins. “There’s certainly been a really big change in attitudes.” In the West, at least. As with its armed forces, Russia’s offensives on this front have proved astonishingly weak, Higgins says. “They’ve had 10 years of Bellingcat showing them how not to do disinformation. But if anything they’ve got worse at doing it and everyone else has got a lot better.”
Brought up in Shrewsbury, as a cripplingly shy teenager Higgins took refuge in the online world. After he dropped out of university – he studied media technology at Southampton Institute of Higher Education – socialising took the form of participating in multiplayer online role playing games like World of Warcraft. He was, under the pseudonym Brown Moses, also an enthusiastic contributor to newspaper comments sections. And as the Arab Spring unfolded from the end of 2010, and could be followed through second-by-second tweets from those involved, he found himself more interested in discussing it online than his administrative job.
Higgins began studying the images posted by protesters and fighters on the front line in the Middle East and North Africa. In Libya in 2011, he showed that such study could reap real insights, even from thousands of miles away. Rebels boasted they had captured the town of
Brega, posting triumphant videos and selfies. But the news couldn’t be confirmed. So Higgins traced the route taken by a fighter in one video and matched it perfectly against a location in Brega on Google Maps – rebels had indeed entered Brega.
He began to dedicate more and more time to his blog, and focus not just on which fighters were where, but what weapons they were using. The big break came in 2013, when Higgins noticed unusual guns and rocket launchers in Syria. It turned out they were from Croatia, and had secretly been funnelled to rebels in Syria by Saudi Arabia. This time, the scoop was picked up by The New York Times. A year later, Higgins decided to pursue his hobby full time, and founded Bellingcat. Just three days later, flight MH17 was blown out of the sky.
Now, as then, he is glued to his screen up to 16 hours a day. “[Nuray, his wife] gets a little sick of that.” The difference is that these days, money is coming in. “I’m paying the mortgage, so I’m making progress.”
The police are in regular contact. “They ask if anything’s coming up that might upset the Russians. I say ‘Yeah!’” What do they do then? “Probably just put a note on their system not to touch the handle on my front door.” He has no bodyguards, but is careful where he stays when he is abroad and doesn’t accepts complimentary biscuits. He’s even being sued by Yevgeny Prigozhin, a close confidant of Putin, after publishing reports linking him to the Russian mercenary group Wagner. The case is a prime example of how the UK courts can be abused by the wealthy, says Higgins: “It’s absurd.”
The trials he’s more interested in are those staged by the International Criminal Court in the Hague. For increasingly, Bellingcat’s work involves preserving open-source evidence so that it is “forensically viable” for prosecutors to draw upon in future war crimes cases. Higgins says he can imagine being an expert witness at a future trial of Putin.
He would do the same, he is keen to point out, if the criminals were Ukrainian. He is not partisan, and in fact Bellingcat is looking into accusations of cluster bomb use by Ukrainian forces. “For me, what I think about is civilians. There are situations where civilians are purposely targeted. We’ve seen that in Syria, in Yemen and now in Ukraine.”
The long-term goal, says Higgins, is to train countless organisations around the world in the capture of open-source evidence which can be filed into a secure, centralised index, via a new Bellingcat-designed smartphone app to ensure it is all geolocated and timestamped to legal standards.
“When there’s a conflict these teams will be ready, from day one, to start collecting evidence, bringing much more rapid accountability in places where it might not otherwise exist at all.” Higgins has already come a long way, even without moving from his sofa in Leicester. How much further can it take him?