Disinformation and hate speech have paved the way for war crimes.
The English journalist and blogger, Eliot Higgins, became interested in open source methods in 2011 when he wanted to authenticate video clips from war zones and crime sites.
He found that you could use satellite imagery to check the locations of videos but it needed many pairs of eyes to review all the possible comparisons. In 2012 in his blog ‘Brown Moses’, he posted articles with videos from the civil war in Syria. He and his collaborators analysed hundreds of short videos and were able to authenticate their locations using geo-location techniques. He researched the weapons used and was able to show that the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad was using chemical weapons and cluster bombs.
In 2014 he founded Bellingcat as a journalistic group which would investigate war crimes and major incidents using open source intelligence (OSINT). They would analyse thousands of documents and posts in the public domain to accurately identify and verify information. Initially all members of the group were unpaid volunteers. The name Bellingcat comes from the old tale of mice who complain about a cat. The mice agree that it would be great if they could hang a bell round the neck of the cat – but no mouse dares to try to do it. Belling the cat means bringing aggressors out of the shadows.
Bellingcat’s first major success was its investigation into the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 (MH17) which was shot down on 17 July 2014 while flying over Ukraine. All 283 passengers and 15 crew were killed. Through painstaking research Higgins and his team were able to show that Russian forces were responsible for the atrocity by using a Buk missile launcher. They tracked the progress of the Buk using photos from many sources on the internet and by using Google Earth to verify locations and in some cases the length of shadows to identify time of day. Their findings were later confirmed by the Dutch-led international joint investigation team (JIT).
Bellingcat identified the coordinates of an Islamic State training camp and the site where an American journalist was killed. They went on to expose atrocities in Syria, Yemen and Cameroon. In a major coup, Bellingcat discovered and revealed the identities of the three Russian GRU agents responsible for the poisoning of Sergei Skripal in Salisbury in 2018. Their continued success has enraged the Kremlin which regularly denounces Bellingcat for ‘disinformation’ and being a tool of Western intelligence services. In fact they are fully independent and their funding comes from grants, donations and selling workshops which train people in the skills of open-source investigations.
During the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022 Bellingcat has been very active and shown the use of cluster bombs. The Bellingcat web site was blocked for Russian users.
Bellingcat has received many awards and honours and it has changed how news and intelligence agencies gather and verify stories using OSINT methods. These are mighty achievements started by Higgins and a group of crowdsourcing amateurs sitting at their computers.
Paul is a professional keynote conference speaker and expert facilitator on innovation and lateral thinking. He helps companies improve idea generation and creative leadership. His workshops transform innovation leadership skills and generate great ideas for business issues. His recent clients include Airbus, Microsoft, Unilever, Nike, Novartis and Swarovski. He has published 30 books on lateral thinking puzzles, innovation, leadership and problem solving (with over 2 million copies sold). He also acts as link presenter at conferences and facilitator at high level meetings such as a corporate advisory board. He has acted as host or MC at Awards Dinners. Previously, he was CEO of Monactive, VP International of MathSoft and UK MD of Ashton-Tate. He recently launched a series of podcast interviews entitled Insights from Successful People.