Carol Hills: One man who has been working hard to verify military movements and weapons in eastern Ukraine is Eliot Higgins. He’s a weapons researcher and the founder of Bellingcat and he’s been trying to find out where and what kind of weapons are being used in eastern Ukraine. What sources are you looking at to monitor what’s going on in Ukraine?
Eliot Higgins: There’s a variety of sources. A lot of it comes through social media accounts belonging to various people inside Ukraine and also in Russia as well. It’s kind of a process I’ve developed whilst tracking the conflict in Syria, where you try to gather all this information together and try to turn it into some kind of order. With Syria, because you’ve got very limited internet access, you have Youtube channels that belong to one town or Twitter accounts that belong to one unit. The thing with Ukraine, because the internet hasn’t been cut off, everyone has free access to the internet, so the information is all over the place. So it’s actually quite a lot harder to track the information coming from Ukraine.
Hills: What are you still confused about in the situation in Ukraine. What are you still trying to clarify?
Higgins Really, it’s kind of the positions of where people are, where units are positioned and there are certain incidents that do seem like Russia is firing from over the border into Ukraine and that’s been going on for several weeks now. So that’s quite interesting and finding little bits of evidence that point towards that is something I’ve been keeping an eye out for.
Hills: You’re independent. You famously started out doing this from your sofa but now you’re considered an expert. What have you learned from watching war through your screen?
Higgins: One thing I’ve learnt is how information can be gathered in a new way now. You don’t have to be some CIA agent on top of a hill in the middle of a dusty desert, spying on a camp. Now if you want to see what jihadists are doing, you just look at their Youtube accounts and their Twitter accounts because they post everything online. Recently, we’ve seen so much information coming from the Islamic State, we’ve been able to identify one of their training camps in Mosul and Iraq, for example. So there’s a lot more information out there that can be analyzed and turned into useful intelligence and that can be acted on by journalists on the ground, like we did with Ukraine and the MH17. We can also use that to help human rights organizations direct their efforts.
Hills: So you see the value of your information - you mentioned the Malaysian Airlines that was shot down in eastern Ukraine - you’re posting in an open way and you want people to use it, whether it’s an intelligence agency or a journalist?
Higgins: Yes. So, for example, with MH17, we had a number of photographs and videos that showed the missile launcher that was linked to the attack in various locations. By sharing that information online and working with people collaboratively, we were able to locate exactly where these pictures and videos were filmed. Then, based off that, we were able to actually figure out the route it traveled and using shadows we could actually tell the time of day, so we actually began to put together a timeline of where this actual missile launcher was during the day of the attack.
Hills: In recent days, you’ve been trying to figure out where journalist James Foley was killed. Do you worry about ethics or your own security or the security of others in posting this material?
Higgins: In this case of the James Foley analysis, I actually purposely blanked out everything except the terrain. So James Foley, the flag of ISIS, I blanked that all out and all I had was the terrain because it just felt like that image was being overused quite a lot in the media. The thing is, I’ve spoke to James via email, he was asking me questions about some stuff he saw in Syria.
Hills: You had been in touch with James Foley yourself before he had been captured?
Higgins: Yeah, just before he disappeared, he had been sending me video clips of cluster bombs being used in Syria. They were incendiary cluster bombs and he was asking me about them because it was the first time they’d really been used in the conflict. We were just exchanging emails back and forth and he was asking me what they were and I was telling him what I knew. As for my own safety, I’m certainly not going to be taking any holidays in Syria or Russia in the next few years but I’ll just stay safely in Leicester, I think.
Hills: It’s been such a hard time for journalists in places like Syria. There’s a sense now that it’s too dangerous to really cover these stories that are vitally important for the world to understand and your approach fills some gap in that knowledge. Where do you think this kind of data collection and sorting and the things you’re doing - where do you think it’s really going?
Higgins: I think there’s a great value for it for different organizations. You look at media organizations - it was very interesting when we were doing our work on MH17, how many media organizations took our work and then instructed their journalists on the ground to actually investigate what we had and confirm what we had found, which they were able to do. What I think may happen in the future, if you’re a media organization and you aren’t figuring out how you’re going to work with this, you’re going to start getting left behind by the organizations that do because there’s a lot of information out there that will make for very, very good stories that just isn’t being looked at. It’s as simple as that. I think there’s all kinds of different uses for it and I think in particular media organizations need to think seriously how they’re going to use this.
Hills: Eliot Higgins is the founder of Bellingcat, a site for citizen journalists covering conflict. Eliot, thanks so much.
Higgins: Thank you.