The Mice Who Caught the Cat—and Rattled the Kremlin
“We Are Bellingcat” charts the rise of the digital sleuths who have used open-source investigations to foil Russia’s intelligence agencies.
In late January, as people took to the streets in more than 100 towns and cities across Russia to protest the arrest of the opposition leader Alexey Navalny, my Foreign Policy colleague shared a meme that was circulating on Twitter. It showed a row of planks lined up like dominoes. The catalyst was labeled “Eliot Higgins unemployed, bored.” The end of the row was titled “Putin regime in danger.”
Higgins, who a decade ago was a college dropout with a rapacious appetite for news, wasn’t quite unemployed, but he was bored. Stuck in a grim administrative job in Leicester, England, Higgins set out to do what he felt traditional news media weren’t doing: get to the heart of what was really happening as the Arab Spring exploded. He scoured social media and online forums for new tidbits of information on the rapidly escalating crisis in Syria, Yemen, and Libya. Later, he would turn his sights on Russia—culminating in this year’s explosive revelations about Moscow’s failed efforts to assassinate by poison its biggest gadfly, Navalny.
We Are Bellingcat offers a firsthand account of just how those dominoes got set up—and how they have fallen so far. It’s Higgins’s firsthand account of how his team of digital sleuths, who publish their detailed findings online, has again and again exposed the Kremlin’s lies, outed the Russian poison squad that trailed Navalny, and proved the Syrian government’s use of chemical weapons. It’s a David-and-Goliath story for the digital age but one that relies on cutting-edge mining of open-source information rather than a primitive sling.
As Higgins, now Bellingcat’s executive director, notes in the opening to the book, the rise of social media turned investigative work on its head. While extracting information on global affairs was once the preserve of journalists, diplomats, and intelligence agencies working with secret sources, the internet made it possible for citizen journalists to break news on major events without ever leaving the couch. The challenge in the digital age became verifying the relevant needles within the vast haystack of information available online.
In 2011, as protests broke out across the Middle East and North Africa, Higgins set out to separate the fake news chaff from the wheat. He sought out new information on battles fought and weapons used and then verified it using context clues and open sources. In his first major breakthrough, Higgins was able to verify the rapidly shifting front lines in the battle between Muammar al-Qaddafi’s forces and rebel groups in the town of Brega, Libya. With a YouTube video as his starting point, Higgins drew a crude map of the rebel movements on a piece of printer paper as he sat in an empty office in England and then pinpointed the exact location on Google Maps. “This was a rush, and it contained a revelation. With a bit of a brain shift, you could construe video images from a top-down perspective, flattening the distraction of three dimensions, transforming wobbly footage into something as precise as a map. From there, it became a matching game,” he writes.
Three years later, Higgins and a team of volunteers founded Bellingcat—named after the classic fable describing mice who tag the cat tormenting them with a bell—and got serious. On July 17, 2014, three days after Bellingcat’s founding, a Malaysia Airlines passenger jet was shot down by a Russian-made Buk missile over eastern Ukraine, killing everyone on board. As Russian state media got to work churning out conspiracy theories about the crash, the story of how a ragtag band of Ukrainian separatists came to be in possession of a powerful Russian missile became the first major breakthrough investigation for Bellingcat and Aric Toler, who would go on to oversee the group’s Eastern Europe investigations. Bellingcat investigators cross-referenced press photos, publicly available videos, and social media posts to track the Buk missile’s journey from Russia into Ukraine. Pointing the finger at Moscow was a risky step, Higgins knew—but he had the goods.
“When published on Bellingcat, we would be levelling serious allegations against Russia, a major world power whose current leadership displayed both a propensity for information warfare and for violence,” Higgins writes.
Since its inception, Bellingcat has defied definition: It’s part journalism, part criminal investigation. Higgins calls it an “intelligence agency for the people.” The investigators’ use of open sources and the detailed methodologies that accompany each investigation allow any interested party to retrace their steps and come as public trust in the traditional media, and its reliance on anonymous sources, is waning.
But Bellingcat goes where the media doesn’t in more ways than one. Bellingcat and its Russian partner, the Insider, have in recent years crossed what has long been held to be a red line for journalists: paying for databases on Russia’s thriving black market of leaked information. This has opened new frontiers in Bellingcat’s investigations, enabling it to identify the poisoners of Navalny and Sergei Skripal, the former Russian spy poisoned in Salisbury, England, but it has also opened new ethical dilemmas, which Higgins confronts in his book. On Monday, Russian media reported that St. Petersburg investigators were looking into allegations that a local law enforcement officer had sold the passenger data from the flight Navalny was traveling on when he first fell ill last August—the first sign of an impending crackdown on the traffic in information that has enabled some of Bellingcat’s recent breakthroughs.
Bellingcat’s open-source skills are now being emulated by the New York Times and human rights organizations. The group runs regular workshops to train more people in open-source investigative skills. But like a lot of digital pioneers before him, in the book Higgins does not reflect on how to prevent those tools from being used for ill. If far-right groups or authoritarian governments mustered the skills and determination of Bellingcat’s wonks, it wouldn’t be pretty.
But Higgins isn’t done yet, and he’s not stopping at exposing wrongdoing. His next step is to establish a blueprint for open-source approaches to crises of the future, starting with the conflict in Yemen, where fighting between Iran-backed Houthi rebels and government forces backed by the Saudi-led coalition has helped create the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. Bellingcat has used cutting-edge techniques, such as the software Hunchly, which records every click its investigators make, enabling prosecutors examining atrocities in the future to easily retrace their steps. In collaboration with the Global Legal Action Network, the goal is to categorize and verify footage from the conflict, creating a searchable trove of information for future investigations, including at The Hague, where Higgins is a member of the International Criminal Court’s Technology Advisory Board.
“[P]rosecutors building war-crimes cases could pull up evidence gathered and preserved to judicial standards. With the click of a few buttons, they would save themselves years of research,” Higgins writes.
Like Bellingcat’s work, this book is both straight to the point and thrilling. It is a balm for the soul of anyone who has grown weary of the chaos wrought by social media and a timely reminder that—in the right hands—the internet can still be an awesome force for good.