Podcast: Bellingcat is Changing How We Investigate War

Published September 13th, 2018 - 12:13 GMT
Investigation of MH17 (Bellingcat)
Investigation of MH17 (Bellingcat)


By Ty Joplin


In 2014, Eliot Higgins began a a blog looking into the conflict in Syria. Without any formal training in weapons, intelligence or journalism, he was one of the first to reveal that the Syrian regime was dropping barrel bombs on civilian populations.  

Now, four years later, he’s changing the paradigm of investigations as we know it. AL Bawaba spoke with him in the latest episode of The Gateway, to understand how Bellingcat has made publicly available information potent tools to hold states and criminal accountable.

Image result for bellingcat eliot higgins

(Eliot Higgins, Bellingcat)

His organization, Bellingcat, uses publicly available information to cut through state propaganda and its work is being used as evidence in international courts. Journalists everywhere rely on his findings, and governments are beginning to replicate Bellingcat’s methods to fight crime.

Higgins speaks the languages of dates, weapon-types and investigations fluently, conjuring precise details of bombing incidents and propaganda efforts around them years after they have occurred.

He has built a team of investigator who he is struggling to keep; with their experience at Bellingcat, they are some of the most sought-after open source investigators in the world.

The fruits of his labor are beginning to show.

One moment Higgins highlights as a sign that his method of investigation is catching on, is with a recent arrest warrant by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for a Libyan militant commander.

Mahmoud Mustafa Busayf Al-Werfalli, a commander of the Al-Saiqa Brigade in Libya, was filmed executing several prisoners he had taken; photos and videos of the event were then shared online.


Video depicting execution under order of Warfalli (Youtube)

After an analysis of the social media material, the ICC issued a warrant for the arrest of Wefalli in August 2017. A second arrest warrant was issued following another incident that was widely shared on social media, where he allegedly shot another ten people when they were blindfolded and kneeling on the ground.

What makes the ICC’s arrest warrant of Wefalli different than any other legal case yet in conflict zones, is that it was issued solely based off open source investigation; a sign, Higgins claims, that his method of fact-finding is beginning to be taken more seriously as a way of holding criminals accountable.

Executions allegedly carried out under Werfalli (Twitter)

His refinement of open source investigations is also beginning to check bad journalism that seems to rely on rumors or unverifiable knowledge. One particular incident that propelled Bellingcat’s international profile was a fight between Higgins and Seymour Hersh, a reputable journalist that Higgins claims in our interview was spreading fake news about a chemical attack in Syria.

Even though open source investigation has its drawbacks, namely that it is entirely reliant on information shared online and thus useless for documenting events firsthand, it represents a new tool for investigators to use through the fog of war and misinformation.

Thanks in part to Bellingcat, states who try to disavow complicity or culpability in war crimes through propaganda have reason to worry. So too do warlords and militia commanders who brag about violence on social media, only for their posts to be held as evidence against them.

Listen to the full conversation here:

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