There is a medieval fable in which a group of mice debate how to protect themselves from a marauding cat. They agree to attach a bell to the cat’s neck to alert them of its approach but cannot agree who will volunteer to perform the task. The fable illustrates the gap that can exist between a clever idea and its dangerous execution.
A group of tech savvy researchers that originated in England in 2014 adopted the Bellingcat name for their organization, which specializes in fact-checking and open-source intelligence. To complete the fable, they are the mice who volunteer to bell the cat, who these days is Russia in its invasion of Ukraine.
Bellingcat sees its mission as cutting through the fog of misinformation that surrounds wars and conflict. Staff and volunteer researchers use satellite images, social-media posts, YouTube videos, online databases, and more to determine what happened, where and when, and they archive that material for further analysis.
Their research has included the downing of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 over Ukraine in 2014, the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian Army, the massacre of civilians in Tigray by the Ethiopian army in 2021, and now, the crimes committed by the Russian military in their invasion of Ukraine.
Plaudits and pushback
While Bellingcat’s efforts have earned plaudits, especially among journalists and media organizations in the West, there has been push back from the Russian and Syrian regimes. They claim that Bellingcat is in league with Western governments and intelligence agencies to spread lies. Bellingcat has been banned in Russia, where it did not have a presence, and the government has made it illegal for any Russian organizations to co-operate with them.
Recently Giancarlo Fiorella, a senior investigator at Bellingcat, delivered a lecture in Ottawa hosted by Carleton university’s School of Journalism and Communication. He lives far from any frontline, in Toronto, where he is also a PhD candidate. He emphasized that he is not a journalist, but that Bellingcat’s work can supplement the dangerous work of on-the-ground journalists.
He said that Bellingcat’s employees and volunteers combine their technical knowledge with a “stubborn determination” to get at the facts. “Anyone can learn these investigative techniques. All you need is a computer and an internet connection. You do not have to leave your apartment to contribute.”
Massacre in Tigray
He gave as an example of their work a 2021 massacre of civilians by the Ethiopian military in the country’s Tigray region. Fiorella said that five videos surfaced showing that the shootings had happened somewhere in an arid field. The images were locatable in time and space. By viewing them repeatedly, researchers were able to locate the spot with accuracy. Using other available information, they found that the Ethiopian military was active at that precise location at the time.
The methodology, Fiorella said, is reliable and replicable. It involves 1) Image clarification: the reverse search of images to ascertain their origin; 2) Geo-location: to determine exactly where the images were taken; and 3) Chrono-location: to determine when images were taken.
“We are riding a wave of technical innovation,” Fiorella said. “We now have high quality satellite images available on our phones. This would have been impossible 20 years ago and improbable 10 years ago. This has really changed the way that people locate and use information.”
Giancarlo said, “There will always be people in the world who will want to convince you that they are not doing what they are doing.” Bellingcat’s mission, he said, is to make it harder for them to trade in false claims.
To that end, Bellingcat has a project called Civil Harm in Ukraine, recording incidents resulted in civilian impact or harm since Russia began its invasion. These are cases of the destruction of civilian infrastructure such as schools, hospitals and libraries, and the killing of civilians such as occurred in the city of Bucha.
The pushback against Bellingcat has not been limited to the Russian government but has been joined by elements of the left in Europe and North America. A British publication called The Gray Zone carried an article in 2021 which was reprinted up by the Monthly Review in New York. The article claimed that Bellingcat accepts money from “war-profiteering firms” and non-government organizations with ties to British and American intelligence agencies, as well as the Office of Security and Co-operation in Europe.
I cannot pronounce on the nature of the donor organizations. I would note that the claims made in the article arise from information that Bellingcat has provided on its website, so they are not trying to hide anything. Nor does the article attempt to refute any of the actual research done by Bellingcat regarding Ukraine.
Malaysia Airlines Flight 17
For example, some of the earliest evidence in the case of downed Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 arose from information provided by Bellingcat. The flight from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur that was shot down in July 2014, while flying over eastern Ukraine. All 283 passengers and fifteen crew were killed.
A Dutch-led joint investigation team later concluded that Flight 17 was struck by a Buk surface-to-air missile launched from pro-Russian separatist-controlled territory in Ukraine. The missile originated from a Russian military unit and had been transported from Russia on the day of the crash, fired from a field in a rebel-controlled area, and returned to Russia afterwards.
Australia and the Netherlands have launched legal proceedings against Russia through the International Civil Aviation Organization. Russia has consistently denied any involvement.
Bellingcat’s current focus on Ukraine is understandable given the size and ferocity of the war there. Bellingcat did pay some earlier attention to the war in Afghanistan, and now to the conflict in Yemen. I will be interested, to see whether the group turns its attention to violent events in other theatres such as the Brazilian rain forest, the Philippines, or the West Bank and Gaza.
Courtesy of Reuters