On 17 July 2014, a Russian-made Buk missile fired from the ground brought down a civilian airliner, Malaysia Airlines MH17, flying over eastern Ukraine on its way from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, killing all 298 people on board. The intelligence community and law enforcement made no secret they believed Russian troops had fired the missile, but proving it seemed nigh on impossible in the mess of proxy battles and diplomatic obfuscation that has characterised this war.
Enter Eliot Higgins, a self-taught intelligence analyst and blogger living in Leicestershire, who made his name verifying and analysing video footage from Syria. Higgins and his volunteer researchers studied the images of a Buk launcher seen travelling through Ukraine shortly before the attack. Although some of the serial numbers had been obscured, they studied images of the rubber side skirt protecting the undercarriage – showing a unique pattern of damage – and matched it to earlier images of a convoy in Russia.
If anyone in the government had proof and they sent that proof to the public, it would be absolute poison for their relationship with Russia for decades
“What we had was a handful of videos and we managed to geo-locate all of them, and, based on that, it gave us the skeleton of a route,” he says. Once they had that, they were able to narrow down the search and source more photos and videos. Those showed that the launcher’s number plates were marked “50” — the code for the Moscow military region, which has only one air defence battalion, the 53rd Zrbr missile brigade. They located the unit’s base and started trawling social media. By tracking through individual profiles they were able to examine the soldiers’ uniforms and determine their rank and role.
Higgins’ organisation, Bellingcat, built profiles of 100 individuals who may have played a part in the downing of MH17. In the public report, released in February, the names and faces were redacted, but full details were passed to Dutch prosecutors in the hope they could offer new leads in the criminal investigation into the incident.
“If anyone in the government had proof and they sent that proof to the public, it would be absolute poison for their relationship with Russia for decades. My opinion is that if they had that, they wouldn’t present it anyway,” he says. “That’s why it’s important to keep the pressure up, making people remember that MH17 was this terrible thing, that Russia’s still lying about it, that there’s increasing evidence that shows Russia was involved.
We can get that information out there.” This has become Bellingcat’s calling card – using a combination of an extraordinarily granular focus on the details and a dedicated and technically adept team willing to chase down digital dead-ends and dig into impenetrable metadata to build a dossier of hard evidence.
Higgins and his team have honed their skills over the past four years by working on the mass of unverified information coming out of Syria — he says the whole operation began simply because he wanted to find out where a YouTube video had been shot.
Unemployed at the time and with no background in military hardware, he first became a dedicated enthusiast, identifying and tracking weapons and munitions as they appeared in videos from the front line and writing about them on his blog, Brown Moses. Today he is one of the world’s foremost experts on open-source intelligence gathering and his methods are creeping towards the mainstream, in part because of a collaboration with the US think tank the Atlantic Council.
His work made him a prime target for Syrian government activists online, as well as the Kremlin’s well-trained “troll factory” of social media attack dogs. He remains unfazed by their attentions, claiming that they instead ultimately undermine the credibility of anyone who takes a pro-Russian position online.
“I don’t think anyone has ever had their minds changed by a pro-Russian troll. They are preaching to the choir. If you’re going to watch Russia Today, you’re not going to listen to the kind of work I do.”
Illustration: Matt Ward