LONDON: Bellingcat, the investigative website unmasking the Skripal affair suspects, grew out of one man’s efforts to track the origin of Syrian civil war weapons — from the comfort of his sofa.
The latest revelations from the UK-based citizen journalism group on the nerve agent attack on Russian ex-spy Sergei Skripal have made global headlines — and they are promising more to come.
Bellingcat reported Wednesday that Ruslan Boshirov, one of the two Russian suspects wanted by British police, was actually Anatoly Chepiga, a military intelligence colonel decorated in 2014 with the nation’s top award, the Hero of Russia.
Previous major Bellingcat investigations have included a report claiming flight MH17 was shot down over Ukraine by a Russian missile system, as well as others on the wars in Syria and Yemen.
The recent allegations have enraged Moscow, with foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova saying earlier this month that the site was “close to the secret services”.
Zakharova said Bellingcat “intentionally pumps out disinformation disguised as investigations”.
The driving force behind Bellingcat is 39-year-old founder Eliot Higgins, who came to prominence for his investigations into the Syrian civil war as the blogger “Brown Moses”.
An unemployed office worker, he had no journalistic training and his weapons knowledge was entirely self-taught — indeed, any he already had was gleaned from films like “Rambo”.
Looking at clips of footage from Syria, “I wanted to see if I could figure out something from these videos, and what weapons they had was one thing,” Higgins told AFP.
He was among the first to track and report on the Syrian regime’s use of barrel bombs through analysing the strikes using open-source material.
‘People who can dig’
The Brown Moses name was taken from a Frank Zappa song, but Higgins has long since given up concealing his identity, partly to avoid conspiracy theory suspicion about who he is.
Branching out, he launched Bellingcat in 2014 and it made its name almost immediately with investigations into the downing of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 in Ukraine.
“I wanted to launch a site that brought together a lot of people who were also doing open-source online investigations like I was, as well as giving guides and case studies for people to learn from so they can do it themselves,” Higgins said.
Operating from a small office in Leicester, central England, Bellingcat’s website lists four staff led by Higgins, 11 members of its investigation team and 60 contributors.
They have 82,000 Twitter followers but their reach goes far further.
Funding comes half from grants and donations and half from running workshops training people in the art of open-source investigations.
The website publishes guides on how to analyse data, showing readers the methods used to produce its reports.
September’s guides include “How to Scrape Interactive Geospacial Data” and “How to Identify Burnt Villages by Satellite Imagery”, using case studies in California, Myanmar and Nigeria.
Higgins said Bellingcat offered something traditional media outlets do not, though major organisations are opening up more to this style of investigation.
“There’s a lot of really valuable, interesting material out there, as long as you’ve got the people who can dig for it,” he said.
The Skripal project is a partnership with Russian investigative website The Insider.
“They were running things on the Russian side of the operation, so we were doing a lot of the open source investigation to stand up the information they were finding,” said Higgins.
Fresh revelations on Skripal case
In an era of fake news online, Bellingcat makes a point of detailing where its claims come from.
In its latest Skripal report, Bellingcat detailed how investigators reached their conclusion on Chepiga.
The investigation started out with only pictures of the prime suspects and their cover identities.
They said they conducted image searches on online search engines, contacted former Russian military officers, browsed pictures of a military academy yearbook and scoured leaked Russian databases.
They then obtained extracts from the passport file of Anatoly Vladimirovich Chepiga which contained a photograph that strongly resembled a younger Boshirov.
The online sleuths are promising fresh revelations next week.
Higgins said he was concerned about the personal safety of the Insider team in Russia.
Their editor, Roman Dobrokhotov, who returned to Russia from London on Friday, is expecting arrest.
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov said if Dobrokhotov was afraid for his safety “he is free to go to the police”.