Eliot Higgins starts and ends his days like many others in 2021. In the morning, he homeschools his two children, aged six and nine, who have been mostly confined to their house in Leicester, England for the past two months due to the country’s strict Covid-19 lockdown. In the evening, he and his wife will settle down to watch a Netflix show. But in the hours in between, the 42-year-old spends his time online doing something few others would dare to do: digging into international assassination programs, war crimes and more as the chief cyber-sleuth at open-source investigative unit Bellingcat.
Ten years ago, Higgins was working a nondescript job in admin. During his downtime at his desk, he obsessively scoured the internet for publicly available footage from the Arab Spring that might give a clearer idea of what was happening on the ground. At that time, he was known in the online world as “Brown Moses”, the pseudonym he used on his “Brown Moses Blog”, where he posted analysis about what weapons were being used, and what groups had control of which town. The self-taught college dropout used open-source information – such as data from social media, Google Maps, Google Earth – and help from a fellow community of fact-finding enthusiasts.
In 2013, Higgins revealed that Croatian weapons were being smuggled to the Syrian opposition. A New York Times correspondent, C. J. Chivers, used Higgins’ findings to develop the story. He and another Times reporter, Eric Schmitt, published a front-page story revealing that the weapons had been bought by the Saudi government and smuggled into Syria via Jordan. The U.S., they wrote, was at least aware and possibly complicit in the secret arm shipments. After they cited Higgins’ work, more people started paying attention to Brown Moses.
In 2014, Higgins set up Bellingcat, which he called “an intelligence agency for the people” in his new memoir, We Are Bellingcat. He took the name from an old fable called “Belling the Cat”, about mice that decided to protect themselves by hanging a bell around a cat’s neck. The mice knew when they were safe since the terrorizing cat could never move without being heard. “That was it: our name and our mission. Belling the cats,” Higgins writes in the book.
‘People with laptops and free time.’
Bellingcat began as a one-man organization with a small team of volunteers. But thanks to a steady stream of grants, such as from the National Endowment for Democracy and billionaire George Soros’ Open Society Foundations, it now has 18 full time staff members and thousands of volunteers. Speaking with TIME on Feb. 22, Higgins refers to his global team as “people with laptops and free time”. They don’t exactly see themselves as journalists, or human rights activists, or criminal investigators, but at the nexus of all those groups. Bellingcat was “one of the first networks to develop open-source methods into a reporting style of their own and attract a critical mass of people who are good at this work,” says Jay Rosen, professor of journalism at New York University.
Over the past seven years, Higgins and his team have used open-source information to uncover war crimes in Syria, unmask neo-Nazis who stormed Charlottesville, Va. and name the alleged Russian poisoners of former spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia in the U.K. Bellingcat’s work in Syria is being used by the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR) to build war crime cases and Higgins sits on the technology advisory board to the International Criminal Court to help them understand how to apply open-source investigation to their work.
Bellingcat is trying to give people an “alternative way” to engage outside the more traditional sources of information, says Higgins, “because so many people are rejecting that now,” he says. According to a poll released in January by Edelman, a global communications firm, less than half of people in the U.S. trust the traditional media. Bellingcat has been “very effective” at establishing trust through transparency, says Rosen. Unlike many major news outlets, the network shares not only what they found, but how they found it, which includes publishing documents and evidence. “Their claim is: ‘don’t believe us? Look for yourself’,” says Rosen.
And what they find often has huge repercussions. Not even four months after Russian opposition activist Alexei Navalny was poisoned by a nerve-agent in Siberian city of Tomsk, Bellingcat said they had the facts and evidence to show who was involved. In December, they named several Russian state security service (FSB) operatives working for a clandestine unit as likely being behind the August attack. Russian President Vladimir Putin called Bellingcat’s investigation a “falsification”. “If they’d wanted to [poison him] then they probably would have finished the job,” he said at a televised press conference in December.
Higgins says this is only the beginning of what Bellingcat’s research has revealed. The organization will release investigations about the involvement of the FSB officers in the attempted and successful assassinations of at least four people in Russia in the past few years (three people were suspected victims of poisoning, and one died under different circumstances). Three of these people are not political figures.
He was surprised by how “minor” these targets were, Higgins says. “As far we can tell, they just said mean things about Putin. This isn’t just about political assassinations. This is a widespread program of assassinating anyone who might cause difficulty for the Russian government”, he says. “The more we look the scarier it gets. We only have so many resources to track these people. We might be at the tip of the iceberg,” he adds.
Last month, they published an investigation showing that FSB officers tailed Vladimir Kara-Murza, a Russian opposition figure, before he was non-fatally poisoned in 2015 and 2017. They also pursued three activists around the time each died under suspicious circumstances between 2014 and 2019. Christo Grozev, Bellingcat’s lead Russia investigator, “has a new suspected assasination to look into each week,” says Higgins.
A reason that Bellingcat has broken news stories that major outlets envy is its volunteer network, says Christiaan Triebert, a visual investigations journalist at The New York Times. He worked at Bellingcat from 2015 to 2019, first as a volunteer then as one of its first paid members. It has “people using their free time to work on topics that they really care about,” he says. Traditional paid journalists are rarely given weeks or months to delve into open-source research, which most of the time, does not lead to a story. “Bellingcat’s unique model has worked really well and now other news organizations are trying to catch up,” says Triebert.
Where the data comes from
Another reason Bellingcat is distinct is that it has paid for information for some of its investigations, a practice typically considered unethical by newsrooms in the U.S. and other countries. Grozev has bought material for their Navalny and Skripal investigations on Russia’s black data market, where “data brokers”, as Higgins calls them, illegally sell leaked databases.
Up for sale are phone records, passport details and bank security codes, all for relatively modest fees. It’s not difficult for sellers to get their hands on the data. Russian email providers and social networks are less secure than in the West, leading to frequent data leaks. “People might use it to commit fraud, husbands and wives might look up the phone numbers of their partnets to see where they’ve been,” Higgins says. “Russia’s is the most open society in the world, it just doesn’t want to be,” he says.
Bellingcat says it does not use its foundation money to buy leaked data. In the Navalny case, Grozev paid £22,000 ($30,000) out of his own pocket to Russia’s data brokers for phone and flight records. By analysing these records, he found that Russian operatives followed Navalny on 37 occasions. In the Skripal investigation, Grozev collected personal information for Anatoliy Chepiga – one of the two GRU officers who Bellingcat said was behind the poisoning. All they needed for this data was messaging app Telegram and about 10 euros ($12), Bellingcat wrote. Within minutes of searching, they had information including Chepiga’s date of birth, passport number, court records, and frequent parking locations in Moscow. Sourcing material this way is not a regular practice, Higgins says. It has only been used for investigations into chemical weapons in Russia due to the “extreme nature” of the weapons.
The practice raises questions about the legitimacy of the information and a potential conflict of interest. Since the sellers are anonymous, Bellingcat verifies the documents against multiple sources. “We never use one source to make a conclusion,” says Higgins. They detail their use of the black market data in the methodology section of their investigations. News organizations have “different ethical ways,” says Rosen, “The question is, are they transparent, consistent and careful?”
While the Kremlin labels Bellingcat’s work as fiction, its recent crackdown on what’s available online suggests its investigations have unsettled Putin. In 2019, the Kremlin banned soldiers from using smartphones while on duty, writing about the military and talking to journalists. Bellingcat had used Russian soldiers’ social media posts to expose secret military activity. Last December, about a week after Bellingcat published the investigation into Navalny’s poisoning, Putin rushed to pass a law making it a crime to reveal personal data about members of its security services. Higgins doubts the move will affect Bellingcat’s ability to dig up data. He says they have access to “130%” of the information they need for their investigations. If less data is available, “we’ll still get what we need,” he says.
Bellingcat said they have revealed the involvement of Russian GRU officers in covert activities across Europe, from Russia’s annexation of the Ukrainian peninsula Crimea in 2014 and failed coup in Montenegro in 2016, to the destabilization of Spain during the Catalonia independence referendum in 2017. But Higgins says he’s probably less worried about the Kremlin’s malign activities than he is about the response of Western governments, which he has called “toothless”.
Navalny was handed two years and eight months in prison on Feb. 2 for violating parole from a 2014 embezzlement case that he says was fabricated. At the end of February, E.U. ministers agreed to place sanctions – asset freezes and visa bans – on four Russian officials over the jailing of the activist. Higgins says the measures are not enough to stop Russia in its tracks. “They’ll keep on going because there’s no price for them to pay in their view,” he says. No law enforcement agency in any country is investigating the poisoning of Navalny, according to Bellingcat.
What’s next for Bellingcat
Higgins is focusing on much more than Russia. He says he’s currently working on a 45-minute film about the storming of Capitol Hill in collaboration with U.S. news organizations. Is he at all worried about upsetting the U.S. authorities like Julian Assange, the Wikileaks co-founder currently fighting extradition to the U.S. to face espionage charges for publishing classified documents? It hasn’t factored into his thinking, Higgins says. “We have a different reputation and a different way of working.” Human rights activists have urged the U.S. to drop the charges on Assange and said they risk having a chilling effect on press freedom. “We’ve investigated U.S. air strikes in Syria and U.S. police violence. It’s not going to change what we do,” Higgins says.
By exposing state-backed crimes around the world, Bellingcat has turned itself into a target. The organization was hit by an attempted hacking operation from Russia in 2015 and 2016, while its staff receive intimidating messages and death threats. Sometimes, extra security is provided at events that Higgins attends. He says he never eats in hotels and describes the “disappointment” of throwing away complimentary cake provided by hotel staff. Police have advised him to install security cameras around his house. He says he’s used to managing stress, having experienced “terrible anxiety” since he was a teenager. But he admits the work can be “very tiring”, which is why he tries to stay away from his home office on weekends.
Higgins has a busy year ahead. He reels off a long list of projects he wants to pursue, barely stopping to breathe; an investigation into the influence of QAnon in Europe, the creation of a production company to bring their research to the screen, making a docu-series about their nerve-agent investigations and, possibly, a drama series in the style of HBO’s Chernobyl. “The documentaries won’t just tell the story of our investigation. It will look at the implications of what we found,” he says. “It feels like we’re on an upward trajectory,” he says, “I’m kind of really excited”.
We Are Bellingcat is out in the U.S. on March 2.